Both the Apple iPad Air 2 and the HTC built Google Nexus 9 have been on the market for a short while now. Both devices are about as good as it gets, at least in terms of tablets from these companies. We want to see how these devices stack up against one another, pitting the hardware and the software in a genuine old fashioned shootout.
Here, is your Apple iPad Air 2 vs the Google Nexus 9 comprehensive comparison.
Each of these devices take on a distinct design. On one hand, the all too familiar look of the iPad Air 2 could easily be confused with previous iterations of Apple’s tablet design, at least to the untrained eye. On the flip side, we are seeing an all new design on the HTC built Nexus 9, as Google had previously worked with ASUS and Samsung to build the first two iterations of Nexus 7 tablets and the Nexus 10 tablet, respectively.
When it comes to these tablets, the overall approach to design is similar, at least in that we are seeing rectangle devices, the same screen aspect ratio, a front facing camera in the top bezel above the display, charging port situated in the center of the bottom edge, headphone jack out the top edge, volume rocker buttons near the top of the right edge and a rear camera in the top left corner.
With all of these similarities, we find all of the differences in the size, of course, but mostly just in the small details.
The iPad Air 2 starts with a full metal back that slightly wraps around to the front. The front edge of the metal has been polished, giving a shine when the light hits it. Previous Apple device owners will be very familiar with the single round physical button on the front bezel below the display. This button also houses the fingerprint reader, as an alternative security layer. Finishing it off, the power button lives to the right hand side of the top edge.
As for speakers, the iPad Air 2 forces sound out of its bottom edge, with dual speaker ‘grills’ flanking the centered Lightning port.
While the full metal back provides strength to the iPad Air 2, as well as a cooling surface for the internals and a premium look, I do have a couple complaints. First, the tablet is always cold to the touch. I admit that it is still cold outside now, but the metal is quite a few degrees colder than the air temperature in my home. When picking up the iPad after a time of non-use, it almost hurts to hold, it’s that cold.
Second, the shiny polished front edge of the metal has a relatively sharp edge of its own. While it is not likely to cut you, I find that it becomes uncomfortable to hold the tablet for extended periods, especially if, like me, you rest the device on the inside of your little finger.
As for Google’s Nexus 9, it does not have a metal back, instead, it is a soft rubber feeling material, familiar to other higher end HTC devices. The edges of the tablet, however, are metal. The full outer frame of the Nexus 9 is metal design, adding a level of strength and premium all its own. There is no button cut into the front glass of this tablet, as Google’s vision of Android utilizes software navigation buttons.
One great feature of the Nexus 9 design are the dual front speakers, that live at the very edges of top and bottom.
Your power button lives just above the volume rocker on the right edge, and a micro USB port lives alone centered on the bottom edge. Previous Nexus tablet users will take a bit to get used to the new 4:3 aspect ration of the display, as the previous Nexus devices opted for widescreen displays. And, as expected, the rear panel proudly houses a giant Nexus logo, sprawled across sideways.
In an accidental drop test of the Nexus 9, just the day before my protective case arrived from Amazon, I learned that the black metal of the outer edge of the device is painted. Should you also introduce the corner of your Nexus 9 to the rocks in your driveway, it too may gain a shiny silver metallic spot, forever reminding you to be a little more careful with your tablet.
The Apple iPad Air 2 offers no compromise in its display. That 4:3 aspect ratio multi-touch IPS panel measures in at 9.7-inches on the diagonal, with a resolution of 2048 x 1536 for 236 ppi. Apple’s best screen tech goes into this device, it is a fully laminated display with both an anti-reflective coating and a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating.
In the real world, the iPad Air 2 display is easy to see and look at. Brightness range takes it from comfortable in low light situations up to decently visible in direct sunlight. The auto-brightness settings are also fairly accurate, rarely do you need to correct brightness manually.
The Nexus 9 is a fairly similar device, at least in terms of the display. Clocking in at a resolution of 2048 x 1536, this multi-touch display measures in at 8.9-inches diagonally with the default Gorilla Glass anti-glare and anti-fingerprint characteristics baked right in.
As with the iPad, the Nexus 9 has a more than adequate brightness range and sufficient auto-brightness capabilities. It is easy to look at for extended lengths and comfortable to touch, for those gaming sessions.
