On paper, the Tab S2 (available in two distinct varieties) should provide worthy competition, and early previews have been quite positive. Unfortunately, they don't offer anything radical or particularly compelling.
Lighter than the iPad
Samsung's latest tablets have a design language that's unique to the Korean tech giant, but they adopt many of the iPad's broader conventions. In terms of size, Samsung is offering 9.7- and 8.0-inch varieties, the same as Apple's iPad Air line (9.7 inches) and nearly the same as its iPad Mini (7.9 inches). The Galaxy Tab S2 has the same resolution -- 2048 by 1536 -- as Apple's Retina display-equipped tablets, and includes the TouchID-like fingerprint scanner from Samsung's Galaxy S6. Previous Samsung tablets adopted a more horizontal layout, with the home button placed in the middle of one of the longer sides. The Tab S2 is oriented vertically, just like Apple's tablets.
They're priced comparably, at $399 for the smaller model and $499 for the larger one. They do, however, come with 32GB of internal storage, rather than the 16GB offered on the equivalent entry-level iPads, and they include support for micro SD cards. And they are lighter -- the 9.7-inch model weighs about 17% less than the iPad Air 2. Obviously, they use the Android operating system augmented with Samsung's TouchWiz skin, as opposed to Apple's iOS. Samsung's TouchWiz has long supported multiwindow view and the simultaneous use of apps. Apple's current iPads are incapable of such a feat, though the iPad Air 2 will gain the ability to run two apps simultaneously when Apple releases iOS 9 later this month. Future iPad models also seem likely to include this feature.
Samsung isn't using the same high-end Exynos 7420 processor it put in its Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Note 5, instead going with the Exynos 5433. Still, it should provide adequate power, and, with 3GB of RAM, solid performance.
A declining tablet business, and a shifting focus
The Tab S2 family will be the best Android tablets available when they go on sale this week, offering Samsung and Android fans devices on par with Apple's latest iPads. But without any significant new features, it doesn't seem likely that they'll have much of an effect on the trends in the broader tablet market, or demand for Apple's iPads.
Perhaps because of its own complacency, Apple's iPad business has been noticeably weak for quite some time. Sales of Apple's tablets have now contracted for six consecutive quarters. Last quarter, unit sales fell 18% on an annual basis, while the iPad's average selling price slipped to $415, an all-time low. The iPad is under-performing the broader tablet market, but that, too, is in the midst of a slowdown. Research firm IDC reported that tablet shipments dropped 7% in the second quarter.
Samsung's smartphone business surpassed Apple's back in 2011, but it hasn't been able to do the same in tablets. Apple remains the world's top tablet vendor -- iPads accounted for about one-quarter of the market, though that's down noticeably from 2011, when Apple sold about two-thirds of all tablets. (Samsung's share is also falling, down from 18% in the second quarter of 2014 to 17% last quarter.) In an attempt to reverse its slide, Apple has made inroads with major corporations, and is increasingly pitching the iPad as a device for corporate workers. Its partnership with IBM has led to the creation of several dozen enterprise iOS apps for its tablets. Samsung is offering better hardware, but isn't doing much to improve the apps available for its devices.
Ultimately, these may be Samsung's best tablets, but they still appear to be more of the same.
Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.