Nexus 9 review: HTC discontinues Google’s bargain tablet
Update, 27/5/2016: The Nexus 9 may not have started out as a winner – it had one too many flaws and, at a flagship tablet price of over £300, it wasn’t initially worth splashing out on. However, once it had been discounted heavily, it turned out to be a real bargain.
The days of being able to find this Nvidia Tegra X1-powered tablet for £200, however, have come to a close. HTC, the manufacturer of the venerable Google tablet, confirmed to CNET earlier this week that it had ceased production.
That’s a shame, because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find top-quality tablets at cheaper prices. Your best bet right now is the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0, a top-quality 8in tablet with an Amoled screen that costs around £230. See also: The best tablets of 2016.
Just how good is this HTC-manufactured tablet? Can it sock it to the iPad Air 2, or is it just another Android also-ran destined for the try-again discount pile?
Nexus 9 review: Design
If it were all down to appearance and build quality, the answers to those questions wouldn’t be particularly positive. Pull the Nexus 9 from its box and the first thing you might wonder is where all your money has gone.
The Nexus 9 is ringed with brushed aluminium, which looks smart enough; it’s topped with shatter- and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3; and it has a pleasingly minimalist appearance, too. Sadly, though, it’s undermined hugely by cheap-feeling plastic on the rear and underwhelming build quality.
Tap the rear lightly and it gives disconcertingly; twist the tablet and the whole thing creaks and groans. Pull at a corner of the panel and it starts to come away from its mooring, although the rear isn’t designed to be user-removable at all. If you choose the “lunar white” or “sand” versions, be prepared to get the cleaning cloth out frequently: it picks up grime like nobody’s business. Alternatively, choose the “indigo black” version instead.
The Nexus 9 can’t hold a candle to the iPad Air 2 or, for that matter, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in or our current favourite Android tablet, the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, all of which are more solid-feeling and attractive.
The only positives are that it’s comparatively light – in fact, at 425g, it weighs a fraction less than the equivalent iPad Air 2, and its smaller overall size (it measures 154 x 7.95 x 228mm) means it’s possible for folk with large hands to grasp in one mitt. Otherwise it’s a bit of a disappointment.
Nexus 9 review: Prices, options and features
Usually, Nexus devices represent fantastic value for money, which counteracts any issues arising from slightly inferior build quality and features. At £319, the Nexus 9 certainly undercuts the iPad Air 2 – however, simply being cheaper isn’t good enough these days.
At this price, the Nexus 9 is in direct competition with the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in (£319), the Samsung Galaxy S 8.4 (£275), the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet (£369) and the original iPad Air (£319), all of which offer more features, have a more attractive design, or both.
And to add to its woes, there aren’t many options for would-be purchasers either. You can buy a 32GB Wi-Fi Nexus 9 for £399 and a 32GB 4G version for £459, but that’s your lot. Anyone wanting more storage will be stuck, particularly since there’s no microSD slot for expansion – a big miss in our opinion.
Nexus 9 review: Display
The Nexus 9’s screen makes a slightly better first impression. Turn the Nexus 9 on, and you’re greeted by a bright, vibrant, crystal-clear image. It measures 9in across the diagonal, so it’s a touch smaller than the iPad Air 2’s display, but with an identical resolution of 1,536 x 2,048, it narrowly outdoes it for pixel density, at 284ppi.
We also like the 4:3 aspect ratio that this resolution delivers. Normally, the screens on Android tablets are 16:9 or 16:10 affairs, which feel a little awkward – they’re too tall to practically use in portrait orientation and too short in landscape. With the Nexus 9, we felt comfortable whatever way up we held the tablet. In portrait, you get plenty of room to read most websites at their full width without having to zoom in, and in landscape, there’s enough height to the screen that you don’t feel you’re having to scroll all the time.
The disadvantage of the 4:3 ratio is that movies don’t look quite as good, with much wider black bars above and below, but it’s an acceptable compromise and shouldn’t affect your enjoyment too much.
In our technical tests, the numbers look good, too. At maximum brightness, the IPS screen outmatches the iPad Air 2, reaching 456cd/m2 on a full white screen (compared with 401cd/m2), and contrast is a fine 1,092:1. Colour accuracy is very good indeed, with an average Delta E of 1.53 and a maximum of 3.52, and the display is capable of displaying 94.9% of the sRGB colour gamut.
