With so many great work devices on the market, a tablet has to do something special to stand out from the crowd. The Nexus 9 doesn't have a built-in kickstand, a fingerprint scanner or dual-window software for split-screen multitasking — which are all productivity-boosting features you'll find on competing tablets. It's not the thinnest or longest-lasting Android slate out there, either. But it does have one trick up its sleeve: Android 5.0 Lollipop, the latest version of Google's mobile operating system, which has some pretty slick features for business users.
No, Lollipop isn't new. Google actually announced the operating system update back in October, nearly four months ago. But due to the fragmented nature of the Android tablet market, most devices haven't received the update yet. That's the beauty of the Nexus line. The Nexus 9, as well smartphones such as the Nexus 5 and Nexus 6, are released directly by Google, so they get major updates long before other Android devices.
On top of Lollipop, the Nexus 9 offers an attractive design and a sharp, 8.9-inch (22.6 centimeters) display. Google also sells a magnetic keyboard dock so you can use the tablet like a miniature laptop. But does the Nexus 9 do enough to warrant a purchase as your next mobile productivity device?
The Nexus 9 may appear relatively unremarkable in photos, but the tablet looked and felt great in my hands. I particularly like the soft-touch coating on the slate's back, which looks classy and makes the device easier to grip. The aluminum edges are also a nice touch, adding a bit of premium appeal to the tablet. But while the slate's side bezels are relatively thin, the top and bottom bezels are a bit thick compared to what you'll find on slates like Samsung's Galaxy Tab S 10.5.
Unfortunately, HTC — the company that designed and manufactures the tablet for Google — really goofed when creating this slate's physical buttons. The power button and volume rocker are almost completely flush with the tablet's right edge. That makes them difficult to find by touch, and forces you to either press them with your nail, or press hard with the meaty part of your finger.
I don't want to overstate things; the Nexus 9's buttons aren't impossible to press. But I've never used a tablet that made its power button — the one you'll use every time you want to manually turn the tablet's screen off — so hard to get at. Fortunately, you can double-tap the screen to turn it on, which mitigates the issue somewhat.
The Nexus 9 is pretty compact for a 9-inch (22.9 cm) tablet, so it's easy to stow in your bag for your daily commute. Measuring 9 x 6 inches (22.9 x 15.2 cm), it has a smaller footprint than the Amazon Fire 8.9 (9.1 x 6.2 inches, 23 x 15.7 cm) and the iPad Air 2 (9.4 x 6.6 inches, 23.9 x 16.8 cm). But at 0.31-inches (0.79 cm) thick, it feels a bit chunky compared to the iPad Air 2 (0.24 inches, 0.61 cm). Google's 0.93-lb. (0.42 kilograms) slate is also lighter than the 1-lb. (0.45 kg) iPad Air 2 and Samsung's 1.02-lb. (0.46 kg) Galaxy Tab S 10.5.
The Nexus 9 actually has an 8.9-inch display. It's not as big as the iPad Air 2's 9.7-inch (24.6 cm) screen, but it has the same resolution as Apple's tablet. That means the Nexus slate can display about as much information on screen at once as the iPad Air. The high resolution also allows for super-sharp, easy-to-read text.
Personally, I think the Nexus 9's 8.9-inch screen strikes a pretty good balance between portability and productivity. Smaller tablets can feel a bit cramped for screen-intensive tasks like editing spreadsheets and viewing larger documents. Likewise, 10- to 12-inch (25.4 to 30.5 cm) slates like the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 and Surface Pro 3 aren't as easy to slide into your work bag in the morning.
Of course, what sets the Nexus 9 apart from most of the competition is software, not hardware. It's one of the only tablets running Android 5.0 Lollipop, the latest iteration of the OS. This is a brighter, more attractive version of Android, with flatter icons and slicker animations. But cosmetic upgrades won't help you do your job. So what can Lollipop actually do that other versions can't?
Lollipop is really a collection of numerous small improvements and refinements. Take the new Priority Mode, which lets you customize how and when you receive specific types of alerts and notifications. For example, if you don't want your morning meetings interrupted by a buzzing tablet, you can tell your device to only alert you to messages from specified family members, colleagues or employees at that time.
The settings are extremely granular, so you can control what time your tablet enters Priority Mode, and even which days of the week it is enabled. I love how customizable the feature is, and how easy it is to toggle on and off via the volume control panel.
Also new is the ability to view and act on alerts right from the Nexus 9's lock screen. When a new email arrives, for example, you can preview it on the lock screen, swipe to dismiss it or tap Reply to jump right to your email app. This functionality can help reduce the time you spend fiddling with your tablet, so you can spend more time working.
Multitasking has also been improved. As in previous versions of Android, tapping the square button (to the left of the Home button) lets you view your most recently used apps. But now the Recent Apps view can show multiple pages from the same application. For example, if you're working on an email draft, you can use the Recent Apps list to jump back and forth between the draft and your main inbox. It's a handy addition that really improves multitasking.
