Rumor Patrol: New iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs [Updated]

A crazy year for Apple shows no sign of slowing as 2012 approaches—more and more rumors are popping up. We've looked at them with a critical eye for you.

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MacBook Air 15-inch And Refresh

Digitimes reported that a much-anticipated expansion of the MacBook Air lineup is due to arrive early in 2012. Alongside tweaked 11-inch and 13-inch models, a new 15-inch unit will arrive. No other details have emerged.

It's plausible, since the 11- and 13-inch units are due for a makeover. Apple's most recent tweaks were mild—more powerful CPUs and better storage alongside other niceties like battery life and a back-lit keyboard. But they could still get more powerful: Intel's Ivy Bridge chipset, designed for exactly this sort of computer, is due at the same time and is likely to be inside the machines, offering yet more power compared to the current ones.

The already-iconic Airs are due for a new look, as they've remained unchanged for two generations, and Apple is bound to have come up with a cleverer or lighter chassis design. We wouldn't expect a radical departure, as Apple's already sewn up the all-aluminum unibody supply chain and thus frustrated the efforts of upcoming "ultrabook" copycats.

A 15-inch Air is a natural extension of the line, giving Apple another player in the market. This machine is likely to follow the existing lead, adopting a skinny frame and solid state drive. Apple may boost the number of ports to complement the needs of power users. 

iPhone With A 4-inch Screen

There's a hot tip that suppliers are already shipping 4-inch screens to Apple for the next generation iPhone, supporting an ongoing rumor. 

It's a tricky issue. Apple's choice of the 3.5-inch screen on the existing iPhone 4S (retained all but identically from the previous iPhone 4) includes a careful consideration of the usability in terms of how easy it is to reach across the screen of the phone with your fingers with it cradled in one hand. But there are many Android phones out there that promote their advantages over the iPhone with a larger screen, and Apple may want to maneuver to compete with that. A screen-size boost to 4 inches doesn't upset the ergonomics too much, nor does it drop the much-touted "retina" resolution of the current screen too far.

A larger screen would require a chassis redesign, but that's something we suspect Apple's been working on, and it would seem to be a habit of the company—in terms of the last several design iterations. A larger chassis could also allow for more battery space, which would counter one of the few criticisms of the iPhone's performance.

iPhone 5 mockups

iPhone 5 In Numbers And Design

A recent developer release of an upcoming version of iOS has revealed that there are new, previously unseen iPhone code numbers showing up in the system. These codes have successfully predicted upcoming hardware changes in the past. It's referenced as iPhone 5,1 and is an unmistakable sign.

That's no surprise, as any such design can take perhaps a year to be fully developed...but the fact that the references are popping now may suggest Apple is planning a mid-year release of the device, as it's done previously.

And there's another intriguing fact: Industry sources told Business Insider that that radical teardrop-shaped aluminum makeover of the iPhone we all heard about last year was actually well developed. It had a four-inch screen, an aluminum chassis, and may have made use of the "liquid metal" tech Apple's so fond of to come in several colors. The home button was said to be a virtual one instead of the current physical one, there was a 10-megapixel camera aboard, and Siri was indeed called "Assistant." Steve Jobs is said to have quashed the redesign mere months ahead of launch, and though the sources didn't know why, they suspect it was because Jobs was wary of the screen size fragmenting the iPhone market.

Does this mean we can expect the iPhone 5,1 to actually sport a radical new chassis, and include other tweaks that address the flaws Jobs perceived (and perhaps see Siri upgraded to her true "Assistant" potential)?

We suspect the iPhone 5 will be a wholly new machine, and since it's probably one of the last projects Steve Jobs worked on, it may be something radical.

iPad Sprint

Also contained in the recent iOS 5.1 code-push were references to an iPad 2,4. That's a new label, and it's being seen as a possible reference to a new edition of the iPad 2 that would be compatible with Sprint's 4G WiMax technology. 

It's a highly plausible rumor, because it would allow Apple to increase the iPad footprint in a slowly changing maket, and it doesn't take much technical work (the mobile connectivity board is a separate component in the iPad, merely wired to the same guts as a Wi-Fi-only version). To this end, Apple may even surprise everyone by just releasing it without a special press event, possibly sooner rather than later.

iPad 3 "HD"

Another new iPad number also showed up in the iOS code: iPad 3,3.

