Nexus 9 Review: A Little Better On Paper Than In Practice
- Display: I love the 4:3 form factor, and the display itself is very nice. Great colors, what looks to be solid white balance, good brightness, and excellent viewing angles. I can find no real important faults with it.
- Android L: Is pretty, adds tons of new features (many of which are quite useful), and beautiful animations throughout the OS. Easily the most mature and thoroughly styled Android has ever looked. It looks great on the Nexus 9.
- Fast: The Nexus 9 is, in most situations where linear performance is the primary concern, very quick. Its single-thread benchmark results put it even ahead of Apple's new iPad Air 2, so that K1 isn't a slouch.
- Front-facing speakers: I don't really need to extol the virtues of front-facing speakers. They're obvious.
- Software support: OTA updates from Google mean you'll be the first to get the latest version of Android, of course, with all the good and bad things that entails.
The Not So Good
- Battery life: 9.5 hours of Wi-Fi browsing is, as far as my review unit is concerned, a fantasy. Like, there's just no way. I'm getting half that.
- Performance: It's unpredictable. The Nexus 9 is fast, but it's twitchy. Apps will randomly take longer to load than normal, longer than I would expect - it doesn't feel fully optimized. That, or only having two cores is causing issues.
- Build quality: It does not feel like a $400 tablet should feel. Not only is it fairly heavy for its size, the plastic back seems to have the same issues the Nexus 5's did - it deforms under pressure, snaps, and creaks. It is not nice. Also, it's a finger oil magnet.
- Design: I'm sorry, but in my subjective opinion, the Nexus 9 is not a pretty tablet. It is decidedly generic, and not in a cool, stealthy way. It's boring and drab. The press shots do it too much justice.
- Price: All things considered, I find $400 ($480 for 32GB) hard to stomach for a 16GB tablet of this caliber. That's generation one iPad Air money.
Design and build quality
The Nexus 9 seems passable from a hardware standpoint at first blush, even if it is a bit portly as modern tablets go. Google publishes the Nexus 9's thickness as being 7.95mm, but there's just no way this is true - perhaps at the edge it's that thin, but not in profile on a flat surface. Side by side with the 8.9mm G3, the Nexus is just a hair thicker, so it's more like 9mm, not 8.
For a 9-inch tablet, the Nexus 9 is also a bit on the heavy side. At 425g, it's a full 50g (about 1.76oz) more massive than Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, and just 12 grams shy of the significantly larger iPad Air 2.
The thickness and weight might be worth glossing over if the Nexus 9 felt especially premium and tightly-constructed, but the more I use it, the more I find myself believing it isn't. In a way, it feels exactly like you'd expect a Nexus device to feel. Out of the box, decent, but the polycarbonate rear cover already has me in flashbacks to the Nexus 5's creaks and generally lackluster fit & finish. In fact, I can already feel a flex spot on the left side of the tablet that makes a quiet click / snap sound when I pick up the tablet by that edge, which is eerily Nexus 5-like. It's audible enough that I thought I was getting touch sounds for certain actions on the screen, until I realize it was literally the tablet itself making the noise.
I don't think it's just placebo, either - the volume rocker and power buttons on the Nexus 9, for example, are simply bad. They're squishy, have almost no travel, and provide very little feedback unless you know the exact angle to hit them at.
The gap between the plastic rear cover and the aluminum frame makes the tablet look a bit chunky and is generally kind of unflattering, it's also pretty easy to just pull the edges of the rear cover out with your fingernails between the gaps. This is the kind of stuff that makes it a little too easy to come to the conclusion that the Nexus 9 is a piece of hardware built to a price point first, a standard of quality second. It's bad enough that, honestly, the Nexus 9 looks way nicer in press shots to my eyes than it does in person. This black one just kind of has a generic lump of tablet vibe, and yeah, I get that all tablets have to look alike in some respects, but the Nexus 9 doesn't exactly go for the gold in the design category. It is decidedly blah. Maybe it will look better in white?
I wouldn't harp on it so much if the Nexus 9 was a little cheaper, but it isn't. At $400, it's basically positioning itself smack in the middle of iPad Air gen-one territory, and that's not a battle it's going to win on the quality or design front, not even close. Even its Android foes, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and Samsung's Tab S 8.4, aren't going to blink at the Nexus 9 from a quality standpoint. It is an utterly forgettable part of this device. Then again, it's a Nexus, and premium quality has never been a hallmark of the Nexus line.
