Google unveiled its two new Android-powered Nexus smartphones last month, and they went on sale last week.
There was no huge buzz around their launch like there was on the iPhone 6s launch day in September, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're not good phones.
Google Nexus 5X and 6P review
Ben Grubb and Tim Biggs give their view on Google's new Android-powered Nexus smartphones, the 5X and 6P.
So how do they compare to the latest flagships on the market, such as the iPhone 6s (and 6s Plus) and Galaxy Edge? Ben Grubb trialled the Nexus 6P, built by Huawei, and Tim Biggs tested the Nexus 5X, made by LG.
Look and feel
The LG made Nexus 5X sports a larger screen than the iPhone 6. Photo: Google
While nice and anonymous-looking from the front, the rear of the 5X is covered with an LG logo and huge "Nexus" branding, which some might love — fans of stock cars for example— but which others will not.
It's hard not to feel like the 5X is being presented as the mid-range option to the 6P's flagship, as while they're similar in many ways the plastic-on-plastic finish on the smaller phone is a bit cheap. That's not to say it feels gross (the texture is a bit like that of an egg shell), just kind of light and insubstantial. The phone is priced accordingly though, so it's not a huge downer.
At 5.2-inches I love the size of the 5X's screen. The bezels are thin and the soft edges mean the whole phone fits much more comfortably in one hand than, say, Sony's similarly-sized Z5. It feels smaller than it is, which is ideal. The display is just as sharp and lovely as you'd expect from LG, even though it puts out an unadventurous 1080p image (totally fine at this size), and the subtle curved bump on the rear that allows for the camera is much more preferable to the sharp edges on some other phones.
Huawei's Nexus 6P has an all metal case and is slightly larger than an iPhone 6 Plus. Photo: Google
When I first got a short amount of hands on time with the 6P, a distracting "halo" around the edges of the table it was sitting on was the first thing that grabbed my attention. It appeared due to the bright lights in the room it was in, and was due to the 6P's shiny edges. Anyway, the halo has all but disappeared in the office environment I've been testing the phone in for the last few days.
The phone feels sturdy, but will apparently snap in half if you… bend it in half, so maybe don't do that.
Unlike Sony's Z5, this phone is not water-resistant, so don't drop it in the bathtub. A teardown of the 6P also reveals it's "extremely difficult" to repair, so, again, try not to break it.
Although the screen is 0.3 inches larger than the iPhone 6s Plus screen (the 6P has a 5.7-inch screen; the iPhone 6s Plus a 5.5-inch screen), it's barely noticeable when using the phone unless you put it next to the iPhone. But one benefit of the screen? It makes use of Corning Gorilla Glass 4, the latest in toughened smartphone screen glass. Despite having a "fingerprint and smudge-resistant oleophobic coating" on it, however, I found myself wiping off smudges constantly.
Google Marshmallow, including Now On Tap
A big draw of the Nexus phones is the idea of getting Android as intended by Google, without any apps added by your telco and without any modifications to the operating system made by manufacturers. The 5X and 6P are the first phones to get Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and even once it's available elsewhere you'll be guaranteed to get new features and updates first on these phones.
Marshmallow makes a lot of refinements, including a more complete and seamless backup and restore system, expanded "Do Not Disturb" settings (which took getting used to but are better than the previous "silent mode" solution), and a smarter way of handling app access permissions so you don't have to worry about signing your life away every time you install something new. The most obvious new feature, however, is Google Now on Tap.
On Tap is really designed to bring Google search results out of the web browser and into your apps, where you probably spend most of your time, and it works really well. Instead of, for example, chatting about dinner plans with your friends over Facebook Messenger and then switching to a browser so you can Google a restaurant somebody just mentioned, you just activate Google Now. It scans your screen in less than a second and offers up what it thinks you need, in this case the entry for the restaurant with options to call and make a booking, see the menu, read reviews or get map directions to the place. It works just as well if you're listening to a song you want more info on, or texting with a friend who's making references to a movie you have no idea about.
I am a big fan of so-called "stock" Android phones - smartphones released by Google under the "Nexus" branding that don't have any bloatware or pre-installed apps other than those intended for distribution with Android. Not only do they feel cleaner, but you know you're going to get system updates first — straight from Google — instead of waiting for your telco or phone manufacturer to distribute them (which can take several months in some instances).
As Tim points out, although hidden and not obvious unless you know about it, Now on Tap is one of the newest and most useful features in Marshmallow. With more and more people using apps instead of the mobile web, Now on Tap is Google's way of getting you to use Google search. Despite it being a feature in Google's best interest, it's actually helpful. It prevents you having to copy and paste movie names or switch between apps just to Google them.
