Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Device-mas: The Nexus 9

This week, at least in the States, ushers in the Christmas shopping season. While most readers here are going to be looking for the newest toys or figurines or such, I'm truly more of a gadget guy, and it turns out that I was in the market for two of the more high-profile device releases of the last few months before the Black Friday Era began. So for the next couple days, I wanted to talk about what I thought about the two new devices that might be on your lists or the lists of others.

The other device I went all-in on is the Nexus 9, Google's newest flagship tablet device. It has been marred by some shipping delays, alleged issues of quality and performance, and not justifying its current price tag.

So what's the story?

First and foremost is the device itself. I previously had a Nexus 7, which I absolutely loved as a tablet device. It was the perfect size, it was speedy for what I used it for, and I felt it was high quality. Over the last few months, though, the thing became an absolute drag. Even rooting and throwing an alternate Android version on it didn't do the trick - the tablet could barely hold a charge and couldn't even open Twitter without a problem. It was time to upgrade, but seeing as we've apparently transitioned to a "large phone, large tablet" culture, I was kind of stuck if I wanted something.

The Nexus 9 is nearly iPad-sized and equally iPad priced. Comes with an HD screen, great speakers, and a zippy operating system. On the basics, it's a strong improvement over the 1st generation Nexus 7 in a lot of ways, and the size (for my T-Rex arms and tiny hands) still feels natural. I still don't feel comfortable using it without a case (and more on that later), but in terms of an Android device? It's great. It's better than the iPad I use, it's better than my Nexus 7, and while I wish it was closer in size to what I liked, my LG G3 (at 5 inches or so) isn't terribly far off and operates more like a phone as a result, so that's more than doable. In all areas, the device is an improvement.

The back of the case is a sort of plastic that is hard but feels soft. It's slip resistant, it also smudges very easily (I didn't clean them off on purpose), but otherwise, it's an interesting design choice in an era of glossy plastics and metals. I don't really buy devices for their looks, but rather how they operate with my workflow, so this sort of thing doesn't bother me so much (especially with it being housed in a case), but I know some people might look at how it smudges and opt out based on that alone. People love design.

I couldn't get a good picture of it, but the one weird piece on the Nexus 9 are the buttons on the side. Both the power button and the volume controls on the upper right of the device are... not the most responsive buttons I've ever used. It's taken a few weeks of getting used to it to really understand how they work, and that's a flaw. The Nexus 7 buttons (at least first generation) were similarly strange, and the volume on this feels more like an unresponsive rocker than a real control. I can't say I'm a fan on a whole, but that's not especially a dealbreaker for me, either.

The screen is bright and sharp, and is at least comparable (to the untrained eye) to the iPad in terms of display quality. There has been a lot of discussion on the internet regarding "light bleed" from the sides of the screen, and I wasn't able to get a picture of my screen with black playing on it, but I do have some bleed on one of the corners that I have yet to actually notice if I'm not looking for it. Whether it's a design flaw or just part of tablets in 2014, I don't know, but I can't imagine, unless you watch a lot of letterboxed movies on your tablet, that this would ever be a problem. As for regular usage, the screen is bright and the icons large (and, unfortunately, unchangeable in size), and operates very well.

The initial Android 5.0/Lollipop build did have some glitchy aspects to it, but an over-the-air update that has been released throughout the last week really sped up processes and smoothed out the overall experience for me. While I was happy with 5.0, especially in comparison to the Kit Kat version running on my phone and the Cyogenmod version I had on my Nexus 7, the update to the operating system really improved overall performance.

I did opt for a case for this one, and I found a cheap case for about $6 on Amazon. There is an origami-style HTC-branded one for $50 that I would have been happy to get, but this one here by Fintie is lightweight and durable and seems to do the trick for screen protection. Google and HTC are also releasing a Windows Surface-style keyboard case, but at $120+ it's way outside of the price range I'm willing or able to spend for a case that offers limited functionality outside of things I already have that still work. The Fintie case, also displayed at the top as it works as a tablet stand, does the trick, and there are many others like it cheap and slowly becoming available.

Overall, is the Nexus 9 a great device? I love it, personally, but I'm also tied into the Google universe pretty heavily and do not love the Apple experience. Those looking for a reason to move away from the iPads might not see a lot to offer here, but it would be worth a shot. If you're new to the tablet game, this isn't a bad place to start as long as the price tag doesn't scare you off.

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