In a tweet around 18 months ago, my frustration with the current crop of tablets came to a head and I reached out to HTC - “Please please PLEASE @HTC make a 8.9" HTC One Tablet. I'll be first in line with my hard earned”. How interesting then that i’m sitting here today, reviewing almost exactly that. Granted, it’s a Nexus device rather than a HTC ‘One’ tablet, but i’m pretty excited to put it through it’s paces.
This isn't HTC's first tablet, although you could be forgiven for thinking so. Back in the midsts of time came the (Gingerbread!) HTC Flyer, a 7" device which was ultimately updated to Honeycomb. It was chunky, metal, heavy and great. Then there was the HTC Jetstream, a 10" device in the same vein that was only released on AT&T in the US. I liked that one too.
Who can forget HTC's first Nexus, the much loved Nexus One, with its bulletproof metal construction. Ah, good times. Anyway...
As phones themselves have increased in size (I use a 5.2” Xperia Z3 as my main device), I feel the benefits of a 7” tablet have diminished. Simply put, they are not that much bigger! The obvious answer to that is a 10.1” device, such as the awesome Xperia Z2 Tablet. The problem is, with Android tablets almost exclusively offering a screen with a 16:10 ratio, they very quickly become unwieldy and tiring to use.
I don’t watch much video content on my device. If you do, then this ratio makes more sense… I browse the web, read and write documents and read magazines in the Readly app - a 4:3 ratio screen just works so much better for that kind of usage. It also happens to be the ratio used on a certain Apple range of tablets…
With that in mind, my go-to device recently has been the Xiaomi MiPad. OK, so it runs MIUI which isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the screen is the ‘right’ ratio and 7.9” in size. It also rocks the 64-bit capable Nvidia K1 processor and Kepler GPU, previous utilised in the Shield Tablet and also inside the Nexus 9.
The device I am reviewing is final hardware, however at the time of writing (2nd November) the software itself is still being refined by Google / HTC. With that in mind, I have not included the software / battery life parts of this review and will add those when the retail software becomes available.
- 16GB WiFi (black / white) - £319 (Play Store / Amazon)
- 32GB WiFi (black / white) - £399 (Play Store / Amazon)
- 32GB WiFi (sand) - £399 (Play Store / Amazon)
- 32GB LTE (black) - £459 (Play Store / Amazon)
Let’s take a quick look at the Nexus 9 specifications…
It goes without saying that the most interesting aspects of the device are the processor and the shiny new version of Android - the other specifications are largely par for the course. Note that the Nexus 9 doesn’t have a microSD slot, so choose your storage capacity carefully.
I’m pretty surprised there is no 64GB option, given the more premium pricing of the device.
Hardware - around the device
Make no mistake, this device looks and feels like a Nexus that happens to be made by HTC. This is in rather stark contrast to the Nexus 6, which looks and feels like a Motorola device (a super-sized Moto X / G) that happens to have a Nexus logo stamped on the back. Is this a good or a bad thing? That depends on your perspective…
So let’s have a look around.
The front of the Nexus 9, coated in Corning Gorilla Glass 3, is free of any branding whatsoever. Dominated by that screen, it has the front facing camera located centrally at the top and HTC BoomSound speakers on the very top and bottom of the device. The light sensor sits to the right of the camera and at the bottom there is a notification LED.
The back of the device is plastic (although clearly with metal in there somewhere as the cover and keyboard cases attach magnetically) and looks like a cross between a Nexus 5 and a Nexus 7. The soft-touch finish also is very similar, as is the horizontal Nexus branding. A small grey HTC logo (in portrait) at the bottom just above the various certification marks is really the only hint that the Nexus range has transitioned to a new manufacturer for this generation. The camera and flash are sited at the very top left of the back, sticking up from the curved edge (see below). A rather strange design detail.
If there’s one thing we know about HTC it’s that they know how to make metal devices and this expertise manifests itself in a metal edge to the tablet. On the right hand side we have the power and volume buttons (which dont have a great deal of travel and as a result feel slightly unconvincing) and the secondary microphone, the bottom of the device has an ‘inverted’ microUSB port as well as the main microphone and the 3.5mm headphone socket is up top.
If the design is somewhat uninspiring, you'd expect from HTC is that at least the device should be well built. In reality we are seeing reports of movement in the plastic back panel and considerable bleed on the screen, which is very disappointing.
