Introduction

The Nexus 9 by HTC was a hotly anticipated device on several fronts - it's the first tablet with Android 5.0 Lollipop, it brings HTC back into the tablet game, it's the first big Nexus tablet in two years and it's the first Nexus tablet that goes after a more premium market.


Google Nexus 9 by HTC official photos

HTC hasn't made a tablet since 2011's Jetstream and we have to say we've missed it. The company's well-known premium touch has been carried over to the Nexus lineup, which in recent years focused solely on mass market affordability. The new Nexus 6 (by Motorola) smartphone and Nexus 9 tablet (by HTC) show Google has enough confidence in its home brand to push for the higher segments of the market.

The Nexus 9 has a metal rim around the device, both for rigidity and a more premium feel. It's a 4:3 tablet similar to the iPads and is the first tablet to feature HTC's BoomSound front-facing stereo speakers. Pre-orders will ship soon - currently available in 16GB and 32GB - and an LTE version is expected shortly after that.

HTC Nexus 9 at a glance:

  • Dimensions: 228.2 x 153.7 x 7.9mm; 425g (Wi-Fi) / 436g (LTE)
  • Display: 8.9" IPS LCD touchscreen, 2,048 x 1,536 resolution; Gorilla Glass 3
  • Chipset: Nvidia Tegra K1: dual-core Denver @ 2.3GHz; Kepler DX1 GPU; 2GB RAM
  • OS: Android 4.4 KitKat
  • Camera: 8MP main camera with 1080p@30fps video capture
  • Front camera: 1.6MP front-facing camera with 720p video capture
  • Storage: 16GB / 32GB built-in
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1 with aptX, A-GPS + GLONASS; microUSB 2.0
  • Battery: 6,700mAh Li Po
  • Misc: BoomSound stereo speakers

Nvidia is regaining its foothold as an Android chipset manufacturer, mostly among tablets. The Nexus 9 is the first device to sport the 64-bit Tegra K1 chipset with Nvidia's own Denver processor. The GPU, Kepler, is also of Nvidia design and from what we've seen in the other K1 chipset version it's a portable beast - it tops Adreno, Mali and PowerVR handedly.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

Google Nexus 9 live shots

Google made an interesting decision to move to a 4:3 aspect ratio. It's better for web pages and documents, but not as good for video playback (which would have gone great with the front-facing speakers). As the first Lollipop tablet and one of two launch Lollipop devices, part of its job is to make sure apps are ready when other devices get the update. Will developers find app UX better on a 4:3 screen rather than the wide 16:9/16:10 tablets that are popular today? Devs have months to find the answer.

This is an early preview from HTC so we won't be able to run our usual tests but we did spend enough time to build an early opinion of the tablet. We expect to get more of it soon, but what we have so far is on the next page.

HTC Nexus 9 hands-on

Google has exerted more control over the design of this generation of Nexus devices. We can tell because they come from two very different manufacturers - Motorola makes the phones, HTC makes the tablet - but the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 show a clear family resemblance. Much more than the Nexus 4/5 and the Nexus 7 (2012 and 2013) ever did.

It begins with the metal rim that secures the glass front and the matte plastic back. Both devices have front-facing stereo speakers and barely any controls, it's all on-screen. The backs are unified by the central Nexus logo, but differ in small details.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The tablet looks and feels premium

The Nexus 9 does pretty well in terms of thickness - at 7.9mm it matches the iPad mini 3. It is noticeably thicker than the likes of Apple iPad Air 2 (6.1mm) and Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact (6.4mm), but it doesn't feel thick in any way. The bigger problem is that it's not particularly light - it weighs as much as a 9.7" iPad Air 2. It's much heavier than an 8" Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, which also has a metal rim and plastic back (and weighs 150g less).

