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Shootout: Apple iPad Air vs. Microsoft Surface 2 vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1

By Sidney Wong - 29 Jun 2014

Usage Scenarios: Productivity and Media Management


As portable computing devices, tablets are fairly capable in productivity tasks. However, not all tablets offer the same features and convenience. Let's see how the three tablets fared in these subcategories:


1) Suite of Productivity Apps

Productivity apps can be very expensive to purchase on the respective app stores, but they allow you to create/view/edit word documents, spreadsheets and presentation slides. Manufacturers either preload these apps on their devices or offer them for free to be downloaded at the user's discretion. 


Microsoft Surface 2

The Surface 2 is the clear winner in this category as it comes preinstalled with Microsoft Office 2013 RT (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook). Most consumers will feel right at home on the Surface 2 as they would be hard pressed to find any differences in the interface and usage experience from the full fledged PC edition of the Office software.

The Microsoft Office 2013 RT is preloaded on the Surface 2.

The interface of Word looks very similar to the PC version, hence users shouldn't have any issues or compatibility concerns using the Surface 2 to work on Word documents. The same experience is extended to the rest of the Office software suite.

Office 2013 RT is optimized for use with touch and mouse; you will get more space between commands for the former, and have standard ribbon and commands for the latter. Regardless of your preferences, the Surface 2 can support peripheral devices such as a mouse via its full-sized USB port, and its original keyboard accessories (Type and Touch Cover) which are some of the industry's best.

While the Surface 2 is compatible with the first generation Type and Touch Cover keyboards, we would recommend users to acquire the newer Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2. Both keyboards come with backlit keys which is boon if you ever get stuck in a dimly-lit environment. Of the two keyboards, the Type Cover 2 is your best bet as it is not only thin and light, it also offers a more comfortable typing experience. We find the keys to have a generous amount of travel and the keyboard has less flex than its predecessor. Coupled with the device's integrated kickstand that can be used at two angles, the Surface 2 is shaping up to be the killer productivity machine.

The much improved Type Cover 2 and integrated kickstand of the Surface 2 should appeal to consumers who want to get work done on the go in a seamless manner.


Apple iPad Air

Apple made its iWork productivity apps (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) and iLife creativity apps (iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand) free for download on the App Store for any new iOS 7 device. For existing users of these apps, they are available as free updates. The total storage space needed for the iWork apps is about 1.272GB. 

 Here's the breakdown of storage space taken by each app.

Here's a screenshot on the interface of Pages on the iPad Air.

Pages for the iPad Air has a different interface than you would be accustomed to in Microsoft Office, which may require users some time to learn its features and tools. According to Apple, Pages has compatibility with Microsoft Word 2013 documents. This means that you should have no problems collaborating with people who use Microsoft Word on other devices. 

If you want the true Office experience on the Air, you can download Office for iPad which was recently unveiled at a press briefing on March 28. It is available as separate Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps. It comes with a catch though; you need an Office 365 Home subscription (S$138 for 1-year subscription) to create and edit documents on the Air. You can however browse your documents without paying for a subscription.

You need to pay an annual subscription fee for creating and editing Office documents on the iPad.

On a side note, Microsoft also released Office Mobile for the iPhones and Android phones. Unlike the iPad version, you do not need an Office 365 subscription to create, edit and save documents for home use. 


Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1

Following in the footsteps of Apple, Samsung bundled a suite of productivity apps with the new range of Note/Tab Pro tablets. The Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 is entitled to free subscription of Hancom Office (Hword, Hcell and Hshow), an office program for users to create, view, edit and share documents on-the-go. The Hancom Office apps need a storage space of about 375.78MB.

With its PC-like interface and experience, Hancom Office for Android is suitable for all types of consumers from beginners to power users. It is also compatible with a variety of office file formats.

You have to access the Samsung App Store to download the Hancom Office for Android. That means you'll need to create and maintain a Samsung account to obtain this privilege.

Hword 2014 has a close resemblance to Microsoft Word on the PC.


2) The Email Experience

The relative ease of turning on the display without the hassle of booting up makes the tablet a perfect machine for sending and replying email on the move. Each mobile platform typically comes with a default email client or app for users. Let's take a look at the respective email clients on these three competing tablets:


Apple iPad Air

Similar to many email apps/clients, the Mail app on the Air supports multiple email accounts from a variety of providers (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook.com, Exchange). It keeps track of conversations by thread and is capable of managing multiple mailboxes. 

As with all stock apps, Mail is deeply integrated with iOS as a whole. For example, Mail is presented as one of the few options to share your photos on the Air besides Message, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. Third party email clients such as Gmail are not available as options.


Microsoft Surface 2

 Microsoft Outlook 2013 on the Surface 2.

On the Surface 2, you get a Mail app and Outlook 2013 from Microsoft Office 2013 RT. Previously, Windows RT did not support Outlook and users had to use the underwhelming Mail app or switch between web-based email accounts in Internet Explorer. 

