Five Technology this week leaked that they’ll be first out with an iPad Mini clone with a Retina-class display.
As I expect other tablet makers to announce in the coming weeks and months, I’ve compiled a list of the overall technical issues to consider for all of them.
This list isn’t comprehensive but does mention the most important things in general.
1) Screen. Despite the Retina-class density, is it 32-bit, 24-bit, or just 16-bit color? And is it an IPS screen or just TN?
2) Is it really Retina? Some 9.7-inch Retina-class tablets were caught out driving the screen at less than full pixel capacity in order to improve performance.
3) RAM. Is it 2GBs? If not, forget it!
4) Battery life. A higher-density screen requires more backlighting, which means chewing through more power. At the same time, Five Technology intends to trim 1.1mm from their tablet(!). Unless they’ve found a new and higher-density battery supplier, this might realistically mean a tablet with a four-hour battery life.
5) CPU. The Rockchip 3188 in past Retina-class tablet reviews has been proven inadequate in providing an iPad-like experience, yet Five Technology will be using it. The new Rockchip 3288 CPU and Mali T764 GPU would deliver a multiple of performance. Expect the Retina-class iFive Mini 3 to be on par with past 9.7-inch Retina-class Chinese tablets. Basically this means it’ll be good for reading and watching movies — but will contain some irritating UI lag and stuttering.
6) GPU. The current Mali 400 is just not strong enough for Retina screens, while the Mali T764 will be. Graphic-intensive games will fail with a 3188/M400 plus Retina-class screen combo.
7) RAM throughput. The RK3188/M400 combo provides just 4GBs of throughput. A Retina iPad delivers 17GBs of throughput. The new Retina-class Onda 975m — which uses an Amlogic M802 CPU — delivers 12.9GBs of throughput, so things are beginning to improve at other tablet makers.
8) Bluetooth. The new Retina-class 9.7-inch Onda 975m lacks it. Will others?
9) Other chip vendors. There’s Actions 7039, Allwinner A80, Mediatek 8135, Amlogic M802, and Samsung’s Exynos 5410 and 5420 CPUs — and still likely others to come. Some of these are outright octa-core CPUs. The Rockchip 3288 is still quad-core. There could be clones that nearly equal a Retina iPad Mini still to come later in the year. (In this regard, it will be interesting to see what the Retina iPad Mini scores with the iOS version of AnTuTu.)
10) Intel wildcard. Could Intel produce a CPU/GPU combo that would drive a Retina-class screen? Would Teclast be the first one out with that, as they were with the first Atom-powered iPad Mini clone? Intel is becoming aggressive and sees cooperation with Chinese hardware makers as key to its future success. So an Intel CPU for a Retina-class screen is not unrealistic.
11) Firmware optimization. New CPUs and GPUs bring new problems for Android, requiring platform vendors to begin a new round of optimizations. So far the only platform vendor that’s been timely in delivering optimizations and Android updates has been Allwinner. Optimizations and updates also require tight cooperation with a tablet maker because some of them (such as, but not only, Onda, Pipo, and Five) paste their own UI over vanilla Android.
12) Don’t expect 3G. It’s bound to happen, but likely not in the initial models. It also remains to be seen if anyone will still be using Huawei’s UltraStick solution for adding 3G and 4G.
Here are alleged AnTuTu scores from a knowledgeable Chinese forum poster:
11,843 = Retina with quad-core Allwinner a31.
12,666 = Retina with quad-core Exynos 4412.
17,373 = Retina with quad-core Actions 7039.
17,888 = Retina with quad-core Rockchip 3188.
27,838 = Retina with octa-core Exynos 5410.
Some of those scores are slightly higher than what I recall from past reviews of Retina-class 9.7-inch tablets — but those were being scored with AnTuTu 3.x, not 4.x or the cheat-defeating X. The latest version of AnTuTu — even X — tends to deliver higher scores for all tablets, and it’s unclear how those scores above were derived.
Also, there’s a lot of propaganda happening in Chinese forums about alleged AnTuTu scores for the new CPUs. None of it should be believed because these aren’t being measured with final products that people can buy. Plus, there’s probably still cheating going on.
What’s the bottom line?
For the Retina-class iFive Mini 3, I think the situation will be similar to that of the first iPad Mini clone, the HKC Q79. That used the Actions 7029 CPU and suffered from poor performance. I expect the same from the upcoming iFive Mini 3 because there’s just no way around the physics of electronics. Retina-class iPad Mini clones based on better CPUs — especially octa-core ones — will be worth examining but the Mini 3 will be the riskiest one to buy.
In addition, Five Technology likes to customize Android. And sometimes they do it badly. For instance, with their original Mini 3, a screenshot icon can be added to the bottom Command Bar. But it appears only when in landscape mode. When rotated to portrait, it disappears! No other iPad Mini clone does that.
Finally, we don’t know yet if HP will stay in the game and do an update to the Slate 8 Pro that slims it down, lessens its weight, and gives it a 2048 x 1536 true Retina-class screen. As dim as that possibility might be, it still exists.
Whatever Chinese and American tablet makers do, Apple will probably again leapfrog them all at the end of the year with an iPad Mini update.