Savage competition has seen the gap separating Apple's iPad from a slew of Android tablets close. Ambassadors of Android, particularly Samsung and Sony, have learnt how to couple the refined OS with capable hardware. The result: better products for less.
This comparison takes the two most competitive tablets, Samsung's Galaxy NotePro 12.2 and Sony's Xperia Z2 Tablet, and measures how they stand next to Apple's iPad Air.
Where function meets form
Design is paramount in making complex technology available to people of all technical aptitudes. A poorly designed tablet can lead to great features going unappeciated.
There's no denying it weighs the hand down
Falling first in design is the Samsung NotePro. Undermining the charm of its brushed steel borders and faux leather back is a hearty weight of 753 grams. In fairness, the tablet does have the largest screen at 12.2 inches, but there's no denying it weighs the hand down.
Sony's tablet is the antithesis to the heavy Samsung. It's a featherweight at 439 grams and one of the thinnest tablets in any division at 6mm. Sony has realised ambitious design with the Xperia Z2 Tablet. The buttons are bespoke, the edging functional and the bordering bezel complements the screen like an artwork's frame. The Xperia Z2 Tablet by all accounts achieves great things in design, but the iPad Air achieves even more.
The 469 gram iPad air achieves a nice balance between height, width and weight. This keeps it competitive against rivals like the Xperia Z2 Tablet, but it edges ahead on sheer attention to detail.
The iPad Air is a combination of premium materials and skilled craftsmanship. The fine bezels are punctuated by diamond-polished chamfers, and the speaker grilles are precision drilled with lasers into an aluminium body. The extra attention invested in seemingly insignificant details produce a grand experience with the iPad Air.
Winner: Apple iPad Air -- just
Android skins v Apple iOS
There was a time when Google's Android felt malnourished compared to Apple's iOS, but that no longer is the case. Samsung and Sony's tablets run the latest version of Android 4.4 KitKat, each dressed with a custom manufacturer overlay.
Every single facet of Apple's iOS is a fine example of technological art
Samsung's TouchWiz overlay shines on this tablet. There is no end to its functionality and, unlike the shabby look of TouchWiz on the Galaxy S5, it dons consistent aesthetics throughout the 12.2-inch tablet. However, in spite of its many improvements, its software does not lead the industry.
Every single facet of Apple's iOS, from the homescreen to the bowls of its settings menu, is a fine example of technological art. Apple's credence that a company needs to make both the hardware and the software resonates as iOS takes full advantage of the screen's space. The established App Store sweetens the deal further by offering more tablet-oriented apps than that of Google's Play. The colour scheme, the gestures, the animations, the speed: all of it is to the highest standard.
The Xperia Z2 Tablet is free from the 'big brother' governance that turns people off Apple products
But Apple is critical about how you, the customer, uses the iPad. Files cannot be transferred over Bluetooth, and only photos can be transferred to a PC without iTunes. Not only is the iPad locked down, but it insists you buy complementary Apple products to get the best experience. And sometimes you don't want to be strong-armed into buying yet another Apple product.
Sony's rendition of Android arguably features the best overlay of any manufacturer. Application support is strong complements of the Android ecosystem, and Sony then adds one of the best multimedia suites. The iPad's iOS edges ahead in looks, but the Xperia Z2 Tablet is free from the 'big brother' governance that turns people off Apple products.
Winner: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet
High-resolution screens, Multi-core CPUs
Playing in the high end of the tablet market means each of the three tablets run fast and come with high resolution screens.
Apple's iPad Air runs the least powerful hardware with a 1.3GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM and internal storage up to 128GB. The iPad Air might have the weakest specs on paper, but its iOS operating system is the least demanding.
Samsung screens remain the unsung heroes of its tablets and smartphones
The 9.7in iPad Air also has the smallest screen in the comparison, but the 9.7in display has a resolution of 1536x2048 for a density of 264 pixels-per-inch -- and that's higher than both tablets from Sony and Samsung. Having the pixels closer together results in clearer picture and improved touch recognition.
