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2014-11-16My review: HTC Google Nexus 9

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Now that the dust has settled after the release of the Nexus 9 and I've had a couple of weeks with it, albeit not with a great deal of time to play, I'm going to write up some thoughts.

Pricing is similar to the 2012 Nexus 10, which was £319 for a 16Gb model. These days you can get a basic 10" tablet for under £200 but not with specs that're (for the most part) as good as these, or access to OS updates the way Nexus devices get them. I'd been waiting for the Nexus 8 (Nexus 9 as it turned out) to be revealed for over a year, having come to the conclusion that my ideal tablet was basically iPad or iPad Mini hardware running Android.

At the moment I've got an unlocked and rooted second-gen Nexus 7 set up for TV and DVD streaming, whereas I'm intending to keep the 9 pretty much stock for the moment. I know root has already been obtained on the latest Nexus device by Chainfire, but it'd only gain about an inch of extra width for watching videos.... so maybe later, but the 7 is perfect for now.

Let's get the good stuff about the 9 out of the way... a 4:3 screen is much better for web pages and magazines, and allows for more consistent layouts switching between portrait and landscape views. Battery life after a couple of cycles seems decent even if charging rate is never going to match a smaller device. The screen resolution is excellent.

First impressions weren't brilliant. Out of the box, the brightness was turned up excessively, making the light bleed on the top/left edge a lot more noticeable than it is in normal operation. Initial setup required a large over-the-air update, not really an issue because the device came at least 40% charged.

I generally start with tablets by disabling anything I'm not going to use, including most of the Google applications. That went smoothly enough, although it doesn't seem possible to deactivate the search bar this time around -- but it doesn't bother me enough to use an alternative launcher. My home screen is currently bookmarks, BBC Weather and Month Calendar Widget, plus a few shortcuts for ES File Explorer, ES Task Manager, ComittoN (comics viewer) and iPlayer (which doesn't work yet).

As with previous major releases of Android, BBC iPlayer has problems that may take a while to fix, in this case the issue being severe audio stutter and drop-out. As far as I know the Beeb is continuing to nail its digital delivery to the mast of Adobe Flash, packed into BBC Media Player, whilst much of the rest of the world has long since moved on. The same content downloaded through get_iplayer plays back flawlessly, of course, and the audio problems are less pronounced when overlays such as the seek bar or pulled-down status bar are visible, suggesting Flash has some polling issues.

ComittoN was a pleasant surprise, made necessary because SMB share browsing in Perfect Viewer seems to have stopped working. A bit annoying that its donation version is actually a separate copy of the same application, but changing settings to suit non-manga comics only takes a couple of minutes.

The "Material Design" rethink of UI elements as debuted in 5.0 is currently rather shit. Menu items no longer have any lines between them to visually denote the tappable area, and the same for the default keyboard layout. Fortunately you can choose the previous 4.x keyboard look.

The touchscreen isn't as responsive as previous Nexus tablets, using the same styluses, but hands work consistently and it doesn't seem to be a fundamental flaw requiring a specific software band-aid like with the 2013 Asus-made Nexus 7. I'm not sure if it's possibly related to the tap-to-wake feature, as contact to scroll is extremely smooth whilst firmer contact is required for a tap.

There's no microSD slot, which is no surprise. Google have their own agenda, in this case the spectacularly hopeful delusion that customers live in a world with always-on and reliable wireless, and that people might be inclined to use their cloud services over cheap and plentiful flash storage if they don't offer it. Considering that they're going after business customers with the 4:3 ratio and professionally styled keyboard accessories, the effect of this is particularly short sighted -- it makes taking backups whilst off the grid virtually impossible, and laptop sales and competitors are the only winners.

A footnote to that is that games can require several gigabytes of storage, so Google is also compromising scope for developers on the platform. I'm not intending to use the 9 as anything but a house tablet for casual browsing and comics/videos streamed from Windows shares, but will be dabbling with any Fables titles released by Telltale Games such as The Wolf Among Us (which is about 2.5gb of files, and has finally stopped being an Amazon exclusive and come to the Play Store months after almost anyone with any interest had seen walkthroughs of the entire thing).

I seem to have wandered off into several rants again, as is often the case when talking about tablets. The simple fact is they're all compromises, and these two do most of what I want. Maybe a few years down the line the best fit solution'll be a Windows device -- stranger things have happened, and the Surface Pro 3 is a 12" offering that reviews well apart from the battery life that comes with squeezing PC hardware into a tiny shell.

There are a couple of ways that convergence could happen -- a revolution either in processor technology (Intel or someone else managing to draw much less power but retain compatibility with existing x86/x64 software) or power (packing far more juice into a smaller space whilst maintaining safety and an acceptable weight).

Apropos of nothing, an unexpected cool thing I've just noticed: XBMC/Kodi plays videos without needing them to be extracted from RAR archives.

Nothing really to add on the Nexus 9 speakers, camera or ease of finding the volume and power buttons, which a lot of reviews have commented on one way or another.

Since I'm not using the tablet for mail or anything that would require notifications, I've added Better Wifi On/Off to force the wireless off when the screen is. With it, battery drain on standby becomes much less noticeable.


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