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Google Nexus 9 review: HTC is back, but tablet pricing rivals Apple

Google is launching a Nexus tablet at a premium price. Thankfully, HTC's premium design is part of the package.
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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 20 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Google Nexus 9

It has been a while since I owned a Nexus tablet and — after trying out the new Nexus 9 — I don't think that is going to change anytime soon. The hardware is fine, but Google still doesn't seem that focused on optimizing things for the tablet form factor and the price seems too high for the specifications offered.

The Google Nexus 9 is the first Nexus tablet from HTC and just the second Nexus device that HTC has been able to create. HTC made the Nexus One, but has been absent from the Nexus brand for a while. The Nexus 9 carries over a couple of HTC elements, but is still a pretty basic tablet with a focus primarily on the media experience.

Specifications

  • Processors: NVIDIA Tegra K1 64-bit 2.3 GHz processor and 192-core Kepler GPU
  • Display: 8.9-inch LCD TFT with 2048 x 1536 pixels in a 4:3 aspect ratio
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Internal storage: 16GB and 32GB with no external storage capability
  • Cameras: 8-megapixel rear and 1.6-megapixel front facing
  • Radios: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, near-field communications (NFC)
  • Battery capacity: 6,700 mAh with stated video playback up to 9.5 hours
  • Dimensions: 228.25 x 153.68 x 7.95 mm, and 425 grams

 

On the hardware

The Google Nexus 9 is well built, but doesn't have the same premium feel as an iPad. HTC did a good job with the metal frame and soft-touch back. Fairly large bezels on the top and bottom of the front enable you to hold the tablet securely and comfortably.

HTC brought its front-facing speaker BoomSound technology to the Nexus and the tablet sounds great without any headphones plugged in. HTC also does a great job with LCD displays and the Nexus 9 looks excellent.

It has been some time since I tried a NVIDIA-powered device and the Nexus 9 seems to run just fine. I did notice some serious warming of the upper back while I was watching a movie with Google Play Movies.

I tested out the black model, but would like to see what the sand (tan) one looks like, too. All three colors have black fronts, which is good for media.

Charging takes place via a standard microUSB port on the bottom, with the 3.5mm headset jack on top. The power and volume buttons are on the right side. A camera and flash are tucked away up in the upper-left corner of the back. I never use rear cameras on a tablet so don't care much about its performance.

HTC also made a keyboard accessory for the Nexus 9, but it is very expensive at $129 and I did not get a chance to test it out. I am curious to see if Google lets you do more than just enter text like Apple or if there is some real keyboard support on Android.

Pros Cons
Good quality design, fit, and finish Minimal tablet-optimized apps available from Google
Great sounding HTC BoomSound speakers High price
Launches with Android Lollipop OS Low available storage capacity

On the software

The Nexus 9 is the first device to launch with Android Lollipop. One of the first things I noticed was the Google launcher with Google Now available on the left-most home screen panel. The notifications area has changed a bit with the material design interface, in regards to the taps and icon actions.

One major difference I have seen with Lollipop is the way that my Exchange email is now available in the Gmail application. It is nice to have one email application to manage different services, but — unlike iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry — there still is not a single unified inbox in the new Gmail application.

I did find a couple of apps that were optimized for tablet use, including the calendar and Gmail applications that show previews and other data when you rotate into landscape orientation.

While Samsung Android tablets have had multi-user mode, it is nice to see it in a Nexus. You can also interact with more notifications on the lock screen.

Pricing and availability

The Nexus 9 is available in black, white, and — soon — sand, in 16GB or 32GB capacities. The 16GB Wi-Fi models are $399; the 32GB Wi-Fi models are $479; and the LTE model will be priced at $599 in black.

The Wi-Fi models are shipping this week. LTE availability is not yet known. The $129 keyboard is also shown as coming soon.

The competition

The competition includes the Apple iPad mini 3, Amazon Kindle Fires, and the various Samsung tablets. The mini 3 is $399 for 16GB, $499 for 64GB, and $599 for 128GB. I find  16GB is insufficient for tablets, which commonly are used to watch movies that often take up 1GB or more of space. The Nexus 9 is similar in price to the Apple iPad mini 3, but I think Apple offers much more for the consumer and also has a more robust tablet app store.

Amazon has a number of Kindle Fire options to choose from and with Android tablets really only offering a big screen media experience, then an Amazon Fire makes perfect sense. The Fire HDX 8.9 is $379, but comes with a better processor, better display, and higher capacity option. It is focused on the media and eBook experience, which makes sense for a tablet.

Samsung has various 8-inch tablets available for lower cost with more features. These do not have Android Lollipop and Samsung doesn't seem to support updating its tablets that often either.

Conclusion 

It is a bit disappointing that Google isn't still offering up the Nexus 7, as that was a tablet you could easily use with one hand. The Google Nexus 9 is a well-made tablet running the newest version of Android and will appeal to the Android faithful.

I don't see a compelling reason for an Android tablet, unless you want to watch media on a larger display and, if so, why not get an Amazon Fire device? The Nexus 9 is a good way to test out Android Lollipop, but it is rather expensive. While it is priced similarly to Apple iPads, Apple offers much more in terms of tablet-optimized apps. To choose an Android tablet, I think you either have to hate Apple or need to find something at a much lower cost.

The Nexus 7 was priced at just $229 and $269 so it was an easy device to recommend. Do you think the Nexus 9 is worth $170 more? Now might be a good time to look around for a Nexus 7 since it will get the Lollipop update too.

Contributor's rating: 8 out of 10

Browse the Gallery

 

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Soft touch back of the Nexus 9

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8 megapixel rear camera and flash

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HTC Nexus 9 and HTC Flyer 3G tablets

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Power and volume buttons on the right side

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The camera is close to the headphone jack

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Lollipop home screen panel

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New notifications area

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Quick settings in the notification area

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Settings screen

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Google Now is just a swipe away on the home screen

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Widgets for your home screen panels

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Application launcher in landscape

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Application launcher in portrait

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New Gmail app with Exchange support

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Google+ in landscape

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New Gmail in landscape

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Month view in the calendar

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Agenda view with a tablet-optimized interface

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Google Play Store

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