Business users will also benefit from Lollipop's new wireless printer capabilities. Older versions of Android forced you to use awkward third-party apps to send documents to the printer, but Lollipop devices like the Nexus 9 can automatically detect and communicate with nearby wireless printers.
There are a couple of new security features, too, like automatic encryption for messaging. I also like the new Trusted Places setting. Using the Nexus 9's GPS sensor, this setting can, for example, keep the tablet locked down with a password at the office, but unlocked at home.
Remember that this is just a small sampling of the improvements included in Lollipop; they're too numerous to list completely in this review.
Other tablets are sure to get upgrades to Lollipop this year, but it's hard to say when, or which devices will get left out. The Nexus 9 guarantees you the latest version of Android right now, and a clean version that's free from useless bloatware at that. Plus, the Nexus 9 ensures that you'll get future updates as soon as possible, while other slates will leave you waiting.
Touchless controls are another nice perk of Lollipop. To activate the Nexus 9's voice command prompt, turn your tablet on and say, "OK, Google." From there, you can issue voice commands to save notes, set reminders, schedule appointments, perform Web searches and more. I love touchless voice commands because they make it easy to quickly perform actions that are cumbersome to do the old-fashioned way. Manually saving a note to your tablet is almost more trouble than it's worth, but doing so with voice commands is quick and effortless. Non-Lollipop Android tablets also support voice commands, but require extra button presses to get going.
A good front-facing camera can help you use your tablet to meet remotely with clients or colleagues, via a videoconferencing app like Skype or Google Hangouts. The Nexus 9's front-facing camera is above average; shots are colorful and not too grainy. The placement of the camera is also good; with the tablet in portrait mode, the camera is located right at the top of the device. Plus, the front-facing speakers are louder than those on competing tablets like the Fire HDX 8.9 and iPad Air 2, so you'll have no trouble hearing the person on the other end of the call.
The Nexus 9 also comes with a ton of Google apps that have been redesigned and upgraded for Lollipop, with fresh designs and new features. That includes new versions of Gmail, Maps, Calendar, Drive and more. Of course, the same upgraded apps are also available to download on older Android tablets via the Google Play store, so they're not a reason to choose the Nexus 9 specifically.
Regardless, I love the new Gmail app, which shows your inbox on the left, and the content of each message on the right, similar to desktop email clients such as Outlook. The Calendar app also has a slick new interface that makes it easier to add appointments with a few taps.
But while Android has a huge selection of productivity apps, it's worth remembering that there are now a variety of very good Windows tablets on the market. Windows 8.1 slates like the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 can run all the desktop programs you use at the office, though Windows doesn't have nearly as many good touch-optimized applications as Android.
You'll need a keyboard if you want to be seriously productive on the Nexus 9. You can pair any Bluetooth keyboard to the slate, but Google's own keyboard folio, designed specifically for the Nexus 9, is your best bet.
It's a pretty good accessory, as far as tablet keyboards go. The folio includes a flexible back that folds into a kickstand, though it only offers one viewing angle. The keys, meanwhile, offer surprisingly good travel (1.4mm, which is about average for laptop keyboards). This makes them more comfortable for extended typing sessions than other, shallow tablet keyboards.
Due to the Nexus 9's small size, the keyboard is a bit under full size, so it might feel somewhat cramped if you have large hands. And because it lacks a trackpad, you'll still have to rely on the touch screen for navigation.
The Nexus 9 is a really quick tablet. It's powered by a 64-bit Nvidia Tegra K1 processor, making it one of the more powerful tablets on the market. During my hands-on time, the Nexus 9 performed admirably for everyday tasks. Apps opened and closed quickly, and multitasking was snappy.
On the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the Nexus 9 outpaced Samsung's Galaxy Tab S 10.5, but fell short of the benchmarks set by the Fire HDX 8.9 and iPad Air 2. Still, Google's tablet is more than fast enough for any business or productivity task I can think of.
The Nexus 9 delivers pretty good battery life, making it a decent pick for people who need a device that can last through the end of the workday. On our battery life test, it ran for a solid 8 hours and 57 minutes, which is roughly 20 minutes longer than the average tablet. The Nexus 9's longevity is about on par with the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, but it didn't last as long as the Fire HDX 8.9 (10:19) or iPad Air 2 (9:20).
The Nexus 9 has a lot going for it. It's a slick, portable slate with a nice display and pretty good battery life. The trouble is, it doesn't do much to distinguish itself. Other tablets offer sharper displays, faster performance and longer battery life. The Nexus 9 doesn't have any standout hardware features, either, like a fingerprint scanner or kickstand. And the shallow design of the power and volume buttons is downright baffling.
What the Nexus 9 does have going for it is great software. If you want the latest Android features on a large display, the Nexus 9 is your best bet. Otherwise, there are more interesting Android slates — not to mention a rapidly growing selection of excellent Windows tablets — to choose from when picking your next mobile work device.