Two years ago in 2012, Google saw an opening in the tablet market for a small, low-cost device that still offered good performance and a solid display. To this day, the Nexus 7 remains a fan favorite among Android enthusiasts and while Google no longer sells the tablet itself, the second-generation Nexus 7 can still be purchased from some retailers for under $200.
Now, of course, affordable mid-range Android tablets are a dime a dozen.
Ironically, the flood of low-cost Android devices that washed over the tablet industry has left a new gap in the market that Google is now looking to address with the Nexus 9. The company’s first bet in the tablet market landed it with a relative success that other companies rushed to compete with, and now it’s time to see if lightning can strike twice.
FROM EARLIER: The truth about Google and evil
Google has shown us time and time again that it’s not just a jack of all trades, it’s a master of all trades. Sure, not all of Google’s products are blockbusters — in fact, Google shuts down more than one-third of its services — but its successes span a wide range of markets.
The Mountain View-based company is also a pioneer, unafraid to throw cash at “moon shots” that aim much further than most companies dare to tread, at least publicly. Google is at the forefront of work spanning from driverless cars and head-mounted computers to balloons that deliver the Internet to remote regions and nanoparticle-covered pills that detect cancer.
And then there’s the Nexus device lineup.
Nexus smartphones and tablets are something of a stage for Android, providing the most enthusiastic users with a “pure” experience free from the bells and whistles added to the platform by most Android device vendors.
If ever there was a stage for Android, the Nexus 9 is it.
Co-designed and built by HTC, the Nexus 9 is almost certainly the most sleek and solid Nexus device that has ever been created. In working together, Google and HTC did a tremendous job of ensuring that both companies were well represented in the finished product. HTC’s exquisite craftsmanship is beyond apparent, but the tablet is also unmistakably a Nexus device.
For a bit of background on the Nexus tablet, I recently spoke with Alberto Villarreal, the industrial designer at Google who helped lead the design aspects of the project.
Villarreal told me that Google’s decision to approach HTC to help design and build the Nexus 9 was driven by the Taiwan-based company’s flagship phone, the HTC One (M8). There is absolutely no question that the M8 is one of the most beautiful and robust smartphones ever built, so Google knew that HTC would be able to help it bring a gorgeous high-end tablet to market.
And the Nexus 9 absolutely is high-end.
After the market became overrun with small, cheap Android tablets, Google saw a need arise for a larger, premium device. With pricing that starts at $399 for a 16GB Wi-Fi model and tops out at $599 for a 32GB version with an integrated 4G LTE radio, the Nexus 9 is clearly aimed at the premium tablet segment.
The Nexus 9 marks the first time a Nexus device is constructed of metal, and the result is terrific. Metal, of course, is HTC’s area of expertise, and Villarreal noted that the aluminum is not just for rigidity and durability, but also for the look. The tablet succeeds in both areas; the Nexus 9 is very solid but not heavy, and the brushed look of the aluminum edges is sleek and sophisticated.
Don’t let the metal scare you. Despite its aluminum build, the Nexus 9 weighs in at 425 grams, making it lighter than Apple’s razor-thin iPad Air 2, which weighs in at 437 grams. Google’s Nexus 9 is also just 9% heavier than Amazon’s 9-inch Kindle Fire tablet, which is constructed of plastic.
I haven’t experienced any fatigue at all while using the Nexus 9, and it’s also quite comfortable to hold thanks to the soft-touch material covering the back of the device.
Speaking of the iPad Air, I have found that battery life on the Nexus 9 is comparable to my first-generation iPad Air, providing well over one day of intermittent usage that, during my tests, included about 90 minutes of video streaming, plenty of web browsing and other app usage, and plenty of time working on this review with music streaming in the background.
Google’s Nexus 9 is powered by Nvidia’s latest Tegra K1 chipset, which combines a 64-bit dual-core CPU clocked at 2.3GHz with a 190-core Kepler graphics processor. Don’t let “dual-core” fool you, however. Remember how Apple’s dual-core iPhones regularly outperform the quad-core and octa-core competition? Along the same lines, I have found the Nexus 9 to be smoother than most other Android tablets I have tested in recent history.
Apps generally open quickly and animations are fluid on the Nexus 9, with a few exceptions. For one, I have found that rotating the display from portrait to landscape or vice versa takes a beat or two too long, creating an annoying delay. Hopefully the timing is fine-tuned in a future update.
I have also found that, on occasion, apps can be a bit slow to load or switch if there are many apps already open, or if there’s a lot going on in the background. File downloads or app updates really seem to slow other functions down on the Nexus 9.
But multitasking on the Nexus 9 is typically smooth. The device doesn’t quite have multitasking capabilities that are as extensive as something from Samsung’s Galaxy Note tablet lineup, but bouncing between apps is generally quick and easy. The Nexus 9 was designed in part with productivity in mind, and the sizeable display and optional keyboard cover make it a fine device for light work.
Also of note, that beautiful display sits under a pane of Gorilla Glass 3 that is an oil and dirt magnet. It’s almost as if the glass on the Nexus 9 doesn’t have an oleophobic coating at all. Oil from fingers sticks to the soft-touch material on the back of the device, as well.
Beyond the device itself, Google and HTC have created two magnetic covers for the Nexus 9. While Google and HTC did not supply either of the two covers along with my review unit, I spent some time with both covers a few weeks ago and they definitely work as advertised, though the magnets holding them in place were much weaker than what you’ll find on Apple’s Smart Covers for its iPad tablets.
The Nexus 9 cover with the integrated keyboard is definitely the more interesting of the two. At just 5mm thick, the keyboard portion of the “Keyboard Folio” cover adds barely any bulk to the device, and it’s quite comfortable to use despite being only about two-thirds the size of a standard keyboard.