At 425g the weight is about right for its class, the iPad Air 2 weighs 437g and the 10” Xperia Z2 Tablet comes in at an almost identical 426g, although both have larger screens. As you’d expect, this is a considerable increase compared to the 290g Nexus 7 2013.
I will add this part of the review when the final software is available.
Pick up the Nexus 9 and it feels solid in your hand, weighty but not heavy and instantly very manageable. Make no mistake, you’re not going to want to grip both sides of this device with one hand, but while the side bezels aren’t huge, they are wide enough to allow you to rest your thumb on the front of the device without confusing the touch panel.
On a brand new device, after the ‘Google’ boot screen and Nexus boot animation, you are dropped into the customary Setup Wizard which will take you through the process of setting up the device. This is likely your first look at Android 5.0 and material design and it’s a huge overhaul - the wizard is far better looking and better to use than it’s predecessor.
As you enter your details you’ll see the updated keyboard which builds on the already excellent Google Keyboard and you might also spot the haptic feedback when using it. Hallelujah - the Nexus 9 includes a vibrate motor!
The screen on the device is as sharp as you’d expect and brightness is fantastic - the brightest Android screen i’ve ever seen is on the Xperia Z3 and the Nexus 9 can match it. The Z3 does have a particularly cool colour temperature that is noticeably different to the warmer Nexus 9, but it’s not an issue - there’s certainly no yellow tinge. Switching between the Nexus 9 and a Nexus 5 is a real eye-opener as to how screens have improved over the last year! I noticed a few oddities with regards to the screen i’ll put down to the pre-release nature of the software - one where the auto-brightness stopped working completely, a second where the screen flickered slightly (like the auto-brightness was adjusting too frequently) and a third where when adjusting the brightness, the step changes were not smooth.
The Nexus 9 is extremely smooth and responsive in general use. I placed the device alongside a 2013 Nexus 7 and carried out a number of tasks that I know to be particularly intensive and, as you would expect, it completely blitzed its predecessor. Running regular Android apps and multi-tasking around I saw very few lags although I will say it wasn’t ‘buttery smooth’ (to coin a Google phrase) 100% of the time.
With the Nvidia K1 processor inside, of course I had to load up some games and get playing. The result? Silky smooth graphics, immersive sound (you can’t beat front facing speakers for gaming), a quicker depleting battery (inevitable as the device is working harder) and a warm left hand. I have noticed that the top left of the device (when held in landscape, around where the camera is) gets noticeably warmer when the device is worked hard. Perhaps that’s where those 192 graphics cores live. :)
That battery drain is on par with what i’ve experienced on other devices when really giving them a workout and while the device does heat up, it has never done it enough for it to be uncomfortable to hold. Or melt. Or explode. So that’s good!
The Nexus 9 has 2GB RAM on board, which surprised me as I expected to see 3GB on the latest Nexus devices, albeit for no real reason other than BIGGER NUMBERS. The device doesn’t actually feel any worse off for it and perhaps this was a constraint of the packaging of the K1 processor.
Dual band WiFi reception on the device is excellent and I must confess, for me personally the LTE option is appealing, although a £60 premium is certainly food for thought.
The last HTC made Nexus device was the Nexus One - do you remember it? The best thing about it for me was the fantastic multi-colour LED inside the trackball, which made for really cool notification alerts. The Nexus 9 has a notification LED too (it’s something of a Nexus tradition now after all) but strangely, on the software build I have, the LED is used only to indicate low battery and not to actually show notifications. I hope this gets fixed!
The Nexus 9 includes double-tap-to-wake functionality which is something I really don’t like to live without these days. I also configure double-tap-status-bar-to-sleep using an app called ‘All In One Gestures’, but unfortunately this doesn’t work with Lollipop yet. In general I’ve found Lollipop app compatibility to be good, the Nexus 9 also tripped over on Reckless Racing 3 and Boggle in my game testing. I imagine apps will be updated pretty quickly after the full Lollipop release.
We’ll talk more about the software experience on the Nexus 9 later.
The Nexus 9 is the first device to include dual stereo speakers on the front and they do indeed sound much better than on previous Nexus devices. HTC BoomSound really does do its thing, with far more depth to the sound than on lesser stereo speaker equipped devices!
