Introduction and design
- Update: Nexus 9 has been updated to Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and our review reflects that
Google's Nexus 9 has been designed by HTC to be the Goldilocks of pure Android tablets and, for the most part, it succeeds at being "just right" next to anything but an iPad.
There's a specs bump behind the 8.9-inch display to help justify the price of $399 (£319, about AU$460) for the space-limited Wi-Fi-only 16GB model.
A few post-holiday discounts have it for $350 or £287, but I still prescribe the $479 (£399, about AU$552) for the 32GB Wi-Fi-only option that's harder to find on sale. Then there's the $599 (£459, around AU$777) 32GB LTE model.
In the UK mobile network O2 has started to offer the Nexus 9 with a range of contracts. The lowest price per month gives you a Nexus 9 for just £39.99 upfront, and then £25 a month for two years with a 500MB 4G data allowance.
You can also get the Nexus 9 for no upfront cost. The cheapest contract with no upfront cost is £29 a month for two years, and gives you 1GB of 4G data each month.
When it comes to the new specs, I'm talking about the latest Nvidia 64-bit processor, a decent 2GB of RAM, dual front-facing speakers and a decent battery to keep it all up and running for a little over nine hours.
Even with those internal specs, Nexus 9 has a hard time measuring up to the iPad Air 2 in almost every category. Its own Android competition includes the Samsung Tab S, which flanks Google's 9-inch option with 10.5- and 8.4-inch sizes, and the sleek Sony Z3 Tablet Compact.
What Nexus 9 has going for it more than hardware is the fact that it's the biggest and so far one of the few ways to drive headfirst into the Android 5.0 Lollipop update along with the Nexus 6. Even better, it's been upgraded to Android 5.1.1 this week.
That makes it a sweet enough Google tablet in more ways than one and enough to be among the best tablets for 2014.
It's about time HTC engineered a Nexus tablet or any modern-day tablet for that matter. After all, the crafty designers at the company brought us the polished-looking HTC One M8.
No surprise, the Nexus 9 includes a metallic frame around the perimeter of this larger device. It's nice as long as you don't expect that all-metal design to continue around back.
This year's tablet sticks with a soft, rubberized back cover – the same one that's adorned by the smaller Nexus 7. It's not an all-metal HTC One M8 equivalent, but it is easier to grip.
And grip matters here. The Nexus 9 weighs in at a 0.94 pound (425g), which isn't heavy, but a tablet with an 8.9-inch display should theoretically be a lot lighter than the 9.7-inch iPad. Yet Apple's device weighs almost as much: 0.96 pound (437g).
It does suck up fingerprint grease like nothing else, and accidentally lay it on some cooking fat in the kitchen and that sheen might never come off.
The weight and size gap between it and the 0.64 lbs (290g) Nexus 7 is also fairly pronounced. Nexus 9 measures out to be 8.99 in. (228mm) tall, 6.05 in. (154mm) wide, with a 0.31 in. (7.95mm) depth, which is thicker than both the new iPad and Nexus 7.
I would have liked to see better buttons on the Nexus 9 rim. Having tested the Nexus 6 and the new Moto X before that, I've come to appreciate the power button accented with ridges that don't feel so cheap.
That was a smart Motorola design choice that helped me differentiate between the tiny volume rocker and even tinier power button in the dark.
Thankfully, it's not always imperative to find that itty-bitty power button when the tablet is lying flat on a desk. A new "double tap to wake" feature conveniently wakes the Nexus 9 screen. HTC One M8 has the same knock-twice-to-wake perk, but it's even more useful on this larger, weightier device.
No more awkwardly clutching the rim to press the tiny power button.
Nexus 9's trio of colors include a premium-looking off-white called lunar white, the tan-colored sand and a fingerprint-attracting matte black, dubbed indigo black. All look and feel resilient enough to adventurously go without a cover.
The only thing I feel as though I need to protect against is lodging dust in the speakers slots. There are two dust-collecting traps at the top and bottom of the tablet that also happen to contain powerful front-facing speakers.
