Google Nexus 9 review: A powerful tablet made for everyone

At a Glance
  • Google Nexus 9

    PCWorld Rating

    If you’re drawn to the Nexus 9, buy it because you want to see what the future’s like, not because you’re looking for the absolutely perfect tablet device.

There are many wonderful things about Google’s Nexus 9. Its 64-bit Tegra K1 processor is extremely powerful, its big hi-res display and front-facing speakers make it a mini entertainment theater, and its preloaded stock Android 5.0 is the most handsome version of the operating system to ever come out of Mountain View.

But unlike beefy gaming PCs and muti-core Mac Pros, which are only meant for a niche of computer users, the Nexus 9 is made for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you have no plans to take advantage of its power—all you have to do is drop $400. 

Boring, but not ugly

The Nexus 9 is a simple, well-designed tablet, though it reminds me of something out of a J.Crew catalogue: nice to look at in photos, but when you bring it home, it’s kind of boring and needs an accessory to spruce it up. That seems to be the point of the Nexus devices. They exist for developers to tinker with, not to enter the Android fashion show. The masculine black-on-black aesthetic of the Nexus 9 falls in line with what I’ve deemed to be the new “Google look,” and thankfully the device also comes in “lunar white” and “sand.”

nexus9 colors

The Nexus 9 comes in a variety of colors! 

The Nexus 9 is dense. It only weighs about as much as Apple’s new iPad Air 2, but because it’s smaller and thicker, the Nexus 9 feels heavier than it actually is. It’s narrow enough that you can hold it vertically to type with your thumbs, but it isn’t wide enough to touch-type comfortably on Home Row. That’s what the sold-separately keyboard is for. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to use yet.

with ipad Rob Schultz

The Nexus 9 next to Apple’s new iPad Air 2.

thickness Rob Schultz

The Nexus 9 is slightly thicker than Apple’s new iPad Air 2, but it’s also a bit smaller. 

The Nexus 9’s rubbery backside feels similar to the Nexus 5’s. It gives it a no-slip grip, but it’s a magnet for grease and makeup. I had a hard time using the tablet without wanting to obsessively wipe it clean.

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The Nexus 9’s backside. 

Overall, the Nexus 9 looks like your standard, run-of-the-mill tablet. What’s inside is more exciting.

A pretty display with a different ratio

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“Hello, I’m a display.”

I remember when I first took the second-generation Nexus 7 out of the box and couldn’t help gushing over its 1080p display—it was such a vast improvement over its predecessor!

That’s how I feel about the Nexus 9’s QXGA (2048x1536) IPS LCD display: Everything just looks good on it. I’ve been using an 8.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S lately as my daily tablet, so when I turned on the Nexus 9 I immediately remembered why I don’t always prefer Super AMOLED displays. Android Lollipop’s bold new color palette certainly helps, too. The viewing angles are also fine for watching videos with a friend, though I am concerned about the thin sliver of backlight that peaks through on the edges.

nexus9 screensize

The Nexus 9 on the left and the 8.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S on the right. Notice the bigger black bars on the Nexus 9’s display.

The Nexus 9’s display has a 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than the somewhat standard 16:9 we’re used to seeing on Android tablets, so this device will produce a more box-like picture rather than the elongated, wide-screen view you might be used to. It’s good for using the tablet in portrait orientation and for productivity apps, but it has its drawbacks when watching videos. You’ll notice a minor bit of cropping around the edges in an effort to fill up the whole screen, or excessive black letterboxing bars.

The Nexus 9’s front-facing BoomSound speakers make up for all of that. HTC, which makes the Nexus 9, confirmed that BoomSound doesn’t apply to headphones when they’re plugged in, but no matter: Whenever you watch a movie alongside a friend, you can simply turn up the volume for a mini-theater experience, with loud stereo speakers positioned on either side of the display.

Unleash the power of this 64-bit tablet

couch2 Rob Schultz

The Nexus 9 is for more than just watching movies.

The Nexus 9 is the second major tablet release to come powered by Nvidia’s new Tegra K1. The first was the Nvidia Shield tablet, released several months ago, though the two tablets actually use two slightly different CPU architectures.

The Nexus 9 is the first product to use the new version of the K1, which swaps out the Shield’s 4+1 32-bit CPU cores (designed by ARM) with a dual-core 64-bit CPU (designed by Nvidia). Thus, this is the first true 64-bit Android device, with both 64-bit CPU and operating system. There’s also 2GB of RAM and Nvidia’s super powerful 192-core Kepler GPU.

We don’t normally do benchmarks for hardware reviews—you can read my policy on why—but Nvidia’s nascent SoC is calling out for a little number crunching, not to mention that we were curious to see how it performed against the Shield tablet.

