Just like smartphones, tablets are only as good as the apps they have access to. This is because consumers view the app ecosystem as an investment. If they have access to an app store with the latest and the widest variety of apps, they get more value from their tablets. Likewise, developers are inclined to invest in a vibrant app ecosystem where the target market is huge and has a viable future. Now, let's take a look at the total number of apps in each mobile platform:
Apple is the leader of the pack when it comes to both app numbers and quality. In the context of this article, the iPad Air has access to over 500,000 tablet-optimized apps. Apple's perspective is that tablet apps shouldn't be just scaled-up phone apps; they must be specifically designed and coded for use with the larger displays and take advantage of the more powerful hardware components within tablets.
While the Google Play Store has caught up with Apple in terms of numbers, it still lacks in the quality of tablet-optimized apps. Google declined to reveal exact numbers, but has added a "designed for tablets" section for tablet users to find these apps. To promote better quality tablet apps, Google also published a tablet app quality checklist for developers to follow.
Twitter released an app optimized for Android tablets last October. As of October 15 last year, the Twitter for Android Tablets app and widget were available on most Samsung tablets including the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1. The Twitter app is also specifically designed to work with the multi-window feature of Samsung tablets, therefore allowing users to run Twitter side by side with another app at the same time.
Microsoft is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to app numbers. At over 140,000 apps, the Windows Store is a far cry from the million-strong Apple App Store and Google Play Store. As noted in our review of the Surface 2, the growth of the Windows Store seems to have slowed down after a brief burst towards the end of 2013. Windows Store may have official apps for Facebook and Twitter, but it still lacks big name apps such as Instagram and YouTube. In addition to missing some big name apps, new apps are seldom launched for the Windows Store at the same time as the Apple and Android counterparts, thus aggravating the platform's uptake.
The battleground for gaming apps is looming between Apple and Google; a recent report by The Wall Street Journal claims that both companies are competing to get top tier game titles first on their platforms. For many years, Apple had the advantage of having the latest gaming apps debut on its platform first such as "Plants vs. Zombies 2" and "Cut the Rope". Some big game titles such as the Infinity Blade series, are iOS exclusive and coded to take advantage of the 64-bit CPU architecture of the A7 chip used by the iPad Air (and the new iPad Mini as well as the iPhone 5S). In the near future, there will be more games (apps in general too) that will be optimized for use with the A7 processor.
The playing field might be leveled soon as Android has gained massive market share in the past year. In addition, Google also made it easier for developers to port and create apps for the Android platform. Game developers also think that it makes sense for them to debut apps on both platforms to maximize reach. For example, French developer Gameloft decided to launch the iOS and Android version of its popular car-racing game app, Asphalt 8 at the same time last year. The Windows 8 version came after three months.
To compare the gaming experience on the three tablets, we chose to run Asphalt 8: Airborne.
Both the Air and Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 seemed to provide more visual effects during the game. As seen in the screenshots above, the sun flares can be seen at the bottom left corner when the game started. Unfortunately, the Surface 2 lacked the same level of global illumination, sun flares and other other visual effects (as seen in the photo below), almost as if it was running a different level of the graphics API. Apart from the visual effects that was differentiated, game play was smooth on all three tablets.
The one and only issue we had when running the game was the speaker placement on the iPad Air. As the speakers are located at the right side (landscape mode when playing games), our hands covered the speakers and muffled the audio output. This wasn't the case for the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 and Surface 2 as their speakers are located on the upper section of the right side in landscape mode.
Placement of the volume rocker also affects the gaming experience to some extent as consumers typically need to increase or decrease the volume while gaming. With the exception of the Surface 2, we find it hard to reach for the volume rocker on the Air and Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 as they are located on the top left corner of the devices. The Surface 2 has its volume controls located along the upper left side of the device, which makes it convenient for us to adjust the volume while playing games in landscape mode.
Game Play in Portrait Mode
There are games that can be played in landscape mode while there are others which are meant to be played in portrait mode. We tried running a game in portrait mode on all three tablets and found that the gaming experience is most awkward on the Surface as it looked exceptionally elongated due to its aspect ratio. The iPad Air, on the other hand, felt comfortable.
We'll start off with the most obvious observation. The 4:3 aspect ratio of the Apple iPad Air's display doesn't get along well with most videos that are tailored with a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. As a result, you will have to put up with letterboxing (two black bars at the top and bottom of the video).
On the other hand, the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 and Surface 2 had no letterboxing issues as their displays have aspect ratios of 16:10 and 16:9 respectively:-
Aside from the screen aspect ratio, the form factor of the tablet also affects the multimedia viewing experience. Generally speaking, thinner and lighter form factors are recommended for consumers who watch videos on the go (e.g on the train or bus). This is where the Surface 2 faltered somewhat as it is simply too bulky to be held in your hands for a lengthy duration.
However, the integrated kickstand of the Surface 2 will be useful if you place the tablet on a flat surface and watch movies. The lower 55-degree angle provides the optimal viewing angle for watching movies on your lap or desk. Additionally, you could use the outstretched kickstand to your advantage even when not placed on a surface by balancing the device on both your middle fingers while your index fingers and thumbs hold the screen securely. It might sound a little complicated, but this will be second nature once you've tried it a few times.
Occasionally, we would feel the need to adjust the brightness and volume during a video playback. In this respect, the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 takes the cake by allowing you to adjust the brightness and volume level on-screen. This feature, however, can also be found on third-party video players on the Google Play Store, but it's good to know the default media player has this incorporated.
The volume slider is located on the right side of the screen while the brightness slider is located on the left. This saves you the hassle of reaching out for the physical home button or fumbling to adjust these settings. Alternatively, you can also swipe down from the top during a video playback to control these settings.
Speaker Audio Quality
We pushed the volume level to 100% on all three tablets to see the audio output quality. The Surface 2 delivered a more pleasant, clearer and cleaner audio experience compared to the other two tablets. However, it lacks bass and suffers from distortion at maximum volume; tuning it down between 80% to 90% audio level, helps resolve the audio distortion issue. The Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 is the loudest among the three tablets, but it sounded a little flat and direct as compared to the better spatial audio delivery on the Surface 2 that gives the output a bit of depth. It too suffers from audio distortion at maximum volume. The iPad Air fared the worst in this comparison as its speakers got muffled by our hands while viewing videos in landscape mode.