The Nexus 9 has an 8 Megapixel camera on the back and a 1.6 Megapixel camera on the front. Quality is, as you would probably expect… adequate. If you don’t have another camera on you and you need to capture the moment, it’ll do the job. Auto-focus on the main camera is particularly lethargic, which is disappointing. I will put some sample shots online shortly!
I will add this part of the review when the final software is available.
There are 2 approved accessories listed for the Nexus 9 - the £35 ‘origami’ style cover and the £110 Keyboard Folio. No, that’s not a misprint - those really are the prices!
I’ve seen both cases in person and while they are both very nice, you don’t get an awful lot for your money.
Available in 3 polyurethane colour combinations with 1 more colour and 2 leather options to follow, the cover is the size of the front of the device and grips magnetically to either the front or the back, with the option to fold in a number of styles to prop up your tablet. That’s it. It automatically wakes the device and has a foldable corner to allow picture taking when the cover is attached to the back but it doesn’t really offer the hardiest of protection for your £35.
The keyboard cover is actually a cool little thing, although you can imagine a host of cheaper clones being made available not long after launch. It too attaches magnetically to the back of the tablet, but includes a great feeling Bluetooth / NFC connected keyboard and offers all over protection for your device in transit. It allows the Nexus 9 to be propped at 2 different angles and turns it into a genuine productivity station.
One thing I like about both the cover and the keyboard is that they both facilitate using the device ‘naked’ should that be your preference (I don’t really like cases that stay on the device permanently), but let’s just say there’s plenty of scope for 3rd party cases to exist alongside the official offerings.
I will review the keyboard when I get my hands on one! :)
It might seem a little premature to write a conclusion before i’ve finished the review based on the final software, but it’s a good place to collect my thoughts until then. I’m making the assumption that little niggles I have found in the software will be fixed, so I won’t talk about them.
Have HTC delivered on the dream of a genuinely useful Android tablet for me personally? Yes, but they’ve done so more by ticking the right boxes than anything else - fast, 64-bit CPU, good screen with the right size / ratio plus the Nexus moniker and all that brings with regards to updates mean that particularly when I have got hold of the keyboard, it’ll be a formidable tool to have tucked away in my bag.
With that being said, I can’t help think that perhaps Google and HTC (although I suspect HTC just built what Google told them to) have played things safer than they needed to on the Nexus 9. While the design language is consistent and the metal edge and Boomsound are a great addition, there’s no question that the overall look could be described as rather boring now. HTC have some serious design chops and it doesn’t come through here. Although the specs are perfectly sufficient, they don’t feel particularly next-gen (64 bit processor aside) and as Apple move to highlight the quality of the camera on the new iPad, the Nexus 9 shooter is stereotypically tablet - use only in an emergency. The quality issues are also a major concern.
On the software side Lollipop has some great additions and the Google Apps look better than ever, but it is of course down to app developers to do a good job of supporting the tablet. Most of my core apps work well on the Nexus 9 (the material design version of Talon is a particular highlight), but the official Twitter app still sucks and Facebook on a tablet is basically an embarassment. Perhaps it is because of the 4:3 ratio, but I feel that scaled up phone apps do work better on the Nexus 9 than they do on ‘wide’ tablets such as the Nexus 10, but that’s really not a good enough experience in late 2014.
I pledged to spend my hard earned on the tablet if HTC built it. Do I regret that statement? Not at all, i’d buy the Nexus 9 in an instant. But if other manufacturers follow the formula (which is likely what Google hopes) and release similarly sized devices, then the Nexus 9 might be knocked from it’s Android Tablet flagship perch rather quickly.
- Android 5.0 Lollipop
- 2.3GHz 64-bit NVIDIA Tegra K1 CPU
- 192-core Kepler GPU
- 16 GB or 32 GB ROM
- 2GB RAM
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
- LTE option
- 1536 x 2048 8.9" IPS LCD display with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
- 8 Megapixel autofocus rear camera with flash, 1.6 Megapixel front camera
- HTC BoomSound
- 6700 mAh battery
- 228.2 x 153.7 x 7.9 mm
- 425g (WiFi) / 436g (LTE)
- Indigo Black / Lunar White / Sand colour options
Edited by PaulOBrien