The Google Nexus 9 is the beginning of a new era, not just for the Google’s Android mobile OS, but also for manufacturer HTC. Introducing the latest 8.9 inch tablet featuring a flagship Android 5.0 Lollipop UI and the first HTC tablet in years, Mobile Geeks review the Google Nexus 9.
With the Nexus 9 Google has paired up with long time partner HTC, but it’s actually the first time they have collaborated on a tablet device together. Google is also debuting its Android 5.0 Lollipop on a 8.9 inch device that arrives in a 4:3 aspect ratio, also a first for a Nexus tablet. Unlike previous Nexus devices which revolved around the concept of creating a premium quality device for the most affordable price point, in this case we see a somewhat higher price of just under $400.
Nexus 9: Hardware Overview
Technically speaking the hardware HTC is providing looks to be totally solid. For the first time we have a 64-bit capable processor in the form of the Nvidia Tegra K1 based on the latest ‘Denver’ architecture, a dual-core chip clocked at 2.5GHz packing a ‘Kepler’ architecture GPU that brings 192 CUDA cores. In addition you are getting 2GB of RAM and a choice of 16GB or 32GB of flash memory but alas no microSD card – this is deserving of a rant later in the article, just you wait. Gigabit WiFi is also featured with the 802.11 ac standard, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC and optional LTE support for bandwidth of up to 150MBit/ sec. The 8.9 inch display has a pretty high resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels and is covered by durable Gorilla Glass 3 from Corning. The chassis itself is constructed using metal which adds a cognizant feeling of robustness.
The 8MP camera has an impressive F/2.4 aperture as well as auto-focus and LED flash. There is also 1.6MP front facing camera and a pair of stereo speakers on the front, sans HTC BoomSound technology unfortunately. If you want the extra memory you may have to stump up an extra $80, which is a handsome amount of money for a additional 16GB, although it still keeps it a few dollars cheaper than the leading Apple tablet. But if you want LTE support you will have to shell out $599 USD as the 4G version is available only in the form of the 32GB model.
Overall, you would have to say that this hardware specification is very close to what you might consider an ideal Android tablet. The price might not be quite what we could expect from a Nexus device with Google turning away from the idea of cheap ubiquity, favoring a more premium flavor that can compete on a level field with competing Apple devices.
Design and Build
The Nexus 9 looks like stealth bomber – at least that’s the impression I have by the Gray-blue version that we have because its slightly curved back and tapered edges somehow remind me of the famous US Aircraft. The device is based around a metal frame which is has been painted black to match the rest of the device most of which consists of the back cover of the device which made an attractive, thin polycarbonate.
The plastic cover on the rear feels quite good in the hand, with the polycarbonate finish enhancing your ability to grip the tablet securely. Although the surface of the back cover is somewhat dull it is by no means immune to fingerprints, especially if there is a little grease involved. Unlike many glossier finishes however, these can be wiped away easily with any kind cloth or even your sleeve. So far the Nexus 9 has survived without any scratches, which is not to say it’s entirely scratch-proof, but thus far for us it seems to do well this respect.
The choice of materials on the back has its advantages and disadvantages, but there is one little problem, a problem that has surfaced in various tear-down pieces available on the net. The back cover is indeed so thin that it can yield to even slight pressure when pushed in. This issues seems to be more pronounced on some samples than on others, and I can reassure readers that on our sample we noticed some give of only up to around 2mm, and was only noticeable when applying a substantial amount of pressure. The Nexus 9 however is not particularly rigid in spite of its metal frame which can be twisted a little, also affecting the display – more on this later in the review.
The camera is positioned in a similar manner to what we saw on the Nexus 5, sitting very close to the corner with its metal frame protruding out. The transition between the edge of the device and the power and volume buttons is a highlight of the device. Despite being made of metal the buttons actually feel less sturdy than you would want and actually wobble just a fraction. These buttons can also be a little difficult to feel for in everyday usage as they actually don’t protrude far enough from the chassis itself. The power button also can be less responsive at times too. The main saving grace here is the addition of Double-Tap-to-Wake, allowing you to bring the device out of standby with a simple tap tap. In reality I have been using the double tap in place of the power button, likewise we can use the onscreen slider to alter volumes rather than engage the volume rocker.
