The next generation Apple tablet, dubbed iPad 3, is expected to surface in February, bringing to a closure the growing rumors about its features and release date. Ever since iPad 2 was unveiled in February last year, Apple fans have been closely watching every move of the tech giant with the hope that they get some hint about the release date and specs of iPad 2's successor.

However, Apple has remained tightlipped so far, triggering a wave of rumors on everything about iPad 3, ranging from its features to its release date.

From a January release date and 4G LTE connectivity to a quad-core processor and Siri, here's a rundown of the top rumors making rounds in the Internet.

RELEASE DATE: There are several rumors making rounds about the tentative launch/release date of iPad 3.

Taiwanese site DigiTimes reported that two new iPad models, instead of one, will be released during the Jan. 26-28 Macworld/iWorld expo in San Francisco. They will share some common features - a 10.7-inch QXGA screen (1536 x 2048) and A6 processor. However, one will boast a 5-MP rear-facing camera whereas the other will feature an 8-MP one. The former will address the mid-level market and the latter will cater to the high-end market. Both will be priced accordingly.

However, others are skeptical about DigiTimes' report.

These rumors are completely false, Jim Dalrymple, a well-sourced Apple commentator, said on The Loop's Web site. I checked with a number of my sources [at Apple] today and an iPad 3 is not planned for release at Macworld ... or CES. Dalrymple pointed out that Apple withdrew from the MacWorld Expo back in 2009, and has almost never done trade-show unveilings since.

We are also skeptical about DigiTimes' report as Apple has been conducting its own launch events for the past several years and, as they have been receiving overwhelming response from the media and fans, the Jan. MacWorld event seems to be the unlikely venue for Apple to unveil its new iPad.

The more plausible release date is late February/early March. Most rumors are pointing to this release period as it will coincide with Steve Jobs' birthday (Feb. 24). From Bloomberg and washington Post to AppleInsider and Japanese Apple blog Macotakara - all sites are betting that iPad will be released in February/March.

But wait. Another camp of rumor mongers suggest that Apple will launch a new tablet with a few software upgrades, called iPad 2S, in February/March, while the real thing i.e., a completely new device, called iPad 3, with killer features is slated for October launch.

Meanwhile, analyst Ben Reitzes of Barclays Capitals predicts that one iPad, with better cameras, higher resolution display, the A5 processor and Siri, will come in March and another will be released later this year, featuring a faster processor and 4G LTE.

DISPLAY: The biggest rumor about iPad 3 is that Apple will double the pixel density of iPad 2, giving iPad 3 a full HD QXGA 2048x1536 pixel display resolution.

iPad 2 is a great device but its greatness has been vastly dimished by the hardware restrictions. For instance, the 1024x768 pixel resolution display is good for viewing basic images and videos but becomes fuzzy when handling 3D architectural renderings or true HD quality videos.

The larger resolution should provide the company's app developers more convenience, while all future applications will be able to run under any of Apple's machines including the 27-inch iMac, Citi analyst Richard Gardner said.

Just as Apple introduced the Retina Display in iPhone 4, the company is expected to introduce the same super-high resolution display in iPad 3 that will improve on-screen clarity.

Another reason Apple is expected to introduce Retina Display on the next generation iPad is because it needs to keep up with its rivals who are amping up the resolution of their tablets.

Rumors are also rife that iPad will boast of a new LED system - Apple is reportedly dissatisfied with the single LED backlight bar designed for the iPad 2's 1024 x 768 resolution display and the company will add a second LED bar, which will make the display not only brighter and sharper but also last longer.

And, if you've think you've heard enough, you're wrong - MacRumors has cited Jefferies analyst Peter Misek as saying that Apple and Sharp has joined hands to develop a new HD screen technology using indium, gallium and zinc oxide or IGZO. Apple and Sharp together have a modified IGZO (indium, gallium, zinc) technology to achieve 330 dpi, which is sufficient for an HD display while not using IPS nor having to include dual-bar LED backlighting, Misek was quoted as saying.

