A fleet of new Nexii are here; a phone, a tablet, and a set-top-box. The first to touch down is the Nexus 9, Google's second attempt to make a big Nexus tablet that can hang with the iPad. It's not a total whiff, but it's no home run either.
What Is It
It's Android's iPad Air — or at least that's what it wants to be. It's an HTC-made 9-inch stock Android tablet with a 2048 x 1536 (281 PPI) screen, front-facing speakers, and a burly 64-bit Nvidia Tegra K1 processor. It's also a pretty unremarkable black slab. It costs $400 for the 16GB version and $480 for a 32GB version.
Why Does It Matter
This is the first big Nexus tablet since the great but ill-fated Nexus 10. And with the apparent death of the Nexus 7, it's also the only Nexus tablet. That makes the Nexus 9 the single showcase for stock Android on a big touchscreen. And at $400 it's not a budget option; it comes in right in the same price range as competition like the first-gen iPad Air.
The Nexus 9 looks nice, I guess? It's pretty much just a Nexus 5 scaled up to 9 inches and flattened down a bit. Like the Nexus 5, the only real distinguishing characteristic beyond the "nexus" emblazoned on the back is the Nexus-style camera in the upper left corner. It's utilitarian but deliberate. If you like the way the Nexus 5 looks, this is more of that.
In addition to the soft-touch plastic back, there's a lip of aluminum around the edge, but other than that it's mostly just touchscreen. Even the front facing speakers are easy to miss unless you're looking for them. The other color options (like "Lunar White" and
"Human Flesh" "Sand") make some of the tablet's details pop a little bit more, but if you're into 2001: A Space Odyssey-style monoliths, the Indigo Black is the way to go.
In a way, the Nexus 9's minimalist exterior could be a Very Good Thing. After all, a tablet is just a screen that makes sound, and it makes sense the rest of the device should melt away. The Nexus 9 just doesn't do that elegantly.
For instance, there's an asymmetrical antenna cut at the top of the tablet, a little shock of black that sticks out like a sore thumb on the versions with more color. (Black on black is easier to miss.) Worse is the way the back of my Nexus 9 actually bends when I grip it. Not like it's structurally weak or anything, but like the thin soft-touch layer isn't properly stuck to the plastic underneath. It makes the Nexus 9 feel more like a magazine or a stack of papers than a premium $400 tablet. It's a tiny detail, but it bothers me constantly.
Otherwise though, the Nexus 9 feels great to hold. The slightly beveled metal edges are nice, and that soft-touch gives added grip that makes one-handing the Nexus 9 feasible. It never feels like it's getting away from you once you clamp down. I watched a whole episode of House Hunters International while holding the Nexus 9 in front of my face by the bottom bezel and the only thing that hurt afterwards was my soul. The buttons are nice too: pleasantly clicky but protruding as little as possible. Aside from the quirks it's a nice piece of hardware, but it's nothing that stands out. And when it comes to single-handed use, the iPad Air 2 is better and the featherwight Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 better still.
The 2048 x 1536 LCD screen—like so much of the rest of the Nexus 9's design—is totally competent (even great) if nothing to really write home about. It's no Galaxy Tab S AMOLED, but it can mostly hold its own next to the iPad Air 2's new gapless LCD display. The Nexus 9 boasts a slightly higher PPI, but you'd be hard-pressed to notice Both look great.
On the downside, the Nexus 9 screen can be a little glarey, and there's some pretty seriously noticeable light-leak on the top edge. It's not too bad when the screen's displaying a light color, or when the tablet is tilted towards you. But if you're holding the Nexus 9 in portrait mode and letting it lean back a little bit (as you're likely to do), it's the kind of thing you can't unsee afterwards. There's a little bit of leakage on the sides too, although you kind of have to go looking for it, and the bottom is totally fine.
Overall it just sort of feels like the Nexus 9 was squeezed into whatever body could house it. There's little to none of HTC's wonderful aluminum phone design peeking through here. The buttons are nice, but that's about it. There's nothing about the design that's counter-intuitive or bad. It just makes me realize that maybe the platonic ideal of a tablet isn't just a naked slab of screen, but rather a slab of screen with something about it you can love, or at least like. And the Nexus 9 doesn't really have that.
