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Nexus 9 REVIEW – Android 5.0 Lollipop and HTC, The Perfect Combo?

It’s probably been more than a year since rumors of an HTC Nexus tablet first cropped up and, alas, Google eventually revealed the device quietly on its blog in October.

We had a chance to check it out early before we received our review unit, and now we’ve finally had enough time to actually sit down and use the device, play with the brand new Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system (check out our visual tour, too) and just get a general feel for how the Nexus 9 performs as a tablet.

It’s an impressive device both on paper and off. HTC included NVIDIA’s powerful new Tegra K1 processor, its beloved BoomSound front-facing speakers and a large, crisp display.

As with most products, however, the Nexus 9 is not without its faults. There are a few areas where we think it could have been improved.

Let’s take a closer look at what we like, and what we don’t, now.

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Nexus 9 Video Review

Hardware

The Nexus 9 is very much a delivery mechanism for Android 5.0 Lollipop. After all, the software is probably the big reason most folks are attracted to this tablet and why, if you’re a gadget enthusiast, you’re picking up the Nexus 9 early (or already have.) Even still, there’s a lot to discuss on the hardware side of the Nexus 9.

First – we noticed a difference between the white and the black models offered by HTC. The white model is certainly the more premium looking and feeling of the two devices, offering sleek metal edges and a smooth, though not soft-touch, back panel. The black model, on the other hand, offers the same metal edges but they aren’t as prominent or shiny, and the soft-touch back grabs fingerprints. If you push lightly on the HTC logo on the back, the tablet gives and depresses, which concerned us at first but had no real effect on our usage.

Your portal into Android 5.0 Lollipop is the large 8.9-inch QXGA (2048 x 1536-pixel) display. It has a 4:3 aspect ratio which we actually ended up liking quite a lot. In general, Jon Rettinger and I agreed that the display isn’t that impressive. The colors aren’t as vibrant as what you’ll find on a Samsung Galaxy Tab S product, which offer the best screens on the market, and it just didn’t give the sort of “wow” factor that a screen with such a sharp resolution does. Like the back, it also easily attracts fingerprints, far more than we noticed on other tablets or smartphones.

The sharpness is appreciated in certain areas, however, like when I was reading a book or magazine in Google Play. The text comes through nice and crisp and helps alleviate strain on the eyes. It also gets nice and bright, but that’s another issue: there’s definitely some pretty bad screen bleeding that’s particularly noticeable when there’s a lot of black on the screen, like during the device’s boot or watching a dark movie. It’s pretty frustrating, and in general the blacks don’t get nearly as dark as they do on AMOLED displays.

The screen is flanked by two front-facing HTC BoomSound speakers, but they didn’t sound as good as the speakers found on the HTC One (M8). The sound was admittedly hollow, though we were OK with that given the trade-offs that front-facing speakers provide. They weren’t muffled while we held the device, even if our hands covered them a bit, and we appreciated the direct audio blasting at us in Spotify or while watching movies and videos on YouTube.

Moving around the device, you’ll find a microUSB charging port on the bottom, two volume buttons and a power button on the right-side, which also feel a bit chintzy and hard to reach, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top. There’s a 1.6-megapixel camera in the top bezel, right smack in the middle, and an 8-megapixel camera on the back of the tablet with a single LED flash. The camera sticks out a bit, which looks funny, but it didn’t affect our use of the tablet.

Overall, the hardware is solid but just not as impressive as HTC’s array of smartphones, which have led us to expect near-flawless industrial design.

HTC Google Nexus 9-18

HTC Google Nexus 9-9

HTC Google Nexus 9-8

Performance

We already know that NVIDIA’s Tegra K1 processor is a beast in the jungle. The NVIDIA Shield Tab blazes and is capable of playing console-quality games, and the same chip is hiding inside the Nexus 9. Google doesn’t really show off its prowess, however — that’ll come as developers create new titles and apps that take advantage of the power.

On the other hand, you’ll note that Android 5.0 Lollipop flies — everything is blazing fast. Take for example, the experience you’ll find switching through multitasking apps. We opened up the task-switcher and, with about 20 apps open, flipped through them as if it was a well-greased Rolodex. It’s really incredible to see how far Android has come, and how smooth it runs on a first-class processor.

We had some issues with choppy gaming on the Nexus 9, in Real Racing 3, for example, though an update from Google helped fix that a little bit. We suspect this is a software problem that will be fixed more over time, particularly since we know the K1 is designed to crush games.

If it’s raw numbers you’re looking for, the Nexus 9 notched up a score of 10,843 in Quadrant, and 33,993 in AnTuTu.

Software

As I touched on briefly in the performance section, the Nexus 9’s hardware and Lollipop are a perfect match for one another; Lollipop runs and looks beautiful. We’ve already gone into some deep dives with Android, discussing the changes and new features, so be sure to check out those articles as well.

