Samsung and Apple each have tablets that are clearly designed to compete head to head. The new Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 and the iPad Air 2 have the same screen size and price, but there are real differences between these two, and not just that one runs Android and the other iOS.
We’re here to share our hands-on experience of how Samsung’s flagship tablet stacks up against Apple’s in real world use.
Build and Design
Apple makes the most popular tablets and Samsung’s design strategy seems to be to imitate that success. The Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 made the switch to a 4:3 screen aspect ratio, the same ratio used in all iPad models, so Samsung’s and Apple’s latest are quite similar in size and shape.
While they have similar dimensions, Samsung worked hard to make its newest tablet thin and light; it’s only marginally slimmer than its rival but is definitely lighter, making it easier to hold for long periods. The iPad feels a touch sturdier, though.
Specifically the Tab S2 is 9.3 x 6.7 x 0.22 inches while the Air 2 is 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.24, so Apple’s offering is just slightly taller and wider and just a hair thinner, but these differences aren’t really noticable in everyday use. What’s a bit more noticeable is that the Air 2 weighs 0.96 pounds but the Tab S2 is just 0.86 lbs.
One of the reasons the Samsung model is lighter is the back of its casing is plastic, where Apple used aluminum. That said, both tablets have a very polished, professional look.
Apple’s model comes in dark grey, silver, and gold casings, and Samsung’s in black, white, and gold.
A highlight of the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 is its Active Matrix Organic LED display, in which no backlight is necessary because each screen pixel glows on its own. As a result, AMOLED displays offer very vivid colors, and look better when used outdoors than do traditional LCDs like the one in the iPad Air 2. Apple’s display is one of the best available, but LCDs just don’t look as good as AMOLED screens.
Aside from this, though, both screens are practically identical: 9.7 inches with a resolution of 2048 x 1536, giving them each a pixel density of about 264 ppi.
AMOLED technology gives the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 a definite advantage in this area, if not a huge one.
Buttons, Ports, and Speakers
Apple and Samsung each included a large Home button on their respective tablets, and then employed this to house a biometric fingerprint scanner. This can be used in place of a typed password to unlock the device and purchase items on the Web. In our tests, both scanners worked very well, quickly recognizing the fingerprints they had been trained for.
Samsung included a microSD card reader in the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7, making it easy for users to add storage for files of all types. Apple has never put a removable card reader in any of its mobile devices, but users can turn to flash drives that connect to the iPad Air 2’s data port; these are available from SanDisk, Leef, PhotoFast, and others.
The Tab S2 has a micro-USB slot for charging and data, while the Air 2 has Apple’s own Lightning connector. While the micro-USB slot is an industry standard, Apple products are so widely used that Lightning accessories are easily available and this isn’t much of a limitation.
Both Samsung and Apple placed stereo speakers on the bottom edge of their respective tablets where they broadcast sound away from the user. Better designed models from rival companies have front-facing ones.
Its microSD slot gives the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 an advantage, but there are expansion options for the iPad Air 2.
The Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 is powered by a Samsung Exynos 5433 octa-core processor, which includes one set of four cores running at 1.9GHz for when performance is needed, and a second set at 1.3GHz for battery saving. The iPad Air 2 uses a simpler arrangement, with an Apple A8X 1.5GHz tri-core 64-bit processor at its heart.
Apple has the capability to tune iOS to its processor, and that shows in the benchmark scores, as the its flagship tablet pulled in a 4528 on Geekbench 3. Samsung’s scored a 4400 on the same test, despite its processor’s faster clock speed. That said, both offer outstanding performance and are quite capable of handling not just day to day functioning but the most demanding third-party applications.
The Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 has 3GB of RAM, while its rival has 2GB. More RAM is generally better, though it can be a bit of a power drain.
The Air 2 is available in a range of storage capacities: 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB. There’s no 128GB version of the Tab S2, just 32GB and 64GB ones, but Samsung’s 32GB offering costs the same as Apple’s 16GB one.
The iPad Air 2 comes out a bit ahead in performance, but the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 leads in RAM. There’s something of a tie in storage capacity.
The iPad Air 2 runs the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 9.0.2, and this company has shown itself to be very committed to simultaneously releasing system software upgrades for as many of its tablets and phones as possible. The Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 uses Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, a recent version of Google’s mobile operating system, but it’s not the latest as Android 6.0 Marshmallow debuted on other tablets recently. Samsung is generally good about releasing at least one OS upgrade for its popular models, but has not yet committed to version 6.0 upgrade for the Tab S2.
Those who can’t decide between Android and iOS should read our “How to Choose a Tablet Operating System” guide.
A new feature of the iPad Air 2 thanks to the recent release of iOS 9 is split-screen multitasking. Samsung has its own version that it’s added to Android, and both work in similar ways, so these two come out in a tie in this aspect.
Both the Air 2 and the Tab S2 support Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, and the devices can function as a hotspot. In addition, there are versions of both tablets with support for 4G LTE available from all of the “Big Four” U.S. wireless carriers.
There’s no advantage on either side in this area.
The Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 has an 8 megapixel rear camera and so does the iPad Air 2. Neither has a flash. Both do a decent job of taking non-demanding pictures.
The front camera Apple used has just a 1.2 MP resolution, while Samsung went for 2.1MP. For the most part this difference won’t matter as video software like Skype generally streams at a lower resolution than either of these.
This is another category where these devices tied.
Tablets generally can go a long time between recharges and these two aren’t any exception. That said, Apple’s offering lasts substantially longer than Samsung’s. On the Geekbench 3 battery benchmark, which is a “torture” test that keeps the device on until it is drained, the iPad Air 2 lasted 8 hours and 42 minutes. In the same test, the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 went for 6 hours and 12 minutes.
The Tab S2 has Samsung’s fast charge capabilities so it can get back to 100% much quicker than its rival, but the iPad still comes out ahead in this area.
Although the iPad Air 2 launched last year, Apple isn’t going to replace it any time soon because the company is instead putting its efforts into the iPad Pro. But that doesn’t mean this tablet is out of date when compared to the new Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7. Apple’s offering comes out ahead in performance and battery life, and tied with Samsung’s latest in many other areas.
Even so, the AMOLED display on the Tab S2 makes for a better-looking screen, and its microSD card slot makes expanding storage easier.
The 16GB version of the iPad Air 2 costs $499, a 64GB version is $599, and a 128GB one is $699. Adding 4G LTE to any of these adds $130.
The Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 with 32GB of storage is $499, and the 64GB version is $599. The 4G LTE version is an additional $150, and is available only in the 32GB capacity.
The base models for these two cost the same, but Samsung’s device has more storage. The 64GB version of both cost the same. The lowest priced LTE-enabled version of Apple’s offering is a bit cheaper, but again, it has less storage capacity. Those who want an LTE tablet with more than 32GB of storage have to turn to the iPad.
With all factors taken into account, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 comes out just a bit ahead of the Apple iPad Air 2, thanks to a prettier screen and better storage options. That said, the victory is narrow, so those who are already leaning toward Apple’s offering shouldn’t feel nervous about going that direction.
Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 Pros:
iPad Air 2 Pros:
Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 Cons:
iPad Air 2 Cons: