All of the above is driven by Google' stock Camera app, and guess what: It's about as straightforward an experience as you'll find. Wanna snap a photo? Nudge that gigantic, rectangular shutter button. Swiping from left to right lets you jump among shooting standard photos, Photo Spheres (remember those?), panoramas and videos. A deeper dive into the settings lets you decide whether you want location data to be saved with each shot, and if you want manual exposure controls for even more granular shot-taking. Feel free to leave that particular option unchecked though; most of my best shots came about through careless pointing and shooting.
||Google Nexus 9
Samsung Galaxy Tab S**
|NVIDIA Shield tablet
||iPad Air 2
|SunSpider 1.0.2* (ms)
|3DMark IS Unlimited
|GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps)
*SunSpider: Lower scores are better.
**Average scores for the 8.4- and 10.5-inch models.
This might go without saying, but I can't help but feel the Nexus 9 really got short-changed when it came to our usual slew of benchmarks, thanks at least in part to the architecture of NVIDIA's 64-bit Tegra K1 chipset. You see, this version of the K1 has a dual-core processor configuration rather than the quartet of cores the 32-bit edition spotted in the NVIDIA Shield tablet, and that made for some rather interesting dips in the 9's Quadrant and CF-Bench scores. That said, the Nexus 9 put up some stronger numbers when it came to tests that relied on more visual pizzazz, like GFXBench's offscreen Manhattan rendering and 3DMark's Ice Storm. Curious, I pitted the K1-toting Nexus 9 and Shield tablet against each other in a few more tests -- the 9 boasted a stronger single-core score than the Shield in Geekbench 3 (1,643 vs. 1,074), but the multi-core score definitely skewed in the Shield's favor.
The thing about these synthetic benchmarks is that they can't tell the true story of a gadget all on their lonesome. Going off the numbers you see above would lead you to believe that the Nexus 9 is some sort of mediocre also-ran. If you glean one thing from this section, make sure it's the knowledge that despite some seemingly off-kilter numbers, the Nexus 9 can and will handle just about anything you throw at it. As I made abundantly clear in the software section, the Nexus 9 runs incredibly smoothly while you poke around the OS and launch apps. That sort of computational oomph carries over into graphically intense situations like games, too -- just what you'd expect from a chipset with the K1's pedigree. You might remember that the quad-core, 32-bit version was featured in NVIDIA's own Shield tablet not long ago, where it helped the thing push pixels with plenty of grace and fluidity.
The 64-bit variant (and its similar assortment of 192 Kepler GPU cores) inside the Nexus 9 is meant to step things up even further, and it shows. Watching the events of République unfold was as fluid and as engrossing an experience as I've seen on a tablet, and taking hard corners in Asphalt 8 looked as gorgeous as ever, even with its graphics settings cranked up. There's just one concerning bit to note: The top-right corner of the tablet (presumably where its brains are located) can get very warm once you starting pushing it around. In my case, it was most apparent while swatting at pumpkin-headed zombies in Dead Trigger 2 -- I haven't noticed the thing getting alarmingly hot, but I did occasionally wonder whether I was gripping a tablet or a warm cup of tea.
Google claims that the Nexus 9's battery will hang in there for about 9.5 hours on a charge if you're surfing the web or watching videos, and my initial spin with the slate fell just short of that mark. It was nothing if not an able companion as I plowed through my daily routine, sticking with me through about 12 hours of mixed usage (you know, web browsing, shooting off emails, the odd gaming break in the bathroom, with plenty of standby time mixed in between). The first few times through our standard video rundown test (with an HD video set to loop indefinitely while screen brightness is locked at 50 percent), the Nexus 9 usually managed to hang in there for about 9 hours and 10 minutes before giving up the ghost. Here's the thing, though: Google dropped one last big software update on us yesterday -- it's the version that's shipping on the Nexus 9s you'll get -- and right now I'm retesting the battery to see if we can squeeze even more out of it.
Configuration options and the competition
After slogging through those thousands of words, you've probably got a good sense of what the Nexus 9 brings to the table. Right now you can claim either a WiFi-only Lunar White or Indigo Black model with 16GB of internal storage for $399 (there's a handsome Sand model that isn't ready just yet). Since you don't have the option of sticking a memory card in there, you'll probably want to shell out the extra $80 to double your storage capacity too. Oh, what's that? You're a big spender? As the most premium member of the family, the 32GB LTE/HSPA+/EV-DO/GSM model will be right up your alley -- it's not quite ready for public consumption yet, but it'll cost $599 when it ships. Now the question is, well, what other tablets out there are worth your cash and consideration?
As I noted before, the Nexus 9's screen -- while totally adequate -- is unlikely to knock your socks off. If that's the sort of experience you're after, consider Samsung's Galaxy Tab S family, a pair of ultra-slim slates that pack some of the prettiest Super AMOLED screens we've ever seen. The most basic model runs at $400, and has a slightly smaller 8.4-inch display running at a mind-boggling 2,560 x 1,600 (that's the most pixel-dense AMOLED you can find on a tablet). That's not to say there aren't trade-offs, though. The combination of Samsung's bloatware fetish and the tablet's 1.9GHz Exynos 5 Octa 5420 processor means you're prone to hit more hiccups than on the Nexus 9.
Meanwhile, if you're a media buff who digs the idea of a nearly 9-inch screen, you'll want to consider Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. Its screen measures the same diagonally as the Nexus 9, but it squeezes even more pixels into all that space, and the aspect ratio is stretched out to a more video-friendly 16:10 so you can plow through all those Amazon Prime movies with fewer black bars in sight. The plus side: Amazon didn't pussyfoot around with design, so it's noticeably slimmer and lighter than the Nexus 9 to boot. It's just a touch cheaper than the Nexus 9, too: The basic 16GB WiFi model will only set you back $379.
Of course, all of the above assumes you're already dead-set on an Android slate. If that's not the case, you'll want to consider Apple's iPad Air 2: It's thinner and roughly the same weight as the Nexus 9 despite its bigger screen, and it starts at $499 if you think 16GB of storage will suffice. And in the event you're looking for a taste of untainted Lollipop, let me offer a more unorthodox choice: How about the Nexus 6? Its 6-inch screen means it's close enough to tablet territory for some people, and for now, the Android 5.0 pickings are pretty slim. Of course, you'll want to wait until we publish our full Nexus 6 review before deciding one way or the other, but it's at least worth keeping in the back of your head.
I didn't expect to feel so torn about the Nexus 9. On the one hand, Android 5.0 Lollipop is refreshing, what with its snappiness and welcoming redesign. On the other, I can't help but feel a little frustrated that Google and HTC compromised on the Nexus 9's screen, speakers and design. I get the rationale. The software's the real highlight here, so they didn't feel the need to go bonkers with the hardware niceties (and the costs that come with them). What that all boils down to is a tablet that's stunning in some ways and seemingly average in others. Long story short: If you want to live on Android's bleeding edge, buy a Nexus 9. Buy it because of Lollipop. Those few shortcomings won't overshadow all the good that Google and HTC have done here. But if that's not you -- if you don't demand the latest software that springs forth from Mountain View's depths as soon as it's ready -- there are plenty of attractive options that might fit your life a little better.
Photos by Will Lipman. Sean Buckley contributed to this story.