Nexus 9, a middling contender
Google has partnered with HTC to release the new Nexus 9, which is meant to take the place of the very popular, very capable, and very inexpensive Nexus 7, which was manufactured by Asus.
I’m looking to replace my Google Nexus 7 Second Generation tablet. Not because I’m dissatisfied with it–I love it just as much as when I bought it, and it has been upgraded to Android’s latest operating system, Android Lollipop, 5.02.
I’m a heavy user of the device, and in the year I’ve owned it I’ve managed to nearly wear out the non-replaceable battery, which when I got it new lasted nine hours or so with heavy use. Now I get less than two hours, making me a wall hugger when I’m working on it or watching movies or engaging in intensive web browsing.
I was greatly and happily surprised when Google announced its new tablet, the Nexus 9, which sports an 8.9 inch screen, Android Lollipop out of the box, and was especially eager to try out its new beast of a processor, the INVIDIA Tegra K1, using dual Denver cores clocked at 2.3GHz, with 2GB of RAM. It also uses 64 bit processing, double the 32 bit standard of its predecessor and most phones (the iPhone uses 64 bit processing).
It comes in 16 or 32GB versions, with no MicroSD expandability slot and no replaceable battery, just like the Nexus 7. You can get it in black, white or gold.
It has a 1536 by 2048 resolution, with a pixel density of 288ppi, just slightly edging out the new iPad Air 2. The first most notable difference between the Nexus 7 and the 9 is a change in the aspect ratio, from 16:10 on the old Nexus 7 to a more square form factor of 4:3, just like the iPad Air 2.
It gives the device display a boxy look, and most movies are thus letter boxed.
Teaming with a winner
This time Google partnered with HTC, known for its high quality phones, rather than Asus, which made the Nexus 7. But something unexpected happened during the transition; the new Nexus feels cheap and build quality is poor. This, coupled with a price of $399 (the Nexus 7’s price was sold below cost of manufacture at just $220), should give one pause before rushing out to the store to buy one.
The original Nexus 7, priced at just $199, was a steal, and a fine device, well thought out with excellent build quality. But Google soon followed up with a highly improved model, dubbed the Nexus 7 2014, which was lighter, thinner, and had a hugely improved screen; at the time it was the highest resolution screen of any small tablet.
Luring them in
Google’s play here with the pricing of the 7 was meant to hook users into the Google ecosystem of apps, music, films and books by taking a loss on sales of the device.
But if that was their intention, one would expect the same quality of construction, or better, on its new device. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It feels cheap and poorly engineered. Push down on the vinyl back cover and you’ll mark a notable give. The on/off button is hard to find, as are the volume controls, which are recessed, difficult to access and feel mushy.
It’s apparent that Google told HTC to give them an unremarkable box to showcase Android Lollipop, the real star of this show.
I’ve been running Lollipop for a month now, on my dying Nexus 7, and I can state with confidence that it is a worthy contender for Apple’s System 8. Remember, Apple has to build an OS that will run on their own hardware, two phones and a couple of iPads. Google hopes to make Lollipop a universal OS which will run smoothly across a wide range of phones and tablets, with different innards and a wide range of processors and graphic chips.
Lollipop is the biggest change in the Android OS since in four years, and its attention to detail shows in nearly every function. Its new interface is governed by what it terms Material Design, giving app icons a flat, primary colored look. It is buttery smooth, and attention to every detail of the user interface is tweaked.
Press on the screen and you will see ripples moving out from the source. When navigating through your apps or home screen, each touch creates ripples that radiate in the direction you have swiped.
The home screen has new features as well. Swipe down from the notification bar and a card-like stack of recent or running apps unfolds from the top center. This is both practical and elegant. Notifications unobtrusively pop down from the top when you’re in a full screen app, then make their exit after a couple of seconds.
But this article is about the 9, though Lollipop is integral to the new device’s user experience. More on Lollipop in a future article.
Let down much?
The Nexus 9 is, frankly, disappointing, considering especially the high price and the fact that for a $100 more one could buy an iPad 2 Air, a beautifully designed and built mid-size tablet, constructed of aluminum and with a slightly larger screen. It’s thinner and more finished looking. Google copied some of the design elements from the iPad, such as the aspect ratio, and clearly hoped for an iPad killer.
Let’s get this straight; the Nexus 9 is not poorly made, though time will show for certain. It just feels unfinished. What Google intended to be the standard setting Android flagship feels more like a middleweight contender.