The speakers slots don't have me worried, though. It's the lack of a micro SD card slot that is the biggest design omission. There's no expandable storage whatsoever, meaning the 16GB model is going to be a tough sell if you use even a little bit of non-streaming multimedia.
I've actually come to expect this on many Android tablets (although usually the mid-range ones), so once again, the extra cost of the 32GB model is the only way to safeguard yourself from larger apps or big HD movie libraries.
Nexus 9 is a new 8.9-inch display size for Google's Nexus range. It's a few tenths of an inch smaller than the iPad Air 2, but happens to be the same resolution as Apple's 9.7-inch tablet.
In fact, it's Google's QXGA-level slate that actually has a few more pixels per inch packed into its 2048 x 1536 IPS LCD screen.
That's why it's surprising that there's no comparison: the new iPad has a richer display in a side-by-side test. Apple's thinner, gap-free screen improves everything for better results.
The Nexus 9 is, frankly, uninspiring. The display quality watching HD movies isn't impressive and nothing gave me that 'wow' factor like the first time I saw a QHD screen on a phone. It's high res, but the color reproduction and contrast ratios were distinctly average.
I also found minor, but noticeable backlight bleeding around the bezel, which made the Nexus 9 picture quality less uniform when watching full-screen videos - or as full-screen as videos could get. Nexus 9 has a 4:3 aspect ratio that makes it more useful for productivity. The video-friendly 16:9 Nexus 7 now seems very narrow, but it's a better fit for movie watching.
With more height in landscape mode, it's a two-handed device with additional headroom to read text. That's great for surfing the web or editing a document. The screen size makes sense for work, even if the technology behind it doesn't shine as much.
Google went from incremental updates like Android 4.4 KitKat to the full Android 5.0 with Lollipop, and the new operating system is pre-installed on the Nexus 9. This was the first device on which you could play with all of its new features, though it's starting to trickle out to other devices now.
More stability can be found in the Android 5.1.1 over-the-air updated that's reaching the Google-powered tablet right now.
All of the changes from KitKat to Lollipop are realized immediately. The new unified look, "Material Design," is bright and colourful within Google's operating system as well as its own apps. It's almost a complete overhaul like we saw when Apple moved from iOS 6 to iOS 7.
Added conveniences like lockscreen notifications and priority mode are welcomed answers to existing Apple features, and I couldn't be happier. Something that iOS devices don't have is the double tap to wake the screen idea that's borrowed from HTC's flagship smartphone.
- Android 5.0 Lollipop review: a much-needed reboot
Even though the all-metal design wasn't carried over from the HTC One M8, at least the powerful BoomSound speakers point the audio in the right direction and sound just as good as on the phone.
This makes audio from movies, games and music clearer on this tablet than anything else I've tested. For once, I wasn't reaching for my Astro A38 Bluetooth headphones right away.
Magnetic keyboard attachment
This Keyboard Folio accessory wasn't available for me to test with the Nexus 9 review unit and the Google Play Store only recently put it up for sale, so you couldn't try it either, at least up until a few days ago. However, it's a sold-separately productivity perk that may factor into your tablet-buying decision.
The keyboard case folds at two angles and never needs to be plugged into the USB port. It connects wirelessly through Bluetooth and uses NFC to easily pair up. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the mechanical keys, which have 1.4mm of travel and include a Google search key - no surprise there.
Now that it's out, I'll test out hundreds of keystrokes for a future update to determine whether or not this business-focused add-on mounts a real challenge to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 keyboard attachment. Or if it's better than the run-of-the-mill cheap alternatives sold on Amazon. Google's version is $129 (£110, about AU$151), which means its targeted at serious on-the-go typers.
Interface and performance
Nexus 9 marks everyone's first lick at Android 5.0 Lollipop, and this year's software update stands to be more exciting than the hardware specs bump.
That's because the new operating system fixes a handful of the problems I've had with prior Android versions, and it sports a cleaner look – just enough to stay fresh next to Apple's iOS 8 update.
