Like its Nexus phones, Google picks one hardware company to design its Nexus tablets. The Nexus 7 was built by Asus and the Nexus 10 was made by Samsung. This time around, the honors went to HTC to craft the Nexus 9.
Starting at $399 for a 16GB model, the Nexus 9 is $100 less than the iPad Air 2. Is HTC’s first Nexus-branded tablet (and it’s first in years) able to go head-on with the iPad Air 2? Let’s find out in our full review.
Like smartphones, everyone uses their tablets in different ways. In general, my tablet is mostly a media consumption device. I rarely use tablets to create content.I mostly use my tablet for browsing the web, reading news via apps like Flipboard and Feedly, checking Facebook and Twitter, watching YouTube videos and pre-loaded movies (especially on flights) and playing games.
I still reply to emails with my tablet a few days a week, but the bulk of that activity has shifted over to my smartphone (since it has a larger screen). And although all my tablets have front and back cameras, I don’t fancy myself a person who shoots anything serious with a tablet. (I like being more discrete and using my phone.)
Design (Metal, but lacks some polish)
HTC is the Apple of Android. Take one look at the company’s One (M7) and One (M8) Android smartphones and it’s clear the Taiwanese company knows how to build premium devices. It’s no wonder Google contracted HTC to build its Nexus 9 tablet. But instead of letting HTC go full-on metal, it’s obvious Google had some input in the Nexus 9’s design.
One look at the Nexus 9 and you’re probably going to think what I thought when I first saw it in person: It looks like a big Nexus 5. That’s precisely what the Nexus 9 looks like.
The Nexus 9’s aluminum frame with sides that slope upward is a step up from the plastic Nexus 7 and Nexus 10’s construction. It’s a simplistic looking slate that looks almost like a reference design. That’s not a bad thing, depending on where you stand on the design spectrum.
The front is dominated by the 8.9-inch display, slim side bezels, a 1.6-megapixel camera on the top bezel and BoomSound speakers located at the top and bottom.
With dimensions of 153.68mm x 228.25mm x 7.95mm and a weight of 425 grams, the Nexus 9 is a slim tablet that shouldn’t weigh your wrists down, except it kind of does. Even though the Nexus 9 is slightly lighter than the iPad Air 2, the tablet’s density makes it feel somewhat heavier. Because the iPad Air 2’s footprint’s larger and it’s thinner, the components and the weight are better distributed across the hand.
Where the Nexus 9 really falls short is in the details. The power and volume buttons located on the right side are mushy and don’t have enough depression to them, making it very easy to press the wrong one. And it happened all the time.
The back of the device has the same soft-touch rubber back like the Nexus 5, which is great for gripping the tablet, but terrible for resisting smudges. The large Nexus logo is also as obnoxious as ever, if you ask me. And speaking of the back, the device doesn’t feel like one solid piece; its rear creaks towards the center with the slightest flexing. The 8-megapixel rear camera also protrudes from the casing; it doesn’t affect usability, but the way it sticks out partially feels like the camera module was tacked in at the last second.
As with many of the company’s flagship devices, the Nexus 9 has BoomSound — front-facing stereo speakers. Don’t be fooled, though. While the speakers are loud, they’re not the most balanced ones; they’re tinny and often made my ears cringe. They’re just not as balanced as the BoomSound speakers you’ll get on the One (M8).
Unlike most tablets that fit into either the 7 or 10-inch category, the Nexus 9 has an 8.9-inch display. This makes it somewhat less bulky and more portable — a perfect middleman size, if you will. The Nexus 9 switches things up from previous Nexus tablets with a 4:3 aspect ratio display instead of a 16:9 or 16:10 widescreen one.
Let’s take a look at the display sizes and resolution of the Nexus 9 compared to the Nexus 7 (2013) and Nexus 10, shall we?
|Product Name||Nexus 7 (2013)||Nexus 9||Nexus 10|
|Size (Diagonal, Inches)||7″||8.9″||10.1″|
|Resolution||1920 x 1200||2048 x 1536||2560 x 1600|
|PPI (Pixels Per Inch)||323||281||300|
As you can see, Nexus 9 slots in perfectly between the Nexus 7 (2013) and the Nexus 10. The Nexus 9’s pixel density (PPI) isn’t as dense as the Nexus 7, but it’s still sharp enough to my eyes. From a distance of about 8-12 inches, the Nexus 9’s pixels are virtually indiscernible. Text looks great on the screen and photos are as crisp as ever.
And now let’s take a look at how the Nexus 9 stacks up with other popular 8 to 9-inch Android tablets:
|Product Name||Kindle Fire HDX 8.9||Nexus 9||Galaxy Tab S 8.4||G Pad 8.3|
|Size (Diagonal, Inches)||8.9″||8.9″||8.4″||8.3″|
|Resolution||2560 x 1600||2048 x 1536||2560 x 1600||1920 x 1200|
|PPI (Pixels Per Inch)||339||281||359||273|
The Nexus 9’s display has the same 4:3 aspect ratio and resolution as Apple’s iPad 2/3 and iPad Air/Air 2. The change in aspect ratio is profound for me. Using the Nexus 9 in landscape mode was much easier than with a 16:9 or 16:10 tablet since there are more vertical pixels. In portrait mode, too, content isn’t presented in an elongated view.