Reviewers who were expecting a true iPad killer from the Google-HTC team were almost universally let down by the device once it was released. There are other disappointments too. The 9 comes in just two memory versions, 16 and 32 GB. You’ll pay about $100 more for the bump up to the larger size. For the same price, you can upgrade your iPad from 16 to 64GB. Since when did Google start charging even more for memory upgrades than Apple, notorious till now for its pricey add-on features?
As mentioned, the build quality is somewhat of a let down, which is a surprise considering HTC is known for the sterling quality of its phones. It has a creaky plastic back cover, wrapped in a metal frame that runs around the tablet.
Devil’s in the details
Little design choices also add to the overall feeling of a lack of high quality engineering. For example, there is the recessed, awkwardly placed and awkward to use on/off button, which carries over to the volume controls, which give it a decidedly cheap feel. There’s a roughness to the metal frame, which, rather than being completely flush with the body of the device, pokes slightly but noticeably above the glass screen.
The Nexus 9 doesn’t feel exactly poorly made, rather it exhibits a few niggles which tend to give it a middleweight feel overall, rather than the flagship Android powered device Google has positioned it as.
It is also missing some features that one would expect at this price. There’s no IR blaster, as found on the Galaxy S 8.4. There is noticeable backlight bleeding at the top of the LED screen. The side firing of the diodes makes one side of the screen notably brighter than the other. This is fairly common with all LED devices, but, again, disappointing in such an expensive, flagship device.
Some users report other instances of backlight bleed, where some areas of the screen are brighter or darker than others, but these are evident mostly when staring at black or grey screens, a thing tech reviewers do but which shouldn’t be so evident to the average user.
The 9 sports front facing stereo speakers, the same acclaimed BoomSound brand used in the HTC One. They are positioned at extreme ends of the unit, where the cover meets the metal band that encircles the device.
Unfortunately, these acclaimed speakers fail to impress as they do on the HTC phone, a symptom of very small driver units crammed into a tight space. Google/HTC tried to compensate by using extreme compression and equalization, but the result is disappointing, and rather unpleasant to listen to. On the plus side, audio quality through headphones, earphones and wireless streaming is very good, thanks to the device’s use of the aptX protocol.
Price not value
Given how much more expensive the 9 is than the 7, its higher range specs, and cutting edge software one would expect blazing, trouble free performance on the 9. However, users have complained of screen jittering while scrolling, and slow app loading times. This could possibly be the result of bugs or lack of refinement in the new Lollipop OS, but again these glitches should have been ironed out before release.
As to whether you should buy the device, bear in mind that for $100 more one can buy an iPad, and the Samsung line of tablets are making significant improvements and innovations in its tablet product line, whereas Google has positioned its new tablet as its flagship, without the wow factor that greeted its predecessor.
Overall, the Nexus 9 is somewhat of a disappointment, following on the heels of its groundbreaking, ridiculously low priced Nexus 7 2014. It feels as if it didn’t make it far from the prototype stage, and Google just released it after making the most minimal changes before commercial release.
In a word, it underwhelms.
And this seems to be the opinion of most reviewers of the product. Possibly this is due to the raised expectations set by the second iteration of the Nexus 7.
In my opinion, if Google insists on keeping the high price without fine-tuning the device, and placing it as its flagship device, it has merely reached the midrange stage. But with all the bad reviews it has received, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google refined the design, upped the performance, and fixed the niggling oversights that plague the device, while sticking to its current price point.
What Google really needs is a solid, lower cost high value tablet, along the lines of what it did to improve the 7.
I don’t really expect the Nexus faithful to rush out in droves to purchase this model, considering its $400 price and the failings noted above. I do expect a refresh of the 9, fixing all these quibbles and upping the performance, as it did with the ,Nexus 7.
Nor do I expect that premium price to stand. Look for steep discounts in the near future, of $100 or more. Then the price would be more in line with what you are getting for your money, and would be a worthwhile purchase.
The form factor, the up-to-date Lollipop OS, the powerful processor, are what Google got right. The creaky build quality and the high price are what it got wrong.
My advice, if you really want a Google Android tablet in this form factor and with these specs (I know I do) is to wait either for the price to drop deeply in the near future, or for Google to pull off the same trick it did with the 7; that is, to overhaul the device dramatically and giving true value for your money.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.
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