Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 vs iPad Air 2: the weigh-in

The best of Apple vs. the best Android tablet around — will either deliver a knockout blow?
ipad samsung

Even if you're a diehard Android warrior secretly (or not so secretly) wishing that Cupertino will be swallowed up by a Hellmouth, it’s hard to argue with the notion that Apple got things right with the iPad.

Tablets had been around for years, but Apple’s attempt was the first to successfully marry usability, design and an app ecosystem in a device that people actually wanted to use.

But Apple’s rivals didn’t stand still, and every iteration of Android tablets has produced something new; and very occasionally - like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 - they are stunning.

But now the iPad Air 2 has arrived, who’s the tablet king?

Design and build: metal vs plastic fantastic

The Galaxy Tab S apes the Galaxy S5, with its perforated plastic back (available in Titanium Bronze or Dazzling White, don't you know).

In use, it can be a touch creaky, but it still feels significantly more robust than the bulk of the competition. It’s comfortable to hold, being light (465g) and super-skinny (6.6mm). In short, it's the best looking, best-feeling tablet that Samsung has ever released, though it's still not quite at the farthest end of the premium table.

By contrast, Apple’s iPads have always felt absurdly solid, and the iPad Air 2 is a truly stunning piece of engineering. Thinner than its predecessor at just 6.1mm, two stacked are roughly as thick as the original iPad.

Despite its slightly svelter nature, there’s no sense of ‘bendgate’ here, and the metal-made tablet clocks in a few grams under Samsung’s, at 437g. Also, the iPad now comes in ‘bling’ gold colour, if that’s your thing.

Winner: Apple iPad Air 2

The display: which of your children do you love best?

The Galaxy Tab S' screen isn’t so much great as it is absolutely jaw-dropping. It’s a 10.5-inch 2560x1600 Super AMOLED affair that’s crisp and sharp at 288ppi - good luck hunting for pixels - with great vivid colours and excellent viewing angles. If the colour saturation threatens to set your retinas alight, you can dial it down a bit too, which is handy.

Usefully, the white balance can automatically adjust to take into account your local lighting conditions. However, the display’s aspect ratio’s widescreen nature might not be everyone's cup of tea, even if it is great for movies.

The iPad Air 2 at a glance is identical to the original — a 9.7-inch 2048x1536 screen at 264ppi, which was no slouch on the original model. However, Apple’s made improvements, bonding the LCD, glass and touch sensor, eliminating the air gap entirely. This not only makes the tablet a touch thinner, but makes the screen more vibrant; there’s also a new coating to reduce reflections. The aspect ratio is also better suited to a wider range of tasks, even if it’s sub-optimal for movies (in that you get black bars).

The whites on the iPad are a little purer, and the colours are also slightly more realistic.

Winner: Draw. For now.

Cameras: which takes a prettier picture?

Perhaps surprisingly, Apple made a big deal about the new iPad camera, which is an improvement over the original iPad Air’s. You now get an 8MP iSight which supports 1080p video, with a tonne of decent software backing it up, enabling you to shoot panoramas, burst photos and 120fps slow-mo video.

The Samsung matches Apple’s specs and then beats it for the front-facing camera, besting Apple with 2.1MP versus 1.2MP. It also has an LED flash, something that’s absurdly rare on tablets.

On paper, we're going to have to call this a draw for the time being.

Winner: Draw

OS: elegance, bugs and extensibility

Apple’s iPad comes with iOS 8.1 installed. The latest iteration of Apple’s mobile OS has been rather variable. In use, it’s proven to be quite buggy, but it’s also ambitious, marking a big change for Apple in terms of extensibility. New Share sheets, iCloud Drive, and TouchID all combine to make for a potentially great future for iPad users, but developers must capitalise on them first. (Apple naturally promises the bugs from iOS 8.0 have been squashed.)

By contrast, Samsung’s tablet runs Android 4.4.2 with TouchWiz welded to it. In use, it feels more complex than iOS, but it also has some excellent features that iPad owners covet, such as multi-user mode and multi-window, rumoured to be on the way for the iPad as well, but yet to appear.

Despite Samsung's welcome efforts to tone down its TouchWiz skin with a flatter, cleaner look, iOS 8 is still the more attractive OS.

Winner: Draw

Features: fingerprints and gigabytes

Apple needs a serious kicking when it comes to storage, ditching the 32 GB model to ‘encourage’ people to plump for 64 GB, while 16GB and 128GB are the other options. Samsung only offers you 16GB or 32GB, but you can shove in a micro SD card up to a massive 128GB to expand your storage. Hurrah!

Elsewhere, both devices offer fingerprint-scanners, with the iPad Air 2 getting the TouchID system introduced with last year’s iPhone. This might seem like a gimmick, but when the tech is adopted by enough apps, it becomes second-nature to use it for unlocking password managers and journalling apps, or to confirm purchases. It's also far better than the Tab S' fingerprint scanner, which requires an actual swipe as opposed to a simple tap.

But the storage thing (and bang per buck thereof) wins it for Samsung.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy Tab S

Performance: wind them up and watch them go

Apple’s been typically tight-lipped regarding the specs of its new iPad, merely noting it’s the most powerful iPad ever. Boasting a new custom A8X processor, graphs during the recent Apple event showed it blazing ahead of the iPad Air, which already performed admirably. In terms of battery life, you get up to ten hours in normal usage.

Samsung’s not so coy, happily banging on about its Exynos 5 Octa 5420, running at 1.9GHz. It’s hugely powerful and backed with 3 GB of RAM. Apple’s iPad is rumoured to have 2 GB, up from the 1 GB in previous models. Battery life is a smidge under Apple’s, at nine hours.

But it’s not all about numbers, and in real-world use, new iPads with the latest iOS have always felt buttery smooth, whereas Android devices with higher specs have frequently comparatively suffered, and even Samsung’s mighty tablet is prone to stutters and lag. Because of this, the iPad Air 2 edges out ahead in this round, until we review it, at least.

Winner: iPad Air 2

Ecosystem: all those lovely apps and extras

One way in which Apple has always shined is with ecosystems. Whether it’s high-quality apps or hardware add-ons, Apple users are spoilt for choice, but the pickings are slimmer on Android. This is especially the case when it comes to apps specifically optimised for tablet use.

For the typical user, this will be less of a problem, but then they’ll be mucking about with a Tesco Hudl rather than a high-end Samsung. But until we see high-end, tailored music, reading, design and writing apps on Android in similar numbers to iOS, even the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 isn’t going to be enough to win here.

Winner: iPad Air 2

Verdict: walking on Air

Since day one, the bigger iPad has been a remarkably solid piece of kit, only once slipping into compromise territory with the iPad 3. The iPad Air 2 might not hold any surprises, but it’s fast, has a beautiful display, and — importantly — has an unrivalled app ecosystem.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 remains a great piece of kit, with a stunning screen and impressive battery life, but the app selection and build quality are simply second best. If you want a big Android tablet, we still reckon the Samsung is the best in the world right now; but if you want the best possible tablet, Apple’s latest propels it back into a narrow lead, based on paper specs and hands-on impressions alone.

Stay tuned for our full in-depth iPad Air 2 review, after which this feature will be updated with our final impressions.

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