This review originally appeared on Trusted Reviews.
The Nexus 9 is Google’s new lead tablet, the first to launch with Android 5.0 Lollipop and the first of the Nexus troupe to use a 4:3 screen rather than a widescreen one.
People hoping for a tablet with which to replace their Nexus 7 may be slightly disappointed by the price, though. At $399, it’s not the market-defining bargain that the earlier Nexus was. Given the little issues here and there, it’s not as complete or coherent a device as the iPad Air 2. There’s a slight spark of magic missing that means it probably won’t go down in history as an all-time classic.
However, what’s commendable is the direction it demonstrates. 8-inch non-widescreen tablets like this will no longer be ‘non-canon’ third-party oddities, and that’s a very good thing. We don’t think it’ll take the Nexus 9 18 months to be topped for value, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is already a fairly compelling alternative. But for a larger device, the Nexus 9 offers up a solid ‘go-to’ standard.
Nexus 9: Design
The Nexus 9 sets itself up for criticism. Its style and shape are pretty similar to the iPad Air 2, a departure for the Nexus series. This in itself is a good move. Larger tablets feel a lot more natural when they adopt a less-widescreen aspect: both the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 are 16:10 ratio, whereas the Nexus 9 is 4:3.
However, the Nexus 9 doesn’t offer quite as impressive build quality as an iPad, and when the design similarities are so clear, it’s hard not to compare the two directly despite their differing platforms. You may bring up price difference ($100 more for the iPad Air 2), but also consider that the still-pretty-great first-gen iPad Air costs now exactly the same amount as the Nexus 9. To explain, let’s look a little closer at the Nexus 9’s hardware design.
Much like the Nexus 7, the Nexus 9 uses a plastic back cover, one that that’s firmly strapped into a metal frame that runs around the tablet. It’s a fairly innocuous design, and despite using a very mild soft-touch textured finish, it still feels conspicuously like plastic.
We’re also slightly disappointed with some of the finishing elements, given how much more expensive this tablet is compared to the Nexus 7. The plastic rear flexes at certain points, even producing a slightly disconcerting clicking noise towards the top of the tablet, and there’s a roughness to the metal frame as it pokes ever-so-slightly above the screen glass.
The volume keys too feel a little cheap, the action slightly misjudged and shallow, even if they are metal. This may be us simply grasping for explanations, but HTC’s relative inexperience may be to blame: it makes the Nexus 9 and hasn’t released a tablet since the 2011 HTC Flyer.
While we have no particular worries about the longevity of the Nexus 9 – it doesn’t feel poorly made, just not all that well finished – it seems like a bit of a middleweight contender for what is meant to be the standard-setting Android tablet flagship. We’ll see other elements that suffer from this sort of vibe later on.
It’s not just the iPad Air 2 the Nexus 9 needs to compete with, either. The Nexus 9 is 7.9mm thick and 425g (Wi-Fi), a load heftier than the 6.6mm thick, 294g Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 – the Samsung is smaller, but still a good size. The Nexus 9 is arguably just not leading the pack in the way it really should be.
However, cast away those comparisons and in real-life use the Nexus 9 is pretty good. The non-widescreen aspect is great, there’s just enough side bezel to rest your thumb on, and it’s very comfortable to use, especially if you have both hands spare or are sitting down.
Like the iPad Air 2, which is a somewhat-similar weight, you can use it one-handed for a while without discomfort, but it’s far off the feather-lightness of the 8.4-inch Samsung or the iPad Mini 2/3 (we recommend the former, by the way).
Just like the Nexus 7, the Nexus 9 leaves out a microSD card slot. There are 16GB and 32GB versions of the tablet, with a slightly disappointing $80 gap between the two. That’s even more than Apple charges: you get a bump up from the 16GB iPad Air 2 to the 64GB model for $100. Who’d have thought Google would charge even more than Apple’s often notoriously-pricey upgrades?
Step back a minute, and we can see the factors behind the Nexus 9’s failing to offer the market-defining package we’re after. It doesn’t offer class-leading value or class-leading design, and doesn’t have all the geek-friendly features that might excuse these two points.
The hardware spec list is relatively simple too. There’s no IR transmitter, for example – something found on the Galaxy Tab S 8.4. If this is all sounding terribly negative, you need to understand it in with context of the weight of expectation laid on the Nexus 9. It’s not just meant to be ‘an’ Android tablet, it’s meant to be ‘the’ Android tablet.
