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Google Nexus 9 review: A premium, pure Android powerhouse

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The Good The Google Nexus 9 is the first tablet to run Android Lollipop 5.0, which should receive timely updates. It performs steadily with many apps open, and switching between them is fluid. Its streamlined construction has a deluxe, comfortable feel.

The Bad Not all apps work smoothly with Android 5.0 yet. Firm contact is necessary for efficient touchscreen response and it's slow to charge. The largest capacity model offered is 32GB and there's no microSD card slot.

The Bottom Line The Google Nexus 9's premium build, speedy performance and consistent updates render it one of the best high-end Android tablets.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Editors' note (May 25, 2016): Google no longer lists the Nexus 9 for sale in its online store, and HTC has confirmed that it is no longer manufacturing the tablet, though remaining inventory may still be available. Alternatives can be found on our best Android tablets list.

The Google Nexus 9 succeeds in checking the necessary boxes to be one of the best tablets of 2014. An HD display? Check. A premium build? Check. Trailblazing performance and the latest, purest version of Android. Check and check.

All of those points come together to make the 8.9-inch slate an appealing adversary to the Apple iPad Air 2 and Amazon's Fire HDX 8.9 . It has everything it needs to be a high-end tablet, even if the high caliber of competition means that the Nexus 9 doesn't quite run away with the gold medal. But what matters most is that it concentrates on the essentials, rather than padding itself with the trendy and flashy features that can trip up rivals.

Fingerprint sensors, 3D cameras and item-recognition software are a few of the fancy bells and whistles that you can find on premium tablets today, but the new Nexus tablet offers nothing of the sort. It confidently settles on packing one of the most powerful mobile processors on the market and debuting the latest Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system. Forgoing high-end gimmicks, the slate's supreme specs speak for themselves -- it prevails as the preeminent premium, pure Android tablet to date.

The Nexus 9 is available direct from Google and starts at $399, £319 or AU$479 for the 16GB model. The 32GB version will run you $479, £399 or AU$589. Later this year a 32GB 4G LTE capable model will be released -- according to Google, it'll cost $599, £459 or AU$719.

Design

The Nexus 9 completes Google's tablet trifecta, fittingly ensconced between the 7-inch and 10-inch Nexus models. Like its counterparts, its aesthetic is subtle and pleasingly comfortable. The HTC-manufactured device has a clean and streamlined look, complete with sturdy, quality construction.

Its minimalist design is en vogue, but nothing about it particularly stands out. It falls short of matching the skinny iPad Air 2 or featherweight Fire HDX 8.9 -- though its weight and width are in the wheelhouse of both.

Dimensions compared

Tested spec Google Nexus 9 Apple iPad Air 2 Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4
Weight 0.94 pound (425g) 0.96 pound (437g) 0.82 pound (372g) 0.73 pound (331g)
Width (landscape) 8.9 inches (226mm) 9.4 inches (240mm) 9.1 inches (231mm) 8.6 inches (219mm)
Height 6.05 inches (154mm) 6.6 inches (169.5mm) 6.2 inches (158mm) 5 inches (128mm)
Depth 0.31 inch (7.8mm) 0.24 inch (6.1mm) 0.31 inch (7.8mm) 0.28 inch (7.1mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.8 inch (22mm) 0.8 inch (22mm) 0.7 inch (18mm) 0.7 inch (19mm)

The 8.9-inch tablet, available in black, white and gold, dons a smooth matte back with a soft grip and rounded corners. The brushed metal frame that wraps around its body provides a wide enough edge to rest fingers on, minimizing inevitable smudges on the bezel.

Almost flush to the tablet's right edge, the power button and volume rocker are stealthy details. They're virtually camouflaged and understatedly contribute to the Nexus 9's clean design -- though they're a little difficult to find without looking. You'll also find a pair of speakers that slyly blend into the tablet's front facade, bookending the screen next to the bezels.

