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Featured Review: Google Nexus 9

November 9, 2014 - Written By Alexander Maxham

HTC Is back in the Nexus Family with a 4:3 aspect ratio, 8.9-inch Tablet!

It’s been a while since we’ve really had a powerful Nexus tablet. The Nexus 7 (2013) is over a year old, but wasn’t a really powerful tablet, even when it was announced. It was also what some would call a small tablet. And even too small for some people. The Nexus 10 came out in 2012, and was an amazing tablet, pretty high end as well. One of the first with a 2560×1600 resolution display as well. Now Google is back with a new tablet, this time a 8.9-inch tablet. And some could say they went back to the original Nexus manufacturer – HTC – to do it. This is our review of the HTC made Google Nexus 9.

Editor’s Note: We’ve been using the 32GB WiFi Nexus 9 for a little under a week. This is also on pre-release software (We did get an OTA last night, but it’s hard to test out an OTA overnight for a review), and things are likely to change after this review is published. Especially for bugs and such. So please keep that in mind.

Video Review

Hardware

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With the Nexus 9 being made by HTC, we expect high-end and premium hardware right? Well that’s exactly what you get. Now it’s not a fully metal tablet, like the HTC One M8. But it does definitely feel high-end in your hands. The back is a soft-touch plastic, similar to the Nexus 7, and looks a lot like the Nexus 7 but more square. The sides are metal and the front is glass. It feels nice and solid as well. We also have front-facing speakers here that we absolutely love, but they aren’t as big as the HTC One M8 and M7’s speakers are. But there is Boomsound for those wondering. On the right side, we’ve got the power button and volume rocker, while the left side is empty. The top has the 3.5mm headphone jack and the bottom has the micro USB port. On the back there’s the nice Nexus logo and 8MP camera with flash. The camera does stick out a little bit, unfortunately.

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Under the hood, HTC teamed up with NVIDIA for the Tegra K1 processor to power the Nexus 9. Now this isn’t the first time we’ve had a Tegra processor in a Nexus tablet. The original Nexus 7 had a Tegra 3 chip inside. However, the Tegra K1 is a much more powerful processor for the Nexus 9. We’re looking at a processor that can deliver desktop-grade graphics onto your Nexus 9. I have played a few games on the Nexus 9, and it’s pretty damn good. I played Asphalt 8 and Grand Theft Auto, and both performed like champs  on the Tegra K1 with 2GB of RAM.

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The Nexus 9 is  a 4:3 aspect ratio, which the Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 were both 16:9 before. So this tablet is a bit more square this time. Which is also why the Nexus 9 has a bit of an odd resolution and looks like an iPad. Since the iPad is also a 4:3 tablet. As far as using a 4:3 tablet, it’s actually really nice. Of course, some apps do need to be updated to work better on this type of display, but that’s always the case with Android tablets. As most apps aren’t optimized for a tablet, on Android.

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So what about the display? Well it’s a 2048×1536, and yes that’s lower than the Nexus 10 was, but it still looks amazing. We’re looking at about 281 pixels per inch on this IPS LCD panel here. It looks really good, especially with Lollipop here. Which we’ll talk more about Lollipop a bit later.

Benchmarks
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Normally we don’t do benchmarks in reviews. But where the Nexus 9 is a 64-bit tablet, and it’s running the NVIDIA Tegra K1, we felt we needed to run AnTuTu. In which we got over 57,000. That’s the highest I’ve ever seen. By contrast, the Galaxy Note 4 scored around 44,000.

Battery Life

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Battery Life isn’t terrible here, but it’s not amazing either. But that’s common with NVIDIA powered Tablets for some reason. And that’s why the HTC One X (International version) was pretty terrible on battery. When you’re just browsing the web and playing on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, etc., the battery is quite good. But switch over to playing games like Dead Trigger and Asphalt 8, and it starts to die pretty quickly. That said, I’m sitting at about 4 hours and 13 minutes screen on time with 40% left. I had the brightness at about 20-25% as well the entire time. So it’s pretty good as long as you aren’t playing graphic intensive games for long periods of time.

Software

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I might get a little long winded here, as there is a lot of things that are new in Lollipop on the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. But I have a feeling most of you won’t mind.2014-11-01 16.22.27

With KitKat we saw a bit of a change in the UI with the white status bar icons and the immersive mode. But Android 5.0 Lollipop went a whole lot further here. Not only do we see a complete overhaul in the UI, but there are a ton of new animations and features. The animations are so good, that I spent about 10 minutes the other day just playing with the animations in the Nexus 9. So we’ll start at the lock screen here. Swipe from the middle opens up the home screen, while swiping from the right brings you into the camera (if you swipe from the left on the Nexus 6 it’ll jump into the dialer). You can also see your notifications from the lock screen. Which can also be turned off. But if you turn it off, you also won’t see the icons for these notifications in the status bar. Which is a bit saddening. The home screen hasn’t changed a whole lot. But with the Google Search widget at the top of the screen, instead of it being a bit frosty like it was in KitKat it’s not a white background. And so is the app drawer. Google Now is still on the left side of the home screen. Now when you tap the app drawer icon, watch the animation. It’s really cool. The app drawer background is also white now, and it basically looks like the drawer is floating on top of your screen. And it looks really nice.