The problem-fixing won't stop here, either. Nexus 9's best feature is bound to get even better, as the latest firmware of 5.0.1 transitions to Android 5.1 in early 2015.
Google's "Material Design" dials things back for a flatter, geometry-focused interface, one that pops off the screen with a more colourful palette. It's bold and refreshing.
Android Lollipop features have you do more tapping too. In addition to the aforementioned "double tap to wake," its new "tap and go" concept makes it easy to set up or restore a new device from an older one. Back-to-back, two devices transfer all data through NFC and take Android Beam to the next level.
Manually waking the screen isn't even necessary on this tablet. Lockscreen notifications show up by default and briefly brighten the display. Don't worry: Just in case you like to pretend people are peeking into your life via glimpses at your tablet, these automatic alerts can be blocked on a per-app basis.
A similar option comes to the all-new, system-wide Priority Mode that acts as Google's more advanced Do Not Disturb feature. It can silence the tablet indefinitely or in intervals that range from 15 minutes to 8 hours. Certain apps can be set to function in this night-time-friendly mode, which makes paying for inferior third-party apps irrelevant.
Quick settings are easier to access through an all-in-one menu within this pure Android version of Google's operating system. Swiping down on the Nexus 9 screen just once will display notifications. Swiping down again or swiping down with two fingers initially reveals quick setting controls.
This menu within a menu is a much better way of organizing everything compared to prior Android tablet setups. Before, the notifications menu appeared when swiping down on the left side of the tablet and quick settings showed up when swiping down the right side. This was hit or miss when holding a tablet – especially the narrow Nexus 7 in portrait mode.
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and airplane mode are joined by new switches including flashlight, display slider and Google Chromecast cast screen. Sadly, the quick settings can't be changed or moved. Likewise, the battery percentage is hidden in this second menu. There's no way to make it appear in the first swipe-down menu or, better yet, system tray next to the vague battery drain icon.
HTC outfitted this year's Nexus tablet with an all-new heart that's care of Nvidia's K1 Tegra processor, a switch from the typical Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset that I'm used to finding behind tablet displays. The good news is that it's still a 64-bit system on a chip.
Coupling the Tegra K1 with the new Android Lollipop that takes advantage of such 64-bit architecture makes the new Google tablet a good bet for the future. The two together will result in more powerful and useful apps going forward.
Sure enough, Nexus 9 benchmarks indicate that behind the unexceptional display is a more than powerful chipset, as shown by its GeekBench 3 results. Tests indicated that the tablet averaged a 3326 multi-core score next to the iPad Air 2's 4500 multi-core score.
As a dual-core processor, the Tegra K1's single-core GeekBench 3 score actually surpassed that of the new iPad. The Nexus 9 averaged a 1939 single-core score, while one core of iPad's three-core processor averaged an 1815 score in similar tests.
But as future-proofed as the Nexus 9 CPU may be, there's only 2GB of RAM backing it up. It won't really be able to fully take advantage of the 64-bit ability, but will have some slight performance enhancements. It's actually only a dual-core CPU, but don't let that put you off as the overall benchmarking numbers for this tablet have remained impressive.
I do have to note that I ran into a few performance hiccups with our review unit including unregistered touch abnormalities and slowdown when there were only a few tasks going at once. Google has promised that it fixed these Nexus 9 problems in a last-second firmware update that made it to the end-consumers device.
The Nexus 9, despite my screen quality criticisms, plays movies just fine. In fact, the Play Movies app is already sporting the new Material Design. It provides simple movie recommendations and seamlessly links right to the Play Store's Movies & TV section. The red-and-white colour scheme pops nicely and matches the unified look of other Android Lollipop apps.
Streaming Django Unchained, currently the most popular selection on Netflix, proved that the Nexus 9 has more than adequate brightness levels and a solid contrast ratio. However, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in which this movie was shot doesn't convert well to the 4:3 display.
Like on the similarly shaped iPad, app developers are making the best of it. For example, on Netflix, the movie title, Chromecast cast button and volume controls appear along the top to take up that large black void. Scrubbing through the timeline and the 30 second rewind button line the bottom. Don't worry, all of the controls fade away if the screen isn't touched for five seconds.
