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HTC Nexus 9 Review

Can Google and HTC's new tablet justify the expensive price tag?

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The Nexus 9 isn’t HTC’s first tablet. You may remember the HTC Flyer, a 7” Android Honeycomb device or if you’re particularly well versed on Android history, the HTC Jetstream, a 10” tablet exclusively sold on AT&T in the US. The Nexus 9 isn’t HTC’s first Nexus either – the Gingerbread equipped Nexus One remains one of the most fondly remembered Nexus devices of all time.

In recent times however, HTC have been quiet on both the Nexus and tablet fronts. Although the Nexus One was well received, it didn’t really represent a major sales success for HTC – that was reserved for the Desire, effectively based on the same design. The Flyer was a good device hamstrung by poor software and the Jetstream was too expensive and not widely distributed.

Design and build quality

Can HTC finally have a Nexus and Tablet success with the Nexus 9? HTC might be renowned for their design skills, but the Nexus 9 looks like a Nexus first and foremost. It shares its design language with the Nexus 5 and the 2013 Nexus 7, with a soft touch back, large, horizontal Nexus branding and a very plain front. The metal edge of the Nexus 9 is a rare nod to HTC’s engineering abilities.

The 425g Nexus 9 (around the same weight as the iPad Air 2 / Xperia Z2 Tablet although they have larger screens) is available in three colours – black with a black metal edge, white with a silver metal edge and sand with a silver metal edge, which will only be available directly from the Play Store.

The front of the device has the 1.6 Megapixel front facing camera, the light sensor for auto brightness and below the 2048×1536 4:3 ratio screen, the notification LED that has become something of a Nexus tradition. The back of the device has the 8 Megapixel camera and flash in the top left – protruding from the case as it curves at the edge – and very subtle HTC branding on the bottom.

Clues to HTC’s involvement in the device may be few and far between, but one feature that we’re very glad is included is the BoomSound stereo speakers. Situated at the very top and bottom of the front, the speakers are both loud and high quality, offering a supremely immersive experience whether playing games or watching videos. Once you’ve been spoiled with this kind of audio experience, it’s very hard to go back!

16GB and 32GB WiFi versions of the Nexus 9 are available as well as a 32GB LTE version, starting at £319. The lack of a 64GB (or even 128GB) option is disappointing, particularly when you note that there is no microSD expansion available.

The Nexus 9 is significant in its use of a 4:3 screen, which also happens to be the ratio of the screen Apple uses on the iPad. It isn’t the first Android device to run this screen ratio – a large number of Chinese tablets (including the Xiaomi MiPad) do too – but it is the first mainstream tablet to do so.

The screen itself is very sharp and exceptionally bright, matching the Sony Xperia Z3 when on maximum brightness, which is certainly no mean feat.

Processing speeds and battery power

The Nexus 9 uses the Nvidia K1 64-bit ready processor with it’s 192-core (yes, you read that right!) Kepler GPU. As you’d expect, the device can handle anything you throw at it include the most intensive games.In fact, when we benchmarked it using AnTuTu it scored 53,460 – double the speed of our Nexus 7 (2013), which scored 25,979. When paired with a Bluetooth joypad, you end up with a very formidable mobile gaming platform! We did notice that when using the device it got quite warm when running the most demanding of games, but not hot enough to cause concern.

The 6700mAh battery, while slightly smaller than in some rival devices, is still large and provides impressive run time on the Nexus 9. Android 5.0 Lollipop uses the ART runtime for improved battery efficiency over KitKat and has been built using ‘Project Volta’ for the best possible power optimisation right out of the box. As you’d expect, the tablet barely sips battery when sitting unused so it should be ready to go when you pick it up. There’s no wireless charging this time round, power comes courtesy of the inverted microUSB socket on the bottom. A nice touch in the software is an estimated time until charging completes.

All aboard the good ship Lollipop!

Nexus devices have a special superpower that makes them more desirable than your run of the mill Android phones and tablets – early access to the latest Android releases! The Nexus 9 is the first device to launch with Android 5.0 Lollipop, Google’s latest sweet Android release. The most visible change in the new release is the new ‘Material’ design language. From the moment you power on the Nexus 9, everything just looks that much better. The dark backgrounds and limited colours of Holo, which has been around since the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, have been replaced by vibrant, multi-layer user interfaces that really pop on the gorgeous screen.

Of course, a new design language means that applications need to be updated and this is something that we’ll see over the coming months. All of Google’s own apps have been updated so Gmail, Drive, Chrome etc. all look stunning and work beautifully on the new tablet.

Apps run incredibly smoothly on the Nexus 9 as you’d expect given the powerful hardware and the new improved multi-tasking interface makes switching between them easier than ever. One of the biggest problems with large tablets on Android before was that with the limited number of tablet optimised apps available, enlarged phone apps would just look ridiculous on a 10” screen. Perhaps it’s that 4:3 ratio again, but it doesn’t seem as much of a problem on the Nexus 9, apps generally just look great.

If we were to look to define a barometer of the Nexus 9’s success, then perhaps it would be that it, together with Material Design, may finally encourage developers to update their apps to be more tablet friendly – a very important thing if large Android tablets are finally to get the success that they deserve.

Say No to tablet photography

A particular favourite feature is that the Nexus 9 includes tap to wake, something that’s common on many devices now but it is really useful on the tablet, avoiding the need to fumble for the power button.

At the recent launch of the iPad Air 2, Apple acknowledged that people want to take pictures on their tablets and they succumbed to that user requirement by fitting the Air 2 with a high quality camera. Fear not, HTC and Google haven’t done the same thing here! The snapper on the Nexus 9 is best described as adequate. The main camera does have a flash and does capture reasonable detail in well lit situations, but in more challenging conditions it can struggle to focus and accurately represent colours despite letting in a decent amount of light. The biggest problem is the speed of capture – auto-focus on the Nexus 9 is slow when compared to most Android phones nowadays. For use only in emergencies perhaps!

The inclusion of a 1.6 Megapixel camera on the front is a pretty clear statement that quality isn’t that important but for what it’s primarily intended for, video calling, the front camera is again good enough.

Accessories

Two official accessories are currently being offered for the Nexus 9, a £35 cover and a £110 keyboard folio. As is traditional with Nexus accessories, they are expensive and coming later than the device itself.

The cover is a single, magnetically attached surface that can be used on the screen or back of the device. It has an ‘origami’ style so that it can be used as a stand, as well as a corner that can be flipped down to automatically launch the camera app when it’s on the back of the device. It’s nice, but it doesn’t offer a huge amount of protection.

The keyboard folio is more interesting. It too attaches magnetically to the tablet, but wraps around completely when not in use to keep your device safe. It includes a Bluetooth keyboard with a battery life of up to 4 months and a built in stand to prop your device up at 2 different angles. If you want to get serious about getting things done on your Nexus 9, then it’s a must have.

Should you buy it?

The Nexus 9 certainly isn’t a budget tablet with a starting price of £319.99, but it is a far more valuable proposition than the Nexus 7 it succeeds. For all uses other than watching movies the 4:3 is a far more usable ratio and the 8.9” size makes the device easier to manage in the hand that other large Android tablets. A powerful processor, solid specs and excellent build quality make this the Android tablet to have. Our only reservation is that we would have preferred to see a little more HTC DNA in the device, but maybe a HTC Sense version will deliver that in the future, if the Nexus 9 is successful enough for HTC to overcome their fear of tablet failure.

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