Thanks to the implementation of Gorilla Glass the display of the Nexus 9 is also not so susceptible to fingerprints. It’s interesting to note also the two narrow outlets for the front speakers which can easily become filled with dust. This is mostly because HTC have neglected to add kind grill or other kind of protective layer. The front face contains no logos any other adornments that distract from the simple black, but the problem is when you wipe the front face to clean it you can end up putting all the dust in the speaker bins on either edge.
This might seem a little neurotic, but ultimately these are the kinds of details that separate a good design from a great design. The front facing stereo speakers are of course totally welcome, offering the best possible stereo audio experience without any kind of concealment affecting the ability to hear the audio, a problem we frequently highlight with rear mounted speakers. You could argue that when handling the device in landscape mode the palm of your hand could obscure the speakers. This is possible, but in reality we found it was not a problem.
Visually the Nexus 9 is very attractive with its clean lines and a minimalistic approach that makes it look very modern in keeping with Google’s Material design philosophy. Some users may feel the design overly simplified and even bland, but the main reason the Nexus 9 exists is to flaunt the new Android 5 Lollipop OS. There’s less in the way of bling compared to Samsung or Apple, but what you have instead is maximum understatement – at least here on the grey version it certainly is.
The Nexus 9 has relatively thin bezels along the right and left edges, but there remains enough width that you can hold the device securely in hand without any issues. This is also helped in some respects by the finish of the back cover which also adds additional grip. The thin bezels help make the device fairly compact considering its 8.9 inch display. A weight of 425 grams means it is a touch lighter than the Apple iPad Air 2 but only by a few grams so we probably shouldn’t get too carried away. It is light enough for extended handling and feels well balanced and comfortable.
Under closer inspection we could find no blemishes or irregularities during the review and testing procedure, as long as the minor matter of the give we discerned on the back panel is overlooked. Also on the front, there are no discernible weaknesses in terms of quality, because the cover-glass is employed evenly and consistently throughout. It’s clear that the production and manufacturing takes place at one of HTC’s own factories in Taiwan – with virtually no outsourcing to Chinese contract manufacturers. The Nexus 9 is evidence that Taiwanese manufacturing is largely on par with that which we find in China.
Nvidia Tegra K1 Performance
The Nvidia Tegra K1 ‘Denver’ chip is the 64-bit version of the K1processor from the manufacturer headed up by Jen-Sun Huang. You might be surprised to learn that the K1 Denver is based around two ARMv8-compatible cores, which means we are looking a dual-core mobile chip. How does this affect the performance of the K1 compared to competing quad-core equivalents? In truth, not by much as the K1 delivers some truly impressive scoring in our testing, pulling ahead of the pack in AnTuTu scoring, leaving arguably its biggest competitor, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 in its wake. Compared to the Apple A8X, also a 64-bit capable dual-core SoC, the K1 really shows its muscle in terms of graphics performance with the ‘Kepler’ cores coming to the fore.
Interestingly, the Nexus 9 does not actually exploit the full potential of the Nvidia Denver K1 which according to technical documentation can reach a top core clock of up to 2.5GHz. This is in contrast HTC and Google’s implementation which tops out at only 2.3GHz – the motivation for this apparent under-clocking can most likely be attributed to heat issues with the Nividia chip. We have seen issues with overheating in the past with Nvidia mobile chips, and in the corner near the camera of the Nexus 9 you can detect significant levels of waste heat. Not enough heat to make the device uncomfortable to hold, or enough to affect overall stability, but it can get surprisingly warm during extended benchmarking i.e. when the system is under full load.
In terms of general UI fluidity, the Nvidia K1 does a great job and keeps things very nice and slick with Google’s latest Android release. How much optimization has been achieved between the three companies involved (Google, HTC and Nvidia…), but we can report that in general there were very few moments where the K1 was challenged. Browser performance is impressive even with several tabs open and other processes and applications open in the background. Of course Chrome will only refresh a page when it is being viewed, which helps in terms of memory efficiency, but overall scrolling through web pages is a treat with virtually no stuttering or other issues. In all games we tested, the sheer brute performance of the ‘Kepler’ graphics cores meant that we could comfortably crank up the graphics settings without seeing any performance problems at all.
Overall there is nothing to complain about in purely performance terms as the Nvidia chip works as advertised by the company – i.e. adding plenty of credence to the notion that this is the world’s fastest mobile chip. Some US reviewers (probably with early samples) have reported inconsistent performance, but we found no issues. Possibly the Android 5.0 has been tweaked and improved to iron out these early problems, but in reality we found that general benchmarking, everyday use and also things like app loading speeds to all be very much at the forefront of today’s Android tablet performance.
