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The Nexus 9: hands-on with Google's latest attempt to take on the iPad

The in-betweener tablet

Android has never gotten much respect in the big tablet market. Sure, the Nexus 7 has been surprisingly successful — thanks in no small part to its low cost and good performance. But the stigma around Android tablets is real and not entirely undeserved once you get to the larger sizes. Despite Google's best efforts, many Android apps haven't been optimized for big screens. Apps that are a forgivable sin on a 7-inch tablet become unbearable on a 9-incher.

That puts a lot of pressure on the Nexus 9, the new high-end tablet from HTC and Google. More than any Nexus tablet before it, it seems custom designed to take on the iPad. It starts with the 4:3 aspect ratio — just like the iPad — and it extends to the general premium feel of the device — just like the iPad. It's a little thicker than I was expecting and a little heavier, but it did not feel cheap at all. Starting at $399 for the 16GB version, it had better not.

That said, the Nexus 9 is a compelling tablet in its own right. The 8.9-inch screen is a bit of an odd size, but it works. It feels much more portable than you'd expect, while still feeling big enough to be more expansive and less cramped than the Nexus 7. Previous Android tablets have felt like gigantic phones, but there are enough of those around these days, so the Nexus 9 feels like a tablet, full stop. It's a weird in-betweener kind of tablet, but even after just a few minutes of use it makes smaller tablets feel too small and bigger tablets feel too big. On a first impression, at least, it's pretty much Goldilocks.

Some Nexus devices are meant to be cheap, plentiful, and ubiquitous. Others are meant to be showcases for what's coming next for Android. The Nexus 9 falls firmly in the latter category. That's mainly because of its high-end specs. It's powered by the Nvidia Tegra K1 chipset, a 64-bit processor, which should make it super fast (though it's hard to judge speed when you're using a brand new operating system with new animations). It's also a showcase for a bevy of Android 5.0 Lollipop features. You can log into a tablet with a guest account. You can double tap the screen to wake the device. You can interact directly with notifications right on the lock screen. You can even "pin" an app so your kid can't quit out of it and email your boss. The fact that Google Docs and Gmail can spawn multiple "cards" in the multitasking view means that the Nexus 9 could also potentially be better at productivity than other tablets.

I was impressed with the screen quality, too. It's "only" 2048 × 1536 pixels, but they sit close to the surface of the glass and their color fidelity seems fine. The hardware overall feels "classic" Nexus, which is to say it's unassuming in the extreme with virtually no hardware flourishes. That's fine — the point of a tablet is to be a screen — though I should note that the front-facing dual speakers are a nice touch.

Like the Nexus 10 before it, the Nexus 9 probably isn't going to put a dent in iPad sales. Instead, it's going the way of other Nexus devices: more figurehead than flagship, designed to show users and developers what's possible rather than dominate the sales charts. And that sums up the Android big tablet story pretty nicely: there's a lot that's possible (maybe more than on iOS), but the reality seems to fall a little short. Maybe this Nexus tablet will be different — we'll obviously spend more time with it to find out.

Photography by Josh Lowensohn.