That's tacit confirmation a wholly new iPad is en route. We're not surprised by this, as Apple's usual iPad update schedule has seen a new machine revealed early in the new year with availability a month or so later. The only question is if this iPad 3 will include the much-rumored high-resolution screen we've heard about. At least one expert suggests it's likely, and indeed a clever move: If Apple pulls off its usual supply-chain finesse, it'll sew up pretty much all the sources of high-resolution tablet screens and thus enable it to stride ahead of the competition once again. We agree.

iPad 2S

One analyst has just suggested that Apple will split the iPad line in 2012, offering a speed- and performance-boosted edition called the 2S that is otherwise similar to the iPad 2 design. Apple could then follow its current iPhone model, and sell the entry-level iPad 2 alongside the 2S at a much cheaper price.

This is an attractive idea, as it would let Apple compete with the low-price offerings from Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and all the wannabe Android units) while simultaneously maintaining a grip on the high end of the market. 

We're not sure about this. Apple could play it safe with the iPad for 2012, but we're dubious it would choose to have three iPad models on sale alongside each other. Our money is on the iPad 3—a redesign with market-leading powers.

Apple TV or Television

Another secret popping up in the iOS code was the Apple TV codename J33, a new name that can only indicate a refreshed Apple TV hardware unit with more powerful A5 chips inside and the ability to output true 1080p high-resolution TV images. It's Apple's "pet" project, so we wouldn't expect many improvements other than a few UI tweaks.

Or perhaps not...

It's plausible that the J33 device isn't actually a new Apple TV, but it's the highly anticipated Apple Television—Steve Jobs' last great transformational device. There's so little to go on here we can't say, but Apple is mercurial, and perhaps the existing TV product remained as a hobby so that the new television could emerge as a surprise. We probably don't have long to wait, and it's worth noting that the rumors are reportedly seeing competitors "scrambling" to enter the market alongside Apple.

Update: Apple analyst Gene Munster—ever a proponent of a full-blown Apple TV—has weighed into this debate again with a dramatic new proposal that an Apple HDTV is due in the latter half of 2012, timed for the holiday season. He expects it to have Siri integration and cost double an equivalent "dumb" TV. 

Update Two

Apple TV Rumors Get Detail

Yet more fuel for the Apple Television (shall we just label it iTV and be done?) fire: Referencing "sources at a major Japanese factory" that's involved, already, with the manufacturing process, Smarthouse is saying the Apple TV will come in three sizes from 32- to 55-inches and will be powered by the same new chip that'll be going into the iPad 3. 

That's likely to be Apple's 2012 A6 chip and since the A5 is a dual-core edition versus the original A4's single core, it's possible the A6 will rock the latest ARM tech and four cores (after all, some four-core Android devices already exist). The inclusion of an A-series chip versus an Intel solution suggests an Apple television would be more like the current Apple TV in terms of compute power instead of the Intel-centric OS X on Macs. But it also lends support to the idea of apps from iTunes, modified from the hundreds of thousands already available, on the device.

We're thinking the Apple television is seeming more plausible every day.

MacBook Air 15 Inch Seems Likely, With Good Timing

Analyst Rob Chira has added his voice to the rumors swirling about a 15-inch super-slim Mac portable, possibly to be named as a MacBook Air. Chira cites the rush by competing PC makers to rival the existing Airs with their own PC "ultrabooks" as a strong argument in favor of Apple's new machine: By upping the stakes, Apple forces innovation in another market, where its stand-out product could quickly take a lead.

Though Apple couldn't have planned it, the timing is also likley to be very fortuitous, Chira thinks. That's because there's a global shortage of hard drives caused by flooding in Thailand that has seriously distrupted the manufacturing of traditional hard drives. Since the expected MB Air 15-inch would have a solid state drive, a supply market Apple has largely cornered by clever purchases, the company could reinforce its position as a market lead while competitors struggle to keep up.

New Mac Pros After All?

Recent rumors had suggested Apple was going to abandon its premier desktop line, the Mac Pros. Now new code fragments in a recent beta test version of a future OS X release suggest that there are video drivers for an unreleased AMD "Tahiti" video card. In the past the workhorse Pros have evolved as their CPU and graphics chips become available—and it's being seen that Apple is planning a refresh based on this new AMD hardware.

We're not totally convinced, but the Pro is used by many creative arts professionals...and Apple may like to maintain this high-spending market.

[Image: Flickr user artotemsco]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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