The best part of the Nexus 9 is pure, unadulterated Android Lollipop. It's not a stretch to say that Lollipop is prettiest and most cohesive version of Android ever. It's probably the best-looking mobile OS period, snagging the crown from Windows Phone. Material Design is stunning, and the Nexus 9 is the first device to really show it off. I love just swiping around, watching the app drawer expand and close, pulling the down and expanding the delightfully bouncy notification panel, and generally trying not to think about how it's all going to be ruined on other phones that cover it in proprietary software that doesn't look half as good.
Material Design's fascination with depth and layers is fantastic. So are the animations. And the delightful color contrast. It really just makes every little mundane thing you do fantastic to look at. And hardware-specific Lollipop tricks like "double tap the screen to wake the device" and the "OK Google Now from anywhere" are fun and occasionally useful little gimmicks.
But it doesn't always run great on the Nexus 9. Yes, the Nexus 9 has the powerful new 64-bit Nvidia Tegra K1 guts that we've seen running some pretty impressive graphics demos, but somehow it doesn't always translate to silky smooth performance on the homescreen and around the OS. The Nexus 9 isn't constantly slow or anything, but there are just little performance hitches here and there. Autorotate is slow and laggy, for instance. Slower than the Kindle Fire HDX, iPad Air 2, or even an iPad 3. There's often a beat between the time I tap an app to open it, and the time it actually opens. And after I close an app or game, I can catch the homescreen stuttering on swipes for a few seconds. Overall, swipes and bounces and Lollipop animations just don't seem as fluid and silky as they should on a flagship tablet.
The apps themselves, for the most part though, run fine, though there are a few exceptions. Dead Trigger 2 has a less-than-stellar frame rate at the suggested "Ultra High" settings; that's absurd considering that the iPad Air 2—with the same resolution—can run it beautifully at the same settings with no problems whatsoever. But graphical performance isn't consistently bad. Telltale's The Wolf Among Us powers along and looks just fine.
The weirdness is probably due to Android Lollipop coming off the assembly line a little hot, and hopefully this will get smoothed out, but for the time being it's disheartening to see that K1 isn't just steamrolling everything I throw at it. And these games aren't even the real horsepower testers; Portal, Half-Life 2 and Trine 2 still need some updates before they'll run on the Nexus 9.
Performance aside, Android Lollipop has some shortcomings on bigger screens and the Nexus 9 really highlights them. Mainly it comes down to a lot of stupid shit in landscape mode.
Unlike iPads, which have a physical button that stays in the same place, Android's navigation buttons always migrate to the bottom of the screen. So in landscape mode, the home button moves down to one of the hardest places to reach, and there's no way to stop it. It's not just that either. When you pull down the notification menu, it lives in the center of the screen too, occupying the no-man's land neither thumb can easily reach while the thumb-friendly space on either side goes completely unused.
You really gotta stretch for that home button.
Then there's the app selection. Android is by no means a wasteland—it's almost on par with iOS in many ways—but the big screen has a tendency to highlight the lack of thought that generally goes into Android tablet apps. Twitter on an Android tablet doesn't have the same thumb-friendly navigation sidebar that it does on iOS. Other apps fare way worse. I was playing The Room on my phone, and thought Oh hey, this would be way better on a bigger screen! Hop over to the Nexus 9 aaaaaaaaand scaled up phone app that looks like shit. It's a bummer, especially since The Room originally launched on iPad and looks great on that big screen.
Look at those jaggies.
Watching TV or movies on the Nexus 9 is pleasant. Those front-facing speakers are loud enough that I don't have to go fumbling for headphones just to catch the quieter dialog in Game of Thrones. They don't sound particularly amazing (the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 has them beat hands-down) but they are both good and more importantly, loud.
When I first started using the Nexus 9, it had pretty great battery life for straight video playback; I got 9 hours and 10 minutes of HD Nyan Cat on YouTube before the Nexus gave out. The problem was that the Nexus 9 was chewing through battery on the homescreen, and just generally swiping around pretty low-impact apps. Since then, the Nexus 9 got a graphics driver update which I think may help. At the very least the tablet doesn't get as hot anymore, which is a very good sign. I'll have to try it some more and update here afterwards, but so far it seems like the battery life has improved. I'm expecting a good two days of consistent but relatively light use.
