For the past few years, we’ve seen Google place significant emphasis on price as a way of competing with other tablets on the market. The original Nexus 7 managed to deliver a good tablet experience without the conventional 500 USD price for a tablet. The successor to the Nexus 7 was even more incredible, as it pushed hardware that was equal to or better than most tablets on the market at a lower price. However, as with most of these low cost Nexus devices not everything was perfect as corners still had to be cut in order to hit these low price points.

The Nexus 9 is supposed to be the polar opposite. Instead of driving price as the primary differentiator, Google has refocused on the high end tablet market for the Nexus 9. With a new focus on industrial and material design, along with some of the latest and greatest hardware in every dimension. HTC has been brought on as a partner for the first time since the Nexus One to enable this vision. In addition, NVIDIA’s Tegra K1 with Denver CPUs can be found inside as the launch platform for Android Lollipop on 64-bit ARM v8. The Nexus 9 also has a 4:3 aspect ratio on its display, a notable departure from the 16:10 ratio that was shared with phones. There’s also the addition of BoomSound speakers on the front and a metal frame running around the edge of the device for improved in-hand feel. The rest of the key specifications can be found below.

  Nexus 9
SoC 2.3GHz 64-bit dual core Tegra K1 Denver SoC
RAM/NAND 2GB LPDDR3 + 16/32GB NAND
Display 8.9" 2048x1536 IPS LCD
Network WiFi only or 2G / 3G / 4G LTE SKU
Dimensions 153.68 x 228.25 x 7.95mm, 425g WiFi, 436g LTE
Camera 8MP Rear Facing (IMX219) with F/2.4 aperture, 1.6MP FFC (OV9760)
Battery 6700 mAh (25.46 Whr)
OS Android 5.0 Lollipop
Connectivity 802.11a/b/g/n/ac + BT 4.1 (BCM4354) , USB2.0, GPS/GNSS, NFC (BCM2079x)

While specs are nice, one of the key areas where the Nexus 9 has to push the limits is in industrial and material design. To this end, Google seems to have mostly delivered, but not quite at the levels that one might have wished. The back continues to be a soft-touch plastic, with almost nothing other than required regulatory text, the Nexus logo, and the camera with its LED flash. I definitely like the feeling of the back cover with its slight outward curve, but on the black model the finish seems to attract smudges quite easily. This is unlikely to be a real problem, but those that are extremely concerned with fingerprint smudges may want to look into getting the white version of this tablet. There is a small amount of give in the dead center of the device, but this is something that one has to actively try to do instead of being immediately obvious. In my experience, the same is true for the Nexus 5 as well which calls into question whether this is a real issue.

Outside of the back cover, the metal rim definitely makes for a significant contrast in texture and feel. The texture seems to be the same as the M8’s gunmetal grey, with an extremely delicate brushed texture. Unfortunately, this does mean that the metal feels glossy in the hand rather than matte, and I suspect that a more standard matte texture would be better in this case. At any rate, it still feels great to the touch, especially when the device is cold. The metal frame has a noticeable outward angle to it, and does make it feel like the One (M7) in that respect. Along the left side of the rim, the device is barren but there is a microUSB 2 port along the bottom and a hole for one of the microphones on the device. Along the right side, we see another microphone hole, the volume rocker, and the power button. While the feel of the buttons is relatively clicky and the actuation is solid, the buttons are definitely a bit on the thin side and are hard to locate and press. The top side has a 3.5mm jack along the top right, and a single plastic line that breaks up the metal frame in line with the speakers.

Speaking of the speakers, unlike the One (M8) and (M7) where the front-facing speakers are a major design element, the speakers on the Nexus 9 are noticeably hidden away from view. They’re definitely present, but the speaker grilles are recessed and black to match the bezels. The recessed nature helps with the design minimalism that is pervasive throughout the Nexus 9, but it does mean that it’s pretty easy for lint and dust to find its way into the grilles. There’s also a noticeable lip around the entire display which makes for a noticeable rounded metal edge, which should help to some extent for drop protection although the thickness of the lip is really quite thin. This means that it can only help with drop protection on flat surfaces. Other than the speaker grilles, the front of the tablet is almost barren. There’s a front-facing camera on the top, and a light sensor to the right of this camera. Other than this, there’s only a single LED at the bottom of the device but it appears that this hasn’t been enabled in the system as I only see it active when charging the device from a fully-depleted state.

