Talking tech since 2003

The Nexus 9, made by HTC, is a pretty slick device. With a screen that just barely falls below nine inches, it’s a skinny slab that feels like a premium device without seeming like you need to treat it with kid gloves. And since it’s the first device released by Google to run the latest version of Android 5.0 – or Lollipop – out of the box, it’s without a doubt one of the best Android tablets available on the market.

That said, the 16 GB version costs a pretty penny; at $399, the Nexus 9 isn’t the kind of item you can pick up on a whim…unless, of course, you’re getting it for half price during HTC’s Hot Deals discount promotion, which is what I did about a week and a half ago. Since receiving it a week ago today, I’ve grown to really enjoy having the Nexus 9 around, so I don’t regret my purchase. That said, I don’t know if I’d be singing the same tune if I’d paid full price.

Is the Nexus 9 worth your money and your time? Let’s find out…

The Good

nexus-9-dimensionsAs I mentioned, the Nexus 9 is a nice piece of hardware. It hits that sweet spot of big, but not too big. It fits neatly and easily into a backback, and feels good in your hands. Its slender profile means it’ll feel just fine if you’re holding it either one- or two-handed. It’s not light per se, but it’s not heavy either – if you’re reading in bed, your hand may get a bit tired before you’re ready. It’s got a super skinny bezel on the sides, too, which makes the display seem larger than it is, and still leaves just enough room to hold on with one hand and not mess with the screen.

On that note, the device itself feels pretty solid. Its three buttons on the left side – a power switch and a volume rocker – are made of metal, and feel like they’re pretty premium. There’s nothing chintzy about its moving parts, and the rear plate, made of a soft, slightly textured plastic, is nice to hold as well. The embossed “nexus” logo on the back plate also makes the device seem like a high-end piece of tech.

The Nexus 9 benefits from HTC’s experience in making great sounding devices. Like the One M8, it’s got a pair of speakers at the top and bottom of the device (or left and right sides, if you’re holding it landscape style). The speakers get plenty loud, though the louder it gets, the tinnier the sound can become. Still, if you’re watching a movie or TV show on the Nexus 9, you shouldn’t have any problem finding a volume that works well for you.

Likewise, its nine-inch display is bright and vibrant. Colors pop, and, well, everything looks great. It features 2048×1536 resolution, and as long as what you’re looking at is in high definition, you shouldn’t notice any issues. It’s good!

Android 5.0 is also really great, so if you’re looking for the latest and greatest version of the operating system, the Nexus 9 is the tablet for you – at least for right now. Even still, Lollipop will head to other tablets soon enough, and new tablets will certainly launch with Lollipop right out of the box. We’ll tackle Android 5.0 itself in another post, but suffice it to say that it’s great. And because of the Nexus 9’s Tegra K1 processor and 2 GB of RAM, it moves really, really fast. Switching between apps is super quick and easy – well, most of the time (more on that below).

Another cool feature that I’m growing to really love is the “double-tap” feature that wakes the device up. The power button isn’t hard to find, but it’s even easier to just tap the dark display and wake the device up. Unfortunately, I’ve got about an 85 to 90 percent success rate with this feature, so sometimes I have to try double tapping a second time. Maybe it’ll work perfectly after a firmware update down the road…

The Okay

nexus-9-appsPeople don’t usually buy tablets for their cameras, and you shouldn’t buy the Nexus 9 for its camera, either. On the rear, it’s got an 8 megapixel camera – the same that’s on the Nexus 5. With the built-in camera app, you can take some good shots and adjust your focus on the fly. Lately, I’ve been taking a lot of text-heavy photos with my Nexus 5, and having the larger “viewfinder” of the Nexus 9’s display has helped me capture more of what I’m looking for. It beats the hell out of the camera on the Surface Pro 3, which can’t be focused to take photos of text. Still, don’t expect to be blown away by the Nexus 9’s camera. You won’t be.

The aspect ratio on the Nexus 9 works just fine when you’re using the tablet. At 4:3, there’s plenty of room on the screen for your apps on the home screen, and you never feel like it’s too small or too big. It’s just right. And here’s a cool feature I hadn’t expected: I can read books in the Kindle app and hold the tablet in landscape and set up two columns, so that I feel like I’m holding a paperback. It’s nice.

However, when I mirror the display to my television via Chromecast, the 4:3 ratio sticks out as flat out wrong. There are huge black bars on the sides of the display, and it doesn’t look too good. It’s disappointing that I reach for my smartphone when I want to cast the display to the TV, but its 16:9 aspect ratio fits on the big screen perfectly.

The Bad

nexus-9-whiteThis thing gets hot. I’ve never worried about burning myself, but when a device is this thin, it’s easy for heat to spread quickly. The case is similarly narrow, and as a result, I feel like it heats up a bit more quickly than I’d like.

On the subject of the case, the aforementioned rear of the device seems like it floats a bit above the internal hardware…just a touch. When you press down, there’s some give. Is that to help the heat dissipate? Or is it just a manufacturing oversight?

Back to Android 5.0: like I said, it works like a dream…when it works. There have been more than a few times where switching in and out of apps just hangs there, making me wonder if the tablet is about to crash. The hang time is never more than a few seconds or so, but it’s always a bit worrisome. I wonder, however, whether this is a result of Android 5.0, the tablet itself, or simply the growing pains that come with using apps that aren’t yet optimized for the new operating system.

On that note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that the Comics app from Comixology simply doesn’t work right on Android 5.0. Since reading comics is one of my favorite pastimes with a tablet, you can’t imagine how bummed I became when I flipped a page, and the screen went blank. Fortunately, Comixology is aware of the issue and they’ve told me they’re working on a fix.

The Verdict

Do you want a new tablet? Do you want the best version of Android yet? Do you want to make sure that you get OS updates sooner than just about everyone else? Then the Nexus 9 is a great device for all of that. It’s one of the few devices I’ve bought within the last year or so that’s actually worked out of the box. Sure, that’s kind of a sad commentary on the state of the electronics industry as a whole, but at the very least, it’s a reliable piece of machinery that looks and feels great.

That said, $399 (and up) is still a lot of money for what’s essentially a blown up smartphone. I will admit that I have a hard time with the price of tablets as a whole, and I also know for a fact that I would never have bought the Nexus 9 at full price. However, that also comes as a result of already owning more than my fair share of devices already. Now that I’ve got the Nexus 9, I’m in the process of ditching some of my older slabs. If Blizzard would make Hearthstone for Android, I might even think about ditching the iPad I received as part of a former job.

At the end of the day, if you already dig tablets, the Nexus 9 won’t steer you wrong. It runs pure Android, so there’s no bloatware or weirdness that keeps it from working as it should that might hinder your enjoyment of other tabs from other manufacturers. Then again, it doesn’t have a SIM card, so if you’re the kind of person who wants a tablet that can jump online anywhere, you may want to wait a while.

The Nexus 9 is a great device, and I’m looking forward to continuing to use it every day. I love being able to read in bed using the Night Mode app to dim the display while my bedmate sleeps. I love having a perfectly sized device to add to my Android ecosystem. I love the way it looks. I love how I got it for half price. If you’re into all that stuff (and don’t mind paying the full cost), then you should be pretty pleased indeed with the Nexus 9.

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