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Talking tablets with Aaron Vronko of RapidRepair

As the clock ticks slowly towards the introduction of the Apple tablet, a lot of people are speculating on what the device design will be like. TUAW recently spent some time interviewing Aaron Vronko, Service Manager for RapidRepair. RapidRepair, based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has repaired and provided parts for all sorts of electronic gadgetry over the last six years, but Apple iPhones and iPods make up the bulk of their business.

As an expert in the technology used in Apple's products, Vronko has gleaned information from various sources -- including component suppliers, industry trends, and just plain rumors -- and has come up with his best estimate of what we'll see in an Apple tablet.

What will it be used for, and what kind of OS will it run?

Aaron's comments in this area mirrored my personal thoughts about the tablet. "It just doesn't make sense as a 'larger iPhone'," said Vronko. "Considering the size and the expense of the device, the tablet will need to converge towards light productivity functions and replace a netbook or compact laptop. To do this, the device must be able to run Office-type apps that are accessed in a meaningful way, and the only way a tablet can do this is through easy user input. People buy solutions, not devices, and the tablet is going to have to fulfill a need that the target market has."

Aaron continued, saying "User input will have to be the biggest surprise from Apple. Perhaps we'll see 3D gestures for more useful input, or some sort of split on-screen touch keyboard. The virtual keyboard was the real innovation of the iPhone; the tablet needs to bring this to the next level."

Vronko doesn't think the Apple tablet will include a stylus. "Steve Jobs made the comment during the 2007 iPhone introduction that the stylus is the caveman's tool for data entry. That being said, to date a stylus is the fastest, most efficient input method you could use, but you'd have to back it up with a very strong word-and-phrase-based handwriting recognition engine, so the system learns you, not the other way around. I personally hope that Apple comes out with something totally different and unexpected," Aaron said.

The idea of a hybrid OS, "about 70% iPhone OS, about 30% Mac OS X," made sense to Vronko. "From the standpoint of applications and app distribution, Apple's in love with the iPhone model app model for its smooth and simple user experience and quality control. But for the light productivity functions we're talking about, the tablet will need a more Mac OS X-like model for multitasking and the file system."

The profile of the tablet

First, Vronko believes that the device will be slightly thicker than an iPhone. "Given chip components packed onto a single board, the size of the battery required, and the thickness of the display module, the profile can easily be in the 15 - 20 mm range," noted Vronko. The iPhone 3GS is 12.3 mm thick by comparison.

Weight-wise, he believes that the device would be just under 2 pounds [0.9 kg] for a 10 inch [25 cm] model, about 1.5 pounds [0.7kg] for a 7 inch [18 cm] unit. The weights assume that Apple continues to use aluminum casings for their products.

"A two-pound tablet isn't something that you're just going to be able to put into a pocket, so there's going to be a big market for carrying cases that are smaller than laptop cases," Aaron noted. "You'd almost want an integrated stand built into the tablet for certain purposes, but if it's not used all the time, it's unlikely that Apple would add it to the tablet. They're all about making sure that the 'headline' features of the device are built-in and don't require a separate accessory or add-on."

The display

Vronko thinks that there will be two different models. However, "judging from the availability of display components, there's a good possibility that one could launch before the other. A 7" model with an OLED display suitable for a touchscreen device could launch as soon as March, while it would take until the 3rd quarter of 2010 before large quantities of 10" OLED screens for mobile use become available," said Vronko.

OLED (Organic LED) displays make some sense. Vronko noted that using current LCD technology, a tablet would achieve battery life in the 4 to 5 hour range during video playback. OLED technology reduces power consumption by anywhere from 40 to 75% depending on the usage, which would stretch battery life significantly. Vronko continued, "The device OS would need to play to the strengths of the OLED technology. Using dark backgrounds with white lettering for an e-reader app, for example, would make more sense than a paper-white background with black lettering." OLEDs are substantially more expensive than the older tech, though.

Vronko cited Pixel Qi's screens as a breakthrough technology that Apple could be considering for the tablet. These screens, which are now in their first production run in a 10" size, have the readability of the E Ink displays currently available on most e-reader devices, but have the fully-saturated color and video refresh of LCD displays as well. "Using a technology of this type for an e-reader application, the tablet could easily reach 25 - 30 hour battery life," said Vronko.

The only problem with this theory is that industry buzz doesn't indicate that Apple has hooked up with Pixel Qi or another manufacturer with an e-paper technology of this type.

I wondered aloud if the tablet might have a removable battery pack. Since RapidRepair does a lot of iPod and iPhone battery replacements, Aaron had some thoughts on that possibility. "With the iPod and iPhone, about 80% of people feel that they still have adequate battery life up to about two years. After that point, many want to have the battery replaced. For an inexpensive device like an iPod or a bi-annually subsidized iPhone, many choose to replace the device instead of just the battery. A more expensive tablet might need to have either a user-replaceable battery pack or a way of quickly replacing the pack in a store, since people won't want to replace the tablet and will be less apt to want to be separated from the device."

The processors

The core hardware of the device is extremely important, says Vronko, since the existing CPU / GPU combination used in the iPhone 3GS simply doesn't have the power to drive the larger display of the tablet. "If the tablet is going to be used for productivity tasks," noted Aaron, "it's going to need multitasking and that will take at least 1–2 GB of RAM, much more than the 256 MB currently in the iPhone 3GS."

Instead, something like the NVIDIA Tegra 2 system-on-a-chip with two ARM Cortex A9 CPU cores would most likely power the tablet. "Of course, we have to remember that Apple bought PA Semi, and it could be the perfect time for this division to unveil Apple's own System-on-a Chip (SoC) design based around the ARM Cortex A9 CPU and Imagination PowerVR SGX545 GPU," said Vronko. "The SGX540 or SGX545 would be the minimum GPU to drive the number of pixels in this size display, and would allow 3D gaming without clipping or slow frame rates."

Vronko called for the tablet to have hardware acceleration for HD video with HD encoder and decoder processors likely integrated into the SoC. In his opinion, 720p record / display is a given, and even 1080p could be within the realm of possibility. However, "It's not likely that Apple would build in mini or micro HDMI output to an HD display, but this could be a solution supplied by a third party."

Connectivity

"I can't see the tablet being used as a phone," said Aaron. "First, the size is out of proportion to what people are used to. Second, if it's being used for light productivity tasks, it will be used for a longer amount of time than a phone. Without having to have the radio be in constant contact with the 3G network for voice purposes, the battery should last much longer."

That being said, we agreed that Wi-Fi would be the predominant form of network connectivity for a tablet, but that an option for 3G with a data plan is a must. "This device will provide a really incredible mobile browsing capability, the full internet," noted Vronko. "A 3G plan is going to be needed for downloading books, newspapers, apps, and music while on the go."

We also agreed that an announcement by Apple of a cloud-based iWork could be another piece of the puzzle, providing the "light productivity tools" that Aaron was describing, while making ubiquitous access to the resulting documents easy. Vronko noted that this could be something that Apple or a wireless carrier could easily build into the monthly cost of a data plan.

The final word

Aaron's obviously feeling confident that the tablet is imminent, as the RapidRepair website has a link for "Apple tablet iSlate repair" accompanied by a forum for discussing the device.

As with any conjecture like this, there are some places where Aaron Vronko will be right on the money, and some others where his ideas will be way off base. However, he's agreed to do a followup interview to talk about the real tablet whenever it is finally announced. At that time, we may consider a liveblog so that you can ask Aaron your questions about the new device.

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