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I've been a long time Nexus brand user, owning the Nexus 4/5/7. I sold my iPad 3 but still retain my iPod Touch 4th Generation as dedicated mp3 player. Furthermore, I employ a Dell Venue 8 Pro running Windows 8.1 as a productivity tablet. Please see my profile for my Nexus 5 and 7 reviews. This review is meant for both the technical savvy and the casual user so bear with me as at times I'll veer headfirst into alphabet number soup talk and at times keep it real simple. I also purchased my Nexus 9 directly from Google Play.
If you're the super lazy kind of person, skip to section (11): TLDR, otherwise let's begin:
Personally, in my opinion, high to medium end devices from reputable brands have reached the point where most people won't be able to tell the difference or the difference won't be something they regularly use. That said I'm still going to cover it. If you're not interested in the nerd talk about hardware, then all you need to know is that the tablet is capable hardware wise for demanding users and absurdly overkill for average users. Skip this section of my review and head on down to section (2): Performance.
Behold, the dual core Denver Tegra K-1, the first official 64bit Android ARM chip on a 64bit ARM operating system running the new v8 instruction set. Now, you're thinking, what's so special about 64 bit and what's so good about the v8 instruction set? Well, that's in section (5). Anyways, the K-1 is a dual core clocking in at 2.5 GHz. It's also paired with a 192-core GPU. Honestly, this to most people is just alphabet soup. I have little but disdain for mobile benchmarks given their inherent problems relating to real world tests, but they do show the K-1 performing exceptionally well.
The tablet comes with 2GB of DDR3 RAM made by Micron Technology, which is kind of disappointing given that Android phones like the Note 4 are clocking in at 3 GB of RAM. Given how the Nexus 9 is a true 64 bit tablet, this is a bit troublesome, see section (5).
As usual, comes with a 3.5 mm audio jack, NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1 and GPS, the last three features provided by a Broadcom chip. The 3.5mm standard audio jack is located on the top. Wi-Fi is upgraded to the industry standard of 802.11ac 2x2 which is also known as MiMO, also referred to as "dual band" which allows for much faster in theory Wi-Fi connections. USB is legacy 2.0 rather than 3.0. There's also an electric compass made by Ashai Kasei. Sound is provided by two front face speakers with HTC's BoomSound. See section (2) for more on the speakers. The tablet also stocks dual microphones. Microphone is decent as I was able to operate the voice commands in a quiet room from 7 feet away with a normal voice level. Sorry kids, there isn't any finger print sensor on this tablet.
The display is sized at IPS 8.9" at a 2048x1536 resolution, for a PPI of 281. Sadly, this isn't my Nexus 5's PPI. Google and HTC went for the 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the usual 16:10/16:9 which are both better for movie watching. There are black bars when I loaded up movies. Take that as you will. The screen is the standard Gorilla Glass 3, meaning it's tough but clear. Sorry kids, no sapphire. The tablet runs really bright at the highest level, but I run my around 35-40% and it's still acceptably bright. Viewing angles are solid and you won't have a problem viewing content from odd angles.
At the moment the notification LED on the screen does not function like the Nexus 5 one does, meaning you cannot assign colors to different applications and people. The developers of the app "Lightflow" are allegedly working on making their app compatible.
The device is just under a pound at 0.936 pounds, so pretty light. The dimensions of the device are 6.05 inches by 8.9 inches by 0.312 inches. I can see these tablets are on super model diets. That can't be enjoyable. Someone get my tablet a double bacon cheeseburger stat! Anyways, you won't get tired holding this thing and if you do, hit the gym.
Your color options are a bit expanded over the Nexus 7, with black, white and sand. Google names these "Indigo Black," "Lunar White" and "Sand." Sand is only available in 32GB and LTE is only available in Black 32GB currently. I ordered the "Indigo Black" version. Typically, Nexus devices have different surfaces on their backs depending on the color with the white tending to be more slippery. As for how much space you'll have left after Android 5.0, well that's in (4).
Unfortunately, Google has kept the no-Microsd slot feature again on another Nexus device. Part of this is due to security as it limits what you can plug into your device, partially not wanting to pay Microsoft the licensing fees for the patents and part of this is just a blatant money grab. The Nexus 9 uses Samsung built MLC NAND storage in either 16GB or 32GB models. Google is charging $80 extra for the 32GB model. Based on wholesale NAND pricing easily found on the internet for contract pricing, that costs Google/HTC around $2.32. That results in markup of 3,448% over wholesale prices and that's a low estimate as I can't find the contract pricing for the 16GB chip. I didn't think it was possible, but someone finally is out charging Apple on storage upgrades. Take that as you will.