As for Google Now? It's still the same Google Now. And it still offers me up suggestions I'm not really interested in. I've detailed this before in another story, but since then some more annoying things have started to happen that are probably unique to my situation. You see, I have an email doppelganger - someone who has a similar email to me and so I get emails from their parents. One recent email was tickets for flights, and so Google Now decided to show them as cards for me. Because of the emails I'm also seeing information about Philadelphia, where they live. I could of course block them and ignore the suggestions, and it's not really Google's fault in this instance, but annoying nonetheless. Other times I've had Google Now tell me that it's raining way too long after the rain has started. It is useful for telling you how much time it will take to get home though or telling you it's probably time to leave in a taxi if traffic it's monitoring is busy.
Performance and hardware
While the 5X is pushing out the same resolution as the 6P and is expected to perform all the same tasks, it's been saddled with the lesser Snapdragon 808 and a full GB less of RAM, and to my mind this is the phone's biggest shortcoming versus the larger model. To be clear, the 5X on Android 6.0 is smooth and snappy and I was rarely reminded of the lower specs. The only obvious impact is seen in the most intensive games and apps, and in the lack of some functionality (like the burst mode on the camera). However, 2GB of RAM is the absolute minimum for a 2015 phone, and having it here really limits how future-proof the 5X will be. If you're looking for a device to last two years or more you'll have to take that into account.
Speaking of future-proofing, the biggest failing of both phones overall (at least as far as I'm concerned) is the lack of support for expandable storage via micro SD. The ability to have as much storage as you please is a key differentiator for Android, and Marshmallow apparently introduces improvements on this front, so it's a weird step back for the devices supposedly leading the charge. This also means I can't recommend the 16GB versions of the devices, even if they are quite a bit cheaper. Of course Google provides all the tools you need to store your photos, documents, music and other stuff in the cloud, but just the size of the operating system and your apps alone will exhaust 16GB in way too short a time.
The inclusion of USB C is the exact opposite problem, introducing a futuristic feature at a time when you might not be ready for it, but thankfully this aspect of the phones has upsides too. A USB-A to USB-C cord or adapter is mandatory if you plan on connecting to 99 per cent of 2015 computers, chargers, vehicles or accessories, but at least you know you'll be able to take full advantage of the streaming and data transfer capabilities of your future devices. Plus, when charging via the included USB-C charger, the improvement in charging speed is tremendous.
The USB type C connector, right, alongside the iPhone connector, centre, and standard micro USB connector, left. Photo: Ben Grubb
The 6P is speedy, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 2.0 GHz Octa-core 64-bit processor powering it. But I experienced a number of crashes when opening the camera and Twitter apps. There have also reportedly been some issues with using the 6P on Telstra's network, which result in 4G data becoming unusable after switching from Wi-Fi to 4G unless restarting the phone.
The 6P is an LTE category 6 device, meaning peak download speeds of up to 300Mbps and peak upload speeds of 50Mbps will be possible. This will of course depend on the telco you're using and a number of other factors, such as how close you are to a cell tower.
Now to the inclusion of the USB type C connector. Remember when the iPhone ditched its 30-pin connector for the Lightning cable? There was a fair bit of outrage from some quarters. Well Google has decided to do something similar, ditching the micro USB port for a USB-C.
As Tim says, this is going to be painful for some, especially if their work computer or personal laptop or desktop doesn't have a USB type C connector. Want to pull data off your phone or charge it using a computer? You're probably going to need to buy a converter cable.
When it comes to storage, the 6P certainly has more to offer than the 5X, with 32 GB, 64 GB, and 128GB versions available. The 6P also comes with 3GB of memory, 1GB more than the 5X.
The USB type C connector and charging cable.
Camera and video
I'm not really a photographically-inclined person, but the extremely minimalist approach in Google's camera app made even me feel a little uneasy at first. Unlike with the previous Nexus devices you at least get access to some basic controls without having to open a menu (like the flash, for example) but it's clear the phone just wants you to point and shoot and let it take care of the rest, and to that end it seems to do a pretty good job. Performance in low light is great without the need to tweak any settings, and letting the phone decide whether or not to use HDR worked fine for the most part. The 12.3MP snapper can record in 4K and 120fps, but of course the whole thing's going to heat up, slow down, run out of space and battery if you do too much of that. If you're the kind of person that needs to control every aspect of the camera or wants the biggest, best images and video, this is not for you. But it does simple really well.