The one area where I think Google really did whip out the checkbook on the Nexus 9 is the display - to my eyes, it is very, very good. First, the colors appear well-calibrated out of the box. Almost any phone or tablet you buy today, aside from maybe a Kindle Fire HDX, is going to have reds that are way too hot, because that's what makes a display "pop." The Nexus 9's reds are nice and subdued, and overall, the display has the nice almost paper-like quality I think Google wants to shine through as part of the material design initiative. This is the right screen for this tablet.
Viewing angles seem excellent, and while reflectivity doesn't seem especially low, I've not yet had a problem with glare on the display interfering with my use of the tablet. Sharpness is excellent.
As for white balance, the Nexus 9 looks neither too warm nor too cool in any extreme sense to my eyes, but I'll leave the real evaluation for the guys with colorometers. On the sore subject of backlight bleed and Nexuses, I'm noticing only a tiny bit around the lower-right edge of the tablet, but it's not bad enough to really matter, even at maximum brightness.
So, the one bad thing about the display probably isn't really the display itself, it's more software, or a sensor. In adaptive brightness mode, flickering of the display has been a real problem for me, especially in dimly-lit environments. It seems like even when there's no action on the screen - that is, just static content - the display flickers several times a second in an attempt to adapt to the ambient light level but never actually settles on a point. It is noticeable and aggravating, like a light bulb that freaks out at a specific setting on the dimmer switch.
The flickering has two prerequisites to occur. One, the display is set to ambient mode and under 60% or so brightness on the slider. Two, the ambient light in the room I'm in isn't particularly high. It doesn't have to be dark, but not windows-open-during-the-day bright. If I push the slider up past 75%, the flicker goes away reliably. Sometimes it doesn't flicker even under 60%, but it seems to inevitably come back when conditions are right. I can only hope this is an issue that will be resolved in a software update or is a result of a defective ambient light sensor in my particular unit.
Speakers and audio
I know that everyone is probably expecting a lot out of the BoomSound-branded front-facing stereo speakers on the Nexus 9, and I don't want to exactly rain on that parade, so much as reign in hopes a little. The first thing I'd say is that the Nexus 9's speakers are not especially loud, though they'll obviously be a major upgrade if you're coming from a Nexus 7. The stereo separation will make a difference in gaming, TV, and movies for sure.
The quality of the audio, though, isn't exactly mindblowing. Mids sound kind of muddy and treble performance isn't stellar. Bass, as you'd guess, is non-existent. If I were a betting man, I'd guess these are the same speakers in the One M8, because they sound very alike based on what I remember. But I don't have a One M8 on my desk to compare, so I'll leave that to the teardowns we'll inevitably see later this week.
On the headphone jack, I'm happy to report we're not seeing a repeat of NVIDIA's historical performance of poor decision-making when it comes to DACs and amplifiers. While a listening comparison between my iPad Air 2, desktop PC, and the Nexus 9 did put the Nexus 9 at the bottom of the pack, it wasn't an extremely easy call.
The Nexus 9 has very respectable bass and mid reproduction, good instrument separation, and wide soundstage. I didn't hear any kind of unpleasant audio anomalies or distortion. I did find that the Nexus 9 struggled a bit in terms of soundstage and vocals compared to my Air 2, and particularly compared to my desktop setup (which, admittedly, includes a dedicated USB DAC and amplifier). I think the Nexus 9 misses out on just a bit of the treble, too, with percussion missing some of the "edge" I got on the other devices I listened to. Reduced instrument separation also produced some slight muddling, but it wasn't extremely noticeable, and even then, only on some tracks. Overall, audiophiles shouldn't have anything to fear about the Nexus 9, even if it's not taking mobile audio quality noticeably forward.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
Wi-Fi performance on the Nexus 9 has been quite excellent, actually, and I'm pulling down speeds I would expect on both my 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. 2.4GHz peaks around 70Mbps down, which is something I've only seen on Snapdragon 805 devices and my Air 2, so it looks like Tegra K1 has pretty robust Wi-Fi features.
Signal has been strong, too, and I've actually been pretty pleased at how intelligently the Nexus 9 will switch to the stronger 2.4GHz signal (which I have separately named) where 5GHz won't quite reach. I've not noticed any particular issues with 'death grip' or any other weirdness with wireless connectivity.
Bluetooth also seems pretty good, with range comparable to most high-end devices I've recently used. I can also tentatively confirm that, based upon my non-scientific test of putting the Nexus 9 in a closet, closing the closet, and closing the door to the room the closet is in, that the Nexus 9 is a Class 1 Bluetooth device. It maintained a steady stream of music to the Moto Stream about 30 feet away throughout this little experiment, which I find most non-Class 1 devices cannot manage.
