Nexus 9 Review: Niggles Aside, This is an AWESOME Tablet

Reviews Paul Briden 11:32, 16 Feb 2015

Google's back with a new Nexus slate - the HTC-made Nexus 9 - can it steal the iPad's thunder?

Typical Price: 
Neat design, Impressive display, Good audio, Android Lollipop software is excellent,
Average battery life, Not as portable as 7in size, No microSD, Some build quality concerns
A decent tablet and a compelling platform to showcase Android Lollipop, but not exceptional - despite this easily the best Android tablet experience currently available

HTC does NOT have a good track record with tablets. So when Google confirmed it had commissioned the Taiwanese company to build its hugely anticipated follow up to 2012’s Nexus 10 tablet everybody, including us, was pretty surprised. Even more so given the calibre of some of its other hardware partners –– Sony, for instance. 

Google seems to like underdogs though, and in this respect the choice to go with HTC for its Nexus 9 tablet reminds us of its decision to use LG to build the Nexus 4 back in 2012. Back then LG was a mere shadow of what it is today. But Google’s gamble worked and LG outdid itself with both the Nexus 4 and the Nexus 5. 

Can HTC perform a similar trick with the Nexus 9 tablet? As specs go the tablet is something of a beast. It also runs a gorgeous, stock rendition of Android Lollipop which promises to look utterly stunning blown up on its expansive, 9in QHD panel. This is one tablet we really couldn’t wait to test out. Read on to find out if it lived up to expectation. 

Nexus 9 Review: Design & Display

The Nexus 9 is quite far removed from the previous Nexus tablet family; where the older models featured soft-touch rubberised plastic bodywork, the Nexus 9 opts for a hard, matte finish polycarbonate edged with brushed aluminium. Largely the Nexus 9 gives the impression of a quality, premium product in terms of its design and build, however, with that said I did notice there was a bit of a gap between the back panel and the metal surround in a few places on the tablet, notably the corners – some gentle coaxing with a fingernail here suggests the whole panel could be pried off very easily.

And what’s more, I’m not the only person to encounter this, with the reviews editor of fellow Dennis publication PC Pro informing me that they saw the same problem on their review unit. Could this be a bad batch of review units? Possibly, but it does raise a few eyebrows about the Nexus 9’s build quality. The rest of the device feels fairly solid, being larger than a Nexus 7 it has a bit of heft at 425g, but it’s extremely thin at only 8mm thick. You can pick the Nexus 9 up in white, black, or sand.

Our review unit is the Wi-Fi model, which has a remarkably clean outer line as there aren’t many ports or controls – this is because there’s no micoSD slot or SIM slot, only a 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB port, and the power and volume rocker keys all embedded in the metal. A 3G/4G LTE variant is available at additional cost and it weighs about 10g heavier.

There’s not a lot to say about the front fascia as it’s largely dominated by the display, the bezel along the longer edges (the sides if held in portrait mode) is narrower while top and bottom are slightly wider to make areas to grip. The Nexus 9 clearly aims to fill an optimal, midway point between the Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 sizes but I personally feel it’s a little too big and unwieldy – you can just about fit a 7in tablet in the inner pocket of a coat, for example, but with this larger size there’s no chance of that. That said, plenty of people seem happy with the iPad Air’s size and it’s fairly similar to the Nexus 9.

The display itself is a vibrant, 8.9in IPS LCD panel with a 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution at 281 pixels-per-inch (ppi), more or less on par with Apple’s Retina setup for its iPad devices. Colours have plenty of depth and contrast is capable, and while brightness seems decent for normal use I did find it lacking in direct sunlight. The display is extremely reflective and smudgy, and it doesn’t provide the best image quality at wider viewing angles.

Nexus 9 Review: Processor & Performance

It’s nice to be able to report on a device which isn’t powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip for a change, as the Nexus 9 uses NVIDIA hardware instead. However, with that said, the results are still fairly predictable, what with the chip being a high-end model and the Nexus 9 using stock Android Lollipop implemented under Google’s watchful eye; there’s no added bloat to hold the processor back and surely plenty of optimisation tweaks to get the best possible performance out of it. Yes, it’s fast.

The chip is NVIDIA’s second-gen Tegra K1, the 64-bit dual-core model based on the new Denver architecture. It’s clocked at 2.3GHz and packs 2GB of RAM with a Kepler DX1 graphics processing unit (GPU). As expected, the slate breezes through intensive multitasking as if it’s nothing at all, video playback and tracking is smooth, and Google’s Material Design interface glides around effortlessly like so much buttery goodness. There’s no hint of lag whatsoever. Gaming is similarly a hassle-free affair with demanding 3D titles tootling along nicely, although this is not surprising considering NVIDIA’s gaming background and expertise. I also didn’t notice too much heat build-up during gaming sessions which is nice to see.

