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Nexus 5X Review

nexus 5x review

“The all around champ is back.” That’s Google’s description of the Nexus 5X, which in a way marks the return of a phone that most people would consider to be the best Nexus phone ever made. They are referencing the original Nexus 5 in that quote, of course, a phone that like this 5X was made by LG. Google heard the cries last year of people not wanting an oversized phone when it introduced the whale-esque Nexus 6, and they answered those tears for 2015.

The Nexus 5X is a lot like the original Nexus 5. Again, it’s made by LG, but it also looks very similar, is finished very similar, and carries that similarly low price tag. The goal seems to have been to make the Nexus 5 all over again, but upgrade its parts and hopefully, address the one weak point – the camera. In our early tests, we found the camera to be quite good. So if they made right on that weak point, what about the rest? Is this really the return of the champ? Let’s find out.

This is our Nexus 5X review. 

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The Good


Software

It used to be that pure, stock Android was sort of like a blueprint for a base level or bare bones version of Android that manufacturers would then take and add their own spin to. But as those spins became full-on performance reducing bloat, Google stepped in and starting ramping up the feature set of that base level. Android is now great in its purist form because it has truly grown up, and no phone shows that better than a Nexus.

With the Nexus 5X, you get a device that was developed along side Android 6.0 Marshmallow. As Google worked out bugs with 6.0 previews, it was getting the 5X ready with it to help show the world what software and hardware combined can do. I have my gripes about the performance of this phone, which I’ll get to later, but those gripes won’t deter me from praising the pureness of stock Marshmallow.

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You just don’t get an Android experience like this on any phone. This is Google’s vision of Android. If you want to see transitions, animations, button placements, button arrangements, colors, ripples, a phone app, notifications, a lock screen, and a camera experience the way Google sees them, this is it. You also get new features first, like Doze, which should help extend standby time dramatically, Google Now on Tap, native fingerprint support, ambient display, greater control over app permissions, and better restore/backup.

I haven’t even mentioned updates yet, still to this day they are one of the major selling points for Nexus phones. Because, as many of you know, Nexus phones get new versions of Android first. They also tend to get support from Google for a solid two years, whereas companies like Motorola are now cutting them off after just one. I didn’t think this would happen this late in the game, but software updates for phones still seem to be so hit or miss or up-in-the-air on anything outside of a Nexus. So if you want guaranteed updates in their purists and quickest forms, Nexus is the way to go.

Camera

Prior to this review, I walked through an entirely separate camera review. If you want the dirty details on the Nexus 5X camera, be sure to read that post. If you want the quick version, here we go.

The Nexus 5X camera might not be the best on the block (I’d probably lean Galaxy S6 there), but it’s damn close. It’s also the best Nexus camera ever outside of the camera in the Nexus 6P, which technically has the same exact 12.3MP camera (f