The Nexus 9 is comfortable to hold; the rounded corners pleasantly fit inside of your palms when holding it in landscape orientation and the smooth texture of the back panel feels pleasing on your fingertips. Individuals with larger hands should be able to easily hold the tablet in one hand, but for smaller-handed folks like me, it's a literal stretch and difficult to securely grasp when positioned upright.

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The Nexus 9 is relatively thin and light. Josh Miller/CNET

In the competitive race to be the slimmest and trimmest tablet, the Nexus 9 is a happy medium between the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 and the iPad Air 2, on par with their thickness and weight, respectively. The slight differences in dimensions can be forgivingly written off as splitting hairs. The Nexus 9's understated looks should only dissuade the most aesthetically inclined shoppers.

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Android 5.0 Lollipop makes its tablet debut on the Nexus 9. Josh Miller/CNET

Launching Lollipop

The Nexus 9 is the first tablet to run Google's latest operating system, Android 5.0 Lollipop. The revamped OS features a contemporary flat aesthetic, dubbed "Material Design." It's a refreshing development, and visually pleasing on the latest Google tablet.

Notable new features of Android 5.0 Lollipop include interactive lock screen notifications, a modified quick settings menu and a revamped recent apps function. Notifications are now prominently displayed on the lock screen, like they would in the pull-down menu, and you can clear them or launch corresponding apps without swiping to unlock. You can control and edit which apps you get notifications for, but Google tries to do this for you off the bat.

nexus-6-lollipop-screenshot.png
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A widget-heavy home screen (left); a glimpse of the Overview menu (right). Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

The quick settings pull-down menu, accessible by swiping down from the top of the screen, displays notifications that now look similar to cards you'd see on your Google Now homepage. Swipe from top to bottom once and you'll see your notifications. If you swipe down again, the menu expands and reveals a few useful settings shortcuts, including brightness level, Wi-Fi, and flashlight.

The Android navigation bar stapled to the bottom of the screen also gets a minimalist facelift and the square on the far right, previously known as the recent apps key is now known as the Overview menu. Instead of a small bar on the side of the screen displaying medium-sized tile-like thumbnails, the open apps are front and center. The Overview menu takes up the entire screen and apps are displayed like a large stack of cards that look like whatever screen you left them on. I like the new look, but it lacks the handy "close all" function.

For a more thorough look at the OS, check out our impressions of Android 5.0 Lollipop here .

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A closer look at the spiffy new notifications. Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

While not directly aimed at the traveling multi-tasker, Google offers a keyboard case for taking your work on the Nexus 9 to go. Paired with Android's printing ability and NFC capabilities, the tablet can act double as a low-key option for productivity purposes.

Hardware

The Google Nexus 9's solid list of up-to-date specs is one of its best attributes. It's the first to house the 64-bit version of the Nvidia Tegra K1 system-on-a-chip, with a 2.3GHz dual-core Denver CPU and a 192-core Kepler DX1 GPU. It also features the speedy 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC.

The Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets don't include microSD card expansion slots, so it's no surprise that this model doesn't either. Google's cloud-based services are meant to replace the need for a memory card and the Nexus 9 enforces that shift with models limited to 16GB and 32GB of internal storage. According to Google, a 32GB, 4G LTE model will be available soon.

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A smooth and streamlined design. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance

The Google and HTC tablet collaboration is a fast performer with a few kinks. Its cutting-edge Nvidia Tegra K1 Denver chip is a charging bull, ready to smash through any task. As the first 64-bit chip bolstered by a 64-bit OS, its CPU performance is on par with the fastest and most powerful chips out there.

Navigating the OS is swift and switching between apps is so quick it's almost eerie. Performance also remains impressively smooth when many apps are open in the background. At one point I had over 20 apps running and I was still able to play large games without a hitch.

