As OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) go HTC is one of the most influential names in story of Android: not only producing the first ever handset to run Google’s mobile OS, but also the first company to lend its talents to creating the Nexus One, the first device to ever bare the Nexus name.
Its track record in the tablet space is far less proven however, with only two notable devices in its back catalogue to speak of: one of which (the Mozart) was an exclusive slate for AT&T in the US and the other being the over-priced and under-powered HTC Flyer.
It’s interesting then, that Google and HTC teamed up, not to make the new Nexus 6 smartphone (that task fell to Motorola), but Mountain View’s long-awaited next tablet – the Google Nexus 9.
Design: Retro rectangle
One of the big differences between HTC’s take on the Nexus brand and previous offerings is price. The value aspect was a big draw for potential customers looking to pick up the Asus-made Nexus 7 or the LG-made Nexus 5, but with the Nexus 9’s pricing molding to more conventional trends it affords you something a little fancier.
The soft touch back plate, like the Nexus 5, feels nice in the hand and as seen on HTC’s own devices, an abundance of metal goes a long ways to giving a sense of superior build quality. We wouldn’t go so far as to shove the mighty iPad Air 2 out of the way in this department, but the brushed, tapered edging and the metallic camera surround both suggest that this is a powerful, premium slate you’re holding.
Speaking of holding, despite a sizable 8.9-inch screen, the Nexus 9 is narrow enough and light enough to wield in one hand. It’s not the thinnest thing around (7.95mm), nor is it the lightest (425 grams), but in this instance both traits reinforce the notion of a high quality threshold and some powerful hardware on the inside, rather than lazy or dated design and engineering work.
The interplay of the glossy black front, dark brushed metal frame and lightly coloured soft-touch plastic back feel reminiscent some sort of premium home electronics from the 90’s, like a Sony VHS player or a JVC amp. Whether you like that look is entirely down to personal preference.
Screen: Old school, new tech
Whilst the last Nexus tablet, the 7, adopted a 16:9 aspect ratio – perfect for watching movies and videos, the larger Nexus 9 goes 4:3 that instead suggests a focus on productivity.
Google describes the 8.9-inch IPS LCD as ‘perfectly sized’ and we’d have to agree. The Nexus 9’s dimensions hit a sweet spot, with enough bezel to offer solid amounts of grip without obscuring the screen, a width that despite the broader screen still allows for comfortable one-handed use, and a panel that’s big, bright and clear.
With its QXGA (2048×1536) display, the Nexus 9 boasts one of the highest resolution screens HTC’s ever put into a device. You can’t discern individual pixels at any normal viewing distance and colours appear accurate too, not to mention it outpaces the iPad Air and Air 2 for pixel density.
Colours do distort a little at more extreme angles and the Gorilla Glass 3 has a tendency to hold onto smeary fingerprints and grime, but on the whole it’s a joy to use and you’ll take great pleasure swiping through photos or watching movies with it.
OS: “Lollipop, lollipop, oh lolli lolli lolli lollipop”
Android 5.0 Lollipop is undoubtedly one of the biggest selling points for the Nexus 9. In what is easily the most significant redesign of Android since Ice Cream Sandwich, this latest build of Google’s mobile OS features one obvious change – animations, and they’re everywhere.
As part of the new Material Design language featured in Lollipop, playful new animations have been introduced to give context to practically everything you do. From opening the apps drawer to the desaturated fade out when you tap the power button, it’s all designed to better explain to the user where they’ve been and what each action does.
A flat, colourful aesthetic informs every element of the native Google applications too, ensuring the whole experience feels consistent. The notifications and quick settings have been amalgamated into a single swipe down pane, which reveals the notifications on the first swipe and the settings on a second (a two finger swipe will bring both panes down together immediately).
As well as a refreshed aesthetic, new and improved features go a long way to enriching the user experience too. The Gmail app now supports email addresses outside of Google’s own Gmail accounts, including Microsoft Exchange, meaning you no longer need to double up on applications when checking your mail.
The introduction of trusted devices lets you pair any smartwatch, Bluetooth speaker or NFC tag to the tablet’s security, so when they’re in range you won’t be asked to input a password or a lockscreen pattern (taking them out of range establishes whatever lockscreen security you have set up). You can also have guest or restricted access accounts so that others can use your Nexus 9 without being able to get at your unmentionables.
There’s a ton more stuff that Android 5.0 Lollipop brings to the table and you can find out more, including few handy tips and tricks, here.
Performance: ‘K’ is for Kepler
Unless you’re one of a small group of hardcore mobile gamers out there who has already picked up Nvidia’s Shield Tablet, chances are the Nexus 9 will be the next best thing. Why? Because right now it’s the only other Android device on the market with the company’s latest Tegra K1 processor: a chip built with Nvidia’s own Kepler graphics technology – something more commonly seen on desktop-class graphics cards.
In general use it ensures a fast, responsive swiping experience around that fresh Android interface, in a gaming scenario it means you’ve got an impressive level of visual fidelity to play with in AAA games. We just wish more titles played nice with the 64-bit, 2.3GHz Tegra K1 inside the Nexus 9. One of the only titles designed with the K1 in mind – Trine 2, is still locked down as a Shield Tablet exclusive for the time being, whilst other quality titles like Asphalt 8 aren’t optimised and therefore strip back a lot of the graphical goodness enjoyed by less powerful tablets.
It should be noted that gaming or intensive actions for any extended period do cause noticeable levels of heat build-up on the Nexus 9, something we haven’t seen so readily on the latest rival processors under the same levels of duress.
Elsewhere you’re graced with a sizeable 6700mAh battery that’ll offer up a day’s worth of respectably heavy use and could be pushed to two days if you plan on using your Nexus 9 conservatively, not the best around, but it should suit most users.
Camera: Don’t take pictures with your tablet!
As is often the case, tablet cameras never get the same amount of care and attention that smartphone cameras do. The Nexus 9 boasts a 1.6-megapixel front-facer and an 8-megapixel rear camera, complete with LED flash.
Whilst we, as ever, would like to dissuade you from using a tablet as a camera, the flash is a nice inclusion to help in low light scenarios, although the image quality in most environments isn’t dramatically exciting. Although there’s some notable shutter lag (like the Nexus 5 Google will likely improve this in future updates), the camera interface is clean, clear and packs some nice specialised modes like Photosphere and Panorama.
Despite the powerful processor, there’s no 4K video recording, but Full HD shooting is available on the rear camera and 720p HD recording on the front-facer.
Verdict: A new age of Nexus
The Nexus 9 represents two big milestones in its own right; the long-awaited return of a Nexus tablet and proof that HTC can make a solid slate with the potential to make serious waves in the market.
The user experience is the star of the show and continues to strengthen the idea that Android is best left untouched by manufacturers. On the hardware front you’ve got a mixed bag of goodies, with an average camera and solid battery performance being overshadowed by an excellent display, processor and clean industrial design.
The Nexus 9 will likely grow into the world of Lollipop as other manufacturers join the fray and Google, along with thousands of app developers, issue updates to better leverage Android 5.0’s talents and the Tegra K1’s computing grunt. For the price there are certainly other options out there (like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S), but we have a sneaking suspicion the Nexus 9 would make for one of the smartest tablet purchases this side of Christmas, even over the mighty iPads.