Both the iPad Air 2 and the Nexus 9 offer excellent touch sensitivity and accuracy. They are each large enough to handle most productivity tasks, whether at work or play. The Nexus 9 does have a little trick up its sleeve, offering the ability to wake the display with a double tap anywhere on the screen.
If there was only one category for which we could give each of these devices top marks, it would be for overall performance.
The iPad Air 2 benefits from iOS’s simple user interface, app icons and folders grace your home screens, but little more. Most apps load nearly instantly, larger apps or those that rely on web content to load often feel a little slow to load, but are not unreasonable, depending on your internet speeds. For those times that your internet connection is extremely slow, your iPad may not even bother attempting to load your app, instead providing an error that you have no connection.
Gaming is responsive, as are heavier applications like GarageBand, ensuring you do not miss a beat.
The Nexus 9 is one of the most powerful Android tablets on the market right now, which is a slight departure from the previous bang-for-the-buck greatness of the Nexus 7 tablet. Although only a dual-core processor, the Denver Tegra K1 from Nvidia is a powerful unit. As one of the first 64-bit chips on the market, this meant that the Nexus 9, too, was one of the first 64-bit Android devices on the market. Able to take full advantage of the latest that Android has to offer, including the first official mass roll out of ART, Android’s new memory management techniques and more.
Real world use of the Nexus 9 offers up rapid load times for apps. Just like the iPad, the Nexus 9 also takes a moment sometimes when loading a larger application or when it is waiting on a dependent web service. Web timeout is a little longer on the Nexus 9, often handing that determination to the app to handle. This means that you are more likely to eventually load an app or web page on an extremely slow connection, but may end up watching a spinning wheel for much longer before notification in the event that the internet is not available.
Gaming on the Nexus 9 is responsive, running intensive games without much hiccup. Out of the box, the Nexus 9 offers some of the best performance you will find on an Android device today, we ran an AnTuTu benchmark on the tablet, it scored very well. How well, you ask? I’ll be mean and make you read our Hardware section to find out.
We have in front of us two well built devices with glass on the front, a bit of metal on the sides or rear and some of the best internals to be found today.
The iPad Air 2 brings to the table the 64-bit A8X chip with M8 motion coprocessor. A simple set of ports are available on the unit, including the standard headphone jack and Apple’s Lightning connector port. Hidden under the Home button is a fingerprint scanner that allows for biometric authenticated access into your tablet.
Audio output is by the bottom facing speakers, sound is crisp and more than loud enough for most situations.
The device measures 9.4-inches tall by 6.6-inches across with an impressive 6.1mm (0.24-inch) depth. When you are this thin, it is important that your metal shell provide the utmost in strength, which the iPad Air 2 delivers. A gentle twist and bend pressure displays no indication of any torsion in the tablet, but we’re not about to push that too hard.
Other sensors on board include a gyro, accelerometer, ambient light sensor and, believe it or not, a barometer. Keeping everything running is a 7340mAh battery, which Apple says will provide upwards of 10 hours of web surfing, music or video playback. In our time with it, the device does last for quite a while between charging, but not 10 hours. Stay tuned for a full battery life test.
The Nexus 9 is what they call a multi-tasking powerhouse. Powered by the 64-bit Nvidia Tegra K1 SoC with 2GB of RAM. Look for the standard headphone jack and micro USB connector port on the top and bottom edges, respectively. The 192-core Kepler GPU keeps even the strenuous of games flying at a nice pace. If it means anything to you, we ran the AnTuTu benchmark immediately upon receiving the device. With no extra apps installed, or user files transferred in, we scored a rather amazing 58000 on the test.
Front facing stereo speakers are a huge inclusion on the Nexus 9, audio is very loud and there is a bit of kick to it, thanks to HTC’s BoomSound.
The Nexus 9, with its 8.9-inch display, is a smaller device than the iPad. Measuring 8.99-inches tall and 6.05-inches across, it is a tad thicker at 7.95mm (0.31-inches) in depth. Despite having a plastic back cover, with a bit of a loose spot that bothers many users, the Nexus 9 is also a very solid feeling tablet. Once again, it feels very sturdy and shows no signs of compromise when applying a real world use twist or bending pressure.
