With a new year dawning, speculation is swirling about when Apple may unveil a new iPad and what features it might have.

Story highlights

Rumors about the iPad 3 are heating up as 2012 dawns

The original iPad was unveiled in January 2010, iPad 2 in March

Sources expect a higher-resolution screen and faster processor

Many wonder whether Apple plans to go after the cheaper, smaller Kindle Fire's market

CNN  — 

You may have just unwrapped your new iPad 2, but rumors are already swirling about the iPad 3.

The always-fertile field of Apple rumors is once again blossoming furiously, as tech observers pore over the most minute tidbits of information to speculate on the future of the market-leading Apple tablet.

While much of the chatter is just that, there are a few details to be gleaned in all the usual fervor that precedes an Apple “iLaunch.”

It was January 2010 when Apple unveiled the “magical” iPad, introducing much of the general public to the concept of a tablet computer for the first time.

With the massive Consumer Electronics Show set for January 10-13 and MacWorld/iWorld – billed as “the world’s ultimate fan event” for Apple lovers – scheduled for January 26-28, observers are wondering whether Apple could soon roll out the third generation of the device.

On Thursday morning, the conventional wisdom in the blogosphere seemed virtually sure that Apple would do so. But by Friday, many tech pundits were saying there’s no way it will happen.

Tomorrow? Who knows?

“We’ve entered a post-iPhone news cycle, when iPad rumors are surfacing with full force,” wrote Leslie Horn for PC Magazine. “Of course the launch date has been discussed quite a bit, as it goes with any anticipated Apple device. … But the reality with an Apple gadget is that we’ll have to wait and see.”

Other tidbits making the rounds? That a new model will be rolled out February 24, which would have been Steve Jobs’ birthday, or in March, the same month the iPad 2 was introduced.

Richard Shim, an analyst at research firm DisplaySearch, told CNET that a January release date might be wishful thinking.

January is “a little suspect,” Shim told the blog. “When they make them available they want to have as many as possible. And my sense is that they will wait rather than make them immediately available.”

But from folks who monitor the supply chain of Apple components in Asia and other analysts, a few plausible details have emerged:

Faster processor. Several reports have suggested that the new iPads will have a new, faster processor that will offer quicker browsing, gaming and other activity.

Apple recently started using a plant in Austin, Texas, to manufacture computer chips, according to a Reuters report and other sources. Analysts have speculated that facility, owned by Samsung, could be the source of the new processors.

Sharper screen. It’s also a relatively safe bet to expect a higher-resolution screen, an upgrade that’s been a staple in most new permutations of Apple’s mobile products. Reports of a much stronger battery have also surfaced in multiple places and seem to have some merit.

Voice control. One can’t help wonder whether Apple will add Siri, the iPhone 4S’s voice-control “virtual assistant,” to the new iPad as well.

A cheaper iPad. Also possible is that Apple will attempt to address, in some way, the recent success of the smaller, simpler Kindle Fire tablet from Amazon, which costs $300 less than the entry-level iPad 2.

No single tablet computer from Apple’s competitors had gained much traction until Amazon rolled out the Fire this holiday season. The company says it sold more than 4 million Kindles in December, and most of those are believed to be Kindle Fires.

How Apple may address that competition has prognosticators split.

Taiwan-based DigiTimes, which sparked much of Thursday’s speculation with a report that the new iPad will be unveiled in January, also reported that the company will roll out two new tablets and that the iPad 2 would get a price cut to let it compete more directly with the Fire.

(It should be noted that DigiTimes has a somewhat spotty track record, doing pretty well with reports out of its native Taiwan but missing the mark more often on other news).

The same site quoted unnamed sources just two weeks ago saying that Apple would be unveiling a 7-inch tablet to match the Fire, a departure that would seem unlikely unless it was in the works well before Amazon’s new gadget was announced.

Shim attempted to throw cold water on the concept that Apple will take a step back in features to try to snuff Amazon.

“They don’t want to create any hint of a second-class product,” he told CNET. “They have no reason. They’re selling as many as they can make. And this next-generation device is going to reinforce that supply-demand dynamic.”