Games are a mixed bag. Some stretch to meet the new full-screen standard and it shows. Other games have been made with the new aspect ratio. The more that Nexus 9 finds its way into mobile gamers' hands, the more that game apps are likely to adapt to the 4:3 high-resolution screen size. It's just now becoming prevalent among tablets.
Google Music goes all-orange, but features a similar unified design that can be seen on the app and all-you-can-eat music streaming website. Fun categories like "Boosting Your Energy" and "Having Fun at Work" line the top of the main page, and recent activity and recommendations take into account your past listening habits.
Movies, music and games sound better than they look thanks to the BoomSound speakers. That was a major problem I had with the Nexus 7 and similar tablets that placed the speakers in the wrong direction - usually at the bottom of the device. You won't have to plug in external speakers in a normal movie-watching environment.
Reading through longer text via the Play Newsstand app receives the biggest positive change on the Nexus 9. That 4:3 aspect ratio allows for more reading and less scrolling. Plus, there's the ability to translate periodicals instantly, something that I find interesting in the Chrome browser and expect to make use of in Newsstand.
Battery life, camera and essentials
The Nexus 9's battery life actually bests that of the iPad Air 2, giving Google's tablet a rare win in the annual Android vs iPad slate comparison.
Its 6,700 mAh battery is rated up to 9.5 hours of Wi-Fi browsing and movie playback. The iPad Air is supposed to get 10 hours when performing the same exact tasks and teardowns have revealed that Apple squeezed in a 7,340 mAh battery.
At full brightness, our Nexus 9 battery tests concluded that a 90-minute Full HD video took the battery life down to 82% from its original 100% charge. That's a small 18% drop-off that the iPad Air 2 just didn't match. Apple's device went down 21% (to 79%) while running the same 90-minute video.
In other real-world testing, the Nexus 9 lasted a day and a half before I needed to recharge it. Battery life is less of an issue on a tablet than a smartphone, and the Nexus 9 is no slouch.
I was able to get stream a full HD-quality movie during a 90-minute flight, surf the internet and play a game on a 45-minute train commute and edit documents during a 20-minute Uber ride.
Planes, trains and automobiles - and I still had close to 50% battery life at full brightness.
Gaming obviously depleted the battery faster than the typical browsing and movie watching, so, while traveling, I retired from Real Racing 3 more quickly than I would have normally.
Juicing the Nexus 9 took a little under five hours. That's about how long it takes to recharge a fully depleted iPad. But while the Nvidia processor was great for 3D gaming, it doesn't feature Qualcomm's Quickcharge 2.0 technology used by HTC's own HTC One M8.
Motorola's Turbo Charger powers up the Nexus 6 and Moto X with anywhere from six to eight hours of battery life in just 15 minutes. And it's not just Android smartphones that are benefitting from this Snapdragon-enabled technology. Sony's Xperia Z2 Tablet and Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact use it to their advantage too.
Maybe this is a good thing, but the Nexus 9 doesn't have a great camera embedded in its tablet frame. There's less of a chance you'll be tempted – for whatever reason – to snap photos with its 8.9-inch viewfinder.
The rear-facing 8 megapixel with a f/2.4 aperture produced darker-than-normal photos with an average 1.25MB file size and 3264 x 2448 resolution.
The single LED flash doesn't do much unless the subject is close. The Nexus 7 actually snapped brighter, clearer and faster photos in mild low light without a flash, though it revealed more than the acceptable amount of noise.
It's hard to tell which tablet I wanted to walk around town with taking test photos with less - the Nexus 9 or the Nexus 7. And this is from someone who routinely wears Google Glass. At least with the iPad Air 2 and its so-called "focus pixels," the shots are better, compensating for the ridiculous-looking viewfinder.
The front-facing camera also shot darker, but the photos were less soft on this 1.6-megapixel camera that has a f/2.4 aperture. It's good enough for video conferencing when the image quality isn't all too important. Nexus 9's rear-facing camera can take 1080p video, but it's, again, a job best left up to your smartphone.