Sensors on board the Nexus 9 include accellerometer, gyro, proximity sensor, compass and ambient light sensor. In addition, this tablet is NFC capable. Battery life is advertised at 9.5 hours of basic web browsing, music or video playback out of the 6700mAh battery. While this may be accurate for a brand new unit, go ahead and install a few apps and services to see that time drop. Again, we’ve thoroughly tested the battery life, stay tuned for the results.
Both the iPad Air 2 and the Nexus 9 offer a 8MP rear camera. They are also both f/2.4 with auto-focus. Video recording is at full HD, with the iPad camera app offering up slow-motion capture at 720p.
As the similarities continue, both tablets offer Panoramic and HDR capture. The Nexus 9, thanks to Google’s Camera app, also offers up Photosphere full 360 degree photo capture, as well as an LED flash.
The front side of these tablets offer up 1.2mp camera sensors, for all of your FaceTime, Skype or Hangouts needs. 720p video capture is not a premium these days, but is more than adequate for a little video conference.
In the end, the differences between these cameras is not on paper, below is a quick photo gallery of sample photos from each tablet. Images from the Apple iPad Air 2 come first, Google’s Nexus 9 comes second, but we’ll leave it to you to choose which one is better in each lighting scenario. The images are labelled within, but the photos are arranged iPad first, Nexus 9 second.
With all of the similarities so far, it is about time we get to talk about the fundamental difference between these tablets, namely, the iPad runs iOS and the Nexus 9 runs Android.
iOS on the iPad Air 2 is a solid and very fluid experience. This tablet benefits wholly from the vast number of apps available and Apple’s general approach of having developers create tablet specific apps, dedicated to the larger screened iPad, as opposed to the relatively tiny screen of the iPhone. Straight out of the box, one can enjoy basic web surfing and navigation with just the default apps pre-installed on the device. However, you’ll need to have an Apple ID if you want to download and install more apps from the App Store.
As with your other iOS powered devices, there is no pressing need to connect your iPad to your PC and sync data through iTunes. Although, that connection may prove the best when it comes to transferring files, such as your pictures or music. From there, you are sure to find no end of help and how-to material for your iPad. Like our own tips and tricks piece for the iPad Mini 3 and iPad Air 2 alike..
As for the Nexus 9, it runs Google’s in-house flavor of Android. Android is a diverse operating system that has been enhanced in different ways by many device manufacturers around the globe. The Nexus 9, as mentioned, runs the basic version of the OS, as a reference device for what Google thinks Android should be.
At first launch, the Nexus 9 came with Android 5.0 Lollipop, but at this time, it has been updated to Android 5.0.2 Lollipop. The general “L” release of Android is a major overhaul of design and transition throughout the OS over the previous Android 4.x KitKat. The experience is fluid and also very solid, with no noticeable lag or stutter that one might find on an older device running the latest Lollipop release.
Android differs in a major way from iOS in that it does not have a dedicated consumer software companion that runs on your PC. The Nexus 9 benefits from an existence that may never connect to your PC, unless to charge. Google has done a great job of allowing you to control many aspects of your Nexus 9 experience over the internet. Even the task of installing apps can be done from your PC, just visit the Google Play Store, find your favorite apps and hit the install button.
Pricing and final thoughts
As these are the latest and best that these two ecosystems have to offer, you might expect a fairly hefty price tag to match. That may only be only halfway accurate.
In comparing the prices, now is not the time to get into the debate of iOS vs Android and the differences you’ll find in the various Android tablets, especially as compared to the one and only iPad. Both the iPad Air 2 and the Nexus 9 are solid tablet offerings with a goal of providing a premium experience for all users, whether you are just casually surfing the web or checking your social media while lounging on the couch, or connecting a Bluetooth keyboard and utilizing the device for your work needs.
Bottom line, if there is one to be had, the right device of these two is the one that ties into the services that you are desiring to use. If you have already bought into the Apple ecosystem, have an Apple TV, tons of music and movies on iTunes, an iPhone and utilize iCloud for your data, the iPad Air 2 will serve you very well. On the other hand, if you run an Android phone and are tied into the Google Play Store for your music, movies and more, the Nexus 9 is more likely what you are looking for.
Operating systems and ecosystems aside, are you more attracted to the 9.7-inch metal backed iPad Air 2 or the comfortable plastic backed 8.9-inch Nexus 9?