However, there is a problem, and it’s a pretty big one: around all edges of the display is a gentle white glow – evidence of major backlight leakage. This is particularly noticeable – and distracting – during movie playback, when the light is obvious in dark scenes, and against the black bars above and below your film.
Nexus 9 review: Performance
In terms of performance there’s less to complain about, but the Nexus 9 still doesn’t post a completely unblemished set of results. Under the hood is a dual-core Nvidia Tegra K1 chip running at 2.3GHz and an Nvidia Kepler DX1 GPU, accompanied by 2GB of RAM. This combination performed brilliantly in the benchmarks, coming a very close second to the iPad Air 2 in the more demanding tests.
That may be a blip, however, since in general use, we never felt wanting for speed. The Nexus 9 feels every bit as responsive as the iPad Air 2, and nothing we were able to throw at it caused it to so much as break a sweat. Clearly, the Nvidia K1 is highly capable.
Nexus 9 review: Android 5 (Lollipop)
The Nexus 9’s main attraction isn’t its performance, however, it’s the software: Android 5 (Lollipop). What’s new? With Android’s biggest ever update, it’s difficult to know where to start, but the most obvious change is in the visuals. Android 5 is a completely different looking operating system, much brighter and cleaner than before, and the new “Material Design” scheme works to promote a more modern feel.
The changes aren’t just skin deep. Almost every element of the user interface has been updated. The keyboard, for instance, no longer has edges or anything else delineating the letters, but our typing accuracy hasn’t suffered. It simply makes it easier to see the alternative characters.
The lock screen now boasts richer notifications that you can double tap to open, or swipe to dismiss. The pull-down Notifications menu has also been revamped: you can now expand and contract individual notifications, or mute them for a period; and quick settings are now available with a second pull down of the menu. The app drawer has new clothes, too: icons are arranged on a white “card”, which floats above a darker background.
One particularly nice feature of the new version of Android is the ability to pick and choose which apps to install from a previously backed up Android device. When you first set up the Nexus 9, instead of being given the option to restore from backup or skip, as with previous versions, you’re given a list with boxes to tick next to the apps you want, so you don’t have to go through the rigmarole of removing apps you don’t want, or installing them one by one from the Play Store. It’s a small improvement, but a very welcome one.
Even the Back, Home and app-switcher buttons at the bottom of the screen have been redesigned, although we think the triangle, circle and square are a touch too cryptic.
We’re also none too keen on the new app-switcher screen, which introduces a more fussy 3D Rolodex-style view; it’s unnecessarily fussy in our view. However, in general we do like the new look. Every UI element can now be given not only X and Y co-ordinates, but also a Z co-ordinate for depth, with the OS calculating real-time shadows based on those numbers. This makes Android look fresh and modern, and since the changes extend to all the major Google apps (Gmail, Calendar and so on), it’s a pretty consistent look, too.
Behind the scenes, there’s now support for 64-bit processors and, at long last, a move away from the Dalvik JIT runtime – with which elements of the OS and apps would be compiled at runtime – to the new ART system, which uses pre-compiled code. It’s a move aimed at improving all-round responsiveness and eradicating the lag that many Android devices would demonstrate (even quite powerful ones) at the oddest of times.
Time will tell how well this works – and we’ll report back when our office Nexus 7 (2012) receives its update – but with the Nexus 9 we haven’t yet experienced any significant lag.
Android 5 (Lollipop) is also jam-packed with thoughtful features, designed to inform and help make your life easier, from the message on the lockscreen that tells you how long your device will take to charge, to the reworked battery-saver mode, which kicks in at 15% (it’s possible to customise this, if need be). In all, we’re pleased with the new Android; it’s a big improvement.
It’s worth remembering, too, that since the Nexus 9 is an official Google device, it will receive the next version of Android first, and updates should come through quicker, as well.
|Processor||2.7GHz Nvidia Tegra K1, dual core|
|Screen resolution||1,536 x 2,048|
|Front camera||8 megapixels|
|Rear camera||1.6 megapixels|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||No|
|Wireless data||4G model available|
|Size||154 x 7.9 x 228mm|
|Weight||425g (Wi-Fi); 436g (4G)|
|Operating system||Android 5|
|Price||16GB Wi-Fi, £319; 32GB Wi-Fi, £399; 32GB 4G, £459|