The Nexus line has always represented the very best of Google software for mobile devices, whether it’s on smartphones or tablets. Early in 2014, analysts questioned whether or not Google would discontinue the line in favor of a new, budget line of products that got stock Android into even more hands. Fortunately, we still got at least two more iterations of the Nexus line: the Nexus 6 smartphone and the Nexus 9 tablet.
The Nexus 9 is something of a hybrid of 2013’s Nexus 7 and 2012’s Nexus 10. It runs the newest version of Android and will no doubt influence the future of the platform, but is it a tablet that you should seriously consider next to products like the premium iPad Air 2 or budget-friendly Nvidia Shield Tablet?
When I found out that HTC was going to be partnering with Google to produce the Nexus 9, I was legitimately excited for the possibilities. I imagined a thin, full aluminum body with stereo, front-facing speakers that resembled a blown up HTC One M8.
What we got with the Nexus 9 is far more in line with previous iterations of the tablet line and less a HTC-inspired reinvention of itself. It’s a fairly standard black slab that’s modern, but not exactly attention-grabbing. The back of the tablet has the same soft touch plastic that was used on the Nexus 7, except this time we’ve got a black metal frame that runs along the sides of the device. All in all, the design isn’t bad, it’s just a bit forgettable.
In fact, I wouldn’t have a problem with the rather drab look of the device if it the Nexus 9 was a bit more sleek. Instead, however, the Nexus 9 feels strangely thick and heavy in the hand, despite the fact that it weighs in at only 0.94 lbs. It’s lighter overall than both the iPad Air 2 or even the Samsung Tablet S, but it’s also a couple inches smaller, giving it a chunkier feel in the hand. It’s also notably thicker than both those tablets, and also tablets like the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet and even last year’s iPad Air (by just a tiny bit).
But again, thickness and weight isn’t all that matters. If the Nexus 9 would have had stellar build quality that made it feel like a sturdy tablet that could go with you anywhere, the average feel in the hand wouldn’t have been a problem at all. Instead, the Nexus 9 just doesn’t always have the premium build quality that it should. Some users have noted problems with light bleeding in the top right part of display, while others still have complained about defects in the backplate.
While I didn’t have these problems, I did find myself aggravated over the power button and volume rocker, which have so little travel that they barely stick out of the side of the device at all. It’s a big shame, especially considering that there is no other way to wake up the screen other than that one squishy power button (edit: As noted in the comments, the Nexus 9 does have a double-tap to wake feature which can sidestep the power button. That doesn’t excuse the poor quality of the buttons, however). I want to be careful not to exaggerate—the Nexus 9 is still a well-built tablet. It doesn’t creak or feel like a bunch of low-cost pieces put together. However, these small things can become big problems when you’re talking about shelling out $499 for a tablet.
As for what the Nexus 9 does right, there’s plenty. First is the display, which is a beautiful 8.9-inch IPS panel with really nice color reproduction and a decent 281 ppi (pixels per inch) pixel density. The top and bottom bezels are a bit larger all around that I would have preferred, but overall it’s a very nice thing to look at with the display on.
The battery life here is similarly above average. It won’t last as long as the iPad Air 2, but it’ll get you through a full day of heavy use, and probably a few days for the average person.
But most importantly, the Nexus 9 features some great front-facing speakers that once again prove that every smartphone and tablet should have them. They are loud and clear—the one spot where the Nexus 9 easily trumps the iPad Air 2. The Nexus 9’s speakers still aren’t as bright and audible as the HTC One M8’s amazing speakers from the same manufacturer, but they are still the best tablet speakers out there.
While not everything hardware-wise impresses, it couldn’t be a more different situation on the software end of things. The Nexus 9 is the first product to ship with the new Android 5.0 Lollipop installed on it—and it has surpassed all of my expectations. The new version of Android is the biggest change to the look of the operating system at least since Holo, and in my mind, outdoes iOS 8 in many ways.
First off is the notification bar and lock screen, which have both been cleaned up a lot in Lollipop. The notifications are presented as cards that can swiped away or double-tapped to open or act on. My favorite part of the notification bar is the new way you have access your controls such as screen brightness and WiFi. Rather than having to click a tiny button in the top right part of the screen, you can now get to it by just effortlessly pulling down again on the notifications. It’s a tiny little example of the ways that the designers at Google have re-thought the entire experience around fluid gestures intuitive visual cues.
A lot has been said about the new visual flair of Lollipop, but I still find myself loving how the system feels when you interact with it. I love the new app drawer, as well as the new app switcher, which finally feels useful. What Google has done with Material Design is just what Android needed, a perfect balance between intuitivity and ingenuity—the thing the original iOS first accomplished when it was released to the world. It’s a refreshing change from the stark, text-heavy look of iOS 8 or even the cold, rigid feel of Windows 8. It’s colorful, playful, and fun to use without ever feeling cheap or gimmicky, which is quite an accomplishment.
All that being said, Lollipop still doesn’t feel like it’s been properly optimized for tablets. Even the notification bar that I praised earlier still feels a bit weird coming down so narrowly. It’s nothing that holds back the software experience with the Nexus 9, but it does still feel like a missed opportunity without any real multitasking or tablet-only features.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that performance on the Nexus 9 was good, but not perfect. All the animations and proprietary actions feel quick and snappy, but opening apps was still a little slower that I would have liked, and I noticed the system stutter occasionally with heavier apps like Hearthstone.
The Nexus 9 feels like a solid update to the Nexus 7. It runs stock Android Lollipop, which has remade itself into the best-designed mobile operating system in the world. The real problem with the Nexus 9 is that it’s priced somewhere between the iPad mini 3 and iPad Air 2—two devices that have an incredibly premium look and feel. The fact that I’d still be much more willing to recommend the $299 iPad mini 2 to most people over this device is telling enough.
The good news for the Nexus 9 is that even if doesn’t quite have the design pedigree or build quality to compete at the $399 price point, neither do many other 9 or 10-inch Android tablets on the market. The 8-inch Nvidia Shield Tablet is our highest recommended Android tablet from 2014, which comes in at a fantastic $299 price point. If you can handle not having Lollipop for awhile, it’s a really good alternative to the Nexus 9.
If Google or HTC could figure out how to put together a killer product that felt as good on the outside as the software experience feels, I’d happily leave my iPad behind for Lollipop alone. But as of now, the Nexus 9 is bound to be a good tablet, but one made only for a small contingency of Android lovers.