The Nexus 9 is taking a lot of heat in reviews around the web. The most common complaints are that the build quality isn’t great, and the battery life is less than ideal. I’ve been using a Nexus 9 as my primary tablet for the past week or so, and I’m going to attempt to give you the most objective review I can. Keep in mind, I’m human, and I definitely have preferences (biases) that’ll come through, but I’ll do my best.
The competition: Apple’s iPad Air 2
Most reviews are comparing the Nexus 9 to the new iPad Air 2, but there are a few things that a lot of reviews leave out, and I think that’s a bit unfair. Despite that, I do agree with the majority of the online reviews in this: the build quality on the iPad is a bit better.
About the build quality …
Personally, I don’t like the aluminum on an iPad. Before you call me crazy, consider this: aluminum is a relatively soft metal, but more importantly, the finish on an iPad is slippery. I want something grippy on the back of my tablet, and I don’t want to have to buy case to make it grippy.
That being said, the iPad Air 2 doesn’t flex, and feels very solid. There are a lot of reports of the Nexus 9 having a flexy back. The one I’m using doesn’t seem to have this, so I’m wondering if it’s a quality control issue on the assembly line. The Nexus 5 had a speaker problem on the first run, but they fixed it, and the speaker sounds much better now. Maybe this will get the same treatment?
Overall, while I’m not floored by the build quality of the Nexus 9, I have no problems with it either. The back is grippy, the screen is Gorilla Glass, and it has a nice weight to it without being too heavy.
A note on pricing and storage
Another thing I think a lot of review sites get wrong is this: “The iPad Air 2 is only $100 more!” Yes, it’s true that the 16 GB Nexus 9 is $399, and the 16 GB Air is $499. Yes, that’s $100.
Here’s the problem: I really don’t think you should be buying a tablet with 16 GB of memory on it anymore. Sure, you can get yourself some cloud storage, but not all internet connections are created equal. You may not always have Wi-Fi or cellular coverage, and international rates? Don’t get me started. For something that’s great for watching videos and playing games (both of which can take up over 1 GB of space), 16 GB just isn’t enough–especially when a big chunk of that space is taken up by the OS (meaning you can’t use it).
So, I would argue that the 32 GB and 64 GB models are the lowest storage options you should consider. The 32 GB Nexus 9 is $479, and the 64 GB iPad is $599. That’s a difference of $120, and it’s a direct comparison of the models I’d actually suggest buying. The Nexus 9 does not offer a 64 GB model and the iPad doesn’t come in 32 GB, which bothers me, so it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. But again, if you’re going to buy a new iPad, it should be 64 GB. If you’re going to buy a Nexus 9, it should be 32 GB, and that’s $120 cheaper.
OK, no more comparisons–it’s all Nexus from here
Despite some light bleeding around the edges more than it should, the screen is pretty great–not the best out there, but not too shabby at all. The volume and power and buttons are too far recessed into the metal edge of the device and don’t have enough travel. The speakers sound pretty darn good for a tablet. I’d call them comparable to an iPad, but that’s just my subjective ears talking–I don’t have audio testing equipment.
The area in which the Nexus 9 may shine is under the hood. On paper, the Tegra K1 SoC (System on a Chip) is a 64-bit beast. Possibly the most powerful platform out there right now.
I say “may” and “possibly,” because this an in-house attempt from Nvidia to design a (mostly) brand new chipset. The Tegra K1 simply hasn’t been in the wild long enough for us to know how it’s going to hold up. It might be flaky, or it might be awesome.
My experience with the Nexus 9’s hardware is that it’s been really fast, and I’m extremely happy with the performance. Others are reporting bugs, but I think that’s more on the software side of things …
Oh, and about the software
The Nexus 9 ships with Lollipop (Android 5.0), right out of the box, which is very pretty and very fast. There’s only one problem with that: there are some lingering bugs to work out.
In fact, if you open your shiny new Nexus 9, turn it on, and connect it to your Wi-Fi, you’ll find out there’s a software update waiting for you. Install it! It’ll improve your battery life and stability. More updates are already on the way to further improve these problem areas.
The 4:3 screen throws a bit of a monkeywrench in the works for the software too. See, most Android apps are optimized for a 16:9 or 16:10 screen. That can cause text or graphics to run off the screen occasionally. As more 4:3 Android devices come out (and they likely will), I think a lot of those problems will go away, but you should be aware of it.
All of that being said, Lollipop is gorgeous. It’s fast, it’s smooth, and the animations really make it feel polished. I’d give Google a month or two to work out some of the bugs that are specifically affecting the Nexus 9, but I really think you’re going to like this new, sweet OS. (See what I did there?)
My only complaints about the new “material” design are: the white background in the app drawer and the new home, back, and recent app icons. Those are just my aesthetic preferences though, and others might really dig ‘em. Overall, I’m a big fan of Lollipop!
So, is it good?
The answer to that question is yes … mostly. Personally, I’d like to see the price point be $350 for the 16GB model, and $400 for the 32GB. That’d be much more reasonable, assuming they get the relatively minor bugs worked out.
The back-flexing problem, I’m guessing, is a manufacturing flaw, not a design flaw–something that can be fixed by improving the quality control at the factory. The battery-life complaints can likely be mitigated a bit through software updates.
Using this tablet, for me, has been pretty painless for the past week or so, and I’m considering recommending one for my mom. Really, it’s good! One of the best Android tablets you can buy right now, in fact. I don’t think you’ll regret buying a Nexus 9, especially with how well Google supports Nexus devices through software updates.
However, if you prefer the widescreen aspect ratio like I do, you might like the Nvidia Shield tablet or the Galaxy Tab S–both great tablets, and in the case of the Shield tablet, you can even save some money (it’s $299).
Full disclosure: I personally think the Shield tablet is pretty amazing. It may be marketed as a gaming tablet, but it’s really a great all-around device. Heck, Nvidia is absolutely kicking tail when it comes to supporting the device with software updates too!