It’s difficult to fault the Nexus 9’s display. While it doesn’t have any kind of anti-reflective coating (like on the iPad Air 2, which I’m not even sure adds up to much), the screen’s still really good. It’s bright and colors are accurate, as far as I can tell. However, the Nexus 9 does suffer from noticeable light bleed along the top and bottom bezels.
It’s possible that this might just be an issue with the units sent out to reviewers, but it’s something to watch out for if you do end up buying a Nexus 9. It’s not the biggest issue, but the light bleed is noticeable and bothersome when viewing letter-boxed HD movies.
Software: Android 5.0 Lollipop (New, but buggy
The Nexus 9 runs Android 5.0 Lollipop, the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system. Android 5.0 is optimized to fill up the larger display and show certain apps (Google Calendar and Gmail to name two) in landscape mode, but for the most part the new changes are the same as the ones you’ll find on Lollipop for smartphones, with Material Design taking the stage, front and center.
Here’s what I wrote about Lollipop in our Nexus 6 review (republished for your convenience):
Lollipop is arguably Android’s biggest revision to date. Whereas previous Android versions were more about polishing features — tweaking the UI, optimizing for speed, or adding performance boosts — Lollipop is a rethinking of Android with Google’s new universal “Material Design” design language and improvements to the operating system to be smarter and faster.
Let’s start with Material Design, Google’s new universal design language, where elements, buttons and windows are modeled after paper. Think of pieces of paper for a second. When you stack one on top of another, you automatically know what order they’re in; the top item is the newest and the bottom is the oldest.
Lollipop’s hierarchy is like this — only digital. In fact, Google actually made paper models of icons and mocked up third-party apps with Material Design with real paper, and then photographed them from different angles to experiment with the lighting and shadows.
The goal with Material Design is to provide logical context with the OS. For example, in Google’s apps, there’s a circle button that floats above the pane beneath it in the lower right hand corner. In Gmail, it’s a compose button, in Google Maps, it’s a location marker and directions button, in Google Calendar it’s an Add New Event button. These buttons use shadows to provide a visual cue of “layering”, similar to how iOS 7/8’s translucency provided the same.
Lollipop is also very colorful compared to previous Android versions, kinda like how iOS 7 was a fresh splash of paint compared to iOS 6. Like iOS 7, Google might have went a little overboard with its color usage. All of Google’s apps — Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Music, etc. — which have been redesigned with Material Design now sport bright top menus that extend to the notification bar.
You either love the color explosion and greater use of white space or you don’t. I didn’t like it at first, but it quickly grew on me.
Furthermore, Lollipop’s animations give the perception that the entire OS is faster. Unlike iOS 7’s motion option, which zooms in on folders and makes you feel like you’re literally entering them, Lollipop’s folders bubble open with grace and I experienced no sense of nausea the way I did when I first installed iOS 7. Little things like the way apps open from the bottom up give Android 5.0 more life than previous versions of Android.
In Lollipop, the Recent/Multitasking Apps menu button functions differently. Instead of getting 2D cards of running apps that you can swipe and close, they now sit in a vertical carousel and resemble Chrome tabs (3D ones, though). In fact, Google even went one step further and unshackled Chrome’s tabs and extended them into this window. If you open dozens of Chrome tabs, the multitasking stack can get a bit busy, but luckily you can choose to turn off Chrome tabs show up individually.
Notifications also got completely revamped in Lollipop. While Android’s Notification bar was the first to get notifications right on mobile, they weren’t actionable on the lock screen without unlocking the screen and then pulling the bar down. Now they are. When you get notifications, they show up on the home screen and you can choose to dismiss them by swiping them to the right or double tapping them to open the app. And don’t worry, Google’s also thought of security; you can choose which apps you want and don’t want to show up on the lock screen.
There are lots and lots of tinier tweaks and changes to the UI and Google’s core apps, like how Gmail isn’t strictly a Gmail client anymore (it now lets you add accounts from Yahoo, Outlook.com, and AOL Mail) and the fact that Hangouts is separate from the Messages app again, but the last major feature I want to highlight is Guest Mode. As its name suggests, Guest Mode switches from your main Google account associated with the device to a sort of “Incognito” or “private” user that’s entirely temporary (for as long as you want it). Guest Mode gives you a sandbox of the OS to play in, without compromising your personal data. Anyone operating in Guest Mode will be silo-ed off from your personal data. It’s like they’re using a factory-reset device, only you can switch back to your account anytime you want. It’s great for when you want to let your friends use your phone and you don’t want them snooping or messing any of your settings up.
Performance (Good, but occasionally buggy)
On paper, the Nexus 9 reads like a tablet with monster performance: it has a 2.3GHz 64-bit NVIDIA Tegra K1 Dual Denver (dual-core) processor, 192-core Kepler GPU, 2GB of RAM and your choice of 16 or 32GB of internal storage.
