As the inevitable tablets sneak into schools, the battle between iPads and Androids continues to heat up with new school slates from each side. The latest iPad 2 Air and Google Nexus 9 show how far tablets have come in the nearly five years since the first iPad appeared on the scene. The ultimate winners are schools and students with smaller, more powerful tablets that can be a cheaper alternative to a full PC or Mac.
While the $829 iPad Air 2 is more powerful and can hold up to 128GB of apps, data and lesson plans, the $400 Google Nexus 9 can be had for much less. To start, both slates are as thin as it gets these days and allow just enough room for a headphone jack. While the HTC-made Nexus 9 is 0.3-inches thick, the Foxconn-made iPad has a slightly thinner 0.25-inch profile.
The Nexus is the smaller of the two at 6.0- by 8.9-inches versus 6.6- by 9.4-inches for the iPad, which has a slightly larger 9.7-inch screen. In fact, it’s hard to tell it apart from the Nexus’s 8.9-inch display. Both can show 2,560 by 1,536 resolution and respond to 10 individual touch inputs, but the iPad’s screen has a laminated design that eliminates the air gap between its layers and an anti-glare coating. Despite its oleophobic coating, it still picks up just as many fingerprints and both should get a daily cleaning. The Nexus has super-tough third-generation Corning Gorilla Glass and its display does a better job on displaying color and the background white on ebook pages, while the iPad’s display has a slight blue cast to it.
Both are lightweights, with the Air 2 weighing just a hair under 1-pound and the Nexus 9 tipping the scales at 15-ounces. They also each have a tiny two-prong AC adapter and with the included USB cables can be charged by a computer.
As far as holding them goes, both of the slates are well balanced, but I prefer the grippy rubberized coating on the Nexus 9 to the iPad’s cold aluminum skin. Both are available in a variety of colors, from the iPad’s white, gray and gold to the white, gray and black for the Nexus 9. The Nexus 9 has a more solid and rugged feel to it while the iPad has the advantage of adding custom engraving on the back with something like a serial number or school name.
They are noticeably light in terms of ports, but both have 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth and an audio jack built in. Nexus 9 has a micro-USB for charging and computer connections and a Near Field Communications (NFC) zone on the back of the device for instantly moving snippets of data between systems or wirelessly printing. Unlike the Nexus 5 phone, though, it lacks the ability to use a Qi wireless inductive charging system.
By contrast, the iPad has a Lightning plug for power and connecting to a computer. It is light years ahead of the micro-USB plug on the Nexus 9 because it goes in either way, preventing a lot of plugging-in frustration.
Both slates have on-off switches as well as volume-up and -down buttons. The iPad is in the lead with a Home button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner, potentially streamlining starting the system and entering passwords.
Equipped with the latest 64-bit processors, the iPad Air 2’s runs on a 1.45GHz A8X chip, a bit slower than the Nexus’s Nvidia Tegra K1 that speeds along at 2.3GHz. Both have advanced graphics engines with 192-cores for quick video and have 2GB of RAM.
The iPad leads with models that come with 16-, 64- and 128-GB of storage space as well as 5GB of iCloud online storage, while the Nexus 9 that I looked at tops out at an adequate 32GB; there’s a slightly less expensive 16GB model as well. It is augmented with 15GB of online storage for two years that’s perfect for stashing photos, videos and the like. On the downside, neither the iPad nor the Nexus have a micro-SD card slot for expanding their storage potential.
One area where they markedly differ is in audio quality. While the iPad’s speakers point down and sound hollow, the Nexus 9’s speakers are pointed at the viewer and sound richer and fuller.
Their operating systems –iOS 8 and Android 5 – are comparable. The variety of Android- and iOS based educational software is increasing everyday with lots of free stuff available for download. The bonus is that the iPad comes with Pages, Keynote and Numbers and there are free downloads of Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Nexus 9 has neither, but comes with Polaris Office and has built-in links to Google’s online Docs.
You don’t buy a tablet for peak performance, but these systems do a lot with a little, and over the course of a month of daily use, neither let me down. I led classes, read ebooks, did science simulations, ran video conferences and used them to nose around the Web for teaching materials. The iPad led the way with a GeekBench 3 score of 4,001, well ahead of the Nexus 9’s 3,227. Both handled the rigors of classroom work without a problem and while playing continuous YouTube videos over a WiFi link, the two were well matched with the Nexus barely outlasting the iPad with 6 hours and 10 minutes of battery life against the iPad’s 6 hours and 8 minutes. In other words, either will deliver more than enough power for a full school day.
With two so equally matched competitors, it all comes down to price. The iPad Air 2 that I looked at was the top of the line $829 model with 128GB of storage and can get data over an LTE mobile network. It’s clearly matched for the $479 Nexus 9, which comes with 32GB of storage space and no LTE mobile connection. There’s an LTE option that adds $80, but also a $400 16GB version. In other words, there’s a roughly $250 chasm that the iPad has to bridge.
That’s where the other four iPad models come in. You can get the previous generation Air system for roughly what a Nexus 9 costs or either the original Mini model or the newer Mini 2, which are smaller and lighter than the Nexus 9. In the final analysis, any of these mighty mites will excel at letting teachers teach and students learn, which you get depends on your school’s budget as much as how thin you want to go.