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Gaming graphics look stellar on the 8.9-inch screen. Josh Miller/CNET

With a solid Wi-Fi connection, browsing the Web using the Nexus 9 is lightning fast. Web pages appear almost as soon as your fingertip leaves the screen and large apps download impressively quickly. Its speedy Wi-Fi performance is rivaled only by the iPad Air 2. The Nexus 9 valiantly clipped at its heels, but failed to outpace it by a few seconds. Wi-Fi speed tests were conducted 2 feet (0.6 meters) away from the router with full signal strength. The results are an average of five tests.

Wi-Fi speeds

Google Nexus 9 Apple iPad Air 2
Dead Trigger 2 (448MB) app download 103 seconds 93 seconds
CNET desktop site load 3.9 seconds 3.1 seconds

The Nexus 9's gaming performing is no joke. Large games and their levels launch quickly -- within a few seconds -- and graphics are impressively sharp and smooth. The Nexus 9 earned high scores in 3DMark, keeping up with the gaming-geared Nvidia Shield and its almost omnipresent opponent, the iPad Air 2. It outscores both in graphics, excelling in rendering sharp points in geometric shapes and processing pixel-packed graphics like a champ.

Device CPU RAM OS tested
Google Nexus 9 Nvidia Tegra K1; 2.3GHz dual-core Denver 2GB Android 5.0
Apple iPad Air 2 Apple A8X 2GB iOS 8
Nvidia Shield Nvidia Tegra K1; 2.2GHz quad-core A15 2GB Android 4.4
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (2014) Qualcomm Snapdragon 805; 2.5 GHz quad-core Krait 450 2GB Amazon Android Sangria 4.0

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
20298
Apple iPad Air 2
21647
Google Nexus 9
25854
Nvidia Shield Tablet
28104

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Score

Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
21268
Apple iPad Air 2
31302
Nvidia Shield Tablet
32050
Google Nexus 9
37261

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Test 1

Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
103.7
Apple iPad Air 2
148
Nvidia Shield Tablet
176.4
Google Nexus 9
210.6

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Test 2

Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
83.5
Nvidia Shield Tablet
115.2
Apple iPad Air 2
126
Google Nexus 9
131.6

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Physics Score

Apple iPad Air 2
10409
Google Nexus 9
12481
Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
17504
Nvidia Shield Tablet
19640

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Basemark X scores (High Quality)

Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 (2014)
18025
Google Nexus 9
26520
Nvidia Shield Tablet
27546
Apple iPad Air 2
29874

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

For all its speedy prowess, the Nexus 9 wasn't without its hiccups. Occasionally, apps launched to a blank, unresponsive screen or quickly loaded only to consistently crash. Once, it restarted on me without prompt after I unlocked the screen and too frequently I encountered lagging after simply swiping to navigate the user interface.

It's reasonable to believe that a fair share of the bugginess I encountered, despite the tablet's state-of-the-art specs, is because Android 5.0 is a fresh bun out of the oven and not all apps are seamlessly compatible with it. Waiting on the world to catch up to the demands of the latest gadget is an understandable downside to new releases like the Nexus 9.

Touchscreen response is swift, though sometimes unresponsive if soaked in smudges or gesturing quickly. Sturdily using your pointer finger and leaving it on the screen for more than a few milliseconds when tapping or swiping is the best protocol for a consistent response. Also, you can now wake the tablet by double tapping the screen. It's a quick and easy alternative to hunting down its clandestine power button and consistently worked well.

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The Nexus 9 has a 4:3 aspect ratio screen. Josh Miller/CNET

The 4:3 aspect ratio IPS screen, toting 2,048x1,536 pixels, is commendably sharp and boasts wide viewing angles. Its maximum brightness level is dim, though, making it slightly difficult to see outdoors. Also, while it visually satisfies with lifelike colors, it lags behind its competition in color range. In side-by-side comparisons with the iPad Air 2 and the Fire HDX 8.9, HD video looked more colorful and detailed on both the Apple and Amazon tablets.

