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Apple's iPad 2 vs. Google's Nexus 9: Comparing the two new tablets

Two great tablets announced in the same week, the iPad Air 2 and Nexus 9 are strikingly similar.

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Announcing the Nexus 9 yesterday, Google beat Apple to the punch, and it could cost Steven Colbert his job.

Colbert played a role in Apple’s announcement today as part of the "triple down on security" theme, in which Apple VP Craig Federighi granted Colbert the title of Apple Supreme Security Commander. After one day on the job, Steven Colbert may be departing, because the Nexus 9 seems so purpose-built to take on the iPad Air 2 that there must have been a leak.

The Nexus 9, built by HTC for Google, differs slightly in dimensions from the iPad Air 2 in dimensions and memory configurations, but the specs illustrate that these two tablets are very close in performance.

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(Update: Oct 17, 2014 3:15PM - Updates to Apple's specifications after the announcement indicate that the iPad Air 2 Wi-Fi also supports 801.11ac 2x2 (MIMO))

Phone Arena benchmarked the Nexus 9 against the iPhone 6. The Nexus 9, with its Tegra K1, outperformed the iPhone 6 M8 processor in tests using Geekbench, a CPU and memory-testing app. Benchmarks are great for enthusiasts to compare devices, but users’ prior experience with Android and iOS, along with hands-on testing, will sell consumers on one device over another. The advantage of price going to the Nexus 9, and the advantage of appeal to the most status-conscious to the iPad Air 2.

Nexus 9 has three offerings. The Wi-Fi-only 16GB sells for $399 and the 32GB for $479, while an LTE-equipped 32GB Nexus sells for $599.

In comparison, the iPad Air 2 bears the Apple premium and is more expensive. The Wi-Fi-only, 16GB iPad Air 2 sells for $499, the 64GB for $599, and the 128GB for $699. The LTE-equipped models sell for $629 for the 16GB, $729 for the 64GB, and $829 for the 128GB. At the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, the iPad is $100 to $120 more expensive, but they are not that easy to compare because the iPad doesn't have the 32GB configuration and the Nexus doesn't have the enterprise-friendly 64GB and 128GB configurations.

However, Apple’s Phil Schiller revealed just how comparable these devices really are. He spent a lot of time pitching the iPad Air 2’s camera, especially Replay, an automated video editor that condenses videos and set them to the user’s choice of music. Last week, HTC announced the Zoe automated video editor and cloud service, which does much of the same. Schiller demonstrated face tracking on the iPad 2 camera, but HTC announced it last week. Ditto for the iPad Air 2’s time lapsed video, which HTC also demonstrated first. The list of similarities far exceeds the list of differences.

The Nexus doesn’t have the iPad’s proprietary Touch-ID security, but Apple Pay will never be available for the Nexus, so Apple's advantage there is easy and secure access.

The hardware engineering of both tablets is top-shelf. HTC and Apple have a connoisseur’s taste for selecting the best hardware components from outside vendors and great skill at building what consumers can’t get elsewhere. And when it comes to wrapping the electronics in plastic, glass, and aluminum, both HTC and Apple often win high praise from designers and critics.

Of course, one day or even a week head start doesn’t give either company a real advantage. Neither do the slight differences in the specs. For instance, the very thin iPad is 0.06 inches thinner than the Nexus. Would the iPad fit someplace where the Nexus wouldn't?

What’s not clear right now is software. iOS 8 is very new, and Android L is yet to be released to the public. Prerelease versions of Android Lollipop, with the new Android Material Design user interface, looks very comparable, but until both tablets get into the hands of users, guessing which tablet has the advantage is just speculation. What isn’t speculation is that long-time Android users will love the Nexus 9 with Lollipop, and the same can be said for Apple’s devoted users with the iPad Air 2 running iOS 8.

The growth rate in the tablet segment has slowed recently. Whether these two amazing devices can reignite the once-astounding growth of the tablet sector is the bigger question than which one is better.

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