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So what about the notification tray? Well It looks and acts a lot different now. When you pull down the tray, you’ll see the date and time, along with the connectivity icon (for WiFi or LTE depending on the device) the battery and your profile picture. Below that is your notifications. And at the very bottom is a clear all button. Now if you pull it down a bit more, you’ll see it expand to give you your quick toggles. Which we’ve got a brightness slider, along with WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Auto-Rotate, Flashlight, Location and a Chromecast toggle. So now you can cast your screen to the Chromecast or Nexus Player without using the Chromecast app. Which is really nice. And again, the animations in the notification drawer is really nice.

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Still want to get to Google Now from anywhere in the OS? Well that’s easy. Press the home button and slide up to the Google Now icon. Although the appearance has changed a bit.Before you’d see a thin line going from side to side, not there’s just the button there. Almost like it’s floating in mid-air.

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Onto the settings app. Google has done something with the Settings app that they’ve needed to do for a while, on tablets at least. And that’s make it a two-column setup. It’s nice to see that Google is working to optimize the OS for tablets, but there’s still a ways to go. With the settings app, everything is still in the same place, mostly. But there’s less scrolling to do here. Especially when compared to the Nexus 6 and many Samsung devices.

We do have Tap & Pay here on the Nexus 9. Now I haven’t had a chance to use it on the Nexus 9, but have used it on the Nexus 6 and it worked great. Another cool feature that Google has included is Smart Lock. So what exactly is Smart Lock? Well it’s a feature you can use to keep your device unlocked by using a NFC sticker, Bluetooth Watch or even a Bluetooth system in your car. I’ve used it with my LG G Watch R, and it works a lot like the Trusted Devices feature that Motorola introduced last year with the Moto X.

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As far as applications go, there’s only a few here that have been updated to Material Design that aren’t available on other devices right now. And that includes the Calendar app. As well as the contacts app. But many of the others have been updated and pushed through the Google Play Store already.

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Of the apps that are using Material Design already is Gmail and the Calendar. Which we’ll be spending a bit of time talking about here. Gmail is now Material Design, which we expected. And it does look really nice. It’s also much faster than the old version of Gmail was. Specifically on the Nexus 9, it looks more like the iPad version of Gmail, complete with the slideout drawer to get to the different tabs for Promotions, Updates, etc., and your different accounts. The status bar does turn red like the top part of the Gmail app, which looks really nice. Otherwise, all the functionality is there already. Now you can also add Microsoft Exchange, Yahoo, and Outlook email addresses. Which is really nice to have, actually. Since you won’t need a separate app for those other email address now.

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Now the Calendar got a huge update. I mean a huge one. It’s much nicer to use, not to mention faster. We’re looking at some pretty sweet background images, which you can see from the images below. In the slideout menu you can change accounts as well as check or uncheck different calendars that it shows you.

Camera

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While we don’t suggest you go out and take pictures with a 9-inch tablet, there is a camera there. So we did test it out. It’s a 8MP camera with a flash on the back of the device. It’s not the best camera out there (that goes to the DROID Turbo, but you didn’t hear that from me), but it’ll get the job done. I have a feeling most people will use the front-facing camera, for Hangouts, Skype and apps like that.

Final Thoughts

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So it’s been a while since I reviewed a Nexus device. This is actually the first one since the Nexus 10 in 2012. It’s always fun reviewing new Nexus hardware because not only do you have great hardware, but also a new version of Android, which in this case it’s a huge update to Android. Unlike with Samsung, LG and HTC devices where there’s a skin on top of Android. The Nexus 9 is definitely a great tablet. But we always say the same thing it seems. That the Nexus 9 is a great tablet, but again it’s still lacking tablet optimized apps, as well as a better optimized UI. It’s gotten better since Jelly Bean and KitKat but it still has a way to go.

Having said that, Lollipop looks amazing on the Nexus 9. It also looks amazing on the Nexus 6, which we’ll be posting that review pretty soon, so stay tuned. The Nexus 9 should be shipping today, if you pre-ordered one. And if you haven’t yet, it’s $399 for the WiFi 16GB model, $479 for the WiFi 32GB model and $599 for the 32GB LTE model. No 64GB model right now, unfortunately.