Major components of Google's Nexus 9 tablet

Teardown: Google Nexus 9 tablet

Google is chasing premium pricing as the Android tablet market matures.

When you think of Google hardware, do you think ‘premium-priced’? This question arose as the company unveiled two products for Christmas 2014. The Nexus 6 smartphone and the Nexus 9 tablet, our focus here, have prices comparable to their Apple equivalents and trade on being cutting-edge in terms of design, features and processor power.This is a significant shift for Google. Nexus kit has hitherto been launched at low-to-mid-market price points. It appeared to be geared to promoting Google’s Android universe over any ambitions as a device maker.

Nevertheless, users liked the earlier products. They could be affordably bought unlocked and, unlike Android variants from major handset companies, were free of proprietary, unremoveable ‘bloatware’.

The 9in, Nvidia Tegra-based Nexus 9 still has those attractions, but costs much more. The 16GB, Wi-Fi-only version is £319, and the 32GB, Wi-Fi-only one is £399. Apple’s equivalent 16GB and 64GB editions of the iPad 2 are £399 and £479 respectively.

Google has added several elements to convince users to spend more. It has also apparently judged that, with tablet ownership reaching maturity in the US and Europe, those markets are now about upgrades rather than adoption. Consumers are therefore more likely to spend to stay within an environment (Android, iOS, Windows) and protect their existing app investments on a new device.

To that end, the Nexus 9 and 6 are heavily marketed as the first products with Google’s 5.0 Lollipop edition of Android. Lollipop represents a major overhaul for the OS and one of its main goals was to address criticism that Android was better suited to phones than tablets.

To further justify its new pricing, Google has matched a number of Apple benchmarks. The main rear-mounted camera has 8MP resolution, the same as the iPad 2, and the selfie front-mounted one is 1.6MP, ahead of its rival’s 1.2MP. The Nexus 9 has an 8.9in diagonal, 2048x1536 LCD display, identical in resolution but slightly smaller than the iPad 2’s 9.7in diagonal Retina screen.

Particularly significant is Google’s decision to use Nvidia’s latest 64bit ARM-based system-on-chip, the dual-Denver 2.3GHz CPU core Tegra K1 with a 192-core Kepler GPU.

By choosing a chunky SoC from a graphics-led silicon supplier like Nvidia, Google is emphasising gaming and entertainment on the Nexus 9. To the same end, it has moved the on-board stereo speakers from rear- to front-facing and their output is augmented with ‘immersive’ BoomSound technology from the tablet’s designer, Taiwan’s HTC.

HTC has then contributed a stronger physical design with a brushed metal frame and a soft-grip plastic reverse, as well as - familiar from Microsoft’s Surface - the option for a kickstand-like keyboard.

Overall, the Nexus 9 may not have a few of the iPad 2’s more high-profile features -notably the fingerprint sensor - but it looks and performs in line with the new niche.

There are some minus points, however.

Like the Apple products with which it invites comparison, the Nexus 9 is a bit of a swine to repair according to iFixit.

The rear camera got separated from its ZIF connector to the motherboard when the back was removed. There are a lot of tiny PCBs performing different functions. And HTC has used copious amounts of glue attaching the LCD to the display assembly, making screen replacement difficult. The iFixit team scored the Nexus 9 at just 3 out of 10 for repairability.

Also, the Nexus 9 has no external memory card slot. Google is pushing cloud storage hard with its Chromebooks, and wants the Nexus 9 to join the campaign. However, the extra card option has been a major differentiator for Android tablets over iPads. This is one area where the Nexus 9 crosses a line as a premium product: many (particularly non-Apple) consumers expect that their device will put their needs first rather than the company’s business model.

Nevertheless, with good reviews and demand exceeding supply - at time of writing, the UK Play Store had run out of stock and was not accepting orders - signs are that the Nexus 9 has scored with Android aficionados.

There is, however, an ongoing cautionary tale for Internet giants looking to move beyond subsidised and pathfinder hardware into the higher margin Apple world.

Amazon launched its Fire phone last spring amid a lot of hype about its use of augmented reality and other cutting-edge technology. After several generations of heavily subsidised Kindle tablets and readers, the phone cost an iPhone-like £299 with a contract. Today, it is available on O2 for free, and Amazon has already had to take a $170m (£110m) write down against it.

Amazon CTO Tom Szkutak said that, for all the initial enthusiasm, the big problem was - you guessed it - a pricing strategy that reached too high. Caveat venditor. *

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