Google Nexus 9 review: fantastic software in a forgettable showcase
My reservations about the Nexus 9 began shortly before my fingertips graced its ill-fitting, trampoline-like back cover. We’d heard rumors that Google’s next stock-Android tablet would arrive as a more direct competitor to Apple’s iPad, carrying a larger screen (and a larger price tag) in the process. I found the strategic pivot logical, but when I first laid eyes on the Nexus 9, my very first impression was a deflated “that’s it?“ And my first hands-on with a buggy pre-release review device didn’t exactly help matters.
It’s been eleven days since that rocky start – eleven days of using a retail-quality replacement unit bearing a 64-bit power plant, a big battery and a sizable screen, all of it assembled specifically to showcase a version of Android that (spoiler alert!) absolutely blows my face off. With working hardware and stunning software, the Nexus 9 has won a lot of points in this reviewer’s eyes … but is it enough to stand up against the iPad it was purportedly built to fight? More important: is it something you should buy instead of picking up one of its older, cheaper predecessors? Join us as we find out in our Nexus 9 review!
From the perspective of a Nexus product, the 9 is exactly what you’d expect. It’s a featureless slab of plastic, metal and glass with an industrial design that seems specifically intended to get out of the way of Google’s new software. In that sense, the Nexus 9 is just what it should be.
But there’s an important aspect here for close watchers of the mobile tech space: the Nexus 9 is also the first tablet in almost four years from HTC. In a segment whose growth is deflating almost as quickly as it took off, a tablet from the company that brought us such well-received phones as the One M7 and One M8 seems like just what the doctor ordered to reinvigorate things.
Sadly, there’s little to no trace of HTC’s signature build quality in the Nexus 9. The company’s front-firing BoomSound speakers are back, but here they reside in dust-catching slots rather than the machined grills we’ve grown used to. The tumblehome sides bear metallic accents which are welcome, but all but invisible on our black review device. The rear camera lens is asymmetrically recessed into the casing in a smart move that avoids tabletop scratches, but you need to look very closely to pick up on that little touch. In terms of look and feel, the Nexus 9 has a lot more in common with last year’s LG-made Nexus 5 – except that phone didn’t feature a back cover that flexed noticeably under a fingertip. This “trampoline effect,” which has been well-documented in other reviews, is one of those things that might be forgivable given another manufacturer or a cheaper price tag, but it’s hugely disappointing on a $399 tablet from a builder as renowned for manufacturing prowess as HTC.
If you don’t care about such quibbles, you’re more likely to be impressed by the 7.95mm, 496g device: it’s a very comfortable product, whether you’re using it to read the news in an easy chair or rushing down the sidewalk with it tucked under your arm. Sure, next to the iPad Air 2 it seems a bit clunky, but never in our testing did it feel burdensome to carry around town. And under the soft touch cover, the story gets much more interesting: the Nexus 9 breaks up the Snapdragon monotony with a processor from NVIDIA called the Tegra K1, a 64-bit chip using dual Denver cores clocked at 2.3GHz and backed up by 2GB of RAM. Sadly, there’s no MicroSD expansion here and storage options are limited to 16 or 32GB (11GB or 25GB of which are user-accessible, respectively).
What space the Nexus 9 lacks in storage it makes up for in display area. Like a perfectly-sized bowl of porridge, the 8.9-inch IPS panel is “just right.” At the risk of getting buzzword-y, a screen this size simultaneously enables portability and productivity, adroitly walking the line between the two. Because it’s an LCD, its black levels are more milky blue than midnight black, and its colors aren’t the most vibrant you can find – but its 1536 x 2048 resolution leads to a pixel density of 288ppi, which slightly edges out the iPad Air 2. What’s really notable here is the 4:3 aspect ratio, an unexpected departure from the 16:9 or 16:10 widescreen layouts typical of other Android tablets. As on the iPad, this makes watching movies or HD TV shows a little awkward due to the cumbersome letterboxing required to fit a wide rectangle into a square(ish) screen, but it’s not a dealbreaker by any means. Turn the lights down and you might be surprised at just how quickly you forget all about it.
Most surprising of all, though, is how well Google’s new build of Android works within that new canvas.