4:3 IPS Display
The 8.9 inch display of the Google Nexus 9 is a pretty good quality IPS-LCD, but arriving in a slightly unusual 4:3 aspect ratio compared to most Android tablets which feature a longer length 16:9 screen. The QXGA panel offers a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels which implies a pixel density of 264ppi, a respectable but far from leading pixel density. The content on the screen is presented with plenty of sharpness and clarity in photos and text.
Excuse the pun, but the display’s bright spot is its of overall brightness, offering around 460 lumens which is certainly brighter than the majority of flagship tablet devices. This means you will encounter no problems when using the Nexus 9 outdoors in bright sunlight. Reflections are not an issue an the high contrast ratio assures plenty of readability outdoors. Viewing from acute angles are good with screen contents readable and clear even from the tightest of angles. The color temperature too is pretty close to reality with colors reproduced accurately. Photos look very close to we find in reality.
Unfortunately all that glitters is not gold, and we do in fact find one small issue related to the way the screen is manufactured. The devices uses a glass-on-glass design to combine the display and touch panel, and there is a small gap between the display and the display cover. This design typically does not help with reflections, and even though the Nexus 9 does not suffer from excessive reflections it could have been a touch better had the Taiwanese manufacturer opted for a different implementation. Perhaps I’m being a little picky. It is a very good display and one that stands up well to competing devices from Apple and Samsung, if not actually besting them.
Leaking Light Dampens My Joy
Much more irritating as a subject matter, and one that we have discussed at Mobile Geeks before is the issue of light bleeding around the edge of the screen. The Nexus 9 certainly has issues in this respect. When encountering dark backgrounds, the strong LED backlight can cause some lighter patches to bleed over the edges of the display, an phenomena which can be a little distracting when watching 16:9 (standard) ratio movies where you have two dark bands above and below the content. Having light bleed around the edges frankly cheapens the experience as we are more used to seeing this happen on cheaper devices. When it comes to $400 tablet, we could be excused for asking for better component quality control.
I actually took the initial sample back to have it replaced at Media Markt in Berlin, which essentially just exacerbated my frustrations. After waiting in line for quite a while, speaking to several members of staff at no less than three different counters, the completion of five pages of bureaucracy and a wait of around 30 minutes, I finally had a replacement in hand. Scrutiny of the new sample once again revealed light bleeding – just in different areas of the screen.
Of course how you feel about these issues it is dependent on various factors. In normal usage (browsing the web, playing video games, reading e-books etc) the light bleeding is not actually visible. As I mentioned above, it really becomes a problem when watching 16:9 movies and TV content. The problem also seems to be amplified by the automatic brightness adjustment which at times I felt benefited from manual adjustment.
Despite my obvious criticism of the display of the HTC Nexus 9 I want to make it clear that it is in fact a good quality screen and one which is still much better than many other tablet panels I have handled recently. Sufficient sharpness, exceptional brightness, good contrast, pleasant color temperatures and low viewing angles are all clearly overwhelmingly positive. So much so that you could say that the problems with the light bleed stay where they come from – in the background. I also like the that fact that Double-Tap-to-Wake has been implemented – a feature I would be happy to see on all smartphones and tablets. In fact I would also be happy to see devices use a Double-Tap to sleep… perhaps one day.
Memory (…a Small Rant)
When it comes to the internal storage of Google Nexus devices I have a perpetual axe to grind. I simply do not understand the decision from Google and HTC to only offer the Nexus 9 in 16GB and 32GB offerings. It’s a mystery to me. Ok, so many users will feel these are substantial enough for most usage scenarios, but it really does depend. If all you want to do is use YouTube, social media, web surfing and the like, then you will probably feel the 16GB version is sufficient.
But the above usage scenario is not universal and certainly plenty of people, myself included will want more. I like to use my tablet on long journeys where I would like to enjoy a selection of movies and TV. I would also like to install a good chunk of my substantial music library on the device, a real boon when you are traveling and cannot be assured of a connection to the cloud. There is also the issue of gaming. If you want to install any kind of game – even if its just a Candy Crush clone, then you will probably need the 32GB version.
