Four years ago Google and HTC partnered to create the first product in the Google Nexus line. The Nexus One was a smartphone that showcased Google’s vision for what an Android device could be… and it was a pretty stellar device by 2010 standards.
Since then Google has worked with manufacturers to release 5 more Nexus phones and a handful of tablets. But this year’s Nexus 9 tablet is only the second Nexus product to be made by HTC.
It’s also the first tablet from HTC in a few years. While the company has made a name for itself by offering high quality (if not particularly popular) smartphones, HTC has never made much of a splash in the tablet space.
Will the Nexus 9 change that? It’s hard to say… but it’s certainly one of the nicest Android tablets I’ve tested. It has a speedy processor, an excellent high-resolution display, and long battery life. Like any good Nexus device, it also ships with the latest version of Android, and it’s easy to unlock the bootloader using the Android SDK and a simple “adb reboot bootloader” command followed by “fastboot oem unlock.”
In other words it’s a tablet designed for developers and geeks. But it’s also a tablet that has enough polish to appeal to anyone looking for a good tablet for playing games, surfing the web, watching videos, reading eBooks, digital magazines or comic books, or running virtually any Android app.
Just like the Nexus One smartphone the Nexus 9 tablet is designed to show what a high-quality Android device looks like in 2014. There’s only one catch: over the past few years Google has made a habit of selling Nexus devices at low prices. Last year’s Nexus 7 tablet had a starting price of $229. This year’s Nexus 9 costs nearly twice as much, with a starting price of $399.
The Nexus 9 features an 8.9 inch, 2048 x 1536 pixel IPS LCD display. It’s the first Nexus device with a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than a widescreen display… but it’s hardly the first Android tablet with this type of screen, and most Android apps look pretty good on this large, high-resolution screen.
The tablet’s other hallmark feature is its NVIDIA Tegra K1 64-bit processor with 192-core Kepler graphics. It’s the first device to ship with the 64-bit version of NVIDIA’s latest mobile chip and it’s the first Nexus device to feature a 64-bit processor.
Google says that lets this tablet offer desktop-class performance in an Android tablet… but my tests suggest that while the Nexus 9 is certainly one of the fastest Android devices around, it’s not that much faster than other recent phones, tablets, and TV boxes.
An entry-level WiFi-only Nexus 9 features 16GB of storage and sells for $399. There’s also a $479 model with 32GB of storage, and a $599 model with 32GB of storage plus 4G LTE support.
The tablet measures 9″ x 6.1″ x 0.31″ and a WiFi-only model weighs 15 ounces. The 4G model is a tad heavier at 15.4 ounces.
Each model features 2GB of RAM, 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, GPS, an 8MP rear camera, 1.6MP front-facing camera, a headset jack, micro USB port, and stereo, front-facing speakers along with dual microphones.
The Nexus 9 has a 6700mAh battery which Google says is good for up to 9.5 hours of web browsing over WiFi or of video playback. It’ll run down more quickly if you’re playing games, and could last a little longer if you’re reading eBooks with the WiFi turned off and the screen dimmed.
That makes it kind of hard to really test battery life on a tablet: run time varies pretty greatly depending on what you’re doing with the device. But as far as I can tell you should probably be able to go a few days between charges if you casually use the tablet for an hour or two at a time.
Or you should be able to sit down for an marathon gaming or binge video session and make it through an afternoon before having to find a power cable.
In my tests, the 9.5 hours that Google promises seems a bit ambitious. The battery seems to run down pretty quickly. But you should be able to get 5 or 6 hours of screen on time, and maybe more if you use Android 5.0’s new Battery Saver feature.
When it is time to plug in the tablet, you’ll find the microUSB port along an edge that’s slanted up a little bit. This can make it easier to find the ports and buttons when the tablet is lying flat on a tablet.
Last year’s Nexus 7 had rounded sides, with power and volume buttons slanted down toward the bottom of the device, where they were easy to find with your fingers while holding the tablet, but tough to reach when the back is resting on a tablet.
This year’s Nexus 9 has a back panel with a tiny bit more surface area than the front, so the edges of the tablet slope inward a bit to meet the front.
Update: Some folks have expressed concerns about the build quality of the Nexus 9, pointing out that there’s some flex in the back of the case (it gives way a bit when you push the center).
I hadn’t really noticed this until I tried it for myself, because when you’re actually holding the tablet with one or two hands you’re probably holding it near the edges, where there’s less give. But yes, the back cover does give a bit near the center.
So does the rear cover of last year’s Nexus 7… but it’s a smaller tablet with a smaller back cover and so there’s a little less flex.
In addition to all the goodies that come with Android 5.0 Lollipop including new Calendar and Gmail apps, support for guest user profiles, notifications on the lock screen, and Material design, the Nexus 9 supports double-tap-to-wake.
This lets you knock on the glass twice to wake the tablet from sleep without touching the power button. That might sound like a silly feature… until you realize how hard it can be to find the power button on a black slab that’s designed to be held at virtually any angle. You don’t ever have to worry about whether you’re holding the tablet correctly, because the screen will rotate. Now you don’t have to try to figure out if the power button is on the top or bottom of the device either.
You can also wake the tablet by saying “OK Google” to start a voice search or command even when the screen is off. You’ll have to enable that feature by opening the Google Now Settings, choosing “OK Google” detection under the Voice option, and flipping the goggle for “Always on.”
In terms of design, the Nexus 9 looks an awful lot like last year’s Nexus 7.
