Review: Nexus 9

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Gizmag reviews the latest Nexus tablet, the HTC/Google Nexus 9 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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Though Nexus phones have been around since 2010, Nexus tablets only started popping up a couple of years ago. Do the same things that worked in the Nexus 7 also work on a 9-inch sequel? Read on, for Gizmag's take on the new HTC-made Nexus 9.

The Nexus 9 sits in a strange middle ground. It isn't quite a small tablet or a full-sized tablet. Nor is it a budget tablet or a premium tablet. It's a 'tweener through-and-through, ultimately sitting somewhere between the best and the rest.

The Nexus 9 does have some terrific qualities. Its 8.9-in screen size is a nice middle-ground between "big" and "mini." If you like the 8.9-in screen size on the larger Kindle Fires – but don't like their Amazon shopping mall software – this could be the tablet for you.

It's also the rare Android tablet with an iPad-like 4:3 aspect ratio (meaning its screen is shaped a bit more boxy, a bit less oblong). I think 4:3 is the best ratio for tablets, as you can enjoy it just as easily in portrait mode or landscape mode.

The screen is also sharp and bright, with the same resolution as iPad Retina Displays. Colors don't quite pop or appear to be sitting smack dab on the surface to the degree that they do on the iPad Air 2, but there's little to be concerned about with screen quality.

The Nexus 9 has the same generic-looking matte plastic back that we saw on the Nexus 5 and 2013 Nexus 7. It worked well enough on those budget devices: you knew you were getting high-end hardware everywhere else, so a little plastic on the outside was a small price to pay.

But starting at US$400, the Nexus 9 is far from a budget tablet. Google handed manufacturing duties over to HTC, a company known of late for its premium designs, but the Nexus 9 doesn't take advantage of that at all. It feels like it could have just as easily been made by Asus or LG.

In fairness, there is a metal band running around the tablet's edge, so it isn't all plastic. But unlike the Galaxy Note 4, where a similar design approach paid dividends, the Nexus 9's casing doesn't strike me as high-end.

The Nexus 9 feels pretty light in hand, but it doesn't hold a candle to the featherweight designs we've seen in the last year from Apple and Samsung. It's only about 3 percent lighter than the iPad Air 2, despite having a 14 percent smaller face.

Like many other aspects of the Nexus 9, its weight isn't a strike against it ... but it also isn't a reason to choose it.

The Nexus 9 feels comfortable in hand, but joins the Galaxy Tab S in having one big annoyance: when holding the tablet in portrait mode with one hand, you have to be careful not to rest your finger on the side of the screen.

When you're gripping the sides of Apple's iPad Airs and iPad minis, you can rest your finger on the edge of the screen without registering it as a touch. You can swipe to your heart's content with the other hand, and it will respond as if your other thumb wasn't resting on the screen. The Nexus 9 doesn't have this edge-touch rejection.

Narrow side bezels are one of my favorite things about modern tablets. But what good are they if they make you compromise the way you hold the tablet? So far Apple is the only major tablet-maker to have addressed this.

The Nexus 9 runs Android 5.0 "Lollipop," which gives Google's OS a makeover. The new "Material Design" is a cosmetic change on the scale of Apple's flat-design shift in iOS 7 and OS X Yosemite, giving Android a cleaner and more modern look. I think it looks terrific.

Lollipop also has some big under-the-hood tweaks (Android runtime in place of Dalvik) and broader changes like better cross-device syncing. But on the user level, Material Design is by far the most noticeable difference (stay tuned for a deeper dive on Lollipop).

I have to note that I ran into a surprising number of crashes in third-party apps (Netflix, Hulu Plus and Geekbench 3), but HTC assures me that our review unit is running pre-release software and those issues should be remedied in the final shipping software.

The Nexus 9 is the first 64-bit Android tablet – and it's a speed demon. Tasks like scrolling and zooming are just a hair choppy compared to the latest iOS devices, but multitasking is lightning-fast. On the whole, performance isn't remotely a concern.

Battery life is solid enough, but not great. In our benchmark, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness at 75 percent, the Nexus 9 dropped 24 percentage points per hour. That's well short of the iPad Air 2, which dropped 14 percent per hour in the same test.

The Nexus 9 has a surprisingly good camera. It even has a flash. Few of us buy tablets for their cameras, but you might be surprised how crisp and clear the Nexus 9's shots are.

The Nexus 9 is a very good tablet. It isn't the best, and it no longer gives you the most bang for your buck ... but my complaints are also fairly minor.

Oddly enough, it moves in more of an iPad-like direction – with its larger screen, 4:3 aspect ratio and higher price. The problem with that, though, is that the Nexus is now pitting itself as a direct rival to the iPad. In many ways, it falls short.

The first two iPad Airs have bigger screens, higher-end builds, longer battery life and better tablet app selections than the Nexus 9. They're also thinner and (relative to size) lighter. Samsung's Galaxy Tab S ticks many of those same boxes.

The Nexus 7 had a clear identity: high-end specs stuffed into a small and cheap tablet. And though the Nexus 9 gets better in every other way, it loses that clear value proposition. At $300, it would have been a terrific buy. But at $400, it's hard to recommend over the iPad Air 1.

Just because something isn't the best, though, doesn't mean it's no good at all. And the Nexus 9 is still among the best tablets of the year. It's going to make a lot of people happy. Its biggest fault is that it decided to run against the fastest thoroughbreds.

The Google/HTC Nexus 9 starts shipping today, starting at $400 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi only model.

Product page: Google

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