The 8MP shooter on the back is adequate for catching pictures of the cat or the dog or the kids doing something cute when your phone is in the other room. But it's a tablet camera, which is to say "not the first thing you should reach for." There's no optical image stabilization or anything here, unlike the Nexus 5. The autofocus can also be a little sluggish.
The Nexus 9 also has an optional keyboard—as more and more tablets do—so you can use ostensibly use it for Work. I haven't gotten much time to try one outside of a few minutes at a Google event, but in that short time it felt pretty good! Completely usable, which is saying something so far as tablet-keyboards go. Still, at $130 it's pretty expensive, so unless you are really pressed for space, it's probably worthwhile to just pick up an Amazon Basics keyboard or something.
Everything—especially tablets—should have front-facing speakers. At first the Nexus 9's speakers seemed dangerously close to the edge, but my palms actually didn't block them they way they block the bottom-mounted stereo speakers on an iPad Air. They aren't the best sounding tablet speakers in the world, but they're better than most, and more than good enough for TV and movies.
Android Lollipop is great. I never want to stop using it. It's pretty and more intuitive than ever. The Nexus 9 doesn't really show it off to the max—Android still isn't really built for tablets, and features like better lock screen notifications are just going to be more handy on a phone—but it's still a joy. Android has never felt so cohesive and purposeful.
Battery life seems good so far.
Tap to wake is fun.
Nexus devices are supposed to show off the perfect mesh of stock Android and thoughtfully designed hardware, but the Nexus 9 puts Android's big-screen shortcomings front and center. I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate having to really deliberately stretch my thumb down to hit the home or back button when I'm using the Nexus 9 in landscape mode. Ditto reaching to the center of the screen to interact with the notification panel.
Fit and finish just isn't there. The loose soft-touch backing and the light leak at the top of the screen are persistently annoying.
With a 64-bit Tegra K1, the Nexus 9 should positively scream, but it doesn't. A graphics driver patch that came in during the review process (and that new tablets should ship with) improved the Nexus 9 from a glitchy mess to something more stable but still underwhelming. Later updates might make it even better, but the Nexus 9 just doesn't feel as freakin' sweet as Android's flagship tablet—or even just a $400 tablet—should.
Should You Buy It
Probably not. The more expensive iPad Air 2 blows it away from a performance standpoint, and the original iPad Air is now priced identically to the Nexus 9. Even though it's a year older it will probably serve you better as an all-around tablet, due to some of the Nexus 9's performance and fit-and-finish failings. Not to mention that the iPad mini 2 starts at $300 — or $350 for 32GB — and it's only an inch smaller than the Nexus 9. Just wanna watch movies and TV? The $380 Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 has a great screen and best-in-class audio that no other tablet can match.
In Android-world, the Nexus 9's competition is less fierce. The fantastic 7-inch Shield Tablet is getting stock Lollipop, but it's on the smaller side. The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 starts at $400 and has a beautiful screen, but it's also loaded up with Samsung's TouchWiz UI, which slows it down and uglies it up. So if you want stock Android and stock Android specifically (who can blame you?) the Nexus 9 is fine. Good even! But not quite great.
Don't get me wrong: the Nexus 9 isn't an irredeemably bad device; it's just a pretty mediocre option in a world full of other tablets that really stand out in one way or another. In a world that's already full of tablets that work just fine for the most part, you need to have a really good excuse to buy a new one. Killer performance should be the Nexus 9's strong suit, but right now it just doesn't stick the landing. So unless you're a Nexus junkie, there's really no reason to get a Nexus 9 in place of, or in addition to anything else.
Photos and GIFs by Nick Stango.
Nexus 9 Specs
• OS: Android 5.o
• CPU: Nvidia K1 Tegra 64-bit
• Screen: 8.9-inch 2048 x 1536 LCD 281 PPI
• RAM: 2GB
• Storage: 16GB or 32GB
• Camera: 8MP rear / 1.6 MP front
• Battery: 6700 mAh Li-Po
• Price: $400 (16GB), $480 (32GB), $600 (32GB + LTE, coming soon)