Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is widely expected to unveil its next tablet, the Nexus 9, at some point in the next few weeks. Like the Nexus devices that have preceded it, the Nexus 9's release should coincide with the debut of the latest version of Google's mobile operating system, Android L.
Although Google has released a larger Nexus tablet in the past, it wasn't particularly successful -- 2012's Nexus 10 didn't seem to garner as much positive attention as its smaller, less-expensive Nexus 7 counterpart -- and unlike the Nexus 7, it did not receive an annual refresh last year.
But this year, Google's return to the larger tablet space could be far more significant. Until the device is officially unveiled, the details surrounding it remain unconfirmed; nevertheless, a slew of fairly reliable reports suggest a device with the potential to shake up the tablet market substantially -- and perhaps even dethrone Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad Air.
HTC could return to the tablet market
HTC has made Android-powered tablets in the past -- notably, it released the 7-inch Flyer back in 2011. But that device (and HTC's other two Android tablets, the Evo View 4G and Jetstream) was not particularly successfully, and HTC chose to exit the U.S. tablet market in 2012.
The Android OEM, however, could be about to make a triumphant return -- according to The Wall Street Journal, HTC has been working with the search giant on the next Nexus tablet. If so, the Nexus 9 could benefit from HTC's industrial design prowess. Although the company's last two flagship smartphones -- One M7 and One M8 -- did not sell as well as rival offerings, they were widely praised by the broader tech media, who, in general, heaped lavish praise on the phones' aluminum bodies and front-facing speakers.
That design language carried over to a tablet could deliver the first large Android slate capable of standing up to Apple's iPad Air in terms of construction.
Android could finally catch up with Apple
The Nexus 9 could also be the first major Android device to sport a 64-bit processor: In a recent legal filing, chip maker NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA) hinted that its Tegra K1 had been chosen to power the tablet.
A 32-bit version of the Tegra K1 has already appeared in a handful of devices, including NVIDIA's own Shield tablet. But in August, NVIDIA said it was working on a 64-bit variant (known as "Denver") that would show up in devices later this year. The Nexus 9 would seem like the perfect device for such a chip, as Google's Android L will be the first version of the operating system with support for 64-bit apps.
Apple caught rival chipmakers off guard last year when it opted to place a 64-bit processor in the iPhone 5S, then stuck the same chip its then-new iPad Air. Though many wrote the upgrade off as overkill -- at present, few apps take advantage -- it was still one area where Google's Android lagged behind. The release of a Nexus tablet with NVIDIA's 64-bit processor could give Google an Android device with far more horsepower.
The first definitive, large Android tablet?
But ultimately, the Nexus 9 could be most impactful in the sense that it could emerge as the first definitive, large-screen Android tablet. That isn't to say Android tablets with big screens haven't been released before -- besides the aforementioned Nexus 10, many of Google's hardware partners, notably Samsung, have offered a wide variety of Android tablets running the gamut in screen sizes (including the downright enormous 12.2-inch Note).
But smaller Android tablets have remained dominant. Last year, for the first time, Android-powered tablets overtook Apple's iPad in market share -- not so coincidentally, the percentage of tablets with smaller screens rose to an all-time high, accounting for more than half of all tablet sales (up from just over a quarter in 2011).
When it was released in 2012, the Nexus 7 was seen by most tech reviewers as the first definitive Android tablet -- a small slate that ran a pure version of Google's Android and offered high-quality specs at an attractive price. With better internals and a far more reasonable price tag, some even advocated it over Apple's competing iPad Mini.
But the definitive large Android tablet has remained elusive. Android OEMs have tried, but have largely fallen short of Apple's full-sized, class-leading iPad Air.
But with a speedy, 64-bit processor and high-quality construction, the Nexus 9 may be the first Android-powered tablet that can stand toe to toe with Apple's iPad Air -- and perhaps come out on top.
Sam Mattera owns shares of Nvidia. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Nvidia. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.