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
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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  • melgross - Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - link

    So, people only buy devices during the first three months?
  • Impulses - Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - link

    Apparently... Although getting the review in before February would've shut all these people up, cheapest place to get the Nexus 9 all thru the holidays was Amazon ($350 for 16GB) and they gave you until January 31 to return it regardless of when you bought it.

    Only reason I'm so keenly aware is I bought one as a February birthday gift, opened it last weekend just to check it was fine before the return window closed... Not much backlight bleed at all even tho it was manufacturerd in October (bought in late December), some back flex but it's going in a case anyway.
  • blzd - Friday, February 6, 2015 - link

    What does the month of manufacture have to do with the back light bleed? You don't actually believe those "revision" rumors, do you?

    If you do, consider how practical it is for a hardware revision to come out 1 month after release. Then consider how one set of pictures on a Reddit post proves anything other than that their RMA worked as intended.
  • ToTTenTranz - Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - link

    I wish more smartphone/tablet makers put as much thought into their external speakers as HTC does.

    Once having a HTC One M7, I simply can't go back to mono speakers at the back of devices.
  • Dribble - Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - link

    Glad the review is here at last, next one a little bit quicker please :)
  • UpSpin - Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - link

    I have following issues with your review:
    1. You run webbrowser tests and derive CPU performance from it. That's nonsense! It's a web-browser test, and it won't be a CPU test whatever you do. If you want to test raw CPU performance you have to run native CPU test applications.

    2. Your battery life analysis is based on false assumptions and you derive doubtful claims from it.
    The error is quite evident on the iPad Air test. In your newly introduced white display test, with airplane on, CPU/GPU idling, etc. the iPad Air 2 has a battery life of 10:18 hours. Now in your web-browsing battery test with WiFi on and the CPU busy, the iPad Air 2 has a battery life of 9:76 hours. That's a difference of 4%. The Nexus 9 has a difference of 30%, the Note 4 15%, the Shield Tablet 25%.
    You conclude: The Tegra K1 is inefficient. But I could also conclude that the A8 is inefficient and the Tegra K1 very efficient. The Tegra K1 needs significantly less power while idling, compared to the A8, which consumes always the same, mostly independent on the load. So finally, the A8 lacks any kind of power saving mode.
    That's abstruse, but the consequence of your test. Or maybe your test is flawed from the beginning on.

    3. " I suspect we’re looking at the direct result of the large battery, combined with an efficient display as the Nexus 9 can last as long as 15 hours in this test compared to the iPad Air 2’s 10 hours."
    Sorry, but I don't get this either. The Nexus 9 has a 25.46 WHr battery, the iPad Air 2 a 27.3 WHr battery (+7%). The Nexus 9 has a 8.9" Display, the iPad Air 2 a 9.7". (+19% area). The resolution is the same, thus the DPI on the Nexus 9 higher. The display techonoly is the same, as you said in your analysis. So the difference must be related to something else, like a highly efficient idle SoC in the Nexus 9.
  • Andrei Frumusanu - Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - link

    The battery life tests analysis is based on true facts on the technical workings of the SoC and its idle power states and we are confident in the resulting conclusions.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - link

    Going along with what Andrei said, an SoC isn't "efficient" if it's doing no work -- the A8 may not have idle power as low as the K1-64, but when you're actually doing anything more with the tablet in question is when efficiency matters. It's clear that the Air 2 wins out over the Nexus 9 in some of those tests (GFX in particular). Doing more (or equivalent) work while using less power is efficient.

    Imagine this as an example of why idle power only matters so far: if you were to start comparing cars on how long they could idle instead of actual gas mileage, would anyone care? "Car XYZ can run for 20 hours off a tank while idle while Car ZYX only lasts 15 hours!" Except, neither car is actually doing what a car is suppose to do, which is take you from point A to point B.

    The white screen test is merely a way to look at the idle power draw for a device, and by that we can get an idea of how much additional power is needed when the device is actually in use. Also note that it's possible due to the difference in OS that Android simply better disables certain services in the test scenario and iOS might be wasting power -- the fact that the battery life hardly changes in our Internet WiFi test even suggests that's the case.

    To that end, the battery life of the N9 is still quite good. Get rid of the smartphones in the charts and it's actually pretty much class leading. But it's still odd that the NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet and iPad Air 2 only show a small drop between idle and Internet, while N9 loses 33% of its battery life.
  • ABR - Thursday, February 5, 2015 - link

    Idle power is pretty important for real world use for tablets, for example where you are reading something and the system is just sitting there. Those "load web page then pause for xx time" test would probably be really good for measuring.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 5, 2015 - link

    That's exactly what our Internet test does, which is why the 33% drop in battery life is so alarming. What exactly is going on that N9 loading a generally not too complex web page every 15 seconds or so kills battery life?

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