Google Nexus 9 by HTC

It's not the slimmest tablet around, but it's no fatty either

That's not to say it's unwieldy to handle or much of a surprise, HTC rarely goes after the "thinnest and lightest" crown. The side bezels are fairly thin but it's quite a challenge to hold the tablet in one hand due to the squarer aspect ratio. For two-handed landscape use the bezels are thicker so you can put your thumbs and not cover the front-facing stereo speakers.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

Handling the Nexus 9 is reasonably comfortbale

While movies and other widescreen content will be letterboxed, the tablet does feel better in portrait mode as big 16:10 and especially 16:9 tablets can be rather long.

The screen on the Nexus 9 borrows iPad's resolution complete with the 4:3 aspect ratio. Since the screen is a little smaller than the iPad Air 2 the pixel density is slightly higher (but it's lower than the iPad mini 3). Either way it's below the 300ppi mark (it's 281ppi to be precise). The Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact has virtually the same pixel density. It's enough for a very good quality image though up close you can notice some jagginess in small type or diagonal elements.

Sharpness aside, viewing angles and colors on the screen are pretty good too adding up to excellent image quality.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The screen offers excellent image quality

The screen is an IPS LCD for good viewing angles and there's Gorilla Glass 3 protection. From our short time with it, it seems that the screen is fairly glossy, which suggests issues with legibility in the sun. We'll have to do a proper test to be sure about that, though.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

Reflectivity is fairly high though

Above the screen (in portrait orientation) is a 1.6MP front-facing camera that records 720p. The side bezels just aren't thick enough to house the camera.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

A glance at what's above and below the screen

The main camera is on the back in the corner. Our recent experience with the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact shows this is better than a central position as you don't have to worry about your fingers getting in the shot. The camera itself is an 8MP shooter that records 1080p video at 30fps. There's an LED flash too, a rarity on tablets.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The 8MP camera is in one of the corners at the back

The back side of the tablet is a pleasant matte plastic that will be available in Indigo Black, Lunar White and Sand (gold by any other name). By the sound of it, when the LTE version hits it will be available in black only. The front of all three color options is black. Unfortunately, we found the Nexus 9 to be a little too prone to smudges - both the front and the back of the tablet started getting greasy very shortly after our hands-on began.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The matte plastic feels great, but it does attract smudges and fingerprints

The right side of the tablet is home to the Power key and the volume rocker, plus a microphone. The Nexus 9 supports double tap to wake, a new feature in Android 5.0. There's another mic at the bottom, next to the microUSB cable. On top there's the 3.5mm audio jack and an LED.

What's missing here is a dock connector, the Nexus 7 (2013) didn't have one either. Google is offering a keyboard folio case for the Nexus 9 but that talks with the tablet via Bluetooth and can be paired via NFC. The case will set you back $130 and can hold the tablet tilted at two different angles.

Another thing that's missing is a microSD card slot though knowing Google's practices that's hardly a surprise. We still feel that 16GB is not enough for phones, let alone for tablets, but the upgrade to 32GB is $80. The LTE model will come in 32GB only - and it better, seeing how that it will cost $600.

The LTE version will support the older mobile standards too, GSM, CDMA and HSPA. The Wi-Fi alone is quite fast (with 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO) and there's Bluetooth 4.1 with aptX plus NFC.

The Tegra K1 chipset packs a dual-core Denver processor, which has been developed for high throughput per core. Single core performance is better than all except perhaps the latest Apple cores, while multi-core performance is on par with the big.LITTLE octa-cores. We're very curious to find out what that means for power usage.

The GPU is particularly interesting too. NVidia has been using it for its gaming Shield tablet and Xiaomi made a splash with it and the Mi Pad 7.9. Still, high-quality 3D games require a lot of space and the 16GB built-in storage will start feeling pretty cramped.

Android 5.0 Lollipop

It's not all about the chipset, Android 5.0 Lollipop is supposed to bring both performance enhancements and power savings. Denver is a 64-bit CPU core, which will enable new optimizations in ART - the new default runtime for Android that succeeds Dalvik.