Alright, I have to preface this section with the fact that I was running build LRX16F when I got the tablet, because if I don't, some commenters will come and yell at me if Google decides to issue an OTA that miraculously changes my impressions in this section. Which could happen - my device is now running LRX21L, a slightly newer revision. I also contacted Google to let them know about my experience here, but they would not comment specifically on battery life in relation to the OTA.
As it stands now, my Nexus 9 gets very mediocre battery life. I'm not sure if it's something I'm doing wrong, an app I've installed, or just plain bad luck - the Nexus 9 is not winning any awards for longevity from me. The first full charge netted me a whopping 4 hours of screen-on time over the course of 24 hours off the charger. There was a good 30 minutes of benchmarking thrown in there, though, so that certainly accelerated the drain. Still, I found the SoC at the top of the tablet getting quite warm to the touch just doing basic web browsing - the kind of thing that shouldn't be stressing the chip so much. There's no weirdness in the battery stats, either, it looks pretty normal.
I wasn't playing games or watching an unusual amount of video, and aside from the aforementioned benchmarking, 90% of that screen time was spent browsing the web and looking at Reddit. I installed a few apps, looked at my social feeds, and watched a couple movie trailers. You know, tablet things. I wasn't recording 1080p video while simultaneously torrenting the entire first season of The Sopranos and blasting music out of the speakers. I should probably try that, though, and see how hot it gets.
The second charge on LRX16F, my results were only marginally better. I might have been able to edge out four and a half, maybe five hours of screen-on at the rate I was going (35% remaining with 3h15m screen on), but I still wasn't doing anything crazy demanding of the tablet. Maybe a dozen short videos on YouTube. A half hour of music. A couple hours of web and Reddit browsing, and a some time with the screen just idling as I messed with it while writing this review. I have the brightness set to 50% with adaptive mode enabled.
On my first charge with LRX21L, things are looking basically like they were on the second charge with LRX16F. 30 minutes of use means about 10% of battery drained (I'm at 48% on a 90% charge with 2h5m on screen-on), which comes out to 300 minutes if you extrapolate, or 5 hours of screen on. I'm guessing if you're streaming video for hours on end or just reading books, this won't be as bad, I'm sure. As for gaming, I haven't had a chance to really test much yet, but judging by how 3D benchmarking apps drained the Nexus 9 (read: greatly), I would not expect more than a couple hours of graphically-intensive gaming. Maybe less? I'll look into this more later this week.
Either way, Google's battery estimates on the Play Store seem to be basically, if I'm blunt, wildly inaccurate. I'm not sure what universe they're getting 9.5 hours of 'Wi-Fi browsing' in. It's not this one.
My thoughts on the camera here are very, very off-the-cuff. I'll take some more pictures later this week. First impressions? For a tablet camera, it could be so much worse. This actually seems like a pretty decent 8MP sensor. For whatever reason, the metadata lies and says it's an f/1.3 aperture in some of these photos, but this lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.4 according to Google's specifications. I'm not sure what's going on there.
Anyway, it seems pretty good, if I'm honest. Yeah, it's not amazing, but as tablet cameras go, I think Google really did some work on this. Like I said, more updates to this section will follow later this week - promise.
I don't want to dance around it: I'm not sure about the Nexus 9's performance so far. It feels unpredictable. "So you mean it's a Nexus?" jokes aside, I was hoping for a slightly tighter experience here.
After the OTA to LRX21L, I definitely noticed some improvements. First, the launcher seems significantly more stable - it would occasionally have animation freakouts and reload on the old build. On the new build, it's smoother most of the time, especially the notification shade. Other than that, app load times have definitely improved, too, and feel more consistent. The Nexus 9 can be very fast when it wants to be.
The thing is this: when I go back to my phone to do stuff on my phone like check email, Twitter, or Google+, the Nexus 9 can also be noticeably slower by comparison in some tasks for no real apparent reason. This could be early days L-woes, though, so I'm not saying this will always be an issue. Apps may adapt. I do notice that L-specific apps like the new Gmail and Calendar launch pretty fast.
