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'Significant' iPad update expected to drive sales of 55 million in 2012

Apple's anticipated third-generation iPad is expected to be a "significant" hardware update with a Retina Display, Siri voice recognition and 4G LTE connectivity — all features that will help drive sales of 55 million units in 2012, according to a new report.

Analyst Shaw Wu with Sterne Agee said in a note to investors on Wednesday that his checks with industry sources have portrayed Apple's third-generation iPad, set to be unveiled next week, as a "significant" hardware refresh. In particular, he believes the inclusion of 4G long-term evolution data connectivity will be the key feature.

Sources who spoke with Wu reportedly indicated that Apple has made "notable progress" in improving battery life with 4G LTE devices. Power consumption issues with the high-speed wireless standard have been an issue for some of the first LTE smartphones to hit the market.

"This is due to AAPL's ownership of core intellectual property including systems design, semiconductors, battery chemistry, and software," Wu wrote.

With 4G LTE leading the way among a host of new features, Wu believes Apple's third-generation iPad will further differentiate the product from other options on the market, including the $199 Amazon Kindle Fire, and a host of tablets running Google's Android operating system.

"We view the potential inclusion of 4G LTE as key with speeds approaching that of a quality personal computer experience," he said. "We also view as a positive indicator that the upcoming iPhone refresh in the fall timeframe will likely include this key feature as well."

Apple sent out invitations on Tuesday for a media event set for next Wednesday, March 7 at 10 a.m. Pacific in San Francisco, Calif. "We have something you really have to see. And touch," Apple's invitation reads, featuring a picture of an iPad being touched by a fingertip.

The announcement of the event prompted Wu on Wednesday to increase his projected iPad sales for calendar 2012, from 51 million to 55 million. He sees Apple selling 10 million units in the March quarter as Apple begins to ramp up production, which will eventually reach volume in the June quarter.

Those iPad sales are expected to drive $158 billion in revenue and $43.30 in earnings per share for Apple's fiscal year 2012, while revenue is projected to grow to $179 billion in fiscal 2013.

Sterne Agee has also raised its price target for AAPL stock after the company reached record heights this week, pushing its market capitalization to a half-trillion dollars. Wu's latest price target calls for AAPL to reach $620, up from his previous prediction of $550.