Unlike the Mail app, Outlook 2013 only works in desktop mode. In our opinion, that's not much of a concern since the interface looks and works as you would expect on a PC. You can connect IMAP and POP email accounts as well as Exchange Active Sync accounts. Like the rest of the Office apps, Outlook 2013 is optimized for touch where there is more space between menu items and touch targets are easier to tap.  


Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1

This is the default email app on the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1. 

The default email client on the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 has a rather clean and straightforward interface. You can set the layout to show three columns (folders, inbox, preview window) or two columns (folders and inbox). One advantage it has over third-party email apps and Gmail is the integration with the Magazine UX interface. 

Powered by Flipboard, Magazine UX is a new interface adopted by Samsung on all its latest tablets. Think of it as a giant dashboard that aggregates apps, news and social feeds on the home screen. The default email client is supported in Magazine UX, and you can write or see emails without having to access the app. Hancom Office is also supported in the Magazine UX.


3) Software Keyboard

The software keyboard is one of the most commonly used features in mobile devices, hence we felt it is an aspect that we should consider when comparing the three tablets.


Apple iPad Air

The software keyboard takes up more than half the available screen estate on the Air.

The iOS 7.1 keyboard hasn't changed much; the Shift and Delete keys have a more prominent look when engaged. For example, the Shift key will show a white arrow when not in use. The white arrow turns into a black one after it has been pressed once, and will sport an underline when you tap twice to engage Caps Lock.

To use the other symbols and numbers, you have to manually tab on the .?123 key to switch the layout of the keyboard. There is no swiping or voice typing functionality in the iOS 7.1 keyboard. There is also no alternative keyboard layouts that you can change or install. 


Microsoft Surface 2

The default software keyboard on the Surface 2 is largely similar to the Air except that it has a dedicated Crtl key for you to execute the standard shortcuts (cut, copy, paste, select all, undo), just like you would on your desktop PC or notebook.

We find the keys on the full-sized keyboard to be a tad small and the layout to be tight for comfortable typing.

There are other alternative keyboard layouts that you can choose on the Surface 2, which include a split screen keyboard that divides the keyboard in half with the number pad in the middle, a handwriting recognition pad and a full-sized QWERTY keyboard (as shown above).


Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1

One of the significant features of TouchWiz on the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 is the keyboard, which is designed to mimic a standard full-sized keyboard. As you can see from the screenshot above, the Samsung keyboard has an additional row of number keys. This is especially useful when you are keying in passwords with numbers.

In addition, the keyboard also has Ctrl, Shift, Caps Lock and Tab keys which allows you to execute common keyboard shortcuts like Copy (Ctrl + C), Cut (Ctrl + X) and Paste (Ctrl + V). The keyboard also adapts to what you are doing. For example, the "www." key is present when you open up a browser to key in the URL.

The Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 offers two other keyboard layouts: floating and split. The floating keyboard comes in handy especially when working on documents as it does not occupy much space on the screen. You also can move the software keyboard around on the screen. 

The floating keyboard does not occupy as much screen space, but you have to make do with the smaller size.


4) Media Management

In this section, we compare the ease of file management and file transfer on the three tablet devices.


Apple iPad Air

Due to its tight integration with iTunes and iCloud, the Air is one device that you either love or hate. You need to connect to a PC or Mac with iTunes to sync photos, videos and music files. Alternatively, iCloud (5GB free storage space) allows you to backup music, photos, documents, apps and books across your iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Mac or PC.

iCloud will be extremely useful if you are invested in Apple's ecosystem of devices.

In other words, file transfer is largely restricted within Apple's walled ecosystem and you have to depend on third party services to transfer data. Third-party cloud storage service apps are plentiful on the Apple App Store, which include Box, Dropbox and Google Drive. However, you either have to make do with the limited free storage space or pay for more. It also doesn't help that the Air lacks a memory card slot and/or a USB port, which can be found in the other two tablets.


Microsoft Surface 2

You should already know by now that the Surface 2 has no equal in this section judging from the connectivity ports it has. As a quick recap, the Surface 2 boasts a microSD memory card slot, a full-sized USB 3.0 port and a mini-HDMI port. The full-sized USB port allows you to plug a thumbdrive or an external hard disk drive to the Surface 2, something which the other two tablets are unable to do so. Coupled with the Desktop Mode which mirrors the familiar interface of a PC, the Surface 2 makes file transfer and file management a breeze for almost anyone.

The addition of the micro-HDMI port helps you to mirror the device's output to a bigger screen like a monitor or TV with just a standard HDMI cable. Couple that with a wireless mouse and keyboard combo, you can control the Surface 2 from the comfort of your couch if you wanted to, just like a notebook or a HTPC machine. 

You can drag and drop files from the different folders into the removable disk (e.g thumbdrive).

