Google’s Nexus 9 is the most important tablet since the first iPad Mini. Android tablets got a big boost with the launch of the cut-price Nexus 7, but they’ve never been able to match the success of Apple’s iPads. The Nexus 9 looks set to change that, though, as it’s not only the first device to come with Google’s brand new Android Lollipop operating system, but its new look, aspect ratio and keyboard dock could make it one of the most versatile tablets we’ve ever seen.
The Nexus 9’s design will no doubt draw endless comparisons to a certain other new tablet, but when you hold the device in your hand, it’s clear this isn’t just a cheap take on the iPad Air 2. The metal frame, for instance, looks gorgeous and adds a welcome sense of rigidity to the tablet. We didn’t miss not having an all-metal back either, as the Nexus 9’s soft-touch rear provided plenty of grip and felt comfortable in our palms. If anything, we’d say the soft-touch panel provides a great sense of contrast to the tablet’s harder, metallic edges and we also liked how the Nexus logo was etched into the back, adding a little bit of extra texture to tablet’s slim 7.95mm profile.
The front, meanwhile, is completely flat, as Android’s onscreen buttons negate the need for a dedicated home button. The 8.9in display is also much squarer than previous Nexus tablets, as it now has a 4:3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio instead of a more traditional 16:9 (1.77:1) or 16:10 (1.6:1) ratio. This marks a rapid departure from other big Android tablets such as the Asus MeMo Pad 7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5, and it means the Nexus 9’s display is now the same shape as Apple’s iPad Air 2.
According to HTC, this is to help improve productivity, as a 4:3 ratio gives you more space for composing emails and writing text documents rather than simply using your tablet as a media consumption device. However, it will also be great news for developers who want to easily port their apps over from iOS, and we hope it will prompt a huge influx of previously iOS-only apps coming to the Google Play Store.
However, as most Android devices don’t currently use a 4:3 aspect ratio, we do worry that certain apps may not be set up to deal with different aspect ratios, which may cause problems during the early stages of the tablet’s launch. However, if the Nexus 9 proves successful, it could potentially signal the end of 16:9 Android tablets altogether as more manufacturers adopt square displays instead.
^ The Notifications Bar has been redesigned for Android Lollipop
The screen itself looked lovely. Colours were bright and punchy and we could see a high level of detail in a couple of online test images. We’ll reserve judgement on the screen’s overall image quality until we’ve run our full colour calibrator tests, but one thing we did notice was how many reflections the screen picked up from the overhead lights in the brightly-lit show room. It’s hard to say whether it was more or less reflective than the iPad Air 2, but we’ll run a full side-by-side comparison once we get hold of a review sample. HTC’s also brought over some of its phone expertise to the Nexus 9 tablet, so you can wake the tablet from sleep mode with a simple double-tap just like the One (m8).
The OS isn’t quite final yet, according to HTC, but there’s no denying the interface was much cleaner and more refined than Android 4.4 KitKat, and we can’t wait to see more of Google’s Material Design scheme in the final product.
^ Hitting the ‘Recent apps’ button will let you scroll through all your currently open apps in a carousel
Meanwhile, the Nexus 9’s Kepler GPU produced excellent results in the GFX Benchmark app, scoring 1,391 (or 22.4fps) in the Manhattan test, and 2,673 (or 47.7fps) in the T-Rex test. This is impressive considering the tablet’s high resolution of 2,048×1,536, as the Manhattan test in particular is one of the most demanding mobile gaming benchmarks around. This means the Nexus 9 should be more than capable of handling games at its full resolution, but we’ll bring you in-depth scores in our full review.
We suspect you won’t just be using the Nexus 9 for games and watching films, though, as Google’s new Folio Keyboard dock effectively turns the tablet into a surprisingly-efficient mobile work station. We’ve already seen Android being adopted on laptops such as the HP Slatebook 14, but the Nexus 9’s keyboard actually has more in common with your typical Chromebook keyboard.
^ The Folio Keyboard dock isn’t very big, but its mechanical keys are great to type on
For instance, the Caps Lock key has been replaced by a dedicated Search button so you don’t have to tap the screen to start browsing the web. There are also two massive Emoticon keys located either side of the space bar which brings up a huge selection of different icons to insert into your emails and social media updates, and a slightly mysterious modifier key in the bottom left that seemed to ape some of the functions of both CTRL and FN.
Naturally, the keyboard is only as long as the tablet, so typing can feel very cramped at first. The keys provide plenty of tactile feedback, though – much more than any ofMicrosoft’s Surface Pro 3 tablet keyboards, for example, – so you can always be sure you’ve hit a key correctly. It works surprisingly well with Google Docs, as you can just open a document and immediately start typing. This gives it more than enough potential to encroach on Microsoft’s Surface Pro market, and it doubles up as a cover to protect the screen when you’re not using it as well – connecting magnetically to the tablet. However, the keyboard will set you back another £110, which is around a third of the price of the basic tablet.
^ Hitting the Emoticon button (or Alt) will bring up a selection of icons to insert into your documents
On the back is an 8.1-megapixel camera. You get the rather Google Camera app of course, which lets you take 360 degree photo spheres, panorama shots and lets you add a lens blur effect to each shot.
We couldn’t take our indoor test shots away with us, but most of them looked quite fuzzy and were riddled with noise. We didn’t get a chance to test the camera outside in daylight, but we suspect the iPad Air 2 may have the edge when it comes to overall picture quality.
Our only point of concern came from the tablet’s magnetic covers. Unlike an iPad cover, which snaps on to one side of the tablet and stays there firmly until pulled away, the Nexus 9’s cover can be attached to both the front and back of the screen much more easily, either as a front screen protector or a fold-up stand. It’s much less secure than an iPad cover, though, and there were a number of times when the tablet almost slid back onto the table as the magnets didn’t attach properly.
The Nexus 9 launches on Monday 3rd November and will cost £319 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only version. We were pretty astounded to see that the 32GB Wi-Fi-only version will cost a massive £399. That’s £80 for a measly 16GB of extra storage, even Apple doesn’t charge that much for extra storage any more.
It’s certainly one of the most capable Android tablets we’ve seen so far, particularly if you combine it with Google’s Folio keyboard, but we’ll have to dig deeper into Android Lollipop before we can give a definitive verdict on whether it’s got the chops to stand up to the iPad Air 2. We’ll bring you our full review as soon as we get our hands on a review sample.