Google's messaging options can be effective, but are all over the place. The email app still exists but directs you to the close it in favor of the superior Gmail app. This original app can't be deleted. Okay...
Gmail, is of course wonderful compared to the default email apps by Samsung and LG. In addition to allowing users to access multiple Gmail addresses, it goes as far as supporting rival email services like Outlook and Yahoo. That's confidence.
Then there's Hangouts. It's still here and works relatively well by integrating your existing Gmail contacts into the fold. But the annoyance of having friends who have personal and work accounts often leads to missed messages outside of the 9 to 5 work day and the inverse.
There's also an issue of sending either a Hangout or an SMS on a phone, but only being able to send and receive Hangouts on a computer or a tablet like the Nexus 9. Apple's iMessages syncs across all devices and it always tries sending an internet message first, then resorts to a carrier-sent text message if all else fails. With Hangouts, it's either a Hangout or an SMS on a phone, and SMS is missing from Google's cross-platform messaging ecosystem.
The Nexus 6 doesn't do much to fix this. It adds another app called "Messaging" to further confuse the situation.
The Nexus 9 sport a new default keyboard theme that coincides with Material Design. Both its light and dark color variants are borderless, which can be a bit jarring at first. Then you realize that this is a Google keyboard that often knows what you want to type or what you meant to type. No matter how it looks, it's a lot smarter than the redesigned iOS 8 QuickType keyboard.
The extra Nexus screen space makes surfing the web a breeze and visiting TechRadar.com loaded up nice and quickly. Like in the Newsstand app, there's more reading to be done and less scrolling compared to the narrower Nexus 7. I didn't find myself constantly needing to use the 10-point multitouch display to zoom into every web page in order to read the text.
Chrome has always been fast and full of options. The most recent update features faster browsing with support for preloading pages in the background. Android Lollipop includes a new guest mode and the ability to pin apps, which further secures the browsing history of your main account.
Chrome for Android has the cross-app Material Design look, though it's less relevant because of its rather muted state. The bold colors are saved for websites, which completely makes sense.
The following are Nexus 9 photos samples vs Nexus 7 2013 photo samples:
Nexus 9 comes in at a good price, but there are slightly more expensive tablets to take notice of before dropping your $399 (£319, about AU$450).
Apple, Samsung, Asus, Sony and even Microsoft have challengers large and small. It's really about which features you can't live without and how much you're willing to spend to get them.
iPad Air 2
You can't have a modern-day tablet comparison without immediately bringing up the iPad. Apple's newest slate is the iPad Air 2 and it's the 9.7-inch version of what the Nexus 9 so desperately wants to be. It has a nicer-looking laminated screen, sleeker design and better tablet app ecosystem.
It is a little more expensive than the Nexus 9 and it doesn't include BoomSound speakers. Audio is still projected from the bottom of the new iPad, while Google's tablet has the speakers front and center on either side of the screen.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S
As much as Apple's gap-free screen design makes the iPad Air 2 a lightweight leader among tablets, the almost-as-thin Samsung Galaxy Tab S has a slightly better-looking display. It also fared better in sunlight.
That's because Samsung's two S tablets have a Super AMOLED screen. Its 10.5-inch edition is sharper, brighter and bigger than the Nexus 9. The 8.4-inch edition is sharper and brighter with a similar size and the exact same price as Google's tablet.
Of course, Samsung Galaxy Tab S comes with Android 4.4 KitKat pre-installed, giving the Nexus 9 the edge in software - for now anyway.
Google Nexus 7
Google is discontinuing its Nexus 7 tablet with the advent of the Nexus 9. It appears as if 9 ate 7 instead of 7 ate 9. That's a shame because the 7-inch slate is a great little device at an affordable price. It had been the cheapest introduction to Google's pure Android ecosystem.
Nexus 7 features a classic 16:9 aspect ratio that's ideal for widescreen movies. The obvious downside to that is it isn't great for browsing the internet or reading text in general. Because it was sold as a Google Nexus device, it's first in line for the post-Android 5.0 Lollipop launch.
