J.D. Power and Associates yesterday gave its top ranking in tablet satisfaction to Samsung, the first time since it debuted the award that Apple did not take the prize.
Basing its rankings on surveys of more than 3,300 U.S. tablet owners, J.D. Power awarded Samsung a score of 835 out of a possible 1,000, edging Apple -- which garnered a score of 833 -- by just two points.
Amazon followed in third place with a score of 826.
"Those scores show Samsung and Apple at parity, but we have to give our award to the one with the highest [score]," said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications services at J.D. Power, in an interview Friday.
J.D. Power's award to Samsung has come under fire from some quarters, largely because on a scorecard that showed the ratings firm's "Power Circles," Apple accumulated 22 filed circles out of the possible 25, compared to Samsung's 19.
But the Power Circles have no direct relation to the final scores, Parsons explained. In this case, the difference between Samsung and Apple in the Cost category -- where the former not surprisingly beat the latter -- was great enough to outweigh Apple's advantages in the four other categories, which included Performance, Ease of Use, Physical Design and Tablet Features.
Bottom line: Competition has caught up to Apple and its iPad.
"When the iPad appeared, Apple clearly had the marketplace with a very superior product," said Parsons. "But there are brands that are catching up on design and features, and are competing on the value relationship and what people are paying for a tablet."
For example, Samsung's 8-in. Galaxy Tab 3 lists for $299, $30 less than the original iPad Mini did when J.D. Power conducted its surveys; the Korean company's 10-in. Galaxy Tab 3 runs $399, $100 less than Apple's full-sized 9.7-in. iPad.
J.D. Power's rankings have been important bragging rights for Apple, which has cited the awards in the past. During a July conference call with Wall Street analysts and reporters, chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer referenced Apple's nine-consecutive wins in the smartphone category and the two-straight victories in tablets.
"Customers continue to love their iPads," said Oppenheimer then, before mentioning the two J.D. Power awards Apple won in 2013 as proof.
Apple has repeatedly said it is less interested in acquiring market than it is in success on other fronts. "We are winning with our products in all the ways that are most important to us, in customer satisfaction, in product usage and in customer loyalty," CEO Tim Cook said Monday during the firm's third-quarter earnings call with investment analysts (emphasis added).
J.D. Power's surveys, which were conducted between March and August of this year, did not, of course, query consumer satisfaction of the new iPad Air, which went on sale only today. Reviews of the iPad Air have been very upbeat, with most applauding the tablet's thinner, lighter form factor.
"Competition is catching up to Apple," Parsons repeated today, "but with the Air, that could change."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.