So far: good, not superb.
Google is also to offer a Nexus 9 folio keyboard case, which comes with solid keyboard action even if typing on it can feel a little cramped. It’s not cheap at $130, but bumps up the tablet’s potential as a portable productivity tool.
Nexus 9: Screen Quality
What’s important to note here is the screen shape. A 4:3 aspect isn’t so hot for widescreen movies, but it’s great for just about everything else. Browsing, (most) gaming and a great many kinds of apps feel more at-home on this shape display.
Unlike an iPad, relatively few Android apps will have been made with this squatter screen shape in mind, but then most are created with a great deal of scaling versatility in mind: they have to cater for screen from three inches to 23 inches, or even more when you factor in things like Amazon Fire TV.
We love the shape, and while the extra portability of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is handy, a straw poll of the Trusted team sees most of us side with the squatter Nexus 9 style.
Thumbs-up for the screen style, but how are its tech chops?
The Nexus 9 has an 8.9-inch 2,048 x 1,536 pixel IPS LCD screen. That’s the same resolution as the iPad Air 2 crammed into a smaller space, getting you pixel density of 281ppi.
It’s enough to ensure you get nice, sharp images and text. Pixel peepers will be able to see a wee bit of jaggedness right up close, but if that’s an issue, get the higher-res Galaxy Tab S 8.4 or an iPad mini 3. Or, more to the point, get your priorities in order. There are issues with the Nexus 9’s screen, but a lack of resolution is not one of them.
The first thing you might want to worry about is black level. It’s decent, but only for an LCD screen. This wouldn’t have been an issue to raise until recently, but Samsung’s Tab S tablets offer reasonably priced, high-quality AMOLED screens that let you opt out of the insanely saturated colours that used to come as part of the OLED package. These screens offer much greater contrast. We think it’s only seriously worth worrying about if you’re going to watch films on the tablet in lower lighting.
Any lack of contrast or limit to the black level is a symptom of an IPS LCD screen, not a particular failing of the Nexus 9, though, and IPS comes with benefits too. Colours are excellent — vibrant without being remotely radioactive (as the Samsung Tab S tablets are in multiple display settings) and viewing angles are good.
There is the odd sign that this isn’t a real top-notch screen in QA terms, though. First there’s fairly significant backlight leakage at the top of the screen. This is basically where you can see the effect of the side-firing backlight LEDs, making one edge of the screen significantly brighter than the rest of the display. It’s a fairly common occurrence, but one that we’re disappointed to see so clearly in a tablet of this grade.
Our particular Nexus 9 sample also suffers from a spot of backlight bleed. This is where parts of the screen are lit-up slightly more than others, another form of backlight leakage. It is only very minor, though, and unlikely to be noticed unless you like staring at screens of dark greys and have — like us — acquired a certain degree of irritating tech pedantry.
Despite its issues, the Nexus 9 screen is certainly one we’d happily watch films on. Just make sure that backlight leakage isn’t going to get on your nerves too much.
Nexus 9: Speakers
The front stereo speakers are an obvious choice for movies too. Coming from the HTC design labs, they bear the same BoomSound branding as the HTC One M8 speakers. These speaker outlets sit at the extreme ends of the Nexus 9, just as the screen cover meets the metal band that rings around the tablet’s perimeter.
We were initially worried that these speakers might be a bit easy to block when holding the tablet, but they’re virtually immune to it actually. Clever internal design means you need to block the entire speaker port for it to have any detrimental effect on the sound, something that can’t be said for the speakers on the bottom of an iPad. Care-free stereo is a big win for a tablet, and is obviously great for games as well as films.
It’s just a pity, then, that sound quality isn’t quite as on-target. The Nexus 9 tries desperately to offer beefier-than-average sound, but it doesn’t really have the hardware to do this in style. As revealed in the Nexus 9 ifixit teardown, the tablet has fairly small driver units, and you can hear this effect. The output of the tablet is subject to fairly extreme compression and equalization in order to squeeze as much power out of the tiny little speakers as possible, but it results in rather forced sound that just isn’t particularly pleasant to listen to.