ART takes Dalvik bytecode and turns it into native code as the app is installed, which gives it more time for optimizations. Dalvik with JIT (introduced in Android 2.2) does this while the app is running, so it can't spend as much time on optimization.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

Android 5.0 Lollipop runs great on the Nexus 9 and offers a very polished UI

Lollipop also brings Project Volta, which adds a battery saver mode, restricting certain tasks to Wi-Fi only and batching communication to power on the radios fewer times. Battery Historian offers better tracking tools for battery usage.

Anyway, the biggest user-facing change is Material Design - the new look of the stock Android interface. It's the biggest change since the flat interface of 3.0 Honeycomb that later evolved into Holo. As with all Nexus devices we're getting the undiluted experience, not Sense or any other skins.

New features include a more colorful look, notification cards on the lockscreen, "heads up" notifications that pop up as they arrive and a Do-Not-Disturb feature to mute notifications. The app switcher has been redesigned as well, it now looks like a 3D rolodex and each app can have multiple entries (Chrome will use this for different tabs by default).

Of course, the new squarer display of the Nexus 9 will require some involvement by developers. Apps for widescreen tablets typically have two modes - one for portrait and one for landscape orientation, which often features a split-screen UI. On a 4:3 screen orientation doesn't make much difference and it will be interesting to see how apps adapt to it.

Nexus 9 outlook

It has been a long time since a Nexus tablet went over 7" and it was about time. We appreciate what the Nexus 7 brings, its portability and accessible price tag, but we were left without a large tablet Nexus experience for two years now. HTC made it worth the wait though.

The Nexus 9 design is sensible and has that premium HTC feel. It's not the thinnest and lightest tablet, but you could never stash an 8.9" tablet in a side pocket as easily as you do the Nexus 7. Still, Google made the decision to break Nexus tradition and charge a fairly high price tag.

How high? The base 16GB version costs $400 and you are basically forced to pay $80 for the more sensible 32GB storage, while if you want LTE you will have to fork an additional $120. That puts it against an Apple iPad mini 3 (starts at $400), iPad Air 2 ($500), Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact ($500, with microSD card slot, waterproof) and Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 ($390, also has microSD card slot, 359ppi screen too).

Apple iPad mini 3
Apple iPad Air 2
Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact
Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4

Apple iPad mini 3 • Apple iPad Air 2 • Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact • Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4

Of course, the Tegra K1 chipset is faster than all of those, aside from the iPad Air 2's A8X, and is one of the few 64-bit enabled chipsets on Android. This means it will enjoy Android 5.0 Lollipop the most. And it's pure Android to boot, with a promise you'll get the new Android version weeks, perhaps months, ahead of vendor-customized devices.

You can find the 32-bit, quad-core Cortex-A15 version of the K1 chipset in the 8" NVidia Shield ($300), which also boasts things like front-facing speakers and a mostly pure Android. There's the Xiaomi Mi Pad 7.9 too, though that's hard to find in the West.

Nvidia Shield
Xiaomi Mi Pad 7.9

Nvidia Shield • Xiaomi Mi Pad 7.9

It's important to remember that Nexus devices don't have to dominate the market, they just have to show the way and be there for Android purists. Where is the Nexus 9 leading Android tablets then? To a more premium future with intelligent, power-efficient software it seems. We can't wait to get more time with the new Nexus tablet, especially since we're yet to check for things that can derail that dream of a bright future.

HTC Nexus 9 hands-on

Google has exerted more control over the design of this generation of Nexus devices. We can tell because they come from two very different manufacturers - Motorola makes the phones, HTC makes the tablet - but the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 show a clear family resemblance. Much more than the Nexus 4/5 and the Nexus 7 (2012 and 2013) ever did.

It begins with the metal rim that secures the glass front and the matte plastic back. Both devices have front-facing stereo speakers and barely any controls, it's all on-screen. The backs are unified by the central Nexus logo, but differ in small details.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The tablet looks and feels premium

The Nexus 9 does pretty well in terms of thickness - at 7.9mm it matches the iPad mini 3. It is noticeably thicker than the likes of Apple iPad Air 2 (6.1mm) and Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact (6.4mm), but it doesn't feel thick in any way. The bigger problem is that it's not particularly light - it weighs as much as a 9.7" iPad Air 2. It's much heavier than an 8" Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, which also has a metal rim and plastic back (and weighs 150g less).