Anyway, for example, if I've been sitting in Chrome reading a few articles for 10 or 15 minutes and go to pull up the multitasking UI, there can be a delay of anywhere from 2-4 seconds before it appears. The home button, too, will occasionally exhibit similar lag, though that's nearly gone with the OTA I think. Or sometimes I'll pull up the recents menu, then hit home, and the launcher is gone and takes a couple seconds to come back. There's one correlating factor I notice when I have these problems, too: the Nexus 9 gets warm. The SoC sits at the top of the device just behind the speaker grille, and it gets warmer a lot more often than I'd expect. Just browsing web pages can noticeably heat it up.
In terms of raw speed, I would not say the Nexus 9 is slow. The problem is more that it jumps and pauses when doing certain things, and it makes for a jarring user experience in certain situations. I can't highlight "certain situations" enough, because anyone who picks one up and just fiddles around with the homescreen and app drawer is going to say "this is incredibly fast, what are you smoking?" those are not the sort of problems the Nexus 9 has. The raw speed is there, it's just not there all the time.
Speaking of raw speed, though, I did a basic comparison of apps loading side by side on the 2013 Nexus 7 running the L developer preview versus the Nexus 9, and generally found the Nexus 9 is significantly quicker if an app is already in memory, and the launcher definitely felt a bit snappier. But in some ways the performance still felt comparable - Android itself rarely felt that much quicker or more responsive on the Nexus 9.
In light of the battery life in particular, I'm not sure what to say here. Yes, the K1 benchmarks very well in 3D applications and even in raw CPU performance (it actually beats the iPad Air 2 in single-thread performance in Geekbench 3 by a small but significant margin), but it doesn't feel like a big leap forward yet. Maybe that will come with more app and firmware optimizations. It's definitely good enough to get by at the high end of the tablet segment, but it's not going to be outrunning the competition dramatically. If you're looking for gaming performance, I think NVIDIA's totally a great choice for a chipset.
But I think Android L, the high-res display, and the fact that Denver only has two cores may be resulting in situations where having two processing threads available causes delays and stutters in the UI thread - it's the exact sort of thing I regularly encountered on my 1st-gen iPad Air. No matter what you do, there are occasionally going to be times when both cores are occupied and the UI thread suffers for it, such as installing apps, task switching, or going out of a very memory and CPU-intensive application.
In all honesty, many of you probably know more about Lollipop (which I will forever call "L") than I do. I keep myself busy with a lot of phone reviews and other items here at AP, so it's been a little tough to keep up with the torrential flow of L features and tricks and tips. So, you're getting a pretty fresh take on 5.0 here.
I'm really not going to touch on the aesthetic of 5.0 much. It's a subject that has been beaten to death here, on Google+, and multiple other corners of the web. I'm going to come at this from the tablet perspective, as someone who's had an iPad for a year and hasn't often been too keen on Android as a tablet OS. So, is Android 5.0 going to beef up the tablet experience considerably from previous devices?
I think Android 5.0 does add some noteworthy features that, as someone who regularly uses a tablet, I'm going to get value from.
Immediately, I was very pleased to see I could pick which Android device connected to my Google account I wanted to restore my apps from. This alone is just outstanding. A+, would experience again. It's not quite iOS-level in its replication-fu (which goes down to even setting your brightness, wireless settings, notifications, and ringtones), but it's close enough - I love this new feature.
Moving on to security, face unlock seems like a decent stopgap for a Touch ID-style fingerprint scanner, given its new-and-improved status in L. It seemed to work reliably, but one time I was trying to use it the tablet's display just turned off and would not turn back on. I had to hold the power button down from a prolonged period of time and it eventually rebooted, but plugging it into a charger or PC wouldn't bring it back to life. So I'm not using that feature anymore. The other option is securing your tablet with trusted Bluetooth devices, so as long as your Wear device or a Bluetooth gadget you pick is connected, it'll unlock. That's definitely going to be a good option for phones, but I think it's a bit less useful on a tablet, if you ask me, given it's a device that will probably spend most of its time at home within the range of all your Bluetooth stuff.
Android's multi-user support, though not exactly new, remains a big advantage in this space, I'd argue. It's something no one else (aside from Microsoft, I guess, not that they're selling tons of standalone tablets) is really doing, and a feature I definitely miss on my Air 2.
For the data-security-concerned among you, encryption is now enabled by default in Android 5.0, and on the Nexus 9, it doesn't even look like it can be disabled. Good stuff.
The new priority notifications feature is definitely interesting, though personally I just tend to turn off a lot of app notifications on my tablets in the first place. This will definitely be much more useful on phones, I'd say, but it's a nice thing to have, and allows you more granular control over your notifications, something I think we can all agree is a good thing.
