Google's new Nexus 9 tablet, made by HTC ($399 for 16GB, $479 for 32GB), tries to balance ultimate power with an affordable price. With its super-fast 64-bit processor, latest Lollipop software, and attachable keyboard cover, the Nexus 9 is supposed to push the limits of what you can do with Android.
But the middle is a tough place to be, and the Nexus 9 is flanked by some very tough competitors: the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, the Apple iPad Air 2, and their larger and smaller siblings. Lollipop vaults the Nexus 9 into the top rank of tablets, but we still prefer Apple's and Samsung's competing models for a range of reasons.
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Hardware and Wireless
HTC always makes handsome products. The Nexus 9 has a spare, elegant design. At 8.98 by 6.05 by 0.31 inches (HWD) and 15 ounces, it's a sliver thicker and a little bit lighter than the iPad Air 2. It comes in black, sand, and white, all with soft-touch, slightly angled corners and a soft-touch back. My black model got fingerprinty and greasy pretty quickly, definitely a disadvantage compared with the textured back of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5.
Two front-facing speakers flank an 8.9-inch, 2,048-by-1,536-pixel LCD screen with relatively large bezels. The screen isn't stunningly bright, but the colors are very true compared with the default oversaturation of the Galaxy Tab S, for instance. The 8-megapixel main camera extends a little bit from the top right corner. The tablet got a bit warm towards the top in use—noticeable, but not disturbing.
Google is really promoting the Nexus 9 for productivity, and showed me how Google Docs has a wide range of keyboard shortcuts when it's used with the official $129 Nexus keyboard cover. The keyboard cover isn't available yet, but I'm looking forward to testing it; it reminds me a lot of the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover. There's also a simpler, $39 Origami cover available that also acts as a stand.
The Nexus 9 is Wi-Fi only for now; there will be an unlocked 32GB LTE model sold for $599 in the future. Wireless performance was similar to the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9", but nowhere near as good as the Editors' Choice iPad Air 2. My 70Mbps of downlink bandwidth dropped to around 10Mbps at 60 feet, and 2-4Mbps at 100 feet with a wall in between.
As this is a Nexus, the battery is sealed in, and there's no memory card slot or IR blaster. That compares poorly with other Android tablets like the Nvidia Shield Tablet and Samsung Galaxy Tab S. When I asked Google about this, they said they were encouraging people to lean on cloud services. Our 32GB model had 26.2GB of free storage.
A discursion: I hate it when device makers tell people to use the cloud as an excuse for not including local storage. I get it with Amazon, to some extent. But we still can't assume ubiquitous Internet access, and until that magical day, I can't recommend that people buy non-expandable 8GB or 16GB tablets. (Yes, I like the iPad—but I like the iPad.)
The Nexus 9 has a 6,700mAh battery, which gives about six hours of continuous video streaming over Wi-Fi with screen brightness set to max—a little better than the iPad Air 2, but nowhere near as good as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S series. I was disappointed that the tablet doesn't have quick-charging abilities, although it comes with a slightly higher-voltage-than-usual charger.
Processor and Performance
The Nexus 9 is the first device we've seen with Nvidia's 64-bit K1 chipset based on its custom Denver processor. This is different from the K1 model in the Shield Tablet, which uses a more standard quad-Cortex A15 arrangement.
Apps don't seem to be tuned for 64 bits yet, as I saw generally similar benchmark results on the Nexus 9 as the Shield Tablet. Looking more closely at the results told a now-familiar story of hardware potential being held back by non-optimized software.
The Shield Tablet scored ahead of the Nexus 9 on the GFXBench graphics benchmark, and was considerably faster on the Sunspider browser benchmark, showing that Chrome probably needs to be rewritten for the 64-bit K1. But the Nexus 9 the Shield Tablet's score on the Geekbench memory access test, showing the advantage of the 64-bit setup.
Let's note, though, that both of the K1 devices are the best-performing Android devices we've seen, benchmark-wise. Their gaming frame rates, especially, crush everything else out there, even the 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805-powered Motorola Droid Turbo. If your Android experience will involve games, these tablets are the ultimate.
I loaded a bunch of games from Nvidia's Tegra Zone store onto the Nexus 9 and they all played smoothly. Remember that we're getting the same frame rates as the Shield Tablet, at double the resolution. The only down side is that the Nexus 9 doesn't hook up well to TVs or bigger screens; with no SlimPort or HDMI, you'll have to use a Chromecast, and that means dealing with wireless network interference and latency.