Google Nexus 9 First Impressions

Google Nexus 9 First Impressions

High quality and with a price tag to match

Google's latest tablet splits the difference between its predecessors from a size perspective while adopting a decidedly more premium design and price point. And if that's not ambitious enough, the Nexus 9 is also the very first device to ship with Android 5.0, an attempt to establish the Google mobile OS as a credible alternative to Apple iOS.

The luxury vibe extends to the Google Nexus 9's packaging

The visual and user experience changes in Android 5.0 are mostly laudable, though I suspect some of the design oddities in this new OS—like the weird new virtual keyboard and almost laughably basic system buttons—will prove controversial. But I get what Google is trying to do, since this path was pioneered first by Microsoft with the Metro design language in 2010. And Apple followed suit last year with iOS 7.

Big-screen Android 5.0

What I'm less sure of is Google's decision to push upward with its hardware releases. I had sort of figured that the underwhelming response to the Pixel Chromebook would have cured Google of its high-end aspirations. But after delighting customers with inexpensive Nexus 5 and Nexus 7 devices last year, the firm has instead gone Pixel with its 2014 Android devices too. So the new Nexus 6 smart phone—with its "go big or go home" mantra—is expensive. And at $400 and up, so too is the Nexus 9 tablet. The 32 GB Wi-Fi model I purchased was $500. Those are iPad prices.

USB cable and charger

The Nexus 9 is at least well-made and nicely designed. Google offers three colors: Black, white and "sand," and while the black model I purchased is understated, it has brushed metal sides—that are hard-edged but not painful like many Apple products—and a nicely grippy back.

Nice, grippy back ... and an 8 megapixel rear-facing camera

The 9-inch screen means that the Nexus 9 falls between the sizes of its predecessors—the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets—but also, and more important, between the sizes of Apple's dominant 7.9-inch iPad min and 10-inch iPad Air tablets. But it's as "Retina" as any Apple product, with a 2048 x 1536 resolution that—go figure—matches that of Apple's tablets exactly.

That means it matches the 4:3 aspect ratio of Apple's tablets too, which I'm really starting to prefer over 16:9 or 16:10 because it works much better in portrait mode. (The Surface Pro 3's 3:2 screen is similarly right-shaped.) And regardless of the aspect ratio, the screen looks crisp and clear, and if you bump up the fonts as I did, the visual brilliance is even more striking.

The other specs seem suitably high-end, though I've not had a chance to test that theory with a 3D game or whatever. The tablet packs a 64-bit quad-core NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor running at 2.3 GHz and 2 GB of RAM in addition to 16 or 32 GB of storage (but no microSD expansion). It also features stereo speakers—oriented for landscape media playback—which sounded surprisingly loud and sharp in my initial music and video tests. And the networking is very modern: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC. (An LTE-based Nexus 9 is coming soon too.)

Android 5.0 notifications shelf

The Nexus 9 feels rock solid and has BMW airs, but it's missing one of the iPad's key differentiators, a Touch ID-like fingerprint reader. I already miss that, and like the kickstand on Surface Pro 3, I feel like this feature is something that all tablets should adopt.

And while Google will be selling Kindle Fire HDX-like "origami" cases and a Surface Pro-like keyboard cover, neither is available yet. I'd have grabbed a case, at least, and don't like buying expensive tablets without being able to protect them at all.

I'll be looking at—and writing about—Android 5.0 separately and concurrently with my testing of the Nexus 9, but I've already noticed a few nice touches, including a Lumia-like double-tap-to-wake feature that lets you power on the screen without having to fish around for the power button. But I'm reasonably sure I'm going to really like the tablet—and Android 5. The only issue here is the price, which is uncomfortably Apple-like. 

The Google Nexus 9 starts at $399.99 and is available now from Amazon in black or white, and in 16 GB and 32 GB versions.

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