Now you're thinking, 3,448% markup? That's insane! And you know what? You're absolutely right. Luckily, the Nexus 9 does support USB OTG. More on that later in section (7).
Whew, that was a bit much wasn't it? Have a section summary!
Pros: Blazing fast dual core 64 bit processor, solid Screen at PPI 281, thin and light, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS, dual band Wi-Fi, allows OTG and good speakers and mics.
Cons: No Sapphire, No Microsd, $80 to bump from 16 GB to 32 GB, USB 2.0, only three color choices, and 4:3 aspect ratio.
Other: Only 2 GB of RAM, LTE version and Sand color version to be released at a future date.
The Tegra K-1 has already been extensively bench marked and performance graphically wise is about on par with a PS3 or an Xbox 360. The Xbox and PS3 PC graphical equivalent is around an NVidia 7800/7900GTX. That's very old hardware to PC gamers, but to tablet gamers, that's a big gain. Lots of tech sites will claim that tablets (barring the Microsoft Surface line) are delivering PC performance, but they never actually define what that means. My Dell Venue 8 Pro can run Team Fortress 2. I would definitely not call that PC like performance compared to my Windows desktop or even a basic Chromebook.
Sound is solid for a tablet, which doesn't say much as a run of the mill Bluetooth speaker will provide better sound. It's better than my old iPad 3, but tablet sound still has a long way to go before it can replace a regular speaker.
The Nexus 9 per other user tests and reported on XDA is not slimport capable, meaning you cannot connect the tablet to a HDMI equipped TV via a slimport adapter as video out from the USB port is not allowed. I don't have one of these adapters, mostly because they're fairly expensive.
I've never seen the real need for cellular on my tablets, thus I continued my buying of Wi-Fi only. However, the tablet does offer an LTE version to be sold in the future. The LTE version currently works on GMS, CDMA, HSPA and LTE, meaning it should in theory work on all major carriers in the US, but we'll have to wait for actual bands to be provided. Verizon may make a big stink again about letting another Nexus tablet on their network. You probably just have to buy the Nexus 9 from Verizon if and when they let it on their network if you want a Verizon LTE Nexus 9.
The Nexus 9 will not connect to a Micro USB to Ethernet adapter, or at least the Smays adapter I have for a wired connection. Bluetooth is fine and quickly connects to a variety of devices. Wi-Fi quickly connected to both my regular router and my extender.
Cameras include a front facing camera at 1.6 MP at f/2.4 and a back camera at 8.1 MP at f/2.4 both at 4:3 aspect ratio. There's a LED flash as well on the back. Nothing has changed about being silly taking pictures with a tablet camera since my Nexus 7 review. Anyways, iFixit tore down a Nexus 9 and the camera is the same one as the HTC Desire 610, thus a middle range quality camera. Front camera records at 720P where the back camera records at 1080P. Manual exposure is an option in settings. No HDR, but all of the regular functions from panorama, to lens blur and photo sphere are here.
Camera quality is okay for both, with better results in well-lit areas. Image stabilization is about on par with the Nexus 5 and flash is fairly weak. Focus speed unfortunately seems actually a tad slower than the Nexus 5 which already had slow focus speed.
The camera itself is not flush with the back of the device and protrudes a little.
(4) Android 5.0 Lollipop:
Welcome to Google's latest and greatest (yes, I copied that from my Nexus 5 review). Android 5.0, also known as Lollipop brings extra features to the ball game. For one, ART replaced Dalvik, notifications are refreshed to be produced on cards and grouped by types of applications that generate them, and the recent app button shows now a stack of cards rather than applications vertically imposed. ART, or Android Run Time complies processes rather than running then just in time, which should increase performance. ART was previously offered alternative on devices like the Nexus 4 and 5, but it wasn't the default.
Build LRX21R was released a few days ago and is now makings its way to Nexus 9s in mass over the air. Build LRX21R which is a Nexus 9 specific patch to Android 5.0 seems to have fixed a number of software issues and overall the tablet seems faster on opening applications and loading content than it did on the build LRX21L that shipped with the Nexus 9.
Animations have been reworked and notifications are now able to be displayed on your lock screen (similar to how widgets allowed this on Android 4.4). Google seems to have ripped off Microsoft Vista's Aero wheel animation for applications.
Battery life gets a boost from optimizations to restrict the operation of applications. A series of security related improvements are made, including default encryption. If you have an Android Wear device, you can now automatically unlock when a device running 5.0 is close enough, a form of trusted area. I can now see frat boys grabbing an Android smart watch to unlock a passed out friend's phone/tablet.
Like all good Nexus devices, the Nexus 9 has none of the carrier or manufacture obstacles to getting operating system updates. Nor does it have any of the "skins" that companies such as HTC, LG, Samsung and others put over stock Android, meaning the Nexus 9 ships with absolutely pure Android. Furthermore, like all good Android devices, you're free to customize to your heart's content. Don't want any apps on your home screen? That's just fine. Want so many you can't see your background? Go for it. Hate the whole theme that stock 5.0 comes with? Install another launcher like Themer. You decide what your device looks like. That's the power of the Home Depot...I mean Android.
Applications are still kind of lacking for Android in terms of tablet and some apps are simply not going to work on the newest version of Android until developers patch them. Also, many are geared for 16:10 aspect creating some issues with the tablet's 4:3 aspect ratio.
The back, home and recent on screen buttons have been simplified into something resembling the buttons from a play station controller. Home is now a circle, recent apps is a single square and back is a closed arrow.
Android Lollipop 5.0 takes up a little under 6.5 GB of space. My Nexus 9 32 GB fresh out of the box and after a mandatory 264 MB patch had 25.6 GB free. Not as bad as Windows, but still quite hefty.
Widget selection is identical to the Nexus 5 launcher where widgets are selected by holding on the home screen rather than the app drawer.
I restarted both my Nexus 5 and my Nexus 9 and opened Chrome at the same time both on the same Wi-Fi network. The Nexus 9 loaded Chrome faster. I tried the same for YouTube and the Nexus 5 loaded faster. Google Drive they loaded about the same. Google Earth loaded a second or two faster on the Nexus 9. The Nexus 5 loaded the Amazon app initially faster but the Nexus 9 hands down beat it in loading all of the content in the app.
For those of you who refuse to hunt and peck in your typing, Swype works.
The native built in video player won't play MVK, MP4, MV4 or AVI. But it is easy to transfer any file format to the device, unlike iOS.
Finally, if you get bored, go to settings -> About Tablet -> Android Version - Tap a few times till the lollipops come up and then hold. Prepare for Flappy Android! Google built in an Easter Egg clone of Flappy Bird, which is really just a modern version of the classic game Helicopter. See my Photobucket link for more details.
(5) 64 Bit & ARMv8:
As the Nexus 9 is the first Android tablet that's running both a 64bit processor and a 64bit operating system, I felt a need to explain what 64 bit processing actually is and does. Furthermore, the K-1 is one of the first Android oriented processors that is running ARMv8. Explaining 64 bit in detail could take an essay, so here's the simplistic short explanation: Data is processed in bits and 64 bit vs the existing 32 bit allows larger amounts of data to be processed faster in larger registers, thus in theory allowing a device running both a 64 bit processor and a 64 bit operating system to perform significantly faster than a 32 bit processor/OS. 64 bit does not operate 100% faster than 32 bit.
Due to the increased ability to processor more data faster, a 64 bit system like the Nexus 9, iPhone 6, most Windows desktop and laptops and many Chromebooks will consume more RAM. This is why the 64 bit push has generally been associated with having more RAM as 64 bit computing allows a device to access more than 4GB of memory locations. Electronics in history have run into serious RAM related crash issues when a 64 bit device is run on 2GB or less RAM. Many Windows Blue Screens of Death were related to RAM overruns.
ARMv8 is ARM's (who designs the basic foundation for ARM processors that power mobile devices from Apple to Samsung) latest instruction set release. Ars Technica reported that the iPhone 5s's processor gains were 90% from ARMv8 and 10% from various other aspects like 64 bit and processor improvements showing just how important ARM's work is. The K-1's massive performance over 32 bit processors seems to suggest this is true, especially since it is just a dual core processor where many of the 32 bit were and still are quad core processors. Every manufacturer has stated they're moving towards chips running on ARMv8, but this is the first mainstream one to hit the Android market.
(6) Battery & Charging:
Battery is rated at 3.8 volt, 6700 mAh, and 25.46 watt hours with an alleged 9.5 hours of browsing. Gaming will of course reduce battery life and given the graphics core on the K-1, gamers are going to run the battery down. I'm getting about 7-8 hours on mundane usage and charging speed is about average with other tablets.
As much as this tablet represents the future, it also represents the past. No wireless charging available. Personally, I've never been a fan of wireless charging simply because it generates excess heat inside the battery which tends to reduce battery longevity. Wireless charging is without question more convenient, but if you plan on keeping your devices for a while or handing them down to friends and family, extending the battery life of a device should be important and wireless charging doesn't do that. The Nexus 9 is still going to be plugged in and charged via the standard, ubiquitous micro USB.
(7) USB OTG:
USB OTG, otherwise known as On-The-Go is a series of protocols that allows the access of the USB port for things other than charging. The Nexus 9 supports USB OTG meaning that instead of paying $80 for an extra 16 GB of storage at a 3,448% markup, you can instead buy low cost flash drives, SD cards and Microsd cards for 50 cents or less per gigabyte. Couple that with a low priced USB Reader like a Meenova and a low priced USB OTG cable that can be found for less than $2 right here on Amazon and you've got storage to spare. One fabulous aspect of using external media is that it's incredibly easy to share and transfer large amounts of files without using data. Sharing 50 GB of files is not a fast proposition with the cloud.
Unfortunately, the Nexus 9 does not natively recognize most USB OTG flash drives. It will recognize smart phones and automatically start a file transfer. For flash drives, you're going to need some form of app to bridge the gap. USB On-The-Go Disk Explorer has a free version, but I'm just going to use the Nexus Media Importer app I've had for a while.
Nexus Media Importer app works just fine as long as the file format is not exFat. However, it will not play MKV files natively, but VLC will play them from the Nexus Media Importer. There is zero lag on OTG streaming even on 8GB HD quality movies. Keyboards, mice, flash drives are all handled without problem. Also, I was able to copy files back and forth between the tablet and the flash drive.
(8) Build & Looks:
This tablet does look like an iPad. You could probably walk into an Apple store and people wouldn't be any wiser. A metal frame runs around the edges with soft plastic backing. This is a clear improvement upon the Nexus 7 line. The back is a smooth matte black. The buttons for power and volume up/down barely protrude from the case and requires some getting used to. Side bezels are 0.7 centimeters, and top and bottom bezels are slight less than 2.5 centimeters.
Now, where should you buy this? Amazon offers free shipping and for most states, no sales taxes. However, Amazon's RMA process in the event of a defect can often go hairy as at some point in time, Amazon sends you over to the manufacturer, or HTC to fix your problems. This can result in a run around where HTC will tell you to contact Google, Google tell you to contact where you bought it from, aka Amazon in this case and Amazon telling you to contact HTC. This has happened to more than a few electronics buyers.
Google directly sells this, but charges shipping of $9.99 for three day delivery. There's also sales tax but it's wildly varied from less than 50 cents to $30+. Google however, will take back your Nexus device on RMA without more than a basic inquiry if you bought the device from them. You'll pay more than Amazon, but you'll have a much easier time in case of a defect.
Local stores like BestBuy also sell it with price match to Amazon. Depending on your state, you'll have different sale tax mileage. Note it is obviously easier to return a defective product to a local physical store.
HTC/Google is also selling an origami cover similar to the type that the Kindle Fire line has as well as a keyboard cover that turns it into a laptop.
iFixit gave the Nexus 9 a 3 out of 10 on repair-ability so probably bad idea to go about fixing it yourself.
(10) Quality Control:
Sadly, this Nexus release appears to be mirroring the original Nexus 7 rather than the Nexus 4 or 5 launches with significant quality control issues. While plenty of users are reporting that their devices have zero hardware problems, far too many are reporting significant light bleed, back cover flimsiness, broken NFC, bad Wi-Fi and other hardware issues for those to be outliers. Therefore, in terms of pure quality control issues, my suggestion is to simply wait a few months until the quality control issues are sorted out. When the device is properly made it's amazing, but when it's not, it's terrible.
I happened to get a device with minimal back flex and no noticeable light bleed. During my application quickness tests, I noticed my Nexus 5 actually has more light bleed and I've been using that since November of 2013 without noticing. Mine, like others does get a noticeably warm in the top by the camera during usage.
$399 base unit, lightning fast, newest Android OS, looks like an iPad, Xbox360/PS3 graphics, no Microsd, no wireless charging, USB OTG allowed and no wireless charging.
Conclusion: Phenomenal tablet that's exceptionally flexible and productive but currently hampered by quality control issues. If you're set on buying a high quality Android tablet, wait a month or two before picking a Nexus 9 up.
For some reason I cannot post pictures, so here's my Photobucket album of the Nexus 9: http://tinyurl.com/mb58bcl
Based on the price point and my general happiness with the Nexus 7 (2012 model) I already own, I disregarded most of the sour grapes commentary about the light bleed problems on the Nexus 9.
However, they're all right. There is a huge variation in manufacturing tolerances.
In the picture below, you'll see the first Nexus 9 I received from Amazon on the RIGHT (Serial Prefix: HT4B9) and the second (an exchange from Amazon) on the LEFT (Serial Prefix: HT4AN)
I'm obviously keeping the exchange (the one on the left).
In all fairness, the picture exaggerates the problem a little. It's not _that_ bad. But if you're watching a letterboxed movie, it's noticeable enough to be distracting.
It's not all roses and gumdrops with the second one though: the vibrate motor is actually audible on the second one. On the first one, I don't think there's any way an adult human could hear the thing vibrate as you type. On the second one, the motor is definitely audible. It's not so loud that people will change seats on the train to get away from you, but loud enough that you'll note that it's not silent.
Lastly, the screen itself is slightly warmer on the second model. There's no way to calibrate the color balance so I have to imagine it's a different panel altogether. Also, the off-angle viewing is different .. not really better on one or the other, just a little different.
On both units, the 'hollow back' problem that people report is present. But I'm putting this thing in a case so it doesn't really matter to me.
Point being: you might have to order and exchange a couple of these before you get one you like. And no surprise, Amazon is a champ about making that easy as pie.
Usability: I have used the Nexus 9 enough to say that it performs best in benchmarks. During even basic usage such as reading ebooks or web browsing simple pages mine will heat up too much compared to other Android & Windows devices in my home. The 9 is a flagship device, yet its build quality is closer to something like the HP Stream line. Sure, the screen looks okay, but the buttons are poor, too hard to press (mine are slanted!).
Battery: My major problem with the Nexus 9 would be with its battery life. Google quotes "9.5hrs (on WiFi)"...That estimate is a lot more than what I've been able to accomplish even with 30-50% brightness, so I have the feeling that estimate is really with no WiFi on (keep in mind that Apple is usually accurate with their estimates). Factory resets don't improve my battery, so I have just given up on this aspect. Another thing I should mention is that mine takes too long to charge. Sometimes the duration that I have it charging is longer than the actual run-time.
Performance: Extremely checkered. Sometimes it's a fast Android tablet, and at other times it drags and constantly reloads apps for whatever reason. Benchmarks scores are good, however I care more about performance during real usage.
Software Updates: Well...Google took too many months to simply update it with 5.0.2. A few weeks later they released 5.1.1 after the Nexus 7/6/5/4 were already on 5.1.x. This is sad. Why would Google allow the 9 to remain with 5.0.1 for so long--it's like they didn't even care. And before they released 5.1.1 they didn't even tell owners what the cause of the delay way. I will NEVER buy another Nexus after this, or any device that includes a Tegra SoC.
Screen: Sharp, which means it's great for reading text.
Gaming: Tried Tell Tale Games (TWAU, TWD, etc), Dead Trigger, Real Racing, Mortal Kombat, and so on. All of them performed perfectly, even though the back side did heat up too much a lot. The only thing with games is that I doubt many are optimized for the K1, since some have very ugly graphics (like MK & Real Racing 3).
Camera: The design of the rear camera is nice, though the amount of noise makes it mediocre. I doubt most users will ever touch the cameras because smartphones have great ones already.
Sound: Front speakers should really be on every tablet.
Conclusion: I really wanted to love the N9. The specs really reeled me in initially, especially because it was the 1st Android device with 64-Bit + Lollipop. Sadly, I didn't realize the 2GB of RAM would harm the experience, and the Tegra K1 didn't catch the attention of many companies either. If you're dying for a tablet I wouldn't suggest this one. No, save your hard-earned dollars for the upcoming Tab-S2 from Samsung, the Surface Pro 4, or obviously an iPad Air 3. A good (and cheaper) alternative to the Nexus 9 would be a Nexus 7 2013 if you can find one. Personally, I'm getting a Surface 3 because the Microsoft has really good build quality that's comparable to Apple. HTC really missed the opportunity to design a great Nexus, it's too bad Samsung or LG didn't build the 9.
(-1 Star for poor battery compared to Nexus 7 & iPad Air 2 & Surface 2 (w/ Tegra 4), -1 for software patches/frequency & lack of an apology for poor experience, and -1 for inconsistent performance/random reboots/heat/slowdowns/etc)