The idea of a ‘premium’ tablet is relatively simple: engineer it, give it some stuff, and charge a fortune as the next big thing. In essence, you typically get an assortment of innovation along with immense performance to match, but is it possible in a market that’s flooded with advanced touchscreens just to proclaim it while bringing very little to the table as well?
In the case of Google and HTC, That’s the question I frequently asked myself when living with the Nexus 9, the latest flagship in their Android lineup. This is important to note because not only is this supposed to be the best example of what Google has to offer, but also as a beacon of what upcoming Android challengers could hope to be in the face of Apple’s family of iOS devices.
Whether there was a need to redefine their identity or a focused commitment to fiercely compete in the luxurious tablet arena, the Nexus 9 is a continuing endeavor at exclusivity – albeit in a more singular approach. They basically have all the needed ingredients for greatness, but not everything is conjured up in a completely impeccable manner.
Hardware and Tech Specs
HTC is the original OEM that helped birth the original Nexus smartphone and they’ve been recruited once again to manufacture this premiere Google tablet. For the most part, they built off the admirable efforts by Google’s other partners for the smaller Nexus 7 (ASUS) and larger Nexus 10 (Samsung) as starting points to create something almost entirely new.
Unlike those models though, the appearance is remarkably clean and understated. The minimalist styling will instantly be recognizable to those familiar with the LG-derived Nexus 5 smartphone – right down from the soft rubberized matte surfacing on the back to the brushed metallic bezel that tastefully frames the edges. Except for the antenna cut into the top, of course. There’s even some color variety, just as long as you prefer Indigo Black, Lunar White, or Sand colors.
This austere design keeps the bulk down to an absolute minimum with the power button and volume rocker switch nearly flush on the top right, further adding to the Nexus 9’s simplified exterior, though the volume controls were initially hard to locate when trying to reach for them in a pinch. All of the trimming and downsizing was obviously done to beat the Apple at their own game, and the dimensions on paper are quite telling with an 8.9” landscape, 6.05” height, a depth of 0.31”, all at a weight of 0.94 lbs. (425g).
The hardware specs also brings some firsts of its own. The Nexus 9 is the first Android tablet to come equipped with NVIDIA’s 64-bit Tegra K1 dual-core ARM chip (Denver) that runs at 2.3GHz, along with a 192-core Kepler GPU. This also features Bluetooth 4.1, NFC (Near-Field Communications), and Wi-Fi 802.11ac as standard too. 2GB of LPDDR3 memory sufficiently pushes things along with 16GB of internal storage, but (again) lacks microSD card expandability as Google fully expects you to assimilate your files onto the Cloud.
Also missing and probably more desirable is the 4G LTE model. As of this writing, you’ll have to wait until later this year for that version to go on sale.
That 8.9” IPS LCD centerpiece is very nice to look at even when you find out that it actually has a lower ppi (pixels per inch) count of 288 than previous Nexus models. Regardless, the QXGA 2048×1536 resolution, vibrant colors, sharp details, and draped in Corning Gorilla Glass 3 makes it a composed display for everyday use. The move to a 4:3 aspect ratio is a small turnoff but does pay dividends if your needs involve productivity rather than movies. With the BoomSound dual front-facing speakers, audio is boisterous and provides good sound at higher volumes; to match, there’s also dual microphones to make conferencing and “OK, Google” more bearable.
As a matter of fact, the Nexus 9 defiantly bucks the trend by not including the fancier features and niceties in tablet technology such as a fingerprint reader, active image recognition, and a truly panoramic camera, confidently falling back on horsepower and the introduction of the latest Android Lollipop operating system. A bold move for any tablet that calls itself premium.
Android Lollipop and Impressions
One area Google clearly did their homework on is with the new Android Lollipop 5.0 OS. You’re treated to the purest and supreme version yet, delivering one of the most enjoyable mobile experiences available on any tablet. The revamped system is fresh and sports a contemporary look that’s neither overwhelming nor vague in execution, thanks especially to the “Material Design” language that incorporates flat and rich color palettes, rectangular windows (cards), and a bigger emphasis on images and widgets without hogging up much more resources in the process.
The layout responds in little ways that lets you know visually where you touching registers or with animations during navigation, the results are subtle and do improve productivity. You’ll have to get more acquainted with swipes and sub-menus, for example: swiping from the top of screen to bottom brings a pull down card that shows notifications, and swipe downwards again brings up more essential options like shortcuts for network, screen brightness, or a flashlight. The rest of the interface is also smarter as recently opened apps and message updates are the first cards shown without having to manually unlock the tablet screen, helping you get back to whatever you were doing easier and quicker, and even the lower navigation bar is renewed with a new Overview menu (similar to flipping through multiple tabs on iOS Safari browser) that replaces the recent apps key. We also appreciate HTC’s signature ‘double-tap’ feature seen on their One M8 phone, which conveniently wakes the tablet without the need of buttons.
Performance is another area that benefits from all the power HTC put behind the touchscreen. In short, ‘amazingly instantaneous’ is how I’d describe the feel whether it’s navigation or standard multitasking. Its damn-near seamless for an Android tablet as I didn’t have to wait on (almost) anything even when carelessly forgetting about the many apps I accidentally left open. Impressively, with a few high profile games and a bunch of Chrome tabs running in background while watching YouTube the battery life was nearly seven hours before falling alarmingly short on juice – compared to the expected nine hours if I had bothered to work light.
The Nexus 9 is one hell of a powerhouse but it’s difficult to see where the extra value comes from as a cutting-edge tablet. The cameras are still grainy and noticeably slow when snapping a picture, while the soft touch matte backing is poorly affixed and cheapens the build to that of a waiting room magazine. And while the rear doesn’t feel like it’s going to fall apart in my hands and offers plenty of grip, this lack of attention keeps it in a few classes below the recent iPad tablets. It’s also an absolute fingerprint magnet, but what tablet isn’t nowadays?
Something else your brain will realize is that the Nexus 9 feels slightly heavier to hold, despite weighing marginally less than a specific aerial tablet proudly designed in Cupertino. Our guess is that most of the internal components are housed on the top opposed to being evenly distributed throughout the body, it’s still comfortable and feasible to hold one-handed for a while but hardly ideal to do so when one side has more mass than the other.
This thing also produces a conspicuous amount of heat especially when playing games like Dead Trigger 2 or Asphalt 8, I enjoyed the action on the highest settings but at the expense of an uncomfortably sizzling palm.Translation: this tablet gets hot when the action gets crazy, and happens routinely. This is a problem that joins existing compatibility issues between apps and firmware, even on newer software. Angry Birds Transformers is one game that either hangs at the loading screen or crashes entirely even after a hard factory reset.
After spending quality time with the Nexus 9 Google and HTC are clearly determined to follow their M.O.: breaking into the high-end tablet market by any means, even if it’s not entirely deserving of the label. Aside from the outward flourishes and big numbers, average design build, lack of groundbreaking features, and obvious quality oversights with processor-intensive apps hurts the experience; ultimately coming off as a bit arrogant at $399. It’s powerful enough, and serves as a reasonable enough alternative to the iPad Air 2 – but it’s just not clever enough to persuade me of their appointed pseudo-lavish image.