It’s warmer than the tablet norm, which is good. However, we can’t help but feel HTC could have done better. It’s no doubt a symptom of fitting the tablets into such a small front cavity, and potentially a cost issue too. There are much worse tablet speakers out there, but the Nexus 9 is outclassed by the iPad Air 2, which offers greater top volume and less processed sound.
Audio quality through wireless speakers and headphones is much better. The Nexus 9 supports aptX for higher-quality wireless streaming and the output from the headphone jack is excellent.
Nexus 9: Android 5.0 Lollipop Software
No matter how many unfavorable comparisons we may make to other Android and Apple devices, we can’t take away that the Nexus 9 is the first tablet to launch with Android 5.0 Lollipop.
It’s a major update, one that brings a whole new look and a bunch of behind-the-scenes features. However, anyone who has used an Android device in the past few years will find it terribly familiar, and a good deal of the added features have been seen before in custom Android interfaces.
This being a Google release, though, everything in the Nexus 9 is executed with an extra kick of class and cohesion that these custom Android interfaces generally lack. It also seems to want to add a bit of texture and depth to Android. The texture comes largely from the two rather lovely ‘torn’ paper default wallpapers, but there’s also a little bit more depth to some of the interface. Most of it is aesthetic – different animations here, some slightly clearer drop shadows there – but it works. Google calls the new look Material.
It also involves a tweaked colour scheme. Bold colours have been given a pastel inflection that provides the whole system a slightly more lifestyle-friendly look. Where the Android 4.4 KitKat look was bold and a little cartoony, the new look makes Android 5.0 easier to accept for those who might still consider Android a bit geeky next to Apple’s iOS devices.
But what’s actually new and, well, useful? There’s a bunch of alterations, but most are things we’ve seen before. For example, you can now check out your notifications very easily in the lock screen, and there are easier-access feature toggles in the notifications menu. You just drag down once more from the notifications screen to access them. It’s a great improvement for vanilla Android devices, but is nothing new in more general terms.
Cross-device support has been improved too. You can resume content between, say, an Android 5.0 phone and tablet, although this will naturally only apply to apps that have this support built in. Without a whole swathe of Android Lollipop devices to switch between, we have a little while to wait and see what this really feels like.
Other important elements of Android Lollipop live under the surface, and are things most people do not need to consider. For example, it’s the first version of Android to offer native support for 64-bit CPUs like the Nexus 9’s Nvidia Tegra K1. It also sees Android switch to the ART runtime from the DALVIK one, a measure designed to speed-up overall performance at the expensive of a little storage space. However, at present the difference is not really noticeable.
Nexus 9: Performance
The issue is that for all its power and its bleeding edge software, the Nexus 9’s performance is not impeccable. On occasion, elements that should scroll smoothly show a bit of judder and app load times are frequently a little longer than we’d like in such a new and important piece of hardware. We experiences a few jarring glitches too.
For all the pre-release promise of Android 5.0 Lollipop, it doesn’t have the immediacy of iOS 8 on a latest-generation iPad. Yet. We’re willing to chalk these minor niggles down to Lollipop being brand new and still a few tweak-heavy updates away from full speed. This is supported by the fact that we didn’t experience any of these issues on the Nvidia Shield Tablet that has similar innards.
The Nexus 9 uses the Nvidia Tegra K1 CPU, a dual-core CPU. The performance of just one of these cores isn’t far off the full capabilities of 2013 flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. It’s very powerful indeed. This is the second version of the K1, using a more advanced architecture than the A15-based version used in the Nvidia Shield Tablet.
In the Geekbench 3 benchmark, it scores 3562 points total, and 2038 per core. That’s an extremely good score, besting the Snapdragon 805 version of the Galaxy Note 4. That’s better than the similarly priced iPad Air but a lot less than the iPad Air 2 scores.
It’s the GPU power of the Nexus 9’s Nvidia K1 that’s truly exciting, though. It uses the same 192-core GeForce Kepler GPU as the Nvidia Shield Tablet, and can benefit from some of the optimizations made for that model. Nvidia even got Half-Life 2 working for the tablet, although that’s not available for the Nexus 9 at present.
The big deal here is that it uses the Kepler architecture, the same used in some dedicated GeForce graphics cards. It’s designed for ‘proper games,’ as some gaming snobs might describe them. We’re already starting to see some of the benefits, such as in Dead Trigger 2, which offers snazzier water effects than with other devices.
