I often can’t help myself when it comes to tablets. I often carry close to 4 tablets in my backpack at any given time and would consider myself a power user. Each tablet fulfills a specific set of tasks. My Nexus 10 was my general workhorse and media tablet while my Nexus 7 accompanies me as my daily driver for work. Is there room in my overstuffed backpack for another tablet or could Google’s next flagship potentially replace one or more of my daily drivers.
I also consider myself an Android/Google Fanboy. I often purchase Android devices as soon as they hit the market. I prefer a stock Android Experience but have owned several devices running HTC’s Sense and Samsung’s TouchWiz. I was one of the first Google Glass Explorers and spend a few weeks of the year traveling around the country to meet up with other Google Glass Explorers. It is pretty clear that I can backup my claim of being a huge Android Fanboy who will likely never be tempted to take a bite of the forbidden fruit.
As with many proud Android Fanboys, I can clearly recall the day that Google announced the Nexus 6 and the Nexus 9. The relatively small event was reminiscent of the day that Google announced the ChromeCast. Google’s announcement of the Nexus 9 confirmed several rumors that have been floating around the internet for months. The HTC manufactured Nexus 9 would be powered by the powerful Dual Core Nvidia Tegra K1 processor and use their latest Kepler GPU with a whopping 192 cores. The Nexus 9 packs 2 GB of RAM and comes with either 16 GB or 32 GB of non-expandable storage which is typical of Nexus devices. What is untypical as far as Nexus devices go was the inclusion of HTC’s “BoomSound” speakers and the strange 4:3 aspect ratio of the screen. It is clear that the Nexus 9 was designed to be a premium device rather than the more budget friendly devices that we have come to expect from the Nexus line.
Most flagship devices such as Google’s Nexus line often show off what Android can do and often set precedent on how Google envisions future Android products. The Nexus 9 definitely hits some high marks but there is A LOT of room for improvement, fortunately many of these shortfalls are software issues that will likely be fixed with a future OTA upgrade.
I have had the pleasure of spending a few days with the retail version of the Nexus 9 to put it through the paces. This lengthy review will outline the good and the bad of the Nexus 9 from the eyes of an Android Fanboy.
What’s In The Box?
Personally I am not a fan of unboxing videos but at the same time I always want to know what accessories are included with the device. Nexus devices in general do not normally include any special accessories aside from the charging brick and a USB cable, the Nexus 9 unfortunately carries on with this tradition. I do however wish that HTC included a “Fast Charging” brick rather than a simple brick that outputs at 1.5 AMPs. I will however give HTC credit for keeping the brick that ships with the unit low profile so those with surge protectors will not have to re-shuffle plugs. If you have owned any HTC phone in the past, this will look familiar, just a bit larger.
While this section is not designed to be a comprehensive review, the Nexus 9 is the first device to ship with Google’s latest build of Android Lollipop out of the box. Lollipop brings with it several bold and innovative changes that depart from the treasured Holo interface that was introduced in Jelly Bean. While I am sad to see Holo go away, I am also excited to play around with the Material Design elements of Lollipop. It is simply beautiful.
Unfortunately parts of Lollipop seem to be missing a bit of polish and tend to cause some unexpected lag in parts of the operating system such as rendering the multi-tasking cards and hitting the home button. This lag is not unbearable but in many ways should not even exist due to the hardware powering this beast. Some applications that normally launch instantly on my Nexus 10 can take 2-10 seconds to open on my Nexus 9. This lag is present in a few of Google’s first party applications such as Google Plus so this is likely not a case of a lone developer who needs to optimize their code. The lag is a bit annoying at times however does not seem to carry over into the actual application once launched so it will not detract from using the tablet.
The great news is that these issues are not consistent and will likely be fixed in a future software update. Speaking of software update, expect a 250 MB update as soon as you power on the tablet for the first time. As with the Nexus 7, the Nexus 9 seems to have been shipped with an incomplete version of the operating system to allow Google more time to perfect it. Stay tuned for a more comprehensive review of Lollipop in the future.
The Build Quality
Anyone who holds the Nexus 9 for more than a few seconds will immediately notice the improvement in the build quality. The tablet feels solid and does not at any point feel like it will break from daily use. The back of the tablet is coated with a “soft touch” coating that was also present on the 2013 Nexus 7 and even the Nexus 10. The USB port and headphone outlet both feel like they can easily stand up to years of usage without wearing down or breaking. I applied gentle pressure to the tablet and found no signs of bending or flexing. The power and volume buttons all feel great and have a decent amount of give.
The Form Factor
The Nexus 9 feels good to hold but at the same time can be a bit strange for anyone not used to the form factor. Unlike the Nexus 7, the Nexus 9 won’t be fitting in any pockets. One handed use is almost impossible aside from holding the tablet. Strangely enough, once you get used to the new shape, the Nexus 9 actually feels quite good in both portrait and landscape.
