Apple will unveil the next iPad on March 7, according to reports.
And other claims surfaced today that the new iPad -- which most have dubbed the "iPad 3" -- will be the first Apple product to support the faster LTE data networks now available in the U.S. from carriers Verizon and AT&T.
One hardware expert agreed with the LTE assumption, first reported by the Wall Street Journal , saying that this is the year Apple will shift its mobile products to the advanced network.
"I'd be extremely surprised if the iPad 3 didn't support LTE," said Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, a repair shop and do-it-yourself parts supplier for the iPhone, iPod and iPad.
While Vronko expects Apple to add LTE support to 2012's iPhone as well, the faster speeds are critical for tablets, whose users consume large amounts of data, such as video, more frequently than smartphone owners. "LTE will be even more important to the iPad than the iPhone," Vronko argued.
Verizon has the clear lead in the U.S. when it comes to LTE coverage. Last month the carrier added five additional markets to its LTE ranks, bringing its total to 195 . According to Verizon, 200 million Americans can now access a Verizon LTE connection.
AT&T, on the other hand, has deployed LTE in only 26 cities with a total consumer population of about 74 million. AT&T won't wrap up its LTE deployment until the end of 2013.
Although Tim Cook, now Apple's CEO, said last April that the then-available LTE chipsets would "force a lot of design compromises ... and some of those we are just not willing to make," the situation is different now, said Vronko.
He cited the availability of power-conscious chipsets and the overall improvement in baseband processors -- the silicon that connects devices to cellular networks -- as two reasons why 2012 is the year Apple will follow other handset manufacturers into LTE.
Another: LTE's expanded coverage this year compared to last.
"I think Apple passed on LTE [in 2011] because they thought that would be questioned since it would have appealed to such a small number of possible customers," Vronko said.
According to iMore.com , Apple will launch the iPad 3 on March 7.
The date, a Wednesday, fits earlier buzz that Apple will launch its next tablet the first week of March , and matches previous debuts.
March 7 is a Wednesday, the same day of the week that Apple used in 2011 to reveal the iPad 2 . Apple also unveiled the original iPad on a Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010.
The two previous launches were hosted by then-CEO Steve Jobs, who died last year at the age of 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. If Apple follows past practice, Cook will take the stage this year.
The date, however, will not be confirmed until Apple sends invitations to media outlets, bloggers and research firms.
Apple typically keeps invitations to such events on a tight lease, releasing them just a week before the event. Assuming March 7 is accurate, Apple would probably issue invitations on Feb. 29, or two weeks from tomorrow.
Most experts believe the iPad 3 will feature a higher-resolution screen, a faster processor -- perhaps Apple's first quad-core -- and more internal memory. The tablet will probably continue to carry price tags starting at $499.
If Apple does introduce an LTE-capable iPad, the lowest-price would likely be $629, the current cost of an 3G iPad 2.
The introduction of the iPad 3 should help push Apple's tablet sales to 11.3 million for the first quarter, up 140% from the 4.7 million the company sold in the same period last year, according to forecasts by Wall Street analyst Brian Marshall of International Strategy & Investment Group (ISI).
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com .
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