However, how far will it go? Development for Kepler on mobile devices has been pushed along by Nvidia to date, but longer-term momentum has yet to be proved. It seems likely to be end up a game of lowest common denominator bingo, with the other players being Qualcomm’s 805 and successive chips. The future shows exciting promise, but is uncertain.
Nexus 9: Battery Life
The Nexus 9 has a 6700mAh battery, a good deal smaller than the 9000mAh one in the old Nexus 10, but smaller display size and improved efficiency means the Nexus 9 doesn’t need as many milliampere hours as that mostly-forgotten minor classic.
When playing a 720p MP4 video on loop with brightness at mid level, the Nexus 9 lasts for 11 hours 25 minutes. That’s an excellent result for an Android tablet, whose stamina rarely matches up to Apple’s tablets: this still doesn’t, but it’s close. The tablet comes with just a 1.5A charger, which is a little low-powered for a device with as chunky a battery as this. It takes more than four hours to charge – not terrible, but could be a bit better.
It’s battery stamina that matters more in our book, though, and here the Nexus 9 performs very well.
Nexus 9: Cameras
Shall we leave the best bit to last? No, of course not. The cameras are something of a weaker point of the Nexus 9. Hardware specs sound perfectly fine: it has an 8-megapixel rear camera with a flash, and a 1.6-megapixel front unit. For a tablet, that’s a perfectly respectable higher-end setup. But in person it’s nothing too impressive.
The Nexus 9’s autofocus is pretty remedial, being relatively slow to lock on, and with a clear back-and-forth motion that, while part of any contrast detect system, is more laborious and obvious than most. Image quality is not terrific either. Hand it an unchallenging scene and it’ll come up with decent result commensurate with the 8-megapixel resolution – colours will be fine too. But that’s not what being a good camera is about.
The Nexus 9 suffers quite badly from light bloom when there’s a strong source in or just outside the scene, and poor dynamic range tends to leave you with shots that are either a bit dull-looking or washed out and overexposed in parts. Unfortunately, there’s no HDR mode to help out. And predictably, lower-light photos aren’t too hot. Unlike some phone cameras, the Nexus 9 doesn’t radically brighten-up dark scenes to make what’s going on clearer. Unless you use the flash, you’ll end up with murky shots. Flashes can upset the look of shots a bit, but even having one is pretty great in a tablet – many don’t.
The Nexus 9 reportedly uses the same camera sensor as the HTC Desire 610, but as we saw with the Nexus 5, its implementation could do with some tweaks. However, for a tablet this sort of performance is perfectly passable.
Google has redesigned the camera app a bit for Android 5.0 Lollipop, but the core features remain pretty similar. You get Panorama, Photosphere (360 degree panorama), Lens Blur and video capture up to 1080p.
Anything Else to Consider?
The Nexus 9 comes in 4G and Wi-Fi varieties — we’ve been looking at the latter here. Getting mobile Internet costs you an extra $120, which isn’t too bad when Google asks you to pay $80 just for a measly 16GB of extra internal storage.
There’s one other hardware omission not talked about that often, too. In the push to get us all to use Chromecast, the Nexus 9 does not appear to support either MHL or SlimPort, used to transmit video over HDMI through a microUSB port.
Should I buy the Nexus 9?
The Nexus 9 is an important tablet for Google, for HTC and for Android in general. And it doesn’t manage to make quite the impact the Nexus 7 had in 2012, and in 2013 with its follow-up.
At a time when Apple is offering pretty compelling value with its legacy models, Samsung has significantly upped its game in the tablet field, and new players like Nvidia are bringing releasing tablets, the Nexus 9 doesn’t really set any new standards. And that’s a shame. However, it is a very good tablet in its own right, especially if you’re willing to forgive the little failings in its screen and other hardware elements.
We do think that the Nexus line needs a new lower-cost entry to recreate the vitality it had back in 2013 with the Nexus 7, though. While the Nexus line was perhaps never intended to be a paragon of value, a high-value, low-nonsense approach is what we’ve loved about the best Nexus devices. It’s something the Nexus 9 doesn’t quite have enough of.
The Nexus 9 is a powerful, handy tablet that’s fun to use, but it feels a little more like a suggested starting point for other manufacturers than a device that’ll stick on our most wanted list for 18 months.
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