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The Nexus 9 ranked especially high in GeekBench 3.

In GeekBench 3, the Nexus 9 scored 3358 in the multi-core test, ranking the highest of any of the major smartphone and tablet releases in the last year, but a little lower than the Shield. In Vellamo’s Chrome and multi-core benchmarks, it scored 5855 and 2805, respectively, which is way higher than what the Shield turned in.

nexus9 3dmarknumbers

As for 3DMark, the Nexus 9 fell short of the Shield tablet’s levels by about 5,000. Some of that likely has to do with the fact that Nvidia’s tablet has software tweaks built into its version of Android that help rev it up a bit. It might have to do with the lower-res display on that device, too. Either way, the Tegra K1 is pretty bad-ass. 

This is definitely a device for the power hungry. You don’t have to worry about the tablet slowing down when you switch between a graphics intensive game and your remote desktop, for instance. It’s a tablet you can confidently use for entertainment and productivity.

Tablets are not point-and-shoots

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Lollipop’s new camera interface. 

The Nexus 9 comes with Lollipop’s new stock camera interface. I’m not too crazy about it—I couldn’t figure which way to swipe in and out at first.

nexus9 test shot

I’m still struggling to understand why people use a tablet to take photos.

nexus9 darkshot

It hardly works in low light.

I’m still shocked at the number of people who use a tablet to shoot candid family moments. I’m of the belief that the only reason these particular devices have cameras in the first place is for easily connecting with others through video chat. That said, both the Nexus 9’s rear-facing 8-megapixel camera and front-facing 1.6-megapixel camera aren’t too bad at taking photos or streaming video through Google Hangouts. In fact, the biggest caveat of the rear-facing camera is the fact that the lens physically sticks out. That seems out of place on a tablet that, may I remind you, isn’t meant to replace your point and shoot.

Don’t forget your charger

I was not particularly impressed with the Nexus 9’s battery life, but I also didn’t expect much from a 6,700mAh battery pack powering a 9-inch 2048x1536 resolution display. Compare that to the Nexus 10, which has a 9,000mAh battery pack.

On standby, the tablet was fine. It was on Wi-Fi all night, receiving notifications and such, and only burned through about 30 percent of its power. Other top tablets have far longer standby time. I had to charge the tablet every single day that I was actively using it, however, and I’m pretty used to going three days without having to plug in either of my smaller tablets.

I’ll have the results of our official battery test up soon.

A delicious Lollipop

Android 5.0 is almost an entirely different Android than what you’re used to. It’s not only sporting the bolder-colored, simpler, more cohesive Material Design, but every other part—from the keyboard to the Settings menu—feels like Android has finally grown up. It’s the most professional version of Google’s operating system I’ve ever used, and I’m particularly impressed with the new animations and the way they make the interface feel more interactive.

nexus9 ui

Lollipop.

I still feel like Google could do more with Android’s tablet interface, however. It still just feels like a big wasteland of wallpaper with a few icons scattered here and there—that’s about it.

lollipopdrawer

Android Lollipop’s application drawer.

This is completely stock Android, so it’s devoid of the same bells and whistles you’d get with a Samsung or LG tablet. It does come with some of Google’s new apps, like Google Fit and the revamped Gmail and Calendar apps, but even the wallpaper choices are slim pickings. We’ll have a thorough review of Lollipop and its new features and apps in the coming weeks.

Android’s new future

person Rob Schultz

What will all that 64-bit power encourage developers to do?

Although it’s manufactured by HTC, the Nexus 9 is all Google. The plain black chassis, stock Android, and powerful processor will be fun for developers and diehard Android fans to tinker with, but I wouldn’t suggest the Nexus 9 to a not-so-techie family member. I’d much rather steer them towards a second-generation Nexus 7 if they’re looking for a reading device running stock Android, or the 8.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S for its bigger screen and stylish outfitting.

The Nexus 9 doesn’t exist solely for Google to sell tablets; it exists to get developers thinking about how to move Google’s Android ecosystem forward into the next generation of mobile technology. It’s also a great indicator of how strong Google’s hardware partnerships are: We’ve got Nvidia and HTC’s hardware working in tandem on one device, with both companies putting their best foot forward. If you’re drawn to the Nexus 9, buy it because you want to see what the future’s like, not because you’re looking for the absolutely perfect tablet device.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    If you’re drawn to the Nexus 9, buy it because you want to see what the future’s like, not because you’re looking for the absolutely perfect tablet device.

    Pros

    • 64-bit processor is great for gaming and productivity
    • Front-facing stereo speakers give the Nexus 9 a mini-theater experience

    Cons

    • Chassis is very basic
    • Density can make it hard to hold for long periods of time
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