Microsoft has its own cloud storage service, OneDrive which offers 7GB free storage for photos, videos and documents. OneDrive is available on Android and iOS too! Besides OneDrive, you can download Box or Dropbox on the Surface 2!


Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1

Except for the lack of a full-sized USB port, the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 is almost similar to the Surface 2 when it comes to file transfer aspects. It comes with My Files, a file manager where you have an overview of the content stored on the internal storage of the tablet and the memory card. As there is no drag and drop action supported here, you can copy and paste files/folders from the device storage to the memory card or vice versa.

Similar to the Air and Surface 2, the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 has access to third-party cloud storage services such as Box and Dropbox. Samsung has included a promotion for Dropbox users on the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 where they can have 50GB free storage space for two years. Also as an Android device, Google Drive is offered on the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 where you get 15GB free online storage. 


5) Multitasking

Multitasking is a much talked about feature on mobile devices with larger displays such as tablets. The extra screen real estate makes it perfect for carrying out multiple tasks simultaneously.


Apple iPad Air

In typical Apple fashion, multitasking has only recently been expanded to include more apps. Previously, only selected apps could run in the background due to Apple's concerns over battery life. In iOS 7, Apple revamped the multitasking feature and added a new interface.

iOS 7 introduced a card-based interface for multitasking.

Double tapping on the Home button will activate the multitasking feature where apps running in the background will be shown in a card-based interface. As the apps will have a preview card of their own, you are able to view the information on an app (e.g. email) without actually bringing it to the foreground. Closing an app is as easy as flicking the card up and off the screen.

You can now close/quit up to three apps at one go.

Behind the scenes, some apps run for a short period of time before being set to a suspended state so that they do not take up unnecessary system resources. There are other apps which can continue to run in the background and be updated at regular intervals (app background refresh).

According to Apple, normal app background refreshing is scheduled for efficient times such as when a Wi-Fi connection is established, a device is plugged to a power source, or when it is being actively used. Users also can control the apps' background activity in Settings > General > Background App Refresh. iOS 7 also learns the users' usage patterns on the device and tries to predict when apps should be updated in the background. 

Unfortunately, this is as far as multitasking can go on the iPad Air or any other iOS 7 device. Apple's strict control over its interface has its pros and cons, and the limited multitasking function here is obviously a major drawback when you consider what Samsung and Microsoft can offer in their tablets.


Microsoft Surface 2

Microsoft touts multitasking capabilities on the Surface 2 as one of the key advantages over the Apple iPad Air. To access the multitasking bar, swipe in from the left side of the screen quickly and swipe back. A vertical thumbnail grid will appear on the left with the most recent apps that you've used. If you want to snap back to an app, swipe the thumbnail of the app to the center. 

A quick swipe from the left into the screen and back will bring up the multitasking bar.

Alternatively, you can swipe from the left side of the screen to the center to switch from one app to another. This is handy if you are running less than 3 apps in the background as the motion is quick. However, you are better off selecting a preferred app from the multitasking bar when you've several apps running.

Seen here are 3 apps running simultaneously onscreen. You can adjust the size of each app window via the three-dot icon. For example, you might want to see a bigger slice of the Bing News than the other two apps.

As shown above, Windows 8.1 RT now enables you to open up to three apps side-by-side onscreen. You also can resize each app window according to your preferences (e.g. giving more space to important apps).


Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1

Multitasking is a favorite subject for Samsung's anti-Apple ads and trust us when we say Samsung's multitasking is the real deal. Samsung first brought the concept of split-screen or multi-window multitasking in 2012 with the Galaxy Note 10.1 and Galaxy Note II. Let's see how the multitasking feature works on the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1:-

With the new Recent button on the left side of the Home button, you can now easily bring up the multitasking menu with just one tap instead of long pressing the Home button. You can scroll through the list of apps running in the background and quit/close them by flicking them off screen. If you need to free up system resources, you can tap the "close all" option or access Task Manager where you can clear apps and running processes occupying the device's memory.


Multi Window or split screen is where multitasking gets really interesting. Currently limited to over 20 apps, you can have two windows running side-by-side on the Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1. You can even open up to 3 pop-up windows over the two windows if you want to push the capabilities of the device to its limits, but we feel that it is a little over the top for any consumer. The pop-up windows can be minimized into circular heads similar to the Chat Heads of the Facebook Home Launcher.

 This is a little extreme, but we just want to show the extent of multitasking that is possible on the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1.

What we find useful about the split screen feature is the ability to drag and drop a paragraph of text or a screenshot of an image from one window to another. For now, Multi Window supports Samsung apps such as the Email, Gallery and Message apps. This means that you cannot drag a screenshot from Gallery to Gmail.  Although not all apps are supported, we can see the potential if Samsung continues to refine it and improve app compatibility for multitasking.

The screenshot on the left can be dragged into the Message window on the right. 


Winner for Overall Productivity and Media Management: Microsoft Surface 2