They each have a flat back cover with curved edges and a big Nexus logo in the center and a smaller logo from the actual device manufacturer at the bottom. They both have cameras in the upper left corner, headset jacks at the top, and micro USB ports at the bottom.
I’m not complaining. I quite like the design of the 2013 Nexus 7. But if you were hoping to get a slightly more elegant look from a device that’s nearly twice the price… well, that’s not really what you’re paying for. Your money is going toward the bigger, higher-resolution screen, the faster processor, and speedier WiFi, among other things.
Flip the tablets over and you’ll spot a few differences. The Nexus 9’s front-facing camera is more centered, and the front-facing stereo speakers are clearly visible.
HTC calls these BoomSound speakers, like those used on the company’s latest smartphones. And they are pretty loud and clear for tablet speakers.
The Nexus 9 is one of the fastest Android devices I’ve tested… but it’s worth keeping in mind that I run a site that focuses on affordable portables. I tend to test a lot of really cheap stuff and haven’t reviewed the latest Samsung Galaxy Tab S, Galaxy S5, LG G3, HTC One (M8), or other recent top-tier devices.
But I have tested some pretty speedy devices like the Probox2 EX TV box with an Amlogic S802-H processor, and the Asus ME181C with an Intel Atom Bay Trail chip. The Nexus 9 beats them all in benchmark tests including 3DMark, Antutu, and CF-Bench.
Bear in mind, those other devices were running older versions of Android though.
In case you’re wondering, it also comes out ahead of the Google Nexus 6 (with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor) in most tests… but not by as wide a margin. I’ll share more details when my Nexus 6 review is ready to go.
To be honest, all of these devices feel fast. That includes the year-old Nexus 7 which achieved some of the lowest scores shown in the benchmark chart. I should note that the back of the Nexus 9 got rather warm while I was putting it through some of these tests, but it doesn’t seem to heat up when you’re using it for lighter-duty tasks such as browsing the web or reading eBooks.
The truth is that you don’t need the fastest processor on the market to run current Android apps and games. After all, they’re designed to run on the millions of phones and tablets that are already on the market, and most of them aren’t half as fast as the Nexus 9.
Still, it’s nice to have a device that feels somewhat future-proof.
In terms of real-world performance, the Nexus 9 had no problems playing HD videos, streaming music or movies from the internet, or handling games such as Riptide GP2. I could says the same of most recent Android devices I’ve tested though.
What makes the Nexus 9 special for me isn’t the super-speedy processor, but the combination of the Android 5.0 software experience and a good, high-resolution display.
I’m not generally a fan of big tablets, and typically prefer smaller models which I can use to read eBooks, check my email, or read the news while sitting down for breakfast.
But a bigger screen comes in handy if you’re reading digital magazines, comic books, or other content that wasn’t originally designed for a 7 inch screen.
Magazine pages look a lot better on the Nexus 9 than the Nexus 7, but to be honest, you’d probably need an 11 or 12 inch tablet to really do scanned magazines justice.
On tablets of this size you need to hold the screen right up to your nose to view full-screen content, zoom in and spend a lot of time scrolling to view part of a page at a time, or switch to a text-heavy “Reader Mode” if you’re using an app like Google Play Newsstand which has that feature.
Comic books, on the other hand, look amazing on the Nexus 9.
I’ve been using it to read comics using the Marvel Unlimited app as well as some titles I’ve purchased from Humble Bundle and uploaded to Google Play Books. Other comic apps from Comixology, DC, and Dark Horse should work as well, but I haven’t really had time to test them all.
What I can say is that pages which were just a little too small to read comfortably on the Nexus 7 look brilliant on the Nexus 9, removing any need to use Smart Panel Mode to view a single panel at a time (a feature which is often a bit quirky and prone to cutting off text).
I’m probably not going to spend $399 to buy a tablet just for reading comic books and graphic novels… but after spending time with this tablet, I’m going to have a hard time going back to the Nexus 7. I might have to pick up a refurbished B&N NOOK HD+ tablet. It won’t be as fast, but with refurbished models selling for $100, it’d be a lot cheaper.
The 8MP rear can snap photos if you don’t have a better camera around. It has an LED flash and supports auto-focus, but there are no advanced features such as HDR mode or optical image stabilization.
Likewise, the 1.6MP front-facing camera will let you take a selfie or two or participate in a video chat. But there’s no flash or auto-focus on the front camera.
All told, the Nexus 9 is one of the fastest Android tablets available. It’s got a great screen (if you’re into 9 inch screens), decent speakers, and long battery life. It also comes with Android 5.0 and has an unlockable bootloader.
It makes a great multimedia device for reading, watching, or playing. But so do a lot of Android tablets that sell for half the price.
The main reasons to consider the Nexus 9 are probably:
- It’s a Nexus device, so it’ll be supported both by Google and by a large community of Android developers and hackers.
- It’s one of the first devices with a 64-bit NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor, and while there’s not a lot that you can do with that chip today that you couldn’t also do with the latest chips from Qualcomm or other companies, that might change in the future as developers take advantage of the Tegra K1’s capabilities.
- This tablet has a great display for media consumption.
On the other hand, it doesn’t have a microSD card slot, the cameras are mediocre, and the tablet isn’t as affordable as some other models on the market.
For the same price as a Nexus 9 you could pick up a first-gen iPad Air, a new iPad mini 3 or a Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1, just to name a few other options. $399 certainly isn’t too much money to pay for a good tablet if you plan to use it extensively. But I know the price has been a turn-off to some folks who figure there are cheaper options available… even if they don’t have Tegra K1 processors or the straight-from-Google software updates that come with a Nexus tablet.