New battery, calendar, and downloads UIs
If you've got kids or nosy friends and relatives, the new screen pinning option that allows you to lock down the device to a single app is going to be an awesome addition to Android L. Tablets are very share-friendly devices, so I think this could be seeing a lot of use. If you have a PIN lock on your screen, you can make the device ask for it before exiting the pinned app, too, so it's actually pretty robust. In practice, it seems to work just as you'd expect, too.
Screen-off 'OK Google' is another huge one for me - I have my tablets around the kitchen a lot when I cook, and the ability to set a timer from across the room regardless of whether the display is on is just great. Sure, you could use a Wear device, but now I don't need one to do that.
One thing the Nexus 9 didn't get that I wish it had was the Nexus 6's ambient display feature, which wakes up your device when you pick it up or notifications arrive. I want. I want a lot. Still, the Nexus 9 gets a consolation prize: double-tap to wake. It works very reliably, in fact, it's probably the best implementation of tap-to-wake I've used on any device. It's very sensitive, so you don't have to tap hard - just get roughly in the same spot and it's pretty foolproof.
Oh, and the rotation lock is now a quick setting in the notification bar. Which, yes. That was definitely needed (not being sarcastic).
Things that I'm still not in love with on Android tablets? For one, the fact that quick settings are at the top of the screen, necessitating either two pulls with one finger or a double-finger pull-down to access. I feel like this should be easier. The fact that Google Now will sometimes spawn a weather card notification even though Google Now is literally a pane on my homescreen - this seems redundant, though I realize Google is just trying to push people into Now.
And yes, I do have that age-old gripe that many of you will no doubt take issue with: tablet-optimized apps. Android still is missing decent tablet optimization in a number of keys apps, and I don't really care what anyone has to say about scaling or responsive layouts. Dropbox looks like crap. Yelp looks like crap. Google+ (?!?!) looks like crap. NPR looks like crap. LinkedIn looks like crap. eBay looks OK sort of. Twitter looks weirdly blown-up-old-phone-UI-like but alright I guess? Hangouts looks like crap (I am so befuddled by this). Even Inbox doesn't look right compared to the new Gmail app, but I'm not sure why exactly.
Granted, this is nowhere near as long a list as you could have put together on an Android tablet even a year ago. We've come a long way from the early days, and things are absolutely improving. Amazon, Gmail, the Play Store (kind of, I guess?), Kindle, Play Music, Spotify, Netflix, HBO GO, IMDB, Airbnb, and some others actually look pretty great. While iOS still does have a tablet app advantage over Android in sheer numbers, the amount of apps I truly want on my tablet that Android lacks is pretty tiny. It's all niche stuff generally not worth mentioning.
pictured: not crap
Do you want the newest, fastest* Android tablet there is? And one with a very good screen? This is it. Those are, basically, the things the Nexus 9 has going for it. It's not beautiful (YMMV), it's not particularly well put together if you ask me, the battery life is not great, and even if it is fast, it's not jaw-droppingly responsive all the time. It has Android L. That's cool, too - I like Android L a lot. I absolutely have to have it on my next phone. My next tablet? Probably not so important if I'm honest. Tablets are a lot more about apps than OS, in my experience.
I realize that for anyone coming from a Nexus 7, there are going to be major improvements in the Nexus 9. Gaming performance, much better speakers, a great display, the new 4:3 form factor (much better IMO), a better rear-facing camera, and a modern ARMv8 64-bit processor. But the big thing for me is the value equation - I honestly cannot come to grips with the Nexus 9 as a $400 (or $480) tablet. It just doesn't have the stuff to make good on that MSRP. The battery life and build quality, especially, are ball-drops that would keep my wallet away.
That said, it's not that the Nexus 9 is bad tablet. It's just not as amazing as I think a lot of people were hoping it would be. No one is going to get one of these and go "oh man, my $100 Wal-Mart tablet is better than this junk!" obviously. It's still a well-equipped, powerful tablet with a very good screen and the promise of direct OS updates from Google. Of course, some people would argue that being on the Android version bleeding-edge doesn't always end up going well, but I personally consider it a benefit, not a drawback. Even if it does occasionally have drawbacks.
For $400 ($480 as equipped here, the 32GB model), I wouldn't be able to bite the bullet, but I understand why people are - this is the option Google is giving them. It's not a poor one, it's just not what I personally expected out of this Google / HTC partnership. The Nexus 9 has some rough edges that need working out, and with a price edging so close to iPad territory, it's hard to give it more than a tepid recommendation at this point.