Nexus 9 Review: Storage, Connectivity  & Other Hardware

In true Nexus style, Google’s tablet shuns microSD storage capabilities and offers either 16GB or 32GB of onboard space, but at least there are options here for different use types. As mentioned, a mobile data enable version is available for use with 4G LTE (Cat4) and 3G+, which uses the Nano-SIM type, but all variants come with dual-band Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi Direct and Hotspot, and DLNA. Also onboard there’s Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC capabilities, and of course microUSB for data and charging.

Pleasingly, having HTC on this project means the audio experience has been given a bit of care and attention; as with other HTC products we’re treated to a pair of front-facing stereo speakers, although they’re subtly integrated into the bodywork and you might miss them if you’re not looking. Importantly though, the sound quality is pretty good – it’s fairly clear although the range is somewhat lacking, it’s also as loud as we’ve come to expect from HTC’s audio tech and you may have to turn it down from the default setting in order to preserve your eardrums. Still, this means things like films, games, and music all deliver quite a satisfying experience to your ears.

Nexus 9 Review: Battery

The Nexus 9 uses a pretty substantial 6700mAh Li-Po battery cell, although of course being a tablet this is non-removable. In our video test we ran the whole 2 hour 45 minute runtime of Django Unchained from 100% charge, with Wi-Fi enabled and brightness set to full. By the time the credits rolled the Nexus 9 had 61% charge remaining, which is fair if somewhat average performance as tablets go. That said, battery optimisation (Google’s Project Volta on Android Lollipop) does seem to be quite good when it comes to less intensive activities or preserving battery life when the tablet isn’t getting a lot of use. It’ll easily last several days on a single charge with light-to-moderate use with non-intensive apps (excluding things like gaming, for example), or the best part of a week if you only use it sparingly.

As always, gaming will drink your battery dry pretty rapidly, so it’s best to make sure you’re near a charger (or at least heading somewhere where there is one) if you’re going to be playing extensively – but this can’t really be considered too much of a negative as all mobile devices have the same kind of performance; there are few other tasks as intensive on the battery as games.

Nexus 9 Review: Camera

I realise there are people who take photographs with tablets but it's a niche group and not one which apparently actually cares about camera performance considering tablet cameras are almost exclusively crap and yet they persist anyway. Combine the fact that there isn't a decent tablet camera under the sun, and that Google's Nexus range (or indeed HTC generally) is not particularly renowned for lavishing attention on imaging capabilities, and no-one should really be looking at the Nexus 9 and expecting a great camera setup. Which is just as well, because it's not great. It's not awful either, mind you. 

What we have here is an 8MP back-illuminated sensor (BSI) with an f/2.4 aperture, 1080p video, and oddly enough an LED flash. The results are most definitely mediocre, with enough detail and clarity to get by, but nothing to write home about either. Colour, contrast and dynamic range are all fair too. It's a decent enough setup in a pinch, but if you're a proper shutterbug it won't hit the spot - the simple fact of the matter is that high end imaging hardware costs a lot of money, and it's never been a priority on relatively low-cost Nexus devices. You can see the iPhone 6's sensor for a more expensive one that proves an 8MP configuration can indeed do the job, but this one is fairly average.

Nexus 9 Review: Software & UI

The Nexus 9 is one of Google’s flagship devices and a debut model for its new Android Lollipop 5.0 build. I won’t waste words waxing lyrical about it here because we’ve already got a full review elsewhere on the site you should definitely check out:

Suffice to say, it’s pretty darn good. This is Android as Google intended it to be, it’s crazy fast and slick, while Material Design is stunning and enjoyably easy to operate. Naturally Google has optimised it to the tablet form factor and little tweaks such as the new swipe down-notification and quick settings gestures (a two-stage swipe) are really neat.

Nexus 9 Review: Price & Conclusion

The Nexus 9 starts from £319 for the 16GB Wi-Fi only model, but if you want 4G or LTE you have to go up to 32GB at a price of £459. A 32GB Wi-Fi only version will cost you £399. You can buy it through the Google Play store, Amazon, Currys, PC World, Argos, or via network O2 – where several contract details for the 4G LTE model are available.

But what do I think of it? Well, aside from some questionable quality control regarding the review unit exterior it’s actually quite compelling. The performance is there and the display is pretty stunning, while Android Lollipop is hugely satisfying. The battery life is fairly average, however, and as with all Nexus devices it lacks memory expandability, although connectivity options are plentiful which is certainly a plus. As a multimedia consumption device this is a neat little package, although not as compact and portable as a 7in slate, it’s quite similar in size and portability to the iPad Air which has certainly proved a popular scale with consumers. On the whole I think this sits slightly behind the iPad in terms of design/build and battery life, but it’s not far off, and by this stage Android is definitely just as viable as iOS. For me it’s also A LOT more appealing than iOS as an ecosystem, but that is definitely subjective. Either way, this is probably the best Android tablet experience on the market right now.

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