The battle lines have once again been drawn between Apple and Samsung.
This time, it's tablets that are the weapons of choice – specifically, the feather-light iPad Air and Samsung's 2014 refresh of its Galaxy Note 10.1. Both are flagship slates for their parent companies, and both have their own unique advantages and disadvantages.
Now that we've had the chance to review both, let's see how they shape up against each other.
READ MORE: Apple iPad Air review
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) review
Metal vs pleather
Both tablets borrow design cues from elsewhere in their respective ranges; in the case of the iPad Air, that means iPad Mini-style lines, complete with slimmed-down screen bezel. The Note, meanwhile, draws on the Galaxy Note 3's pleather-and-plastic design, complete with fake stitching on the back.
Of the two, the iPad Air's the standout in terms of design; it's a mere 7.5mm thin, with no give in it. And it's light, too – 469g or 478g, depending on whether you opt for the Wi-Fi only or cellular version. Beware, though: all that Space Grey aluminium will scratch easily.
The Note's well put-together – there's little to no flex in it, and the manufacturing is seamless. However, its symphony of plastic and faux-leather just looks plain tacky on a device this size – and the pleather doesn't have the grippy, soft-touch feel of the Galaxy Note 3's similar back to recommend it.
That metal-effect plastic edging is pretty unimpressive next to the iPad's metal-and glass build, too – and it doesn't yield a weight saving, with the Note coming in at around 540g depending on which version you pick up. That said, the Note feels solid in the hand, and has a pleasing heft to it. But in terms of looks, there's no contest – the iPad Air walks away with it.
Winner: iPad Air
The Note 10.1's screen is glorious – "one of the best we've ever seen on a 10in tablet," as Stuff's own Sophie Charara puts it. Its 2560 x 1600 screen bests the iPad Air's 2048 x 1536, 9.7in screen in terms of raw numbers, offering up 299ppi against the Air's 264ppi. Fonts are crisp, and it delivers wide viewing angles. And with multiple screen mode options, it's versatile, too.
Although the Air's Retina display may not match up in terms of pixel count, it's plenty sharp enough, though – and it has the edge over the Note when watching video, with true-to-life colours and dynamic imagery. "No matter what you chuck at it, the Retina does the job brilliantly," we said. And there's plenty to show off on it, with an App Store crammed with Retina-resolution software and games.
Winner: iPad Air
Power and performance
The Galaxy Note 10.1 certainly has some impressive specs; a 1.9GHz quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM and an 8220mAh battery, plus up to 64GB internal storage. And that power is backed up by the benchmarks, too, with the Note managing a respectable score of 2871 on Geekbench 3 in our test.
That's a step ahead of the iPad Air's Geekbench score of 2696 – and it's not surprising, since the iPad's proprietary dual-core 1.4GHz A7 processor and 1GB RAM don't quite measure up to the Note's internals. That said, Apple's 64-bit processor is handily future-proofed (find out what the fuss is all about here), and app developers are slowly starting to optimise their wares for the extra headroom.
Of course, it's what you do with those specs that count, and the iPad Air is delightfully smooth. With every single app we'd opened running in the background, we still got "zero stutter when dropping five-minute long HD clips into the iMovie timeline, resizing and rearranging, playing back the preview and adding music."
The Note, meanwhile, "chews through demanding games like a croc through soft fudge," but could still do with some optimisation in terms of software; there's a noticeable pause between tapping an app and it opening, and "as we set a tonne of Android apps downloading to the tab at once, the shiny widgets on the main homescreen flickered and entered a reload loop meltdown just short of a full crash."
Still, the grunt's there, and on raw specs, we have to give the trophy to Samsung for this round.
READ MORE: 25 fantastic free Android games
More after the break...
OS and apps
And so we come to the thorny issue of your OS of choice. Samsung's packed its Magazine UX (running on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean) with widgets, including a specially-modified version of Twitter, the digital edition of Bloomberg's Businessweek+ and an impressive version of Flipboard.
The star attraction, though, is Samsung's Multi Window, letting you run Samsung and Google apps side by side. It's not new, but our review points out that it "works much better this time around" thanks to the new Note's beefed-up silicon.
That Note name means that you also get Samsung's S Pen stylus, which comes with plenty of new tricks. Air Command menus "can be a bit confusing at first, but stick with the S Pen and the rewards are vast" – you can scribble notes, circle details and add them to contacts, or pull up an address in Google Maps. You can even search your handwritten notes in the Note 10.1's universal search.
However, all of the Note's widgets and duplicated apps do tend to clutter up the screen somewhat, in marked contrast to the slicker, cleaner iOS 7. Yes, Android fans will doubtless carp that features like the Control Centre appear suspiciously familiar, but Apple's done a great job of presenting those features. The UI design is slick and stripped-back, and the controls are intuitive – although Apple's continuing refusal to add homescreen widgets and customisation options remains a point of contention.
Apple's not-so-secret weapons are, of course, iTunes and the App Store – "the biggest and best-curated digital shops available, despite fierce competition from Google Play." 10in Android tablets still lag behind in terms of essential apps, though the number is gradually increasing. There are no official Twitter or Facebook apps available for 10in 'droids, for instance, and while the BBC iPlayer has finally made its way onto larger Android tablets, the Note 10.1 doesn't yet support programme downloads.
Which operating system you pick largely comes down to your own preferences and priorities. With the Note, you get Android's more open platform (complete with a proper file and folder structure), plus more options for customisation and homescreen widgets. The iPad Air gets you Apple's cleaner, simpler design and the vast riches of its App Store. Both have their advantages and disadvantages; we'll call it a draw.
Samsung and Apple have produced a pair of top-quality tablets in the Note 10.1 and the iPad Air. They're directly competing on price, with both slates starting at £400 for a Wi-Fi only, 16GB version. So which comes out on top?
The iPad Air offers gorgeous design, an impressive screen and a shedload of apps thanks to Apple's App Store. The Note 10.1 delivers plenty of grunt with its 3GB RAM, 1.9GHz processor and 299ppi screen – and its S Pen stylus is genuinely useful once you've got the hang of it. But Samsung's slate is hamstrung by the limited availability of 10in Android tablet apps, and an overly fussy design.
If and when the app situation improves, Samsung may gain the edge over Apple – but for the time being, the iPad Air rightly dominates the large tablet market. And that's why it's number one on Stuff's Top 10 tablet list.
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