Testing: Google Nexus 9 Android Tablet

By Ryan Whitwam

Does Google's new tablet make good on its premium price?

Google's Nexus 9 is a big departure from past Android tablets in several ways, not least of which that it has a 4:3 aspect ratio. It's also a 64-bit tablet with a more premium price point. There's no followup to the 2013 Nexus 7 with its low price. A lot of the early reviews were mixed, but does the N9 seem better after a few updates? I've been living with the Nexus 9 as my main tablet for the last few weeks, so let's figure it out.

Design and Build Quality

You've probably heard it said many times that the Nexus 9 bears a striking resemblance to a scaled up Nexus 5. Well, that's definitely true. The back is made of the same soft touch plastic as Google's 2013 flagship phone. The rim around the edge is made of aluminum, though. It seems like there's some variation in how that plastic back sits. Some units have a little bit off give as the plastic pops out from the frame in the middle. This isn't an issue in my unit, and I suspect it won't happen on newly manufactured tablets. Even in the worst cases, it doesn't seem like a structural issue, just annoying.

The buttons are positioned on the right side (in portrait mode) and they aren't awesome. I'm not sure why so many OEMs have trouble getting buttons right, but it happens all the time. The N9's buttons are mushy and have low travel. On some units, they are almost flush with the side of the tablet. Mine isn't that bad, all things considered. It could be better, though. It's sounding like newer tablets aren't suffering from this particular defect.

The question you have to ask is, does the Nexus 9 feel premium? The unsatisfying answer is "kind of." The device itself is solid and doesn't flex. It feels dense, but not too heavy. The buttons are definitely a sticking point and the back will be divisive. I really like soft touch surfaces, myself. I'll take a soft touch plastic device over metal any day--they're just easier to hold. It does get fingerprint-y, but that's the price you pay.

Google says the nexus 9 is 7.95mm thick, but I feel like that might be a tiny bit generous. It's still definitely under 10mm and it seems better balanced than most tablets. Overall, the Nexus 9 doesn't quite feel like a $399 tablet. That's not to say it feels lousy, or anything.

Screen and Hardware

I've spoken at length on my feelings regarding the 4:3 aspect ratio. In short, I'm a fan. The screen is my favorite part of the Nexus 9, but not just because of the way it's shaped. This LCD has a resolution of 2048x1536, which is the same as Apple's Retina panels. The colors are good and the viewing angles are nearly perfect. There is a very, very small gap between the glass and the LCD, but that's not something most people will notice.

The 8.9-inch panel is perfect for reading, browsing the web, and playing games. Most Android apps understand the wider panel quite well. I've seen a few games that run properly on other Lollipop devices crash on the Nexus 9, but that's still rare. A few more render the UI letterboxed. Thankfully Android's history of resolution-independent apps has kept these flaws to a minimum.

The unit I have on hand has no light bleed of which to speak. Some owners have taken to Reddit and Twitter to show off how bad their light bleed is, but that seems to happen with a lot of devices to some degree. This is another thing that seems to be an early manufacturing glitch. I have no complaints, and I bet you won't either if you buy one now that all the launch stock is gone.

Inside, the Nexus 9 is the first Android tablet to pack a 64-bit ARM chip to take advantage of the support built into Lollipop. This is the debut for Nvidia's Tegra K1 with 64-bit Denver CPU cores. In absolute numbers, this chip destroys most others in benchmarks. In practice, I'd say Nvidia still has a bit of optimization to do. The Nexus 9 is very fast, except for those times it isn't. There are only two Denver cores, so that aren't as many processing threads. This can lead to occasional stutters when installing or switching apps, but that's the exception rather than the rule. In fact, the update that rolled out a week or so after release speed up the device noticeably.

The N9 is also graced with 2GB of RAM, an 8MP/1.6MP camera array, and 16-32GB of storage. As usual, there's no microSD card slot. If you need more than 32GB on a tablet, look elsewhere. I'm personally fine with a 32GB tablet--even 16 is workable. Those demanding more storage are in the minority, thus the 16 and 32GB tiers.

