J.D. Power and Associates yesterday returned its top ranking in tablet satisfaction to Apple, six months after it gave the prize to Samsung and broke Apple's winning streak.
The release of the iPad Air, Apple's lightest full-sized tablet yet, last fall, played a part in boosting satisfaction scores, said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications services at J.D. Power, in an interview today.
"The iPad Air scored higher than the legacy iPad tablets," said Parsons.
Basing its rankings on surveys of more than 2,500 U.S. tablet owners, J.D. Power pegged Apple's score at 830 out of a possible 1,000, beating Samsung -- which earned a score of 822 -- by a slim margin.
"The gap between Apple and Samsung is, relatively speaking, small," said Parsons. "There are some differences, mainly in costs, but the two remain in parity."
Asus followed in third place with a score of 820, while Amazon, which in October 2013 held the No. 3 spot, came in fourth this time at 817. Struggling Asian device maker Acer, ranked fifth, trailing far behind with a score of 769 points.
J.D. Power's satisfaction score includes five separate measurements for performance, ease of operation, features, styling and design, and cost, with each accounting for different percentages of the final number. Performance, for example, counts as 28% of the total; cost accounts for only 11%.
Apple took first place in four of the five categories, failing to sweep only because it lost the cost measurement, said J.D. Power.
Last year, Samsung beat Apple for the No. 1 spot by just two points. It was the first time that Apple did not take home the satisfaction award since J.D. Power began anointing a tablet winner.
Other findings in the J.D. Power survey -- which was conducted from September 2013 to February 2014, and queried only those tablet owners who had had their device for less than a year -- focused on price.
More of those polled named price as their top reason for selecting a tablet brand this year than last: 25% said it was the No. 1 decision-making factor, compared to 21% in 2013. It wasn't surprising, then, that the average purchase price has dropped to a new low -- $337 -- among survey respondents. Since 2012, when J.D. Power began tracking tablet satisfaction, the average price has dropped 14%.
"We're getting a lot more lower-priced, value-based models in the survey," said Parsons. "People are gravitating toward those more."
At the same time, buyers have become more discriminating, demanding more from the tablets they buy than did those who were among early adopters. Overall, J.D. Power's satisfaction scores have slipped by 2% since 2012, the Westlake Village, Calif. company said Wednesday. The biggest decline in the last three years has been in the ease of operation metric, particularly navigating the tablet's user interface (UI) and changing the operating system's settings.
Even as consumers go lower, their expectations -- in some cases based on owning other tablets previously -- remain high. "They think they should get more out of [a lower-priced tablet]," Parsons said.
That caused J.D. Power's first-ever major decline in the overall satisfaction score for tablets, Parsons noted. "Tablets are getting [to lower satisfaction scores] faster than did smartphones," he said.
J.D. Power's rankings have been important bragging rights for Apple, which has cited the awards in the past. During a July 2013 conference call with Wall Street, chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer referenced Apple's nine-consecutive wins in the smartphone category and the two-straight victories in tablets.
After being deposed last October, Apple didn't mention J.D. Power in similar earnings calls in January and April 2014.
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.