Lollipop is the real star of the show here, and not just because the hardware is so forgettable. Visually speaking, Android 5.0 is the most significant, most refreshing overhaul of Google’s operating system since Ice Cream Sandwich back in 2011, and as we said in a recent episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, it’s the best version of Android we’ve ever used.
That’s not just a case of stating the obvious, either. With Lollipop’s new interface, Google has ramped up its already heightened attention to detail. Unlocking the tablet is now a simple matter of swiping up on the lock screen, which shuffles any active notifications into a neat card stack that slides up to replace a smoothly-vanishing system clock in the process. Alternately, you can jump straight into a notification by double-tapping on its respective card – and if you forget that shortcut, a small message appears at the bottom of the screen to remind you. That space is also used to show remaining charge time when the device is plugged in, a handy detail that we’re surprised it’s taken so long for a software designer to implement. Best of all: centrally-placed dialog boxes have been eliminated in favor of discreet cards that slide up from the bottom bezel.
The more you use it, the more little touches you discover. Animations pervade the new interface, but they’re more subtle and tasteful than the overblown bloops and ripples of Samsung’s Touchwiz, brighter and friendlier than the somber urbanity of HTC’s Sense. The system renders important items like notifications and the app tray in bright white, while the new Google Calendar shows off Lollipop’s more playful side with fun backgrounds and pleasant colors (which are also used as accent shades in other system apps). That playfulness extends to the sound effects as well, which are more pronounced versions of the knocks and bottle-pops first introduced on the Moto X in 2013. And all this extra personality is implemented without compromising performance, as far as we can tell.
Lollipop shines especially well in portrait mode on the Nexus 9’s 4:3 display, using the space more effectively than previous versions of Android did in 16:9. Google Now and settings are prime examples, using a two-column format to display more info at a glance without the need to scroll. Most third-party apps still tend to treat Android tablets as supersized phones, tempering our enthusiasm somewhat –and the fact that Google is still avoiding a proper multi-screen multitasking mode in stock Android is just absurd at this point– but Lollipop’s dual-column view is a welcome step toward a smarter use of screen space. Widgets get an upgrade, too: the janky misaligned mess of years past has been replaced with a responsive design that keeps everything organized in both portrait and landscape modes.
Lest we get too carried away with novelty, there are a few nits to pick here. The new multitasking carousel is nice in portrait but feels like a waste in landscape; a horizontal ribbon seems like a better use of the available space. Double-tap-to-wake capability is a great feature given the mushy side keys, but it sometimes takes a few taps to work. Auto brightness is so slow and indecisive that you’re better off disabling it and adjusting display levels manually. And sluggishness, while rare, isn’t absent entirely: the multitasking ribbon sometimes takes a second or two to load, and rotating from portrait to landscape is a sometimes languid affair depending on how many widgets you’ve got running on the homescreen. That homescreen will take its sweet time drawing itself, too, if you stress the tablet with a few high-demand games in a row. This is minor stuff, yes, and it doesn’t measurably detract from the slick, bright beauty of the OS as a whole – but given how poorly the first Tegra-powered Nexus tablet aged, we’ve got to say these early stutters are a bit concerning. We’ll keep an eye on it over the next few months and report on just how much lag creeps in (or gets patched) in our usual After The Buzz re-review.
Modern culture has apparently decided that tablet photography is “a thing” – an attitude we old fogies at Pocketnow are reluctant to endorse. And it seems that the folks at Google agree with us, because they’ve equipped the Nexus 9 with a pair cameras you probably won’t want to use much, if at all.
Whether you’re snapping shots with the 8MP primary camera on the back or the 1.2MP selfie cam up front, images from this tablet aren’t likely to get much better than “fine.” The interface –Google’s own Camera app–is great on a phone but clumsy on a tablet. Manual exposure swings are too severe, focus drifts too easily, and in most cases the shutter doesn’t fire until a few beats after you hit the button. While you can get the occasional worthwhile photo out of it, the end results are never consistently impressive. You shouldn’t be relying on your tablet as a camera anyway, and the Nexus 9 reinforces exactly why.