Like the iPad Air/Air 2, the Nexus 9’s processor and GPU are 64-bit, which means it should have “desktop-class” performance. Along with the improvements of Android 5.0 Lollipop, the Nexus 9 should smoke every other Android tablet out there, right?
The benchmarks only tell part of the story. On the GeekBench 3 benchmark, a test that details the processor’s performance, the Nexus 9 scored 1943 on the single-core test and 3375 on the multi-core test.
On the GFX Bench 3.0 benchmark, a test that details the graphics processing performance in OpenGL ES 2.0 and ES 3.0, the Nexus scored 1940 (31.3 fps) on the 1080p Manhattan Offscreen test and 3399 (60.7 fps) on the 1080p T-Rex Offscreen test.
The scores are impressive, but perceived performance aka “real-world” is something else. While the Nexus 9 was able to run 3D graphic intensive games like Dead Trigger 2, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Real Racing 3 and Asphalt 8: Airborne without any noticeable frame drops that affected gameplay, the overall system fluidness is somewhat choppy.
I noticed random stutters every so often while swiping between homescreens. Apps sometimes froze for reason. There’s also some lag when opening folders. (Google pushed out a day one update — Build LRX21L — but even that didn’t fix the lag.)
Worse, the Nexus 9 gets warm when it’s being pushed harder than usual. It’s not hot enough to feel like it’s burning you, but warm enough to keep your fingers warm on a cold day.
To be fair, Google might be able to resolve these issues with a future software update. The jump to 64-bit could also be causing random crashes, similar to the way the iPhone 5s and iPad Air’s 64-bit architectures had growing pains.
Battery (Pretty good)
The iPad’s 10-hour battery life is the gold standard to match or beat. Google says the Nexus 9’s 6700 mAh battery can squeeze up to 9.5 hours of battery life on Wi-Fi browsing and 8.5 hours of LTE browsing.
In my tests, which involved using the Nexus 9 for lots of web browsing, reading e-books and news on Flipboard and Feedly, checking Twitter and Facebook, checking emails, and watching videos on YouTube, the Nexus 9 lasted on average 8-9 hours on a full charge, which is in line with Google’s own claims.
The Nexus 9 was able to last about two days of mixed usage before it needed to hit the charger again. A full charge took about 4-4.5 hours to recharge. There’s no Turbo Charger in the box, but the tablet does support it if you happen to have one.
I am not into tablet photography. That’s okay, though, because a lot of people are. It’s a sight for sore eyes to see a person holding up a tablet at a concert or on the street, but it’s a reality we now have to accept. The best camera is the one that’s on you.
I don’t expect a lot from tablet cameras, either. Since most tablets remain at home, it’s not really fair to be so hard on judging them. The Nexus 9 has an 8-megapixel rear camera with an LED flash on the back and a 1.6-megapixel front-facing camera.
Image quality leaves a lot to be desired, especially for low-light shooting. The camera would be a little more tolerable if not for autofocus troubles and shutter lag. Needless to say I missed a lot of great street shots because the focus was too slow to catch up to the shutter.
The back camera is capable of shooting 1080p HD video and the front is capped at 720p resolution. Both are decent video cameras, but neither does any kind of slow-motion. While I think it’s overkill for a smartphone to have 4K video recording, I really wish the Nexus 9 had it, mainly because it has the GPU power to handle it all.
Conclusion (A Good Tablet That Should Be Cheaper)
If you’re a Nexus fan, the Nexus 9 is the only new tablet to buy this year. At $399 for a 16GB model and $479 for w 32GB model, the Nexus 9 is certainly not as affordable as the Nexus 7 (2013) that launched at $229. However, you do get to pick one in three colors: Indigo Black, Lunar White and Sand (gold). 4G LTE models will also be available in Indigo Black starting at $599.
Origami covers run $39 and are available in Black, Lime Stone, Coral Amethyst, and Mint Indigo. Leather covers cost $69 and come in Black and Natural.
The Nexus 9 is a capable tablet for everyday use. It has a big beautiful display with wide viewing angles and Android 5.0 Lollipop hums along fine, but the random crashes and animation slip-ups can be frustrating. I wish Google went with 3GB of RAM instead of 2GB so things wouldn’t bottleneck so fast, the camera was better and some of the industrial design details were more polished, but perhaps that’s something it’s saving for the Nexus 9 (2015).
The Nexus 9 is no iPad Air 2, that’s for sure. It’s a good attempt by HTC and Google, but it falls short on being the perfect Nexus tablet or even the best Android tablet. The $399 ($349 at some places now) Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is a great Android tablet that’s thinner and lighter. Sure, it’s no “Pure Android” tablet, but it’s one of the year’s best Android tablets. The NVIDIA Shield Tablet which starts at $299 for a 16GB model is also a very capable tablet with lots of performance power.
If you own a Nexus 7 or Nexus 10, there’s not much of an incentive to upgrade to the Nexus 9. Lollipop may not run as fast as on the Nexus 9, but if you’re using a tablet as a sit-back on the couch or in-bed device, the slightly faster browsing speeds won’t make much of a difference.
Overall product rating: 7.8/10