Google Nexus Devices

Nexus 9 deep-dive review: Bigger, but not necessarily better

Google's new Android Lollipop software is fresh and exciting, but is it enough to make this $400 tablet worth buying?

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I thought reviewing the Nexus 9 was going to be easy.

When we first heard about Google's newest flagship tablet, it seemed like a natural step forward (on paper, at least) from last year's outstanding Nexus 7: It was bigger, more powerful and outfitted with front-facing stereo speakers. And, of course, it comes preloaded with the tasty new Android 5.0 Lollipop software, fresh out of the box and running exactly the way Google designed it.

Unlike the $229 Nexus 7, though, the HTC-made Nexus 9 is being positioned as a "premium" device -- not just a great experience for an affordable price but a top-of-the-line tablet with a cost to match. At $399 (for 16GB) or $479 (for 32GB) -- and an option for $599 (32GB with built-in LTE support) coming into the mix soon -- this bad boy is playing in the big leagues. That means the standards are higher, and it has to hit it out of the park.

After more than a week of using the Nexus 9 in my day-to-day life, I'm not entirely convinced that it does.

Design and build quality

Like most of Google's recent Nexus products, the Nexus 9 has a minimalist and understated design -- one that closely follows the aesthetic established with last year's Nexus 7 and Nexus 5 devices. It's as plain and unassuming as can be, with a squared-off shape and soft-touch plastic back panel featuring a dark textured Nexus logo in the center.

The back panel has a nice grippy feel to it, but it also has a weakness: If you press on its center, you can sense a little give -- like there's a small air pocket beneath the cover and the material is just barely flexing in on it. Some people have seen pretty extreme movement, but on my review unit, it's fairly minor -- not anything that bothers me or that I would notice if I didn't go out of my way to look for it.

The new Nexus has a black-colored brushed metal frame around its perimeter -- a subtle touch that gives it a more sophisticated and refined look than past Nexus models. The power and volume buttons, unfortunately, didn't get the premium treatment -- they both barely protrude from the side of the device and can be tricky to find and identify by touch alone (though you can also activate the device's display by double-tapping on the screen, which works well and is a handy option).

An in-between size

With dimensions of 6.1 x 9.0 x 0.31 in., the Nexus 9 falls right in the middle of the tablet size spectrum. For comparison, the 2013 Nexus 7 is 4.5 x 7.9 x 0.34 in. while the Nexus 10 measures in at 7.0 x 10.4 x 0.35 in.

nexus 9 vs nexus 7 vs nexus 10 JR Raphael

Comparing sizes, from left to right: the Nexus 7, the Nexus 9, the Nexus 10.

Each size has its own set of pros and cons. A 7-in. tablet is incredibly portable and can fit in the pockets of many pants. It's comfortable to hold with one hand and is kind of like using a supersized phone, with a bit more room to get around and view content -- but it doesn't give you that much more additional space compared to some of the giant phones folks are starting to favor.

A 10-in. tablet, meanwhile, provides ample screen space and is fantastic for things like watching movies -- but its larger footprint makes it less portable and more awkward to use comfortably for active tasks.

So the Nexus 9 is very much an in-betweener: It's small enough to be manageable but large enough to feel like a meaningful step up in screen space from even a plus-sized phone. At 15 oz. -- just under 1 lb. -- the tablet is somewhat on the heavy side, but it's reasonably comfortable to hold with two hands. I find myself propping it up with a pillow more often than not; it's definitely not the kind of device you'd use with a single hand or want to hold in the air unsupported for long.

Display and speakers

Size aside, the Nexus 9 stands out from previous Nexus tablets in that it switches to a 4:3 aspect ratio on its display. Compared to the 16:9 or 16:10 setups most Android tablets tend to use, that makes for a more box-like shape and less of a widescreen experience.

The 4:3 configuration feels natural for Web browsing and general app use in both portrait and landscape orientation, since the screen is more balanced in its dimensions. The downside, though, is that when you play movies and other videos, you end up getting giant 3/4-in. black bars on the top and bottom of the display -- meaning the content itself sits in a relatively small part of the screen while the rest of the space goes to waste. This is a sharp contrast to the 16:9 and 16:10 devices, where videos typically have just a sliver of black on either side but take up almost the entire screen.

nexus 9 aspect ratio JR Raphael

The Nexus 9 (bottom) compared to the Nexus 7 (top) for video viewing.

On the other hand, photos -- which tend to be 4:3 -- have the exact opposite effect: They take up most of the screen on the Nexus 9 and end up sitting in the middle of the displays surrounded by big bars on 16:9 or 16:10 devices. You win some, you lose some.

As for the display itself, the Nexus 9's 2048 x 1536 LCD panel is good but unremarkable. Colors are less bold and vibrant than what I've seen on other high-end devices; if I look closely at images or small text on the Nexus 9 compared to the Nexus 7, elements on the 9 seem ever-so-slightly less sharp when it comes to fine detail.

The screen also suffers from a bit of light bleed -- a white halo-like effect that you can sometimes see along the top edge of the display. I haven't found it to be particularly bothersome in real-world use, but it's definitely there if you look for it.

To be sure, all of this is nitpicking; while the Nexus 9's display doesn't necessarily stand out as a stunning highlight, it generally looks quite good and is perfectly fine for everyday use. Ninety-nine percent of people won't notice these issues or give the screen a second thought.