Given its long history on the desktop and recent mobile successes like the Shield tablet, it should come as little surprise that many folks equate the NVIDIA brand with gaming. We wanted to push the Nexus 9’s NVIDIA Tegra K1 as hard as we could without resorting to the kind of synthetic benchmarks we’ve often bemoaned, so we downloaded all the large-footprint, big-graphics games we could. The results were … inconsistent.
First of all, not all the games we installed would run properly – even those downloaded from NVIDIA’s TegraZone 2 curation portal. We’re so used to Snapdragon-powered phones and tablets that we get thrown for a loop when one of our preferred games doesn’t work on the Nexus 9, as is the case with ARC: Redux (crashes on boot) and Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy (unplayable due to bad graphics). Especially puzzling was the issue we faced with Iron Man 3, which ran well twice but then consistently crashed on every play attempt thereafter. Compatibility is always something to keep in mind if you’re excited about running a particular title on a new device, so make sure to do your research before pulling the trigger if you’re a devoted mobile gamer.
The good news is that the Nexus 9 runs many games with no trouble at all. Some of these are showcased in the aforementioned TegraZone 2, which is a clunky but useful means of whittling down download candidates when you’ve got a long flight coming up. We tested flying games like Shadow Strike and RedBull Air Race and space simulators like Galaxy on Fire 2 and Interstellar Pilot. Gameplay itself was excellent, and Google seems to have solved the overheating issue with its latest software update, too: the tablet gets warm to the touch after a few minutes of exertion, but not the finger-sweaty hot we experienced in our first impressions pass. The twin BoomSound speakers flanking the display lend a bold, bassy audio experience to gameplay, and that crosses over to movie-watching too. Front-firing audio is where it’s at, and HTC continues to deliver like Dominos.
How many games you can play before the Nexus 9 taps out will of course depend on the game. An easier measurement is video playback: HTC promises up to 9.5 hours of continuous play on the tablet’s 6700 mAh battery, and while we haven’t had the time to watch the full Daniel Craig James Bond trilogy to test that promise, it’s an easy one to believe. We got over 6 hours of screen-on time on our very first charge, and subsequent cycles gave us even more endurance. That’s with very heavy usage, mind you; with more judicious use, it’s easy to see the Nexus 9 lasting two or three days between charges – longer still if you use the new Battery Saver built in to Lollipop.
+ Android Lollipop delivers an outstanding experience
+ BoomSound speakers
+ Powerful processor
+ Solid endurance
+ Comfortable, accessible design
– Inconsistent build quality
– Mediocre fit & finish
– Limited to 16/32GB storage with no expansion
– Middling cameras
– Inconsistent gaming experience
Pricing and Availability
The Nexus 9 is on sale now at Amazon, Best Buy, and straight from Google with a starting price of $399 for the 16GB model. The usable storage space of only 11GB on that version is a serious deterrent though, making the $479 higher-capacity version the only one we’d seriously recommend. Add LTE support and the price jumps to $599, with availability marked as “coming soon.”
And really, price is the whole problem with the Nexus 9. Yes, it’s a Benjamin cheaper than the iPad it was (supposedly) built to compete with, but it’s also far less impressive in almost every way. It’s the same price as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S 8.4, whose software is more capable if less elegant. And it’s far more expensive than the smaller Nexus tablets it’s replacing.
Then there’s the letdown factor, which admittedly only the truest of tablet nerds might appreciate. For Google to commission HTC as the manufacturer, only to shackle it to such a dull and predictable design, feels like hiring a world-class chef to cook a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. The hardware is by no means bad –it’s powerful, it’s comfy, and BoomSound is great– but neither is it anything special.
On the flip side, the tablet’s software brings all the brilliance the hardware lacks, and then some. Lollipop is the first version of Android I’d feel comfortable recommending to both a tech-obsessed colleague and a tech-averse parent. It’s friendly yet powerful, unique but familiar. And on a 4:3 screen, it absolutely shines.
So is the Nexus 9 worth buying? Yes – but not at this price point. In our view, unless you’re a developer or a true die-hard stock Android lover, $399 is just too much to pay for the compromises we’re seeing in design, storage, and (to a lesser degree) performance. Google’s fully within its rights to reposition the Nexus family as a higher-end offering and charge more money accordingly, but it needs to deliver a truly exemplary product to justify that. The Nexus 9 is adequate, but exemplary it is not.