Battery Life

It's hard to judge battery life from someone else's experience. We all use devices differently after all. I use tablets mostly for playing games, web browsing, and writing in Google Docs. You might leave a device sitting for a long time, thus getting fewer hours of screen time over the course of a few days. Someone else might use it almost constantly until the battery is dead and recharge it every night.

It's common for device makers to overstate the battery life specs for a device, but Google's seem a little more out there than usual. The official numbers are 9.5 hours of browsing and 30 days of standby time. At launch neither of those were happening, but the newest update improved battery life. I usually get in the neighborhood of 7 hours of screen time--maybe less if I'm playing a lot of games. That standby time claim is just nonsense, though. The Nexus 9 will probably run for a little over a week if you don't touch it. That's still a marked improvement over past Android devices--the Nexus 9 stays in deep sleep very well. But a month? No.

So the battery life is fine, but not amazing. I'm more concerned with the slow charging time, though. Devices like the Nexus 6 have special quick charging technology built-in, but that's a Qualcomm thing. The Nexus 9 runs an Nvidia chipset, and for some reason it doesn't pull down very much juice when plugged in. You're looking at about four hours to completely juice up the Nexus 9. That's not ideal for getting a quick bump before heading out. You basically use the Nexus 9 until it needs to be charged, then go do something else (like sleep) until it's done.

Software

The Nexus 9 runs completely stock Android 5.0 Lollipop, and was the first device to ship with Google's new OS. We've talked about Lollipop a few times in the past, so you probably have a good idea of the basics. I think the only new software trick present on the Nexus 9 is double tap to wake, which is nice considering the iffy power button.

Google has long been on a quest to bring the phone and tablet interfaces closer together. The first step was in 4.2 when the tablet UI ditched the bottom status bar and notifications for a more traditional top bar. The navigation buttons were also moved to the middle of the bottom edge. In Android 5.0, things are even more the same between phones and tablets. The notification shade is now centered and there's no dedicated swipe area to pull up the quick settings instantly. I'm a little bummed about that, but admittedly, the 4:3 ratio of the Nexus 9 is better suited to this. The notification shade looks a little bizarre on a device like the Nexus 10 in landscape orientation.

Android 5.0 comes with a plethora of improvements, particularly to the interface. There are some people who don't care for the brighter look of Lollipop, but I really like it. The Nexus 9 in particular shows it off quite well. The UI thread seems to be very well optimized after the recent bug fix updates. I hardly ever see a stutter when using the device and animations are buttery smooth. I suspect some of the momentary lags and weirdness I'm seeing will be ironed out with updates, but it's still annoying.

Some of the animations do seem to be a little hard on the Tegra chip, though. It heats up noticeably when you're jumping around and enjoying all those nifty visuals. This tablet does get warm, but maybe not as toasty as you've heard. I've used phones running Qualcomm chips that get warmer than the Nexus 9.

The Nexus 9 comes encrypted, and that's just the beginning of Google's security-oriented improvements. There's the Smart Lock system that can bypass the secure lock screen with trusted Bluetooth/NFC devices, a geographic locations, or even your face. This isn't the face unlock of old, though. Trusted face happens in the background when you wake up the device. Because the Android 5.0 lock screen has notifications on it, you can check those out while the device looks for your face in the background. It usually takes about a second. If it sees you, the tablet unlocks with a swipe--no need for a code. This is probably one of my favorite features.

Is It Worth the Price?

I like the Nexus 9. It's a good tablet with a very good screen and solid performance. The battery situation is okay, but could be better. There are also a handful of build-quality issues to be dealt with. Although, from what I'm hearing, most of that is already ironed out in new production runs. So maybe that's not a concern anymore.

At $399 for the 16GB, I feel like it's a bit too expensive. I'd definitely still recommend the Nexus 9 if you want a 4:3 aspect screen (I love it) or if you want to have the latest and greatest of Android for the next few years. If Google had been able to price the N9 at $349 to start, that would have been more reasonable.

There's much more competition in Android tablets than there once was. Right now you can get the Nvidia Shield with Lollipop for $100 less, and refurbished 2013 Nexus 7s still pop up from time to time, and that's still a great device. The Nexus 9 is a fine tablet, and it's probably my favorite one right now, but it won't win everyone's heart.