Google has exerted more control over the design of this generation of Nexus devices. We can tell because they come from two very different manufacturers - Motorola makes the phones, HTC makes the tablet - but the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 show a clear family resemblance. Much more than the Nexus 4/5 and the Nexus 7 (2012 and 2013) ever did.
It begins with the metal rim that secures the glass front and the matte plastic back. Both devices have front-facing stereo speakers and barely any controls, it's all on-screen. The backs are unified by the central Nexus logo, but differ in small details.
The Nexus 9 does pretty well in terms of thickness - at 7.9mm it matches the iPad mini 3. It is noticeably thicker than the likes of Apple iPad Air 2 (6.1mm) and Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact (6.4mm), but it doesn't feel thick in any way. The bigger problem is that it's not particularly light - it weighs as much as a 9.7" iPad Air 2. It's much heavier than an 8" Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, which also has a metal rim and plastic back (and weighs 150g less).
That's not to say it's unwieldy to handle or much of a surprise, HTC rarely goes after the "thinnest and lightest" crown. The side bezels are fairly thin but it's quite a challenge to hold the tablet in one hand due to the squarer aspect ratio. For two-handed landscape use the bezels are thicker so you can put your thumbs and not cover the front-facing stereo speakers.
While movies and other widescreen content will be letterboxed, the tablet does feel better in portrait mode as big 16:10 and especially 16:9 tablets can be rather long.
The screen on the Nexus 9 borrows iPad's resolution complete with the 4:3 aspect ratio. Since the screen is a little smaller than the iPad Air 2 the pixel density is slightly higher (but it's lower than the iPad mini 3). Either way it's below the 300ppi mark (it's 281ppi to be precise). The Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact has virtually the same pixel density. It's enough for a very good quality image though up close you can notice some jagginess in small type or diagonal elements.
Sharpness aside, viewing angles and colors on the screen are pretty good too adding up to excellent image quality.
The screen is an IPS LCD for good viewing angles and there's Gorilla Glass 3 protection. From our short time with it, it seems that the screen is fairly glossy, which suggests issues with legibility in the sun. We'll have to do a proper test to be sure about that, though.
Above the screen (in portrait orientation) is a 1.6MP front-facing camera that records 720p. The side bezels just aren't thick enough to house the camera.
The main camera is on the back in the corner. Our recent experience with the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact shows this is better than a central position as you don't have to worry about your fingers getting in the shot. The camera itself is an 8MP shooter that records 1080p video at 30fps. There's an LED flash too, a rarity on tablets.
The back side of the tablet is a pleasant matte plastic that will be available in Indigo Black, Lunar White and Sand (gold by any other name). By the sound of it, when the LTE version hits it will be available in black only. The front of all three color options is black. Unfortunately, we found the Nexus 9 to be a little too prone to smudges - both the front and the back of the tablet started getting greasy very shortly after our hands-on began.
The right side of the tablet is home to the Power key and the volume rocker, plus a microphone. The Nexus 9 supports double tap to wake, a new feature in Android 5.0. There's another mic at the bottom, next to the microUSB cable. On top there's the 3.5mm audio jack and an LED.
What's missing here is a dock connector, the Nexus 7 (2013) didn't have one either. Google is offering a keyboard folio case for the Nexus 9 but that talks with the tablet via Bluetooth and can be paired via NFC. The case will set you back $130 and can hold the tablet tilted at two different angles.
Another thing that's missing is a microSD card slot though knowing Google's practices that's hardly a surprise. We still feel that 16GB is not enough for phones, let alone for tablets, but the upgrade to 32GB is $80. The LTE model will come in 32GB only - and it better, seeing how that it will cost $600.
The LTE version will support the older mobile standards too, GSM, CDMA and HSPA. The Wi-Fi alone is quite fast (with 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO) and there's Bluetooth 4.1 with aptX plus NFC.
The Tegra K1 chipset packs a dual-core Denver processor, which has been developed for high throughput per core. Single core performance is better than all except perhaps the latest Apple cores, while multi-core performance is on par with the big.LITTLE octa-cores. We're very curious to find out what that means for power usage.
The GPU is particularly interesting too. NVidia has been using it for its gaming Shield tablet and Xiaomi made a splash with it and the Mi Pad 7.9. Still, high-quality 3D games require a lot of space and the 16GB built-in storage will start feeling pretty cramped.