Google’s $129 keyboard cover also features a two-position design that can prop the tablet up at two different angles, and it connects to the Nexus 9 with a quick tap thanks to NFC and Bluetooth 4.1 support. The keyboard’s charger port is integrated into the hinge, and it offers up to 5 months of battery life on a single charge.
Of course, the Nexus 9 isn’t just about work — it’s even better for play.
The beautiful and vivid 8.9-inch QXGA (2,048 x 1,536) display on the Nexus 9 is flanked by dual front-facing BoomSound speakers. HTC has done a great job of building mobile devices with great sound, and the Nexus 9 continues that tradition.
Watching videos is a terrific experience on the Nexus 9, and the front-facing stereo speakers make it even better.
Moving past the hardware, Google’s new Android 5.0 Lollipop software is clearly one of the highlights of the Nexus 9 experience.
The star of the show in Android 5.0 is, without question, Google’s new “Material Design.” The interface has received a major overhaul for the first time in several builds, and the result is stunning.
Here’s a quick video to give you a good idea of what Material Design looks like:
Interested in a deeper dive? Here’s a video from back at Google I/O that takes an in-depth look at the visual elements of Material Design and the guiding principles of the new design language:
The look of Android 5.0 is clearly characterized by bold, bright colors and a fantastic use of shadows, but the new look is much more than that. Every screen has been designed as though it is made up of physical materials, hence the name, and the animations as you interact with Android now enhance the experience in a more natural way.
Material Design is also about more than just Android 5.0, of course.
Google has created a fantastic set of visual and guidelines and best practices that will help third-party developers build apps that look and perform better than ever. The impact of Material Design is already being felt, and the gap in app quality between iOS and Android will narrow significantly in 2015.
Regarding the specifics of Android 5.0 Lollipop, we have discussed them countless times in the past here on BGR. Two highlights shine particularly bright on the Nexus 9, one being revamped notifications and the second being multiple user support.
Where the latter is concerned, it has taken a long time but Android 5.0 Lollipop introduces true multi-user support on the OS level. This means that multiple users in a household can now share one device without having to worry about other people accessing their apps and data.
Google’s implementation is great. While the device is in use, simply drag down from the top of the screen to open the notification pane, then tap on the menu bar to open the new quick settings panel in Lollipop. Tap on the user icon in the top right corner and you can then select the user account you want to log in with.
Accounts can be changed from the lock screen as well, of course, and each user account will obviously have a unique PIN or password, if configured. Lollipop also saves users’ session statuses so they can pick up right where they left off the last time they logged in.
Finally, you can also configure a guest account and leave your Nexus 9 on a coffee tablet for anyone to use.
While Lollipop is clearly a marked improvement in many areas, I do have a few complaints. For one thing, the new app switcher interface is something that many Android fans have lauded, but I am not a fan and I hope Google revises in a future Android build.
In Android 5.0, the app switcher has become a sleek stack of cards that shows each open app in its saved state from the last time it was open on the device. Apps can also now leave multiple cards open. So Chrome, for example, will display separate cards for each open tab.
Users can flip through the cards vertically and then tap on one to launch its associated app.
A good app switcher interface, especially on a tablet, should make good use of large displays. The interface should also make it easy for the user to see as many open applications as possible. Tapping on any open app visible on the display should be simple thanks to large tap targets.
Lollipop’s app switcher misses all of those key points.
When the user opens the app switcher in Android 5.0, only five app cards are visible and only four of them can comfortably be tapped to launch the associated apps. When the Nexus 9 is held lengthwise, only four app cards are visible in the switcher.
The Nexus 9 is a device with a big, beautiful 8.9-inch display, and the app switcher interface does an awful job of utilizing that large canvas. It’s just as bad as the iPad, which only shows three open apps at a time but makes them easy to launch with huge tap targets.
This is a textbook case of form over function. Is it the end of the world? Of course not, but it’s one of a handful of areas where the Android team overprioritized the look of the UI in Android 5.0 and built an interface with a beautiful appearance that sacrifices the user experience.
When all is said and done, the bottom line is this: If you want an Android tablet and “cheap” isn’t your only concern, you absolutely must consider the Nexus 9.
Google and HTC have done a tremendous job on this device, creating the best stage Android has ever had in the tablet category, and it’s home to the best version of Android that Google has ever built. It’s not perfect — nothing is — but its features are vastly improved and its look is sleek and modern.
The size of the Nexus 9 strikes a great balance between the portability of a 7-inch tablet and the utility of a 10-inch tablet. The simple fact of the matter is that smartphones screens are gigantic right now, so there’s precious little room for 7-inch tablets at premium price points. Devices with 10-inch screens are quite large though, so 8- to 9-inch displays are definitely the sweet spot right now.
Google’s Nexus 9 is great for streaming videos, playing music, browsing the web and even for being productive, especially if you toss the Keyboard Folio cover into the mix. That cover drives the price of Google’s latest tablet from $399-$599 up to $530-$730 though, which is a steep investment for a non-essential device with just 16GB or 32GB of storage that is not expandable.
Then again, this is a beautifully constructed device that is versatile, and it has true multi-user support thanks to Android 5.0. $530 for a premium tablet with a keyboard that your entire family can work and play on isn’t a bad deal at all, provided you’ve adopted Google’s cloud-first ecosystem; there is no way 16GB is a usable amount of storage if multiple users are storing media and other files locally, and 32GB might not cut it either.
Google’s Nexus 9 will go on sale online and in stores beginning November 3rd, and it will be available in three fashion-inspired colors: Indigo Black, Lunar White, and Sand.