Like the 5X, there's a 12.3 megapixel camera on the front and an 8 megapixel camera on the back of the 6P. But unlike the 5X, the 6P allows for burst mode when it comes to photos, meaning you can take dozens of photos every second if you fear you're going to miss some fast-paced action.
The addition of infrared laser-assisted autofocus is pretty fancy. As the name implies, the camera makes use of an infrared laser to calculate the distance between the phone and what you're taking a picture of. LG's G3 smartphone was one of the first to introduce this in a phone. According to androidauthority.com, the biggest benefit of having laser-assisted focus is increased speed and accuracy when focusing, especially at short distances. You're also likely to see better performance in darkened environments.
'Nexus Imprint' (fingerprint scanner)
The small, circular fingerprint scanner works exactly as expected, and misreads are very rare. However I take issue with Google's claims that the Imprint is positioned "where the fingers naturally lie". Maybe I hold phones weird, but I had to actively train myself to have my index finger hit that spot. Obviously you're out of luck too if the phone is laying on its back. These are minor quibbles though, as the reader is overall very handy.
Unlike Tim, I liked the position of the fingerprint scanner. I also found it worked fairly reliably.
I couldn't use the fingerprint scanner with my favourite password manager 1Password though. When the iPhone came out with a fingerprint scanner, 1Password had support pretty quickly for it.
I asked 1Password on Twitter and they have no timeline yet for support. This goes back to my argument that iOS always seems to get all the cool things first as third-party developers pay more attention to iOS.
Remember when I said the phone charges fast using USB C? The reason this is so important is that the 2700 mAh battery is nowhere near as robust as I'd like it to be. I take it off charge every morning at around 5am, and when I get home 10 hours later I usually have to plug it right back in. I accept I run it a bit harder than some might (I have a Bluetooth watch connected at all times for example), but that's still not great. In fairness the phone has never run out completely and left me high and dry, and I attribute this to the fact that I can usually find an opportunity to plug it in for 10 minutes near the end of the day, breathing four hours of life into it.
The 6P packs a 3450 mAh battery, which I found got me through most days. The phone also supports fast charging, which is awesome. After only 10 minutes of charging you can get up to 7 hours of use.
Marshmallow continues on Android's path of keeping your device secure without you having to really think about it. Obviously the fingerprint scanners on these devices allow you and only you to access the device, but if you're not so severe about security you can set it so it will unlock to anybody while in a certain location (like your house) or if a certain connected device is nearby (like your smartwatch). This is not new, but it feels more refined and easy to access than ever here. The only real advantage the Nexus phones have over other Android phones with fingerprint scanners though is the peace of mind that comes with early updates.
As mentioned earlier, one of the huge benefits of using a stock Android phone is that you get software updates straight away and don't have to wait for your telco or manufacturer to send them, which can slow their distribution. It has concerned me for a while now that manufacturers and telcos who sell phones that aren't stock Android phones in general don't seem to care about rushing out security patches.
As for Marshmallow, Android finally comes with full-disk encryption by default, which is great.
Apple's iOS has had this for a while now, but it means that if you accidentally leave your phone in a taxi or on the bus the passcode will be needed to access files when it's plugged into a computer.
Summary, price and availability
The 32GB Nexus 5X is available direct from Google at $739. It's a price a little higher than most mid-range phones but far below some of the premium flagships. For this reason I think it's very good value, as while the 5X won't match an LG G4, Galaxy S6 or Xperia Z5 for grunt or flashiness, you'd be selling it pretty short to call it mid-range. It's a tier 2 phone, and an excellent one at that. Just don't be tempted by the 16GB model ($659) if you can at all help it. You'll want the extra room and waiting until you can afford the 32GB will be worthwhile.
The 32GB 6P retails on the Google Play Store for $899 for the 32GB model, $999 for the 64GB model, and $1099 for the 128GB model. The colours available are aluminium, graphite, and frost.
Vodafone users can also pick up the 6P (64GB) for $5 per month on an $80 Red plan. Optus offers the Nexus 6P (32GB) for $5 on a $60 plan.
The phones are also available in aluminium across JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman stores.
I feel that most people are going to look at the price of these phones and say, 'Why not just get an iPhone'. And I'd agree with them.
However, if you're an Android user and like big phones then the 6P is definitely what I would get if I wanted an Android phone, primarily because of the fast security and software updates.
Ben Grubb travelled to San Francisco for the launch of the Nexus phones as a guest of Huawei