Google Nexus 9 by HTC

It's not the slimmest tablet around, but it's no fatty either

That's not to say it's unwieldy to handle or much of a surprise, HTC rarely goes after the "thinnest and lightest" crown. The side bezels are fairly thin but it's quite a challenge to hold the tablet in one hand due to the squarer aspect ratio. For two-handed landscape use the bezels are thicker so you can put your thumbs and not cover the front-facing stereo speakers.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

Handling the Nexus 9 is reasonably comfortbale

While movies and other widescreen content will be letterboxed, the tablet does feel better in portrait mode as big 16:10 and especially 16:9 tablets can be rather long.

The screen on the Nexus 9 borrows iPad's resolution complete with the 4:3 aspect ratio. Since the screen is a little smaller than the iPad Air 2 the pixel density is slightly higher (but it's lower than the iPad mini 3). Either way it's below the 300ppi mark (it's 281ppi to be precise). The Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact has virtually the same pixel density. It's enough for a very good quality image though up close you can notice some jagginess in small type or diagonal elements.

Sharpness aside, viewing angles and colors on the screen are pretty good too adding up to excellent image quality.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The screen offers excellent image quality

The screen is an IPS LCD for good viewing angles and there's Gorilla Glass 3 protection. From our short time with it, it seems that the screen is fairly glossy, which suggests issues with legibility in the sun. We'll have to do a proper test to be sure about that, though.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

Reflectivity is fairly high though

Above the screen (in portrait orientation) is a 1.6MP front-facing camera that records 720p. The side bezels just aren't thick enough to house the camera.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

A glance at what's above and below the screen

The main camera is on the back in the corner. Our recent experience with the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact shows this is better than a central position as you don't have to worry about your fingers getting in the shot. The camera itself is an 8MP shooter that records 1080p video at 30fps. There's an LED flash too, a rarity on tablets.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The 8MP camera is in one of the corners at the back

The back side of the tablet is a pleasant matte plastic that will be available in Indigo Black, Lunar White and Sand (gold by any other name). By the sound of it, when the LTE version hits it will be available in black only. The front of all three color options is black. Unfortunately, we found the Nexus 9 to be a little too prone to smudges - both the front and the back of the tablet started getting greasy very shortly after our hands-on began.

Google Nexus 9 by HTC
Google Nexus 9 by HTC

The matte plastic feels great, but it does attract smudges and fingerprints

The right side of the tablet is home to the Power key and the volume rocker, plus a microphone. The Nexus 9 supports double tap to wake, a new feature in Android 5.0. There's another mic at the bottom, next to the microUSB cable. On top there's the 3.5mm audio jack and an LED.

What's missing here is a dock connector, the Nexus 7 (2013) didn't have one either. Google is offering a keyboard folio case for the Nexus 9 but that talks with the tablet via Bluetooth and can be paired via NFC. The case will set you back $130 and can hold the tablet tilted at two different angles.

Another thing that's missing is a microSD card slot though knowing Google's practices that's hardly a surprise. We still feel that 16GB is not enough for phones, let alone for tablets, but the upgrade to 32GB is $80. The LTE model will come in 32GB only - and it better, seeing how that it will cost $600.

The LTE version will support the older mobile standards too, GSM, CDMA and HSPA. The Wi-Fi alone is quite fast (with 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO) and there's Bluetooth 4.1 with aptX plus NFC.

The Tegra K1 chipset packs a dual-core Denver processor, which has been developed for high throughput per core. Single core performance is better than all except perhaps the latest Apple cores, while multi-core performance is on par with the big.LITTLE octa-cores. We're very curious to find out what that means for power usage.

The GPU is particularly interesting too. NVidia has been using it for its gaming Shield tablet and Xiaomi made a splash with it and the Mi Pad 7.9. Still, high-quality 3D games require a lot of space and the 16GB built-in storage will start feeling pretty cramped.