Google Nexus 9 review: The first taste of Lollipop is a sweet one




NEXUS 9


It's been nearly five years since Google released its very first Nexus device, and by now we all basically get what the Nexus name stands for. It's all about building devices to show off the

 bleeding-edge version of Android, to give us a better sense of Google's vision of our collective mobile future. That future isn't just phones, either: It's about screens of all sizes, and that's why Google and HTC teamed up to build the new Nexus 9. Now that ancestors like the Nexus 7 and 10 have been forcibly shuffled off this mortal coil, the 9 stands alone as the sole tablet in Google's Nexus hardware lineup. So, does it live up to the standard geeks expect from the Nexus name? And more importantly, is it actually worth the asking price
The Nexus 9 is the first tablet to run Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop, and it shines because of it. Its design might not be worth writing home about and the speakers up front leave a bit to be desired, but the combination of Lollipop and NVIDIA's powerful K1 chipset make it a serious contender (and a no-brainer if you're into fast and frequent software updates).

HARDWARE

Forget rewriting the rule book: When it comes to design, Google and HTC wanted to keep the Nexus 9 looking as subtle -- and as familiar -- as possible. Don't believe me? A quick look at its backside should prove my point. Putting that sturdy aluminum frame aside, you'd think someone threw a shrink ray in reverse and aimed it at last year's Nexus 5. That broad, gently curving expanse of matte black plastic is punctuated by a big Nexus logo in the center, while a familiar-looking 8-megapixel camera and LED flash sit prominently in the top-left corner. Those telltale angled edges are back too, housing the power button and volume rocker and sloping to meet the Nexus 9's understated face. A pair of hefty horizontal bezels frames the top and bottom of that 8.9-inch display (they're thankfully not as heinous as the ones on the Nexus 7), which happens to be where HTC's pair of BoomSound speakers live. Throw in a 1.6-megapixel camera just north of the screen and you've got the Nexus 9's appearance in a nutshell.
There's a certain thrill in seeing how hardware design shifts year after year, but neither HTC nor Google was trying to break new ground this time around. And that was entirely by design, of course. After all, the star of the show is Android 5.0 Lollipop (much more on that later), and the design buffs working on the 9 were seemingly more than happy to let the tablet's looks fade into the background. If anything, it's what's inside that makes the biggest difference. The quad-core Qualcomm silicon that powered the 2013 Nexus 7 has been dumped in favor of NVIDIA's new 64-bit, dual-core Tegra K1 chipset with 2GB of RAM. That step back to a 2.3GHz dual-core processor might sound like a downgrade at first blush, but you can rest easy knowing that's not the case (especially when it comes to graphics performance, but more on that in a moment). The Nexus 9 I tested is a little pricier than the most basic version because it comes loaded with 32GB of internal storage -- no expandable memory here -- though it doesn't have a 3G/LTE radio like the top-tier model.
Let's put those technicalities aside for a bit, though. How does this thing feel? If I'm honest, a 9-inch tablet (especially one that weighs in at 15 ounces) can feel awkward to use at times, even though the package itself is undeniably sturdy and well-constructed. That probably sounds a little odd considering it's just about the same thickness as a Retina display iPad mini, but we've got the Nexus 9's weightier plastic-and-aluminum hybrid build to thank for that. Even though it only tips the scales at 15 ounces (0.94 pound), it's still noticeably heavier in my hands than the 8.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S and Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. In fact, it's just a teensy bit lighter than the new iPad Air 2, despite Apple's tablet having a thinner frame, plus a bigger screen and battery.
Yes, yes, it's been made clear that the Nexus 9 isn't meant to be an iPad killer, but I still can't help but wish Google and HTC pushed the envelope a bit more here. Your mileage might vary, but over the days I've been testing it, the 9 feels just a little too dense, too large to grasp with a single hand for long periods of time, while full-on two-hand typing on that screen can be a little precarious. HTC's put together a little something just for that scenario -- a surprisingly handsome physical keyboard case -- but I didn't have the chance to try one out. Long story short: The Nexus 9 lives in the upper strata of the no-man's-land between more popular 7- and 10-inch tablets, and it would've been nice to see Google and HTC pay a little more attention to the minute details that make big tablets feel handier.

DISPLAY AND SOUND

Don't take this the wrong way, but after five days of testing the Nexus 9, I stopped paying the screen any mind. Sounds weird, I know, but it's not because it's lacking. The Nexus 9's namesake 9-inch display, with its bright colors and respectable viewing angles, is morepleasant than it is jaw-dropping. Consider it another example of HTC and Google not worrying about pushing an envelope.
Alright, let's dig into things a little further. This time around, HTC went with a screen that runs at 2,048 x 1,536, which means it squeezes 281 pixels into each linear inch. In case you're keeping tabs, that isn't quite as densely crisp as the panels in Samsung's 8.4-inch Galaxy Tab S (359 ppi) or the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (339 ppi), but you're still not going to pick out individual pixels without a magnifying glass and a persnickety personality. By nature, the Nexus 9's IPS LCD also isn't as sumptuous (or as easy on the battery) as the typically gorgeous AMOLED screens that grace some of its competitors, but that's no dealbreaker. All told, the Nexus 9's LCD is really a good screen, just not an outstanding one. Google sure knows it, too -- the search giant carefully avoids crowing about the display quality on the Nexus 9's product page, noting only that its size makes it both portable and immersive. You won't hear any arguments against that logic.
I've loved HTC's BoomSound speakers since they first graced the One M7, so it's no surprise that I had high hopes for the Nexus 9. Alas, thanks to the lack of HTC's audio-enhancing software and the seemingly smaller drivers moving that air around, these speakers don't live up to the bar set by the ones on the One M8. Tight, energetic rock? Mellow jazz, laden with husky vocals? Soaring orchestral suites? I tried them all, and the results were the same each time: They all sounded more subdued and muddled than I'd hoped. Now, lest you think I'm being harsh, the speakers aren't bad by any stretch. They get plenty loud (though not as loud as the M8) and still have enough nuance to draw you into whatever video you happen to be watching. It's just that the crisp channel separation you'd get out of the M8's BoomSound speakers is missing here, and so is the bright, vibrant sound that's been a hallmark of HTC's high-end phones. Bummer.




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