Google Nexus 9 review: A good, but not great, Android 5.0 tablet

Google’s previous tablets have included both 7-inch and 10-inch Nexus models, with the former having greater success in the market. Two 7-inch Nexus tablets have come and gone, while the Nexus 10 has now disappeared from Google’s tablet lineup.

With the new Nexus 6 smartphone sporting a 6-inch screen, another 7-inch tablet was always unlikely — hence the new 9-inch Nexus 9.

Previous Nexus tablets were offered at very compelling prices, but that’s no longer the case. With the 16GB Nexus 9 costing £319 (inc. VAT, £265.83 ex. VAT), the 32GB version £399 (inc. VAT, £332.50 ex. VAT), and the 32GB LTE version £459 (inc. VAT, £382.50 ex. VAT) this tablet arrives into a very crowded sector of the market, and there are obvious big-name competitors like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, Sony Xperia Tablet Z2 and 16GB iPad Air 2.

Many potential Nexus 9 buyers may be attracted by the fact that this tablet runs the latest version of Android — Lollipop (Android 5.0) — and that it should get future updates before any other Android tablet.

Google’s previous hardware partners were Asus (Nexus 7) and Samsung (Nexus 10); for the Nexus 9 it’s HTC, which has brought its well-regarded BoomSound speakers into the mix. There are two speaker grilles on the front short edges of the tablet, and these produce surprisingly good-quality sound that doesn’t distort even at the highest volume levels. Catching up on TV programmes, watching YouTube video and gaming all really benefit, and it’s a great plus point.

Google’s design standard of having the word ‘nexus’ indented in the back of the tablet is retained. The smooth polycarbonate material used for the back doesn’t attract greasy fingerprints and is nicely grippy. The faded grey colour of our review sample, which Google calls Lunar White, is unusual but not unattractive; Indigo Black or Sand (brown) are the other colour options.

The backplate curves into the aluminium sides, which house the Micro-USB 2.0 connector on the bottom, the on/off switch and volume rocker on the right, and the 3.5mm headset jack at the top. The two buttons are made from metal and look good, but in use are just that little bit below par in quality terms thanks to both a lack of travel and wobbly feel.

The Nexus 9 measures 7.95mm thick, which is no match for the 6.1mm-slim iPad Air 2; the Google/HTC tablet is a little on the heavy side too, at 425g. It’s comfortable enough to hold, but if you’re after the thinnest and lightest tablet on the block, look elsewhere.

HTC has missed a couple of design elements, too. The main camera’s lens sits in the top-left corner at the back, and is flush to the backplate for about a third of its circumference, but those parts near the top and side, where the backplate curves, project slightly in a way that’s jarring to the eye. The backplate doesn’t quite sit flush to the aluminium edge band, which extends ever so slightly over the front of the Nexus 9. And those speaker grilles may deliver super sound, but they are also indented dust traps.

There is a little give in the backplate — and more worryingly, perhaps, when we applied just a small amount of pressure at the top edge, on the opposite side to the camera lens, the backplate appeared to touch something behind it with a gentle ‘clunk’.

The 8.9-inch screen is packed into a chassis measuring 153.68mm by 228.25mm. The top and bottom bezels are about 21mm, shrinking to about 7mm at the sides. It’s easy to accidentally tap the screen when you’re holding the device in portrait mode, but this is not a problem in landscape mode.

The 8.9-inch IPS display has a native resolution of 2,048 by 1,536 pixels, giving a pixel density of 288ppi. That’s a considerable drop from the 2013 Nexus 7’s 323ppi (1,920 by 1,200), but in everyday use we found it perfectly fine; it also compares well to the 264ppi iPad Air 2, which delivers the same resolution in a 9.7-inch screen. The 4:3 aspect ratio is a rarity in high-end Android tablets, but we found it made for comfortable viewing.

We’ve seen some complaints of light bleed from early Nexus 9 adopters, and we noticed this too: a very narrow strip along the top of the screen in portrait mode is brighter than elsewhere. This wasn’t a massive irritation, but it’s not exactly ideal.

As we’ve noted already, Android 5.0 is likely to draw many people to the Nexus 9: Lollipop is a sleeker and cleaner Android experience than its 4.4 (KitKat) predecessor, offering more system-wide continuity than before.

You may encounter problems with some apps, though — and even very popular ones are not immune. Downloads from the BBC iPlayer didn’t work, for example, although we had no trouble with streaming.

The processing and graphics power provided by the 64-bit, dual-core, 2.3GHz Nvidia Tegra K1 SoC make the Nexus 9 an impressive performer. With 2GB of RAM in support there is real speed in everyday use, with apps running quickly and excellent responsiveness to finger taps and sweeps.

These impressions are borne out by processor (Geekbench 3) and graphics (3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited) benchmarks, which show the Nexus 9 to be one of the fastest tablets in its class:

However, even when the tablet was idling we noticed the area around the rear camera was slightly warmer than the rest of the backplate, and working the device hard with games caused it to warm up further. We’ve seen plenty of other devices run warm, of course, but we’d rather this didn’t happen.

Like Apple, Google does not support MicroSD storage expansion in its devices, and so you’ll need to decide whether 16GB or 32GB best meets your needs. Neither is a very generous amount of internal storage — Apple offers 16GB, 64GB and 128GB on the iPad Air 2, by contrast. You do get 15GB of free online Google Drive storage with a Google account, of course, and you can pay to expand this.

Wi-fi (802.11ac) and Bluetooth (4.1) are joined by NFC, with support for Android Beam to other devices that support it. MHL and infrared are notably absent — the former perhaps because Google wants you to buy into Chromecast.

The rear camera is an LED flash-equipped 8-megapixel unit that records 1080p full-HD video. The 1.6-megapixel front camera is limited to 720p HD video. Shooting features are fairly limited, although, as with Android 4.4 KitKat, you do have access to Photo Sphere, Lens Blur and panorama modes.

Battery life is around what we’d expect for a tablet of this size. Google says the Nexus 9’s 6,700mAh battery is good for around 9.5 hours of wi-fi browsing and/or video playback, and our anecdotal experience over a little less than a week is in line with this. Depending on your usage pattern you might get a weekend out of it on a single charge.

The Google/HTC Nexus 9 is a good tablet, but not quite a great one. The sound quality from the twin HTC BoomSound speakers is a real plus point — as, of course, is Android 5.0 Lollipop. The 64-bit Nvidia Tegra K1 processor delivers excellent performance, while battery life is acceptable if not outstanding.

Still, we can’t help being a little disappointed by the lack of standout features. Other vendors will be offering Lollipop in due course, and then one of this tablet’s USPs will disappear. That light bleed issue, the tendency to run warm, and several small issues with the build suggest a certain lack of attention to detail. A keener price might have made us more forgiving of niggles like these, and might have earned the Nexus 9 a higher overall rating. Google has set the bar high in the past, but here it seems slightly off the pace.