The Nexus 9 Screen
This is one section that I am personally struggling with. Simply put the screen is gorgeous but the 4:3 aspect ratio does take a lot of getting used to. The screen on the Nexus 9 produces a stunning picture with no obvious signs of over saturation of colors. The insane resolution of the tablet brings with it an impressive pixel per inch count of 287, one of the most dense screens of any tablet. The screen is very bright however suffers some slight issues in direct sunlight unless the brightness is set to the highest setting.
Watching videos on the tablet on the other hand in a few ways can feel a bit foreign as you will notice some letterboxing on content that has not been optimized for 4:3. The Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 both used the more traditional widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio which eliminates letterboxing and simply looks better when playing widescreen content. Regardless of the letterboxing, the videos are still very crisp and sharp. Anyone who wishes to watch HD content on the Nexus 9 will not be disappointed at all.
Gamers will absolutely love the Nexus 9’s display as long as their hands are large enough to hold the massive 9 inch slab, if not, you can always get your hands on a game controller. Details within high resolution games almost pop out of the screen and the Nvidia Kepler GPU helps render the graphics without dropping any frames. While most games will scale well to the 4:3 aspect ratio, there may be a few games that letterbox.
Anyone who wishes to use the Nexus 9 as a mobile workstation will be pleasantly surprised on how well it works. The 4:3 aspect ratio screen lens itself well to office tasks on Google Docs, Slides and Sheets. These applications make great use of the screen real-estate. Web Browsing with Google Chrome is amazing and GMail has never looked better. In fact, to show how much of a workhorse this tablet is, I actually typed this entire review on the Nexus 9 with the help of a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. As the official Nexus Keyboard Case is on backorder on Amazon, it is worth noting that this review was written using a $30.00 Bluetooth keyboard purchased from a local store.
HTC continues to impress users with their BoomSound Speakers. Needless to say, the speakers on the Nexus 9 are simply the best speakers I have seen in a device ever. This goes for every single laptop, desktop and tablet I have ever owned. The sound is crisp and clear. These front facing stereo speakers can also get very loud without distorting the sound or becoming “tinny”. The dual speakers create an immersive experience for gaming that just makes things come alive. It does not matter if you’re watching movies or listening to music, even the most discerning audiophile will have great things to say here.
Apart from the amazing speakers, the Nexus 9 also has a few microphones to allow for voice functions and use of Google Now. Phone calls via Google Hangouts and Skype sound crystal clear on the Nexus 9. All parties involved in the phone call heard me clearly and I of course had no issues hearing any other member of the conference call.
Android 5.0 introduced Google’s “Project Volta” which was designed to help devices and applications get the most out the battery. Unfortunately this has not yet lived up to my expectations and my battery meter is falling faster than I expected. Most users will get about 8 hours of persistent use, about a full work day, without a charge. As I am a more demanding user, I am sure I will need to reach for my charger at least once throughout the day. Google states that the tablet was designed to give users around 9.5 hours of use on a charge. I am hoping that this is also something that will be fixed in an over the air update.
The silver lining is that the tablet actually excels when it comes to standby time. I left my house at 9 AM with a complete charge and my Nexus 9 in my backpack. When I went to check my email at noon and noticed a %2 percent drop in my battery. This is with WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS on.
The Nexus 9 includes both front and rear facing camera. The rear camera does perturb from the back of the unit and I fear may be prone to a bit of scratching. It is not nearly as bad as the HTC EVO 4G but still noticeable. Directly under the camera is a flash.
While most people outcast people who use tablets in place of normal cameras, the picture quality of the Nexus 9 are actually not bad. The camera won’t replace your DSLR but can be used in a pinch. For those of you who were hoping for Optical Image Stabilization, sorry to disappoint but this feature is absent in the Nexus 9. Google’s camera application comes pre-installed which offers a basic set of features and filters. I did however notice that the camera did have a significant amount of lag while focusing to take photos.
The Nexus 9 departs from the traditional budget friendly demographic that we have grown used to. Perhaps this is Google’s way to show consumers what a premium flagship tablet should be. Google starting price of $399 for the 16 GB version and $499 for the 32 GB version did set off a lot of arguments on various forums and social networking sites. Personally I understood Google’s intentions with the Nexus 9 so the price did not concern me as much. I do however wish that Google would have dropped the 16 GB version and created a 64 GB Nexus 9, as they have done with the Nexus 6.
After reading countless blogs complaining about the lack of tablet applications for Android tablets, I felt the need to insert this section in here. Android Tablets actually have a massive selection of applications that work well on tablets, and contrary to myth, they are not simply scaled up phone applications. I have tested over 30 popular applications without issue on the Nexus 9 and all of them scale properly and render a native tablet interface.
While the Nexus 9 is a great tablet, and worthy of the Nexus nomenclature, it clearly needs a bit of polish to claim its rightful crown as the king of all tablets. The hardware is great, assuming users can get used to the 4:3 aspect ratio. The sound quality of this tablet sets a very high bar that all tablets on the market should strive to meet. The only issues thus far are the qwerks with Lollipop and the shorter then expected battery life. I expect these issues to be sorted out in a software update.