Making Sense Of The iPad Mini Rumors: What To Expect, When, And Why

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Apple’s iPad mini is now the subject of a bumper crop of fall rumors, and the stakes are getting higher now that the Wall Street Journal has chimed in with a report that production is underway on the smaller-sized tablet, and in fact began in September. Already this week we’ve also seen leaked parts in photographs, too, and news that invites for an event could go out as early as next week. But what does it all mean?

Watching Apple rumors is a lot of guesswork, but it’s also about pattern identification. The same sources tend to crop up with reports, and there’s also a rough timeline that seems to follow in terms of how we get information about upcoming products. Putting the iPad mini talk in that context helps give an idea of what to expect, and when it might arrive.

The Wall Street Journal is a good source, with a track record that’s better than most when it comes to unearthing details about pre-production devices. The newspaper originally reported that Apple’s suppliers would be preparing for a September production start date for iPad mini back in July, and this morning’s news backs that up, with reports that LG Display and AU Optronics started making 7.85-inch displays for the new tablet last month. WSJ has been spot on in the past, for example when it claimed that the next iPhone would be slimmer and use in-cell display tech in July, well ahead of the iPhone’s release. The newspaper also correctly reported that suppliers for the iPhone 5 screen would be LG Display, Sharp and Japan Display in August, and got the screen size right in May.

But despite the WSJ’s impressive track record, the publication didn’t say anything about release timelines in this morning’s report, meaning that we’re still going on other sources for an October/early November launch. The latest of those is iMore, which this morning reported in conjunction with an article on the iPad mini’s production that it’s still on track for October, according to independent sources. That follows Fortune’s Phillip Elmer-Dewitt claiming October 10 as the date invites go out to the press, and a likely October 17 media unveiling. We’ve also separately heard buzz that Apple should indeed stick to this schedule, but none of these sources are quite as rock solid as the WSJ. Still, evidence is mounting for a release within the next month. But does September production agree with that?

Taking as fact the WSJ report that iPhone 5 mass production of displays began in August, and the iPhone 5 became available to consumers in September, it makes sense that mass production would start in September for a wide release in late October. As another example, the original iPad was rumored to have started production in February, and then shipped at the very beginning of April, following roughly the same timeline.

At this point, it also seems quite likely that we’ll see the iPad mini look a lot like the mock-ups that have surfaced, too, which is being used by case manufacturers who aren’t waiting for official confirmation. The recent parts leaks suggest we may see two different-colored versions, too. Unknown variables include screen resolution, which the WSJ report called “lower” than that of the current iPad. That doesn’t necessarily suggest a non-Retina iPad, however, as my colleague Natasha Lomas suggested earlier. Instead, it could just be lower resolution as a result of smaller overall dimensions, but with a pixel density that still exceeds the technical barrier for being called “Retina.” It seems unlikely that Apple will release a non-Retina mobile device at this point, especially with the Kindle Fire HD crossing over into “Retina” pixel density territory.

Of course, it’ll also have Lightning on board, and may even adopt the new A6 processor, though we could also see it take on the A5X from the latest iPad, if Apple wants to save the latest and greatest for a full-sized iPad update in the spring. Pricing is also an issue that’s not really been discussed much. Some have suggested it’ll be around the $349 range, in order to keep it from competing too closely with the iPod touch at $299, but I suspect this may be where Apple keeps its cards closest to the chest, since it could have the biggest potential impact on consumer appetite for the iPad mini.