Samsung unveiled a new flagship tablet, the Galaxy Tab S, at an event in New York City on June 12, 2014.
Apple's dominance of the tablet market is so overwhelming that most other players in the space tend to "counter-program." Rather than try to match the iPad feature-for-feature or spec-for-spec, they go out of their way to differentiate and offer features the iPad simply doesn't have.
Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, for instance, are really virtual storefronts for the company's popular services. The Microsoft Surface line offers (more or less) a full PC experience in a tablet form factor, complete with a Desktop.
Even Samsung, Apple's most reliable hardware rival, plays the counter-programming game. For the past two years, Samsung has shined a spotlight on its Galaxy Note line of tablets, whose claim to fame is a digital pen, and all the cool things you can do with it (such as marking up maps with handwritten directions).
With the Galaxy Notes front and center, the company's Galaxy Tab devices — which were actually the very first real Android tablets — have taken second spot. Samsung made the Tab line its de facto value brand in tablets, with cheap, plastic designs and sometimes substandard hardware.
A better Tab
No longer. Samsung has given the Galaxy Tab line some polish with the new Galaxy Tab S line, which represents the company extending its successful smartphone "S" brand to tablets (though the company says it will continue to support its lower-end Tabs, too). Instead of unexciting designs and low-res displays, beautiful metallic finishes and "retina"-worthy screens are the domain of the Tab S.
"The S brand allows us to create a new franchise," Casey Ryan, vice president of product and operations at Samsung, told Mashable. "When we were looking at creating this premium line of tablets, the S is something that represents premium in our smartphone portfolio. We feel we've got a great product for consumers in the U.S."
There will certainly be many comparisons to the iPad. Not just because these are tablets (what else are you going to compare them against — the Nexus 7?), but because the message of these tablets is very clear:
Samsung is done with counter-programming. The Galaxy Tab S line is meant to go toe-to-toe with Apple's iPads.Samsung is done with counter-programming. The Galaxy Tab S line is meant to go toe-to-toe with Apple's iPads.
Looking at market statistics, that's still a lopsided fight. Although IDC currently pegs Apple with about 45% of the U.S. tablet market, usage tells a different story: iPads account for more than 77% of all North America web traffic from tablets, according to Chikita. That's an extraordinarily dominant position.
However, those same reports show Samsung growing fast. The company's U.S. market share increased from 17.9 to 26% year over year, with usage growing from 4.7% to 8.3% — beating out Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets. With booming sales, a strong brand in smartphones and recent favorable courtroom decisions, you can see why Samsung thinks now is the time to strike hardest.
It's certainly put everything it can in the new Tab S devices to end-run Apple's iPads. The Tab S displays are sharper and larger than the iPads'. The two models are the first tablets that we've seen with fingerprint readers, beating Apple to the punch on that feature. And SideSync, which lets you answer calls and run apps from your Galaxy S phone on the tablet, gets ahead of Apple's Continuity, which won't arrive for iPad until iOS 8 is released this fall.
The features work well, and from using both Tab S tablets for an hour or so, I was struck by how much they feel like iPads. Their thinness, their more straight-line design (previous Tab generations had slightly curved edges), and the fact that both the small and big model have the same internals (another Apple tactic) simply screams: "This is our iPad, and we think it's better."
Of course Samsung will never say it's going after the iPad, at least not publicly. When I asked Ryan whether Samsung regarded the Galaxy Tab S a direct competitor to the iPad, he demurred, saying only the "Tab S was built on our passion and understanding of wanting the build the best tablet for our consumers."
Hitting the iPad where it hurts
By pricing its devices the same as the iPad Air and iPad Mini With Retina Display, Samsung offers a clearer iOS-Android choice in tablets than we've ever seen. While specs, features and price can't account for overall experience, at least now those other factors are more or less equal.
Samsung may or may not take a bite out of Apple's vast market share with Galaxy Tab S. But unlike other tablet vendors, who are easily cowed into offering ever-more-questionable differentiators to stand outside the iPad's sizable shadow, Samsung is no longer afraid to attack the iPad directly.
A head-on assault from a major competitor, though, might be exactly what it takes to finally put a dent in the iPad's flawless finish. With the Galaxy Tab S, Samsung's mission is clear: Hit it with everything it can.