One thing people will notice is the Nexus 9's speakers: The tablet has dual front-facing speakers optimized with HTC's BoomSound technology. The fact that they pipe sound toward you in stereo goes a long way in enhancing the device's audio experience, whether you're watching a video or listening to music. The actual audio quality is decent but not outstanding, however; the speakers are reasonably loud and full-sounding, but they're surprisingly muffled compared to phones like the One (M8) and even the single-speakered 2014 Moto X.

Performance and stamina

There's been a lot of talk about the Nexus 9's 64-bit Tegra K1 processor and the desktop-like performance it's supposed to provide. So does it actually deliver?

The answer is sometimes -- but not always. The Nexus 9 is by no means slow; for the most part, it loads apps quickly and handily keeps up with any task you throw its way. Even with resource-intensive things like video playback and graphic-heavy game play, the tablet zips along admirably without so much as a single stutter.

The problem is just that it isn't entirely consistent -- and at times, the Nexus 9 feels less snappy and responsive than do other high-end devices. I'll often observe that there's a second or two delay after tapping the Recent Apps button before anything happens, for instance, and the actual act of switching between apps isn't always as instantaneous as it should be. Occasionally, I even find myself having to tap an app a couple of times in the Recent Apps list before my touch is recognized.

Beyond that, I've noticed that the system doesn't seem to keep apps running in active memory as long as most Android devices do. If I switch back to an app I haven't used in a little while, it'll often "refresh" and start from scratch instead of picking up where I left off. That's an odd behavior I've never encountered before, and it's mildly annoying.

I should mention that during my first few days with the Nexus 9, the tablet was running what turned out to be a non-final software build. This past Sunday, Google pushed an 800MB update to the device that was supposed to improve performance and bring it up to date with what consumers would see at launch. The observations I'm making here are all based on what I've experienced after that update; prior to it, performance was slightly worse and things were a little more glitchy all around.

The update went a long way in improving the Nexus 9's stamina: While I had poor results during my first days with the device, I'm now consistently able to get a solid eight to nine hours of active use per charge. That's a bit short of Google's 9.5-hour estimate but still quite respectable and within the realm of reason.

The tablet's standby power usage, meanwhile, is top-notch: Leaving it on all night, with background data running and notifications trickling in, the device typically dropped a mere three percentage points over as much as 11 hours. Google says the tablet can last up to 30 days on standby, and with that kind of low idle power consumption, I wouldn't hesitate to believe it.

The Nexus 9 doesn't support wireless charging, nor does it have an SD card slot for storage expansion beyond the 16 or 32GB (depending on which model you purchase) of internal space. The tablet has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, if you absolutely must take photos with it, along with a 1.6-megapixel front-facing camera for all your selfie-snapping and video-chatting needs.

The sweet taste of Android Lollipop

I'll be taking an in-depth look at Android 5.0 and what it's like on both a tablet and a phone soon, so I'm not going to spend much time getting into the specifics of the software here. What I will say is that Lollipop is truly a whole new Android -- and by and large, it's an absolute pleasure to use.

Lollipop gives Android a fresh and modern makeover filled with bright colors and flat, one-dimensional elements. It also introduces slick new animations and transitions all throughout the system that go a long way toward making it feel more polished, cohesive and mature than ever. Nearly every piece of the system has gotten a facelift, and it makes a world of difference in what it's like to use.

nexus 9 android 50 lollipop

Android 5 (Lollipop).

The Nexus 9 is especially noteworthy because it runs an unmodified version of Google's Android software -- meaning you get Android exactly the way Google envisions it. The Nexus 9 is the only tablet to offer that setup as of now, though it'll be joined by its Nexus 7 and 10 siblings when those tablets are upgraded in the coming weeks. Other current Android tablets come from manufacturers that modify the operating system considerably, generally resulting in far less intuitive and attractive user experiences.

Visuals aside, Lollipop adds a number of noteworthy new features, some of which are particularly relevant for tablets -- like improved multiuser support, which makes it easy to share the slate with family, friends or guests and keep everyone's apps, settings and data separate. The release supplies a host of security enhancements as well, including a more streamlined system for encryption that protects all of your data from the moment you turn the tablet on.

The Nexus tablets also come with guarantees of fast and frequent OS upgrades directly from Google, which is a valuable assurance to have for the future.

[Android 5.0 deep-dive review: Exploring Lollipop's many layers]

Bottom line

The Nexus 9 is a strange tablet to try to wrap your head around. It's being positioned as a premium product, with a premium price -- but in the real world, it doesn't quite live up to that standard.

When I ask myself if the Nexus 9 is meaningfully better than the Nexus 7 that came before it -- better enough to justify its $170 higher price tag -- I have a hard time coming up with a way to answer "yes." It's bigger, sure, but the Nexus 7 has snappier and more consistent performance along with a more impressive display and support for wireless charging. And it doesn't have build quality issues like the flexible back and awkwardly recessed buttons.

(Incidentally, Google no longer appears to be selling the Nexus 7, which is a shame -- but for the moment, at least, you can still find the tablet in stock and on sale at third-party retailers like Amazon and Best Buy.)

I think my struggle ultimately comes down to the price: If the Nexus 9 were being sold for $300, it'd be a lot easier to forgive its shortcomings and recommend it for the software setup alone, as that makes a tremendous difference in what the tablet is like to use. (Curiously enough, HTC ran a sale just one day after the Nexus 9's launch in which it offered the device for $200 and then for $350, but it was a very short-term deal.)

At $300, the Nexus 9 would be a no-brainer. At $400, it's a slightly tougher sell. If you're willing to pay that price, though, you'll get an unmatched user experience in a decent but unexceptional package.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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