Nexus 9 with Keyboard Folio: Poor design, not ideal for work

Poor design choices prevent the Nexus 9 and Keyboard Folio from being a good solution for work and BYOD.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

Nexus 9 and Keyboard Folio

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Tablets can be good tools for getting work done. That's especially true when you pair the tablet with a solid keyboard. Unfortunately, design choices on Google's Nexus 9 tablet and the optional Keyboard Folio make the pair a poor fit for taking to work.

The Nexus 9 is the latest tablet from Google, built by its partner HTC. It is a premium tablet with a price to match, starting at $399 and topping out at $599 with LTE. The build quality is worthy of the high price given it's one of the few devices running the latest version of Android, Lollipop.

See related: Nexus 9 review on ZDNet

It has good hardware inside, starting with the Nvidia Tegra K1, and rounding out with the high resolution (2048 x 1536) 8.9-inch display. Unfortunately, this hardware is likely the cause of the back of the Nexus 9 getting noticeably warm near the rear camera. This is probably where the CPU and graphics chipsets reside. As troubling as the heat issue is, this isn't the reason why the Nexus 9 is not ideal for using at work.

The big reason why the Nexus 9 tablet from HTC and Google is not the best for taking to work is the lack of a memory card slot. Most Android tablets have a microSD slot (or bigger) to add external storage.

Memory card slots provide an easy way to share large files, like presentations, with colleagues. Business travelers appreciate the ability to load up a memory card with movies and music for those long flights.

The lack of expandable storage hits hard on the Nexus 9, as it is only available for purchase with 16 or 32GB of memory. It can connect to the cloud for storage, but that depends on always having a network connection.

The design choice to skip a memory card slot is silly, and especially so for a premium tablet costing $400 - $600. OEMs making cheap tablets can squeeze a card slot in, why couldn't HTC and Google?

Next: Keyboard Folio: Exercise in frustration

Keyboard Folio misses the mark

Knowing that tablet users often like to pair them with keyboards, HTC and Google designed a folio for the Nexus 9 with a keyboard inside. This $129 accessory has a nice build quality to fit that of the Nexus 9. Unfortunately, it has poor design choices that surpass those of the Nexus 9 tablet.

See related: Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio review on ZDNet

Keyboard folios are designed to protect expensive tablets, while providing a simple way to turn them into temporary laptop replacements. You open it up, set the tablet behind the keyboard, and type away.


Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio smart cover, er, back

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

That's not so easy to do with the Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio. Rather than include physical clips to hold the tablet firmly in place, the Nexus 9 model attaches solely via a magnetic connection. This would be fine if the connection was strong enough to always secure the Nexus 9, but it's not. If you're not careful when tapping on the touch display of the tablet, it can (and far too often does) cause the Nexus 9 to slide down off the backing. That results in it sliding down over the keyboard.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the tri-fold "cover" of the folio is a disaster. It looks just like many of the smart covers for just about every other tablet, both Android and iPads, which are used to cover the display when closed. You lift up the tri-fold smart cover to expose the screen and get busy.


Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio power button (larger than actual size)

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The odd design of the Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio works opposite to all the others. The tri-fold "cover" is actually on the back of the tablet as it folds to form a stand while using the keyboard. This difference doesn't seem like much of problem until you notice that everyone grabs the "cover" and lifts it up to use the tablet. The problem is this detaches the folio from the Nexus 9, which then takes a tumble. I've seen three different people (not counting myself) do this, almost dropping the expensive tablet to the floor.

Another design failing of the Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio is the tiny power button on the folio hinge. It is hard to hit, and there is no indication if it's powered on. It turns itself on and off when the folio is opened and closed, respectively, but when you want to fold it all the way back under the tablet for using the Nexus 9 alone, you must turn the keyboard off or you hit the exposed keys when you grip the tablet. Either the keyboard should turn itself off when folded all the way back or there should be an easy way to turn it off (and indicate that's the case) for such use.


Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio emojis

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

These design choices are bad enough, but not the worst when it comes to using the tablet and keyboard together. The worst design choice HTC and Google made with the Keyboard Folio has to do with emojis.

Emojis? Look at the photo of the keyboard above and you'll immediately notice not one but two oversized keys with a smiley face. Those keys do what you'd expect from keys so marked, they pop up a panel of emojis.

On such a cramped keyboard it's bad enough that they devoted space for four keys to give one-tap access to emojis. Surely they could have put those keys to better use? Like, for Home and Back keys?

Android device users know that the Home and Back keys/buttons are the most-used controls on any device. These functions are integrated into the very core of the Android OS. That's why every device has hardware or soft buttons on every screen, for easy access.


Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio Home and Back buttons

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

These functions are so important that every other keyboard I've used, and that's a lot of them, has dedicated keys for Home and Back. While the tablet they are used with has hardware or soft controls, OEMs always put dedicated keys on the keyboard to allow accessing the functions without lifting hands from the keys.

The longer I use the Nexus 9 and Keyboard Folio, the more frustrated I get with this oversight. Yes, HTC and Google programmed a two-key way to perform each of these important functions, but it's disruptive compared to dedicated keys. Every time I have to pause and either hit the tiny soft buttons on the tablet or hit the Search + Return key on the keyboard, my frustration grows. Especially as I see those two big emoji keys smiling at me instead of doing something useful.

As much as I like the Nexus 9, the lack of expandable storage is a deal-breaker for work. That's especially true given the relatively low maximum capacity available at purchase time. At least Apple offers up to 128GB of storage on the iPad.

The Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio is a hot mess of design choices that make it a bad choice for work purposes. Given HTC's reputation for good design, it's odd that so many bad decisions were made with this product.

That's a shame, as the keyboard otherwise is quite nice. After a brief period of adjustment to the narrow keyboard, rapid touch typing is easily done. This article was written entirely on the Nexus 9 and Keyboard Folio -- with those big smiley faces taunting me the whole time.

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