SIRI: Siri, the virtual, intelligent, voice-controlled assistant is a key feature of iPhone 4S.

Siri can do almost anything the user asks it to - send an email, call a person, search for an address, take a note, open a Web site and more.

Of course, Siri isn't perfect. It sometimes throws up wrong results but minor flubs aside, Siri has endeared itself to iPhone 4S owners and Android users simply doesn't have an alternative yet.

Moreover, Apple is reportedly in the process of fine-tuning Siri and hence, it's almost certain that an improved Siri will become a star feature in iPad 3. After all, why shouldn't Apple take advantage of Siri while it's ahead in the race?

CAMERA: Apple has always amped up the megapixels of iPhone's camera with each new release, which has contributed to its ever-growing popularity. iPhone 3GS boasted of 3.2-MP rear-facing camera, while iPhone 4 strutted a 5-MP camera, which was bumped up to 8-MP camera in iPhone 4S.

However, Apple hasn't focused that much on the camera of the iPad. The original iPad had a nondescript camera and iPad 2 features a mediocre VGA camera. However, iPad rivals are increasingly being shipped out with 2-, 3- and even 5-MP cameras.

If Apple wants to keep the shutterbugs happy, it's high time the company seriously considered adding a better rear-facing camera to its newest tablet. So don't be surprised if iPad 3 boasts of a 5-MP (or even 8-MP) rear-facing camera with dual-LED flash that can take stunning stills and full-HD videos.

Also expect a better front-facing camera for superior FaceTime experience.

PROCESSOR: iPad 2 debuted with a dual-core A5 processor but so did many of its rivals. Quad-core processors are the way to go now and the powerful processor is finding its way into many new smartphones.

Till now, no tablet boasts of a quad-core processor and though it is improbable that iPad 3 will feature a quad-core processor, it's not impossible because if Apple is amping up the screen resolution on iPad 3, and adding other features like Siri and a better camera, the new device will certainly need more power and the solution lies in the zippier quad-core A6 processor.

A more powerful processor will not only bring huge performance gains over the current dual-core processors, offering faster multitasking and better graphics, but also it will delight developers as they will be able to create even more complex and demanding apps and games.

Apple blog 9to5Mac claims it has found references in the latest beta build of iOS 5.1 references to core.3 which, the tech site explains, refers to a quad-core chipset.

Extremely reliable and knowledgeable people familiar with iOS's inner workings explained to me that core references begin at 0. For example: A single core device would be limited to '/cores/core.0,' and a dual-core device would come in at '/cores/core.1.', 9to5Mac explains. A 'core.2' (which is not referenced in iOS code) would be a triple-core processor according to this labeling method. iOS 5.1 beta 2 now includes core.3, a seemingly quad-core chip from Apple.

BATTERY: Taiwan-based DigiTimes has reported that Apple will bump up the battery from 6,500 mAH to 14,000 mAH i.e., it will more than double the battery life of iPad 3 compared to iPad 2. DigiTimes said Simplo Technology and Dynapack International Technology had both secured orders for batteries.

However, though the possibility of this happening is unlikely (DigiTimes' predictions have seldom turned out to be accurate), Apple will most certainly improve the battery life of iPad 3 as the next generation tablet could be a power-hungry device, espcially if it features Siri, Retina Display, quad-core processor and 4G LTE. The iPad 2's battery lasts only 10 hours.

Already rumors are afoot that Apple may have to add about 1mm of thickness to the next generation iPad to accommodate the Retina Display panel and a better battery. But that's a small sacrifice to make because a better battery will go a long way in making iPad 3 a success.

4G LTE CONNECTIVITY: 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network is hot these days as one can get up to 10 times the speed over the 3G network. Moreover, wireless carriers like AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, which support Apple products, have all rolled out their 4G services nationwide.

