Nexus 9 review: The return of Google’s iPad killer

Google’s Nexus 9 tablet is a lot of things: The first 64-bit Android device, a successor to the Samsung-made Nexus 10, the first HTC tablet in years, and Google’s showcase for what Android Lollipop and its new design language, Material Design, can do.

It’s also, for the first time in a while, a clear high-end tablet competitor to Apple’s iPad Air. For now, if you’re looking for an “iPad Air running Android,” the Nexus 9 is the simple choice. It’s available for purchase now.

Primarily, the Nexus 9 is for developers. If you’re making Android tablet apps, this is probably the first device you should buy and test your app on. Nexus has always been Google’s line of developer devices — made by other manufacturers — running the stock version of Android the way [company]Google[/company] intended.

But this latest batch of Nexus devices — including the Nexus 6 phone — is also the first that’s being subtly positioned as premium Android. It’s a strategy that’s clearest for the Nexus 6, which is more significantly expensive than the Nexus 5, that will be sold with carrier subsidies.

That means the Nexus 9 is positioned as a great device for anyone who needs a powerful tablet, whether it’s as a solid second screen for the living room or as a tablet that can double as a work computer on the go.

It looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey

NEW-monolith

The Nexus line, although made by several different manufacturers over the years, certainly has its own look. The Nexus 9 looks a lot like an upsized Nexus 5, even though that one is made by HTC and last year’s Nexus phone is made by LG. That’s a good thing — I’m a huge fan of the rubberized soft-touch back, which does improve grip, and the black monolith-like face.

versus-nexus-5

Generally, the Nexus 9’s squared-off shape is very minimalist, which lets the device fade into the background and keeps the focus on what’s going on with the screen. If you’re looking for an upsized HTC One M8, you’re not going to find it here — HTC provides a subtle metal frame, but it doesn’t make a huge difference in build-quality on a device this size.

Google provided me with a black 16GB Wi-Fi version, which costs $399 at retail, as a loaner device. But if you’re making choices based on color, I would strongly consider the Sand-colored version, which is an unusual color for consumer-electronic devices but it looks very luxe in person. Unfortunately, that won’t go on sale until later this year along with the LTE-enabled versions.

The Nexus 9 has an 8.9-inch screen with a 1536 x 2048 resolution, but in practice, it matches up well with 10-inch tablets like the iPad Air. In many ways, I think the 9-inch size is the sweet spot for larger, more powerful tablets, and personally, I’d much rather have a tablet this size instead of a less expensive 7-inch tablet. The bigger body lets manufacturers put a bigger battery inside — the Nexus 9 sports a non-removable 6700 mAh battery — and the bigger tablets replicate a single sheet of paper very well, which is sort of the original concept behind the touch tablet.

The Nexus 9 is fairly light — at 425 grams — and is significantly smaller than its predecessor, the Nexus 10, thanks to slimmer bezels. I had no problems using it one-handed or for long periods of time. In particular, I really like the 4:3 aspect ratio, which matches the iPad. I don’t completely mind letterboxed movies when I’m watching them on my tablet, and the more square-like size is preferable when reading, which is the main thing I do on my tablet.

Because the Nexus 9 is made by HTC, it uses the Taiwanese company’s BoomSound front-facing speaker layout, which you can find at the top and bottom of its face in portrait mode. The speakers aren’t going to be the reason that anyone specifically wants or doesn’t want the Nexus 9, but it does make it easier to share a movie on the tablet with other people.

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On the left hand side of the tablet, you’ll find a sleep/wake button, as well as a volume rocker. On the bottom of the tablet, there’s a single Micro USB port for charging and syncing. There’s a fairly large camera module on the upper left corner on the backside, which hides a 8-megapixel camera behind it. There’s a 3.5mm jack at the top of the panel.

protruding-camera-lens

The Nexus 9 doesn’t support Qi wireless charging, which is a disappointment considering the Nexus 5 and Nexus 6 do.

It’s a great living room second screen

Unfortunately, Google didn’t provide me with one of its new $130 keyboard docks, which have the potential to turn the Nexus 9 into a workstation powerhouse like the Microsoft Surface. But like many, I’m unlikely to use the Nexus 9 in that way because I have a powerful laptop for those purposes. Instead, I used the Nexus 9 as my primary second-screen buddy while half-watching TV or for reading in bed.