The 32GB version however will set you back an additional $80, a fairly steep price for an extra 16GB. This in a day and age where you can pick up a 120GB SSD for around $60? Seriously? Maybe five or six years ago this would have been acceptable, but in 2014… frankly this is a joke.
We could perhaps blame Google’s somewhat moronic attitude that users are now streaming their content from the cloud so that we really can dispense with decent storage sizes and also ditch the humble microSD card at the same time. You could argue that previous Nexus devices where so price sensitive that there was a genuine need to keep prices down and forgo larger storage options, but the reality is that the Nexus 9 is not bargain basement, it is prices in the middle ground where microSD and 64GB are in fact pretty standard. You can argue in favor OTG connectivity, which is supported on the Nexus 9, but who wants to wave around a USB stick adapter when the device could simply offer a much more elegant and convenient solution.
Sorry, but the average user will invariable end up purchasing the $399 16GB version and if he or she is anything like me, they will inevitably run into storage issues. This is simply one very large fail. 16GB without the possibility of extension may well be acceptable on a smartphone device, but for me it almost destroys the Nexus 9 as a real traveling companion and media consumption device.
Just to give you a clearer idea. Upon the first start up of the 16GB device you will have a mere 11.05GB left to play with. After installing our standard benchmark apps, some other apps and a few games kike Grand Theft Auto 3, you are suddenly faced with only 6.6GB. With modern games taking several gigabytes each, you can quickly see that you will running out space pretty soon.
Rant over. The 2GB of RAM are certainly sufficient. Maybe the Nexus 9 cold have achieved a unique selling point by pushing the boat out and giving us 4GB, a spec that would have fit the capabilities of 64-bit compatible processor used here… I just don’t have the energy left to complain.
Great Audio Quality
Unlike recent flagship smartphones from HTC, the Nexus 9 does not integrate their exclusive BoomSound technology, but as we mentioned earlier you do get a proper set of front facing stereo speakers. Generally speaking they provide quite a good level of audio quality and unlike most other tablet designs, they actually offer a pretty good level of lower frequencies with deeper, bassier tones offering a warm and pleasant audio experience. The volume levels are pretty impressive also and its always great to enjoy true stereo when watching movies.
Of course the actual speakers themselves are quite small, which only goes to impress further. In fact I would argue that the Nexus 9 is one of the best sounding tablets on the market right now. Even though the Nexus 9 doesn’t really approach the audio quality of what we saw recently from HTC and the One M8 smartphone, it makes competitors like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S and even the Apple iPad Air seem positively dull. The placement of the speakers, as mentioned earlier, also helps make the audio experience better as the squarer 4:3 ratio design rarely means that they impaired when held in landscape mode.
On paper at least the camera of the HTC Nexus 9 should be pretty impressive; an 8MP sensor with auto-focus and an F/2.4 aperture lens should mean some decent quality photos. Our testing reveals that in good, bright daylight conditions the snaps look very sharp and clear with few if any issues. The age old problem arises as the light dims with image quality quickly deteriorating quite quickly. Sometimes significant noise levels are present with interior lighting.
The auto-focus works well with fast focusing happening in most circumstances. But this is to be considered within the context of a tablet camera, which by no means has the expectation of competing with high-end smartphone offerings. In the past Google has failed to really deliver a top-notch camera on its Nexus devices, and to be fair, even with very modest expectations here, Google still largely disappoints.
Of course the Nexus 9 showcases the standard or stock camera app that has been revised and updated as per Android 5.0. The camera app actually provides significantly less in terms of raw functionality compared to most device camera apps on the market, and the app itself uses some heavily nested menus that can make certain settings and a little hard to find. Once you dig past the surface and find yourself in the ‘Advanced’ section of the app, you can activate more functions such as manual exposure settings and more.
You can eventually manage to change several core camera settings including photo and video quality and resolution settings, a selfie timer plus of course some more typical photo features such Photo Sphere (360 degree panoramic shots), standard panorama options and not much else. The rear camera is an 8.1MP shooter that will take shots in a 4:3 aspect ratio, needing you to crank it down to 2.1MP to enjoy 16:9 photos. This is clearly not the most powerful sensor, although it does manage to do Full HD video recording reasonably well.
Software: Welcome to Android Lollipop
Nexus. Need I say any more? Well, of course there is the fact that we are getting the all new Android 5.0 Lollipop version from Google, delivered in its purest form as a showcase for how Google intend their new OS to be implemented. The Nexus 9, as you would expect does indeed highlight the look, feel and design of Lollipop, and it is looking good.