Screen specs compared

Tested spec Google Nexus 9 Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 Apple iPad Air 2 Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
Maximum brightness 252 cd/m2 361 cd/m2 413 cd/m2 484 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.21 cd/m2 0.36 cd/m2 0.38 cd/m2 0.38 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,200:1 1,002:1 1,086:1 1,273:1
Screen resolution (pixels) 2,048x1,536 2,560x1,600 2,048x1,536 2,560x1,600
Pixels per inch 285ppi 360ppi 264ppi 339ppi

(Note: The Samsung Galaxy Tab S has the best tablet screen category cornered and comparing its stunning display to plebeian non-OLED screens is an unfair match. Therefore, I omitted the obvious winner for a better comparison.)

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The power button and volume rocker camouflage into the design. Josh Miller/CNET

The HTC BoomSound speakers on the front of the tablet are loud and clear, with a decent amount of bass. Audio quality isn't as full as the pair found on the Fire HDX 8.9, though. Powered by immersive Dolby Atmos technology, the Amazon tablet packs the best speakers on a slate. The slickly camouflaged ones on the Nexus 9 hold their own, but there's still room to grow in the quality department.

The slightly protruding 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash is refreshingly one of the better ones found on a tablet. The native camera app is rather simple; it offers lens blur and a panoramic option, as well as the 360-degree picture-capturing Photo Sphere function. There's a convenient shortcut to the camera on the lockscreen for quick access.

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The 8-megapixel rear camera takes sharp photos -- for a tablet. Josh Miller/CNET

Pictures and video taken with the rear camera at full resolution come out impressively sharp, with realistic colors. The f/2.4 aperture can capture photos in dimly lit environments without flash, yet they expectedly display a significant amount of digital noise. The rear flash, with its limited range and slow functionality, isn't much in most situations.

I found the auto-focus function slow in comparison to manually choosing your focal point. If it's having a hard time focusing, there's a lag between pressing the capture button and the shutter going off. It lasts a few seconds and unless you're intentionally going for a fuzzy, abstract action shot, the slow response time results in many disappointingly blurry photos.

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I spy a front-facing speaker and camera. Josh Miller/CNET

It houses a 6,700 mAh battery and, after testing it in the CNET labs, it averaged 13 hours of battery life. During my time with the tablet, I noticed that it is disappointingly slow to charge. If completely dead, a full battery charge takes at least three hours. It's not an exorbitant amount of time, but I was hoping to see a more robust battery upgrade.

Conclusion

Don't mistake its modestly minimal aesthetic for a subdued slate; the Nexus 9 is stone-cold stunner. This well-rounded release from Google and HTC is a powerful tablet suitable for everyday use that provides a premium Android experience. Amazon, Apple and Google all offer deep ecosystems and, if you're invested in any, it's wise to choose a tablet that lets you seamlessly access all of your content.

While the Nexus 9, costing $399, £319 or AU$479, beat the more expensive and larger iPad Air 2 ($499, £349, AU$619) on some raw performance benchmarks, the latest in the iPad line is still a better overall package for the masses, with a sleeker design and better overall tablet-centric app ecosystem. Second-string alternatives are the media-consumption monster, the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 ($379, £329, AU$420), productivity geared Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 ($399, £349, AU$479) or gamer-friendly Nvidia Shield tablet ($299, £239, about AU$344).

In the face of these premium tablets, the Nexus 9 quickly distinguishes itself, due to one of its greatest long-term selling points -- the latest version of Android, with subsequent consistent updates. If you're interested in a high-end Android alternative to Apple or the overly modified skins of Samsung TouchWiz or Amazon Fire tablets, take a long look at the Nexus 9.

In lieu of trumping its competition with the sleekest design or flavor-of-the-month feature, the Nexus 9 follows the Google tablet M.O.: a subtle but solid piece of hardware backed by the latest Android software. When they were released, the 2013 Nexus tablets were similarly packaged and a year later they remain some of the best options in their respective size category. And that should be the same story with the Nexus 9. Thanks to its cutting-edge processor, fresh operating system and casually cosmopolitan construction, the 8.9-inch tablet joins its rightful place in the pack as the current pure Android tablet to beat.

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