For those purposes, the Nexus 9 is excellent. I’m not sure whether it’s due to the speedy Nvidia Tegra K1 chipset or improvements in Android L — we’ll get there — but scrolling up or down a page is finally as smooth as it is on iOS or Windows Phone. Apps open quickly and Google Now populates with cards instantaneously. It’s clear that this is a powerful, fast tablet.

The screen is great. Colors are vivid and punchy. One of the other big and powerful Android tablets that came out this year is the Samsung Tab S, which uses its AMOLED screen as its main selling point. In my opinion, the screen on the Nexus 9 can stand up to any Android tablet, especially for everyday usage.

Reading newspapers or magazines is a pleasure on the Nexus 9. I’m not a big gamer, but I booted up Asphalt 8: Airborne, and the graphics looked great and there was no discernible lag or frame rate issues. Board games like Settlers of Catan looked great and adapted to the 4:3 screen well.

The camera isn’t wonderful. Below is a photo taken in near-optimal conditions and a 1-to-1 crop. The Nexus 9 isn’t going to be the preferred tool of the next Ansel Adams, but for apps that need access to a decent camera, for scanning or machine vision, the shooter on the Nexus 9 will be fine.

Kif Leswing/Gigaom
Photo taken with Nexus 9 under good conditions
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

As for battery life, I wasn’t able to run a full battery of tests, but you’re not going to need to charge the Nexus 9 that often. I used it heavily for three days as a second screen and it still had nearly 20 percent of battery left when I finally plugged it in. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if battery life significantly declined over time: If you’re running an intensive application, you’ll find the back of the tablet gets hot, which usually isn’t a good sign for battery consumption going forward.

The Nexus 9 is Google’s first 64-bit tablet thanks to its Nvidia Tegra K1 chipset, and although we’re not going to get into the ultimate ramifications of that decision, it does mean the Nexus 9 is “future-proof” in a way other Android tablets are not. Furthermore, it kills on benchmarks: With a 1760 single-core score and a 3029 multi-core score on Geekbench, the Nexus 9 is handily faster than its competitors running Qualcomm processors.

The Nexus 9 does even better on graphics benchmarks, beating every Android device on GFXBench OpenGL benchmarks, but it’s firmly behind Apple’s in-house A8X processor. For the most part, this shouldn’t matter: If there’s an intensive graphics program for Android, the Nexus 9 will run it better than any other device.

Android Lollipop is delightful

If you’re a longtime Android user, there will be a ton to like about Android Lollipop, which looks differently than previous versions of Android. Since this review is focusing on the hardware, I won’t go into it, but one of the small tweaks that made a big difference to me is the “back” soft key. If you need to collapse the on-screen keyboard, the new triangle icon turns into a downward facing icon, subtly telling the user that it’s possible to back out of the menu.

Another small tweak I loved is that when plugging an Android Lollipop device in, it now tells you how long it will take for the battery to fully charge.

notification-view

Notifications in Android Lollipop are what they should have been years ago. They’re now displayed on the lock screen, which is wonderful, although interacting with them is more limited that it is on iOS 8 so far. Notifications have a lovely flowing animation, and they’re presented as a series of cards, instead of a slide-down panel as it has in the past. Google also has added a No Not Disturb feature in Android Lollipop, although I mistakenly turned it on and killed my notifications for a day or two.

I decided not to use Android Beam, a new way to add your settings to a new Android device by tapping with NFC. Google’s own syncing service does essentially the same thing, without the user figuring out whether their old device is capable of NFC.

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Most of Google’s built-in apps have received a Material Design makeover, and I’m sure in every single app there are little easter eggs that will delight the user. Matias Duarte, the guy in charge of Google’s new Material Design look, will be speaking at Gigaom’s Roadmap conference in November.

There have been some reports of instability on the Nexus 9, but I didn’t notice it, and Google pushed an OTA update during my review which promised to fix the bugs I wasn’t noticing. One issue I did notice is that double-tapping the screen to wake it up — which should be a handy feature — didn’t always work, and I ended up using the wake button more often.

Yes, you should buy it

If you’re looking for the best Android tablet you can buy, look no farther. You can’t go wrong with the Nexus 9 and I’m sure many people will be delighted when it’s the tablet underneath the Christmas tree this year. A lot of people tend to hang on to their tablet for a number of years, and of the Android tablets on sale this year, the Nexus 9 is by far the most likely to still be kicking and current in 2018.

front-facing-view