Galaxy Tab S vs iPad Air head-to-head review

While Android devices have been making great headway and stealing increasingly significant numbers of new users away from Apple in the smartphone market, manufacturers tied to Google's mobile operating system (OS) are yet to enjoy similar success in the tablet market.

Traditionally there's been good reason for this as 10in Apple tablets have had significantly faster performance, better designs, sharper screens and simpler software than their Android competitors. This year, though, Korean firm Samsung has worked hard to rectify the situation, releasing its most advanced tablet to date, the Galaxy Tab S, which comes in 10.5in and 8.4in models. We got our hands on the 10.5in option.

Featuring a thinner and lighter design, powerful octa-core processor and Samsung's own Super Amoled display tech, the Galaxy Tab S has the on-paper specs to take on the iPad Air, and has led many buyers to question whether it's finally time to fully embrace Google Android and use it as both their tablet and mobile OS of choice.

Design and build

Apple's always prided itself on its design and has worked to make its iPads as thin and light as possible. When it was released in 2013 the iPad Air carried on this legacy and measuring in at 240x170x7.5mm and weighing 468g, the iOS tablet was the thinnest and lightest tablet available.

In a clear show of one-upmanship Samsung intentionally worked to take this crown from Apple and designed the Galaxy Tab to be thinner and lighter than the iPad Air. As a consequence the Galaxy Tab S measures in at a downright tiny 247x177x6.6mm and weighs 467g.

While this is an engineering achievement, we found the difference in weight and size is fairly negligible when actually using both tablets. Both the Galaxy Tab S and iPad Air are comfortable to use and thanks to their low weights are travel friendly.
Galaxy Tab S vs iPad Air three quarter
However, we did notice a difference when comparing the Galaxy Tab S's and iPad Air's build qualities. Initially we expected the iPad Air to be better built than the Galaxy Tab S as the Apple tablet's chassis is made of metal. By comparison the Galaxy Tab S features a perforated polycarbonate backplate similar to the one seen on the Galaxy S5.

However, using the two tablets, we found that not only is the Galaxy Tab S's backplate significantly more scratch resistant than the iPad Air's metal frame, it's more drop resistant. During our tests the Galaxy Tab S survived an accidental encounter with a hardwood kitchen floor that would have turned the iPad Air into a crack-ridden mess.

We also have to give credit to Samsung for loading the Galaxy Tab S with a generic micro USB charge port. The use of a generic micro USB port makes it far more convenient for users not fully embedded in Apple's ecosystem to charge their tablet than it would be if they used an iPad Air, which charges using a less common Thunderbolt cable.

Winner: The Galaxy Tab S

Display

Apple's Retina display technology has always differentiated its 10in tablets from their Android competition. This remained true in 2013 with the iPad Air, and at the time of release its 9.7in 1536x2048, 264ppi in-plane switching (IPS) LCD Retina display was the finest ever seen on any 10in tablet.

Looking to change this trend, Samsung loaded its latest Galaxy Tab S with a top-end 10.5in 2560x1600, 288ppi Super Amoled capacitive touchscreen. In the past we've struggled to pick between Samsung's Super Amoled and Apple's Retina technology as both have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Super Amoled is an enhancement of basic Amoled technology. Amoled is a screen technology that lets devices display deeper and richer blacks by electrically charging each individual pixel when generating colours, letting them create blacks simply by turning off the relevant pixels.
Galaxy Tab S vs iPad Air display
The downside to regular Amoled technology is that it requires manufacturers to place the capacitive layer – the component that senses touch – on top of the main display, a practice that can damage the device's battery life. Super Amoled fixes this by integrating the capacitive touchscreen layer directly into the display.

Apple's Retina display technology takes a different strategy and works to help devices display better colours and whites than their Amoled equivalents, by organising liquid crystals on a fixed plate that's charged at a consistent rate.

However, comparing the Galaxy Tab S with the iPad Air, we found the Samsung tablet does have an edge. In general the Galaxy Tab S features higher brightness levels and looks noticeably more vibrant than the iPad Air.

Winner: The Galaxy Tab S

Operating system

Normally, while we've struggled to pick between unskinned versions of Android and iOS, Samsung's Touchwiz skin has swung the balance in Apple's favour.

Before 2014, every version of Samsung Touchwiz has detracted rather than improved Android and has done little more than make a sea of unwanted and superfluous changes to the OS's user interface and installed more useless applications than could easily be counted.

This has meant iPads have in the past been significantly more user friendly than their Galaxy competition.
We expected this to ring true when comparing the Android 4.4 KitKat-powered Galaxy Tab S with Apple's iOS 7 flagship iPad Air.

But while Touchwiz user interface issues remain, Samsung has done great work to reduce the number of applications and widgets that are pre-installed on the Galaxy Tab S.

Samsung has removed many of the widgets and custom applications cluttering past Galaxy devices' user interfaces and left it with generally useful software and service additions.Galaxy Tab S vs iPad Air angled
Key positive additions are the Galaxy Tab S's Magazine UX and multi-window support. Magazine UX is a custom set of tiled widgets designed to push productivity services such as calendar, email and news alerts to the forefront of the UI.

It can be accessed from the Galaxy Tab S's homescreen and showcases each update service as a dynamic tile. Each tile can be customised to only show alerts from specific publications, topics and services, such as email or calendar.

The Galaxy Tab S's multi-window support works the same way it did with previous Samsung devices. The feature lets you have two apps open and on the screen at any one time and is activated by swiping left from the Galaxy Tab S's right-hand bezel to bring up the shortcut tab. Once activated, apps in the shortcut menu can be opened by dragging them onto a section of the screen.

Meanwhile, the iPad retains the user-friendly interface introduced by Apple with its first iOS devices, making it a simple tablet to set up and use from scratch.

However, the combination of services offered by Samsung make the Galaxy Tab S slightly better for productivity purposes than the iPad Air and countermand the benefits of iOS's more user friendly user interface.

Winner: Tie

Next: Security , Performance and camera , Battery, storage and price
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About Doru Somcutean

Hello, my name is Somcutean Doru and I'm from Romania.

I really like to read reviews and see what's new about technology, on D-BLOG I share with you articles/reviews that I find interesting. I also write some reviews in romanian...

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