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact Tablet
Sony makes an excellent tablet that fits in between the Nexus 7 and Nexus 9. At 8 inches, it's small, light and durable. It's both dust and waterproof with an IP67/68 rating.
It has a better camera (unimportant), and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 2.5 GHz Quad-core processor and 3GB of RAM (important). What it's missing is Android 5.0 Lollipop. Like all other tablets at the moment, it's still packing Android 4.4 KitKat.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Microsoft tries to market its Surface Pro 3 as a MacBook Air competitor, but it's still very much a tablet. That makes it ripe for a Google Nexus 9 comparison.
The newest Surface Pro comes with a fully functional keyboard, multi-position kickstand, and uses a pen. This 12-inch super-tablet runs Windows, Office and desktop apps. Nexus 9 with its own keyboard case seems as if it's posing as a productivity tablet, but costs a lot less.
What was great about the Nexus 7 is that it was an easy entry into the Android ecosystem. It was an affordable first tablet that you could buy when picking up the inexpensive Chromecast. There wasn't too much thought too it.
That's not the Nexus 9, however. It's a serious tablet with significant internal specs boot and an equally serious price tag. It's $399 (£319, about AU$450) for 16GB version that I don't recommend. It's comes down to whether there's enough here for you to look beyond its flaws.
If you were to adhere to "it's what's on the inside that counts," the Nexus 9 would be better off. It has Nvidia's 64-bit processor, HTC's BoomSound speakers and an impressive battery.
Google and HTC clearly designed this tablet for productivity more than widescreen movie watching. The 8.9-inch display's 4:3 aspect ratio really does make surfing the web and editing documents easier.
Its new operating system is just as efficient. Android 5.0 Lollipop is the ultimate perk of owning this brand tablet, though the update will come out for other devices – eventually. Features like lockscreen notifications, priority mode and knock-to-wake make it the best Android version yet.
It's hard to not like a pure Nexus device, but it's the outside of the Nexus 9 that has the most trouble. Its 2K resolution screen doesn't look as nice as the iPad Air 2 display you can get for a little more money.
Google has issued a patch to correct some of the performance problems I experienced with the tablet. However, backlight bleeding and a mediocre design that doesn't live up to the standard that HTC is known to deliver on its own products are unfixable flaws. The camera, as expected, is terrible.
And the price - it's hard to know whether to lambast this tablet, as it is cheaper than the competition in some cases. But previous Nexus models have always been vastly cheaper than the rivals, so it's a shame to see the same thing not happening here.
Google's Nexus 9 tablet has display size and price that's indicative of everything you need to know about how it stacks up against the iPad Air 2. It's just a little less.
The smaller 8.9-inch screen is good enough until you sit it next to a richer-looking, laminated 9.7-inch iPad display. The LCD backlight bleeding doesn't help either. Among Androids, its 4:3 aspect ratio makes it a great two-handed upgrade over the narrower and slower Nexus 7. But it's not as thin and nowhere near as sub-pencil-thin as Apple's "laser-cut" iPad.
More design cues have been taken from the ASUS-made Nexus 7 than HTC's own all-metal HTC One M8. The soft rubberized back is easy to grip, yet doesn't feel as premium. That's a problem because this Android tablet costs much more than last year's model. It starts at $399 (£319, about AU$450) for the 16GB version, and that space fills up rather quickly.
Android 5.0 Lollipop, and now Android 5.1.1, gives Google's slate a software facelift, even if the hardware construction isn't exceptional. Material Design sets the right tone and lockscreen notifications and priority mode add overdue functionality.
Nexus 9 is a few tenths of an inch shy of matching the iPad Air 2, which wouldn't be so bad if the display and design didn't come up short as well.
If you're looking for a naked Android tablet, the Nexus 9 performs well and comes with some really premium touches to make it one of the best around. However, it's not the winner in any category at this point, so it will be interesting to see how Google uses this base model to improve the entire tablet ecosystem.