Nexus 9, Chromebook Competitor?

As a longtime Chrome OS user and original ASUS Transformer owner, I was very intrigued when the Nexus 9 and its designed keyboard-case combo were released. I have wished for a smaller, high-resolution Chromebook for some time. This would be very handy when on the run–something Palm figured out in 2007 with the Folio. I still love the simple beauty of the device even if the bean counters and pundits killed it. The same pundits that still question the crazy successful Chrome OS platform… but I digress.

As there was nothing akin to a mini-Pixel, I was curious if the Nexus 9 fit the bill. What I found in actual use was a bit surprising. I found the best tablet I have used in a long line of tablets, with a really nice keyboard. Read on for the details.

The Device

PICT_20150113_212257The Nexus 9 is a well built, svelte, fast, unskinned Android tablet. It performs very well in benchmarks and has a stunning display. The subtle angle of the sides is an interesting design idea. It does make the tablet feel more at home in the hand and somewhat prevents unwanted button presses. The accidental power off is a consistent issue for regular tablet users and can be quite annoying. I am also now a fan of the 4:3 aspect ration for larger tablets. I was a critic at one time but have come around to a different perspective. Like the Nexus 5 and the Nexus 7 this is an excellent mobile device….but what about the keyboard?

The keyboard case is amazingly slim and I found I could easily touch-type on it with the typical minor adjustments needed for a small keyboard(shift, alt, enter). The tablet snaps in via magnets and the cover works well. You can bend the cover and use the tablet laptop style in typical tablet fashion. The keyboard connects via bluetooth and pairs easily via NFC. The onscreen keyboard is automatically disabled when the keyboard is paired. This can be annoying when you are using the keyboard case but still using the Nexus 9 like a tablet. But hey, you can’t have it all.

The screen is just beautiful. Like the Pixel, it is one of the best panels available in a tablet and it puts many others, including the Nexus 10, to shame. It is a real strength of the device.

The Chromebook Comparison

So the part I cared about was, “can I use this like a Chromebook?” In a given day I use a ton of web apps via the Chrome browser along with Google Docs, Sheets, and Forms, so I figured I would be in good shape. For the most part I was. I was able to use all of these apps pretty well. Many of the issues I had with the first generation Android tablet/keyboard combos (ie. the original Transformer) have been fixed. But this was not a Chromebook experience, not at all.

The comparison really highlighted the strong platform that Chrome OS has become the last couple of years. Specifically, the application and window switching is far superior to what is used in Android. Honestly Android appears to have taken a step backward to clearly be optimized for phone sized screens. Sure it works well for tablets, but its weaknesses are clearly exposed by a Chromebook, even an ARM one. The other area that was exposed was the app navigation. The combination of a keyboard for typing and touchscreen only for navigation is disconcerting. I kept wishing for a touchpad, even a small one.

Conclusion

PICT_20150113_212325The Nexus 9 is really good, I am glad that I own it. I have come to a realization that a tablet with a separate keyboard will simply not work as well as a Transformer-like device or a chromebook. I would pay a premium for a 9” high resolution Chromebook with the type of build quality found in the Nexus 9. I am a firm believer that many others would too. in a recent survey on Google+ in the Chromebook Community 30% of respondents said they would like a device smaller than 11”.
Chrome OS has the strength of device-switching that is not present in any other platform. You can swap one Chromebook out for another or a Chromebox with impunity. You log in and it works. This lends itself to having use specific devices like the one I describe. Would I sit at my desk and use it instead of my dual monitor Chromebox with 8gb of RAM and 1 TB drive? Of course not. Would I use it at home instead of my Pixel? Sometimes. Would I use it when I travel? 100% of the time! I cannot wait for the platform to continue to grow up so we get some of the fringe devices many of us want.

PS Giving my younger brother Matthew McNeil credit for making me the awesome Walnut/Maple chessboard used in the photos!