So, will iPad 3 boast of 4G LTE technology to take advantage of it? The answer is no.

Despite Apple fans desperately wishing for a 4G LTE iPad, it is unlikely that Apple will add LTE to the iPad specs before it comes to the iPhone or at least until 2013.

Moreover, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the first generation LTE chipsets will force a lot of design compromises with its devices and that the company was not willing to make those compromises. The new, thinner LTE chipset developed by Qualcomm resolves much of the issues but is not expected to debut anytime before second or third quarter of this year.

DESIGN: Apple is well-known for adopting simple, yet cutting-edge design in its products.

According to rumors, Apple will incorporate a teardrop design for iPad 3. The device is also expected to come in aluminum plate casing especially if Apple decides to make aluminum the consistent material for the body of its upcoming iPad, iPhone and iPod lineup.

NFC: NFC (Near Field Communication) technology allows simple transactions, data exchange, and connections with a touch and a smartphone or tablet with an NFC chip could be used to make a credit card payment or serve as keycard or ID card. Globally, 100 million people are currently using mobile payment outside the U.S., but only 3.5 million are using the technology in the U.S. It is expected that iPad 3 will have NFC capabilities and boost the NFC users number in the U.S.

OS: It can also be said with certainty that the new iPad will be powered by iOS 5 or its updated versions.

Jefferies analyst Peter Misek predicts that Apple will merge iOS (iPhone/iPad) and OS X (Macintosh) into a single platform (much in the lines of Ice Cream Sandwich) for seamless sync and transfer of data among multiple Apple devices. However, we believe tht a single OS for all Apple products is unlikely to surface anytime this year.

THUNDERBOLT PORT, HDMI AND SD SLOT: Thunderbolt ports have come to the Apple Mac family so why not the iPad? Rumors indicate that Apple will add the Thunderbolt, or the super-fast docking port that can transfer data 20 times faster than USB 2.0, to the next generation iPad but it seems too far-fetched, at least for now.

As for HDMI port, though Apple introduced HDM playback in iPad 2, it had problems. The user needed an additional digital AV adapter, which was available for $39. The upcoming iPad 3 could end the problem regarding the additional HDMI cable by boasting of an evolved HDMI port.

Earlier versions of the iPad don't feature any SD card slot and it is unlikely that iPad 3 will be any different. However, Apple has been known to surprise its fans, so who knows? Maybe iPad 3 will feature an SD card slot.

PRICE: Apple and its late co-founder Steve Jobs have always hoped to stir a technological revolution by making premium quality devices available to the mass at affordable prices.

Now that Apple is close to edging past Exxon Mobil as the world's most vauluable company and is sitting pretty on a huge cash pile, Jobs' dream could finally come true if Apple drops the price of the existing iPad 2 at the time of release of the new iPad.

The possibility of the price reduction isn't too far-fetched as Apple has dropped the price of the older iPhones for the past couple of years whenever the company released a newer version in the market.

The rumor that the price of iPad 2 will be reduced is also gaining ground because Apple is facing severe competition from other tablet makers that are producing cheaper tablets or rather crossovers between tablets and e-readers.

Of course, iPad sales haven't been affected so far (Apple has sold more iPads in the latest fiscal quarter than rival HP has sold desktops, laptops and tablets) but the emergence of Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, which boast of $199 price tag, could prevent first-time tablet buyers from considering the pricier iPad, which begins at $499.

Price is the only way rival tablet makers can eat into iPad's market share and so it wouldn't hurt Apple to reduce the price of iPad 2 to $399, $299, or even $199 (depending on the storage space and WiFi/3G options being offered) so that it can effectively compete for a slice of the entry-level tablet market share.

However, as past iPads have debuted in the $500-600 range, don't expect Apple to push out iPad 3 at a lower price.

What do you think iPad 3 or rather the next generation iPad will feature? Leave your comments below.

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