Do we need an 8MP iPad 3?

Apple's iPad 3 hasn't been shy of headlines in recent months, but in the last few days its leaked components that have made the news: Apple A5X chipsets and an 8-megapixel camera among others. With the third-gen model expected to break cover officially in early March, there's no shortage of excitement around what, exactly, will differentiate it from predecessors and rivals. Still, take a step back, and some of the rumored specs arguably present more questions than answers, most obviously the huge improvement in photographic abilities. How will Apple convince us that an 8-megapixel camera is essential?

Photos over the weekend showed off a tweaked rear panel said to be from the third-gen iPad, along with the suggestion that it would accommodate a much improved CMOS sensor. If true, the new iPad camera is an interesting shift from Apple. The tablet will have gone from no camera at all in its first generation, a meager 1-megapixel shooter prioritizing 720p video recording in its second, to something easily capable of 1080p Full HD and the sort of stills we'd normally turn to an iPhone 4S or equivalent to achieve.

That sort of dramatic spec leap isn't what we generally expect from Apple. The company isn't known for chasing hardware for its own sake – just to be able to say "look at our amazing spec sheet" – but instead for building context around each technical ability.

[aquote]Nothing says "mug me" like holding up a tablet to frame your shot[/aquote]

There are some obvious benefits to such a considerable step up for the new iPad. One is component sharing: Apple could use the same CMOS assembly in the third-gen iPad as it does in the iPhone 4S, reducing the number of different parts it needs to order, and probably allowing it to cut a better deal with suppliers. Being able to better compete on paper with Android tablets is a less likely explanation, though.

The biggest question is whether – if the 8-megapixel rumors are true – pure photography is Apple's primary motivation. Taking photos with a tablet generally hovers between inelegant and deeply embarrassing. Nothing quite says "mug me" like holding up a 10-inch slate to frame your shot, and for most people a phone in an easily-accessed pocket is more readily to hand than a tablet in a bag or briefcase.

What Apple needs, then, is to put any big camera improvements into a context everyone can understand and recognize as useful. Shooting better photos and video of your kids might not be that context: taking high-resolution pictures of documents to create digital copies (and viewing them on a Retina Display with a surfeit of pixels to do those copies justice) might work better. Spec-chasing for the sake of it isn't what we've come to expect from Apple launches, so the company has a challenge on its hands if an 8-megapixel camera really is to be found in the iPad 3.