Also of interest: Everything you need to know about Android 5.0 Lollipop
You can actually tell that this is the first edition of a new major upgrade to Android as there is a slight sense that this is not a mature OS with some stuff thrown together and redesigned in a slightly haphazard way where we experience a little UI flicker and animations that are not running quite as fluidly as they should. However these instances are actually quite rare and should perhaps be forgiven at this very early and nascent stage of a new mobile platform’s development. Let’s remember that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich arrived almost two and half years ago with 4.2 Jelly Bean arriving not long after that Android 5.0 is the first real major release from Google since Ice Cream Sandwich. Doubtless the very minor blemishes we see today will be solved and eradicated by subsequent updates.
There is also the case of app developers not quite having their act together when it comes to full compatibility on Android 5.0, especially in the case of larger tablet screens as opposed to the smaller real estate found on most Smartphones. Consequently there are several apps where we find the interface is ‘inflated’ to cover the available pixel spread of a tablet, something that is noticeable with large areas of blank space apparent. Google’s new guidelines about how to update and improve apps specifically for Lollipop have been out there for a while now so it’s just a matter of time before we can expect these issues to be resolved.
Users who are new to Android 5.0 invariably coming from a few years of using the previous designs will no doubt find as I did that the new design takes a wee bit of getting used to. Just a few things just kind of feel a bit questionable at times. The new app launcher and notifications area are two examples that were a bit irritating at first plus we now find it actually takes two steps to get to the quick settings area. I would also like to see even more customization options available for the end user, something more akin to the direction that is being taken by CyanogenMod.
When it comes to battery life there is absolutely nothing to complain about. We find it fitted with a 6,700mAh battery, which is thoroughly decent compared to most tablet devices out there. Our test involves using the LaptopMag Battery Tester Tool which in our testing using brightness set at 70% gave a score of 8 hours 50 minutes. This may seem off the pace a little compared to some tablet devices but considering how bright the screen is, it’s a totally reasonable score. With brightness turned down to 50% (approx 250 Lumens) we find the device can squeeze out more than 10 hours. The test itself includes WiFi surfing of about 50 sites keeping the tablet more or less full active during that time, so you can expect around 9 to ten hours of almost continual web surfing, which is pretty solid.
In everyday life the Nexus 9 keeps going for quite a long time and does not disappoint. If you only the device for a moderate amount of time each day, casual sofa surfing at the end of the day for example, you can expect the Nexus 9 to keep going for several days on a single charge. That picture does change quite a bit once you get down to some tablet gaming. The Nvidia Tegra K1 processor has a lot of performance up its sleeve but it also sucks quite a bit of juice doing it. Continual gaming at a reasonable 70% brightness will shorten the expected life span to a mere four to five hours. This is still in keeping with other tablets that use a high-end mobile processor, so we would have to conclude that you are getting good performance when you need it, but solid battery life for most usage scenarios.
Nexus 9: Conclusion
This review stands as a testament to HTC getting back in the game where tablets are concerned, but it also reveals that the Nexus 9 is not actually a work of perfection either. The hardware design is attractive and well built – accusations regarding the flexible back cover are in my experience a little exaggerated, and at the end of the day is really is a non-issue and not one that would prevent me making a purchase. The display used is great quality, only suffering from the afore mentioned and slightly annoying back light bleeding around the edges, which again will probably not represent a deal breaker, as it only becomes an issue in relatively few usage scenarios. When it comes to raw performance also, there are no issues with a tremendously powerful Nvidia Tegra K1 processor that really shows its teeth when it comes to gaming. There are no issues regarding heat and battery life, which is significant when you appreciate the performance that is delivered here.
Overall, the Nexus 9 is an excellent tablet. It is a little more expansive than previous Nexus devices but there is still plenty of quality and good value for money here. Android 5.0 is impressive and thanks to the pure Nexus flavor there is virtually zero in the way of bloatware or manufacturer intrusion to your Google Android Lollipop experience.
Thumbs up to HTC! Keep up the good work because the Nexus 9 proves you are ready to finally stake a claim in the current tablet space, proving just how capable the Taiwanese company can be at building solid and attractive Android tablets.
Written by Roland Quandt, translated and edited by Stewart Haston