Sony's 10.1in tablet features a 2.3GHz quad-core CPU, 3GB of RAM and comes with up to 32GB of storage, which can be expanded with a microSD memory card.
The display, which we pined over during our review of the Z2 Tablet, is the least attractive of the trio, as its resolution of 1920x1200 imbues with with a 224 pixel-per-inch density.
Overachieving on the hardware front is the Samsung Galaxy NotePro 12.2. The tablet's expansive 12.2in screen has a crisp 2560x1600 resolution for a 247 pixel-per-inch density. Granted the ppi count is lower than that of the iPad Air's, but the negligible difference is easily compensated with the size, vibrancy and responsiveness of the screen. Samsung screens remain the unsung heroes of its tablets and smartphones.
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The Samsung tablet is just as impressive on the inside with specifications matching that of the Xperia Z2 Tablet. It has a 2.3GHz quad-core CPU, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, which can be expanded with microSD memory.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy NotePro 12.2
Megapixels and cameras
The cameras on these tablets linger behind those featured on smartphones as, after all, who wants to take a photo with a device 12.2-inches large?
It lacks a flash, and there are times a little light goes a long way
The Apple iPad has a proficient 5 megapixel rear camera and a low resolution 1.2 megapixel camera on the front. The rear camera admirably snaps photos in a range of lighting conditions. However, the iPad Air has the least number of megapixels. Furthermore it lacks a flash, and there are times a little light goes a long way.
Sony's Xperia Z2 Tablet has a higher resolution 8 megapixel rear camera and a 2.2 megapixel front camera. Imaging is one of Sony's core strengths, but the Z2 Tablet is let down by the omission of an HDR shooting mode. Also dampening the Z2 Tablet's experience is the lack of a flash like that of the iPad Air.
Samsung's tablet has a flash. And HDR shooting. The tablet's 8 megapixel rear camera and 2 megapixel front-facing camera are well equipped and are versed in a range of lighting conditions. Although the NotePro's camera isn't better than most smartphone cameras, it's certainly the best of the trio.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy NotePro 12.2
Features and extras
Samsung applications take advantage of the S-Pen's uncanny receptiveness
Samsung tried to innovate the popular slate with the inclusion of its S-Pen stylus. Several Samsung applications take advantage of the S-Pen's uncanny receptiveness as it captures the nuances of pens, pencils, textas and more. It's easy to jot down legible notes with the S-Pen, as is doodling on impromptu screenshots. The S-Pen radically expands the functionality of the NotePro.
Another thing separates Samsung and Sony's tablets from the masses. The top of each tablet is equipped with a flush IR blaster, while the Samsung features an electronic program guide. This means both tablets can be used as a remote control to operate the devices in your home entertainment setup.
Sony's Xperia Z2 Tablet has it's own party trick: it is waterproof. The tablet has ascertained certification against dust and can take on freshwater 1.5 metres deep for thirty minutes. During our testing of the Z2 Tablet, it replayed an episode of Game of thrones -- audio and all -- while completely submerged in a bucket of water. The ability to withstand water makes the Z2 the tablet of choice for people who demand more from a tablet.
Winner: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet
The tally reads:
Samsung: 2 Sony: 2 Apple: 1
But these numbers don't tell the full story.
Samsung's Galaxy NotePro 12.2 is a fantastic tablet, but its 12.2-inch size and its exorbitant price tag precludes it from being the tablet of choice for the masses. This is a niche product that wouldn't bode well with most people.
Sony and Apple's slates will be the tablets most people gravitate towards. Just a year ago this would've been a no brainer; Apple's iPad would've won hands down. The fact Sony's Xperia Z2 Tablet can go punch-for-punch with the mighty Apple is a testament to Sony's rapid rate of innovation. The Z2 Tablet is thinner, lighter and more durable, but picking between these two tablets isn't a binary choice.
Each of these tablets are as good as each other: if you're a fan of Apple's ecosystem, buy the iPad Air -- you'll love it. If you're a fan of open-source anything, buy the Xperia Z2 Tablet -- you'll love it just as much.