No one has been more critical of HTC than me, but at the same time there’s nothing personal in what I previously said about the company and its 2014 product line-up. My big problem with HTC is that it’s proven itself incredibly capable of making great hardware, but somehow fails at every other aspect of selling devices. So, could the answer to HTC’s problems lie with its agreement to build the Nexus 9 for GoogleGOOGL+1.33%? I doubt it, but that said, the Nexus 9 is good. Perhaps even brilliant.
Exactly how good will have to wait until I’ve got a proper review sample in hand, and I can properly put it through its paces. But HTC arranged an event the other day where I did get to see the Nexus 9 in the flesh – well, plastic and metal – and got to make some initial opinions about this new, 8.9-inch tablet.
HTC shows off the new Google Nexus 9 in London – image: Ian Morris
The first was, naturally, that the Nexus 9 is the best of HTC and the best of Google. The unaltered Android 5.0 (Lollipop) OS looks great. This wasn’t the final version of the operating system, so there will be no judgement here, but it looks great. Some of Android’s biggest problems have been solved here, with a new, flatter look and a much improved menu system. On the large tablet screen, the Android layout looked as good as it ever has on any device I’ve seen.
No doubt the impressive look will have been boosted by the 2048×1536 resolution screen. This is 2K resolution, on a sub-nine-inch device. It looks great. I didn’t get much of a chance to try video and lots of web browsing, but the time I did spend with the tablet showed me that it’s in fine shape. Sound is taken care of with HTC’s Boomsound too, which gives dual, front-facing speakers for the best possible sound. Anyone who has used a tablet with side or rear-mounted speakers will know just how crucial this is.
The Nexus 9 display is 2K resolution, and incredibly crisp – image: Ian Morris
Also important here is Google’s switch from Dalvik to Android Runtime (ART). While these terms won’t make much sense to most users, it represents a massive change from how apps are handled in Android. Under the older Dalvik system apps compile when they’re loaded, under a “just-in-time” compiler. This puts a strain on the processor, and means that the device is wasting time and power every time an app loads. Under ART, apps are compiled when there are installed first – you couldn’t move an ART compiled app from a Nexus 9 to a Note 4, because these devices run on different chipsets. This is called AOT, or ahead-of-time compilation. It’s possibly the most significant change to Android in some time. It was present, but optional under KitKat, but it’s the defacto system in Android 5.
Android 5.0, or Lollipop brings a lot of UI changes, as well as some other crucial updates – image: Ian Morris
In terms of hardware spec, things are even more interesting. This is a nVidia-powered tablet, and it runs on a 64bit platform, which makes sense as Android 5 can now fully support 64bit processes. It’s going to be a long time before apps are really able to leverage this, but as devices get more power – and more memory – 64bit will play an increasingly important role. It’s crucial to remember that AppleAAPL+0.95% has already started walking this path with the iPhone and iPad.
A metal frame keeps things feeling solid, but the plastic, soft-touch back feels great – image: Ian Morris
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There are three SKUs of the Nexus 9 on sale. The first is the 16gb Wi-Fi only model, then there are LTE and Wi-Fi only versions of the tablet with 32GB of storage. One concern is that because of Google’s obsession with prohibiting microSD cards on its devices there is no way to expand storage easily. Arguably, 32GB just isn’t enough in this day and age, and looking to Apple again with its 128GB models makes this tablet look cramped for space. Google wants you in the cloud though, so for those who need to store a lot of data, you’ll either need to comply, or invest in a third-party solution for extra storage – perhaps a Wi-Fi hard drive.
I didn’t get much time to test the other features of HTC’s Nexus 9. I had a quick look at the camera, but as with most tablets I don’t really care about the rear camera, I’m vaguely interested in the front camera for Skype, but aside from that I rarely use a tablet to take photos. As you would expect though, the camera app is Google’s, and nothing to do with HTC, there is no Zoe here, although you are free to install that app if you want.
It’s too early to tell what the camera is like, but this is a tablet so it’s semi-irrelevant – image: Ian Morris
So, there you have it, my harsh words about HTC aside, I loved the time I spent with the Nexus 9. It looks like it’s going to be a great device, and while I generally prefer 7 to 8-inch tablets, I could really see me getting a lot out of this tablet. When I get one for review, I’ll have more thoughts on its usability.