In general, however, you’ll find that Android 5.0 is by far the best and most advanced version of Android ever. And why shouldn’t it be? Everything has been refreshed with a brand new “Material Design” that creates a much more aesthetically pleasing user interface. There are small touches here and there — I particularly like the light animations — that make the whole operating system feel so much more alive. It’s incredible how far we’ve come from Android Honeycomb, which was more like a Tron costume.

Multitasking is much easier and more fluid, as I already discussed, and I’m particularly fond of the spacious and clean keyboard. Additionally, you’ll find support for multiple users, increased encryption and more. Also, we highly recommend installing Google’s new Calendar application, which is more refined, colorful and robust than ever before.

I also really like the lock-screen notifications, which you can finally interact with. I’m well aware that third-party options have existed for a long time, but it’s nice to see that these are fully baked into Android now. On that same note, the double-tap to wake function is another welcome feature, and one that we’ve seen on other high-end flagships like the LG G3. It’s convenient for when you want to quickly check a notification without having to dig around for the power button.

There are some oddities in the software, however. Gmail now supports all e-mail accounts, which is great, but Google oddly still includes a shell of an e-mail application on the tablet. Open it and it just directs you to Gmail. Jon and I both found this to be rather silly.

Overall, Jon and I agree that Android has certainly caught up, if not surpassed, the visual beauty of iOS on a tablet. Where it was once clunky looking it’s now much more refined, and a true pleasure to use.

HTC Google Nexus 9-12

HTC Google Nexus 9-11

HTC Google Nexus 9-10

Camera

I was really impressed by the performance of the 1.6-megapixel front facing camera. I didn’t use it for selfies, really, since it’s kind of awkward to use a tablet for that, but I did use it to video chat Brandon Russell in the office. He came through crisp, as expected, using his computer webcam, and he said that video coming from my end was clean and fluid, too. It’s perfect for things like Hangouts and Skype calls.

iFixit, which does full teardowns of new consumer devices, recently discovered that the Nexus 9 sports the same 8-megapixel camera found on the HTC Desire 610. The performance wasn’t great and we weren’t blown away as we are with today’s crop of awesome smartphone cameras. Without the flash, lower-light photos came out relatively blurry, though one shot of a nightlight in our bathroom actually looked pretty solid. The shots were more acceptable with better lighting, but still not great. Also, that rear camera performed pretty well when we switched to it during a video chat to show off the view from a building we were standing in.

At the end of the day, the 8-megapixel camera isn’t going to blow you away, but we really haven’t seen many tablet cameras that are actually amazing. You’ll probably use your tablet most for video chat, and the performance there is rock solid.

Battery

I’ve been using my Nexus 9 for the past three days, mostly lightly throughout the day and heavier at night for reading the news, books and more. It’s still sitting at 51 percent battery life, down from 76 percent 24 hours ago. It idles very well, and from what I can tell the screen has the biggest effect on battery life — no surprise there — but still only consumed eight percent of the total juice drained to date.

Meanwhile, Jon did a pure rundown test with video and found that the Nexus 9 provided 9 hours of HD video playback with brightness set at 50 percent and with everything else turned off.

Jon and I were both really pleased with the battery life, and most folks should expect easily two days of usage from the Nexus 9, or more if you’re more of a tablet reader like myself, and rely on your smartphone for heavy work lifting during the day. If you’re gaming on a plane, or playing videos, you should have more than enough juice to get you across the Atlantic.

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Nexus 9 isn’t perfect, but it’s a great way to experience the best of Android 5.0 Lollipop

The Nexus 9 is a fantastic little tablet, we’re particularly fond of the size, which is just big enough for getting real work done, and not too small that it borders on phablet territory. The software is obviously the highlight here — Lollipop truly is a treat, though we’re also big fans of the front-facing speakers, the battery life and overall smooth performance.

The display isn’t perfect, there are better ones out there, but it’s not a complete deal-breaker here. Additionally, the area on the back that depresses when touched doesn’t really scream “premium HTC” as the company’s other products do so well. Also, the white model simply looks better than the black version, but we know that will come down to personal tastes.

The Nexus 9 isn’t perfect, but it’s a great way to experience the best of Android 5.0 Lollipop without many sacrifices, and with the guarantee that you’ll have Google’s latest advancements free of any OEM bloatware.

Todd Haselton used the device for six days before writing this review. Jonathan Rettinger also used a Nexus 9 for more than a week before filming his video portion. Units were provided by HTC and Google.

Pros:

  • Android 5.0 Lollipop is stunning
  • Front-facing speakers

 

Cons:

  • Not the greatest display
  • Pretty weak 8-megapixel camera

Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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