Overall, the Nexus 9’s build quality is decent. It isn’t quite as incredible as an all-aluminum unibody, but the feel is quite comfortable and the design fits well with the rest of the Nexus line-up. I do wish the metal frame had a bit more matte feel to it and the buttons do need some work, but I otherwise don’t really have a lot to complain about in this device. It is quite obvious that disassembling the device starts with the back cover though, as it’s pretty easy to stick a fingernail between the back cover and metal frame to pry it apart like the One X.

SoC Architecture: NVIDIA's Denver CPU
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  • AbRASiON - Thursday, February 05, 2015 - link

    LCD, not OLED? Blacks being grey? Nope :/ Reply
  • blzd - Friday, February 06, 2015 - link

    I'd actually rather grey blacks then the loss of detail in black areas. Pure black is nice, but not when it comes at the expense of shadow details. Reply
  • techn0mage - Thursday, February 05, 2015 - link

    I agree that late is better than never. Rather than discuss things that can't be changed, I felt the following points were worth raising:

    Is there any Nexus 6 data in the benchmark charts? I didn't see any. The N6 and N9 were released roughly around the same point in time, and like the N5 and N7 they are high-profile devices in the Android landscape, so it would have been nice to have them in the charts to make comparisons. Please correct me if I've overlooked anything.

    The Denver deep dive, while certainly relevant to Nexus 9 and good AT content on any day, was probably a good candidate for having its own article. I believe it is fair to say the Denver content is -less- time sensitive than the overall review. Hopefully the review was not held back by the decision to include the "DDD" content - and to be clear right now I have no reason to believe it was.
    Reply
  • WndlB - Thursday, February 05, 2015 - link

    Particularly in this kind of full-dress review of high-end devices, could you start covering the delivered sound, the DAC chips and headphone jack?

    Via A-B comparisons, I'm finding some real differences and, as people go to more high-quuality audiio streams (plus video sound), this is becoming a differentiator of significance. Thanks.
    Reply
  • JoshHo - Tuesday, February 10, 2015 - link

    We could do subjective opinion, but properly testing 3.5mm output requires significant investment in test equipment. Reply
  • name99 - Thursday, February 05, 2015 - link

    I know this isn't exactly a Nexus9 questions, but how can your battery life results for iPad Air2 be so inconsistent?
    We are given 10.18 hrs for "display a white image" and 13.63 hrs for "display video". For an OLED display this is possible, but not for a LED-backlit display unless you are running the video at a "base-level" brightness of much lower than the 200 nits of the "display a white image", and what's the point of that? Surely the relevance of the "display a white image" is to show how long the display+battery lasts under normal usage conditions, not when being used as a flashlight?

    My point is --- I am guessing that the "display a white image" test utilizes some app that prevents the screen from going black. Do you have confidence that that app (and in particular whatever tickling of the OS that is done to prevent sleep) is doing this in the energy optimal way, on both iOS and Android?
    Reply
  • JoshHo - Tuesday, February 10, 2015 - link

    I don't believe there was any real background CPU usage. To my knowledge the difference is that Apple enables dynamic contrast in movies. Reply
  • easp - Thursday, February 05, 2015 - link

    "The successor to the Nexus 7 was even more incredible, as it pushed hardware that was equal to or better than most tablets on the market at a lower price. However, as with most of these low cost Nexus devices not everything was perfect as corners still had to be cut in order to hit these low price points."

    So, hardware that was equal or better, except it wasn't? This is a situation where being more specific would help. My guess, when you said equal or better you were referring to certain specifications, certain obvious specifications like core count, RAM, and maybe screen resolution?
    Reply
  • mkygod - Friday, February 06, 2015 - link

    Owned a Nexus 9 for almost 3 months. I purchased three actually to see if backlight bleed was any better, but nope; so I ended up returning them a couple weeks ago. The bleeding was pretty bad; worse than any LCD device i've ever used and definitely worse than the Nexus 5 and Nexus 7. And it would've been okay if it had uniform bleeding like the Nexus 5, but it had blotches of bright spots all along the edges which is even more distracting. I found the reflectivity with the screen a non-factor in my exclusively indoor use. It's a shame because the Nexus 9 is an otherwise damn good tablet. What's also disappointing, as the review points out, is if you want a high-end tablet around this size, your only options are the 9 and the Tab S. It seems like a lot of really good Android tablets are in the 8" size, such as the Shield and new Dell Venue, with more manufacturers on the horizon making tablets in this size. Reply
  • MartinT - Friday, February 06, 2015 - link

    I wonder what level of load penalty is incurred by having to ship in optimized code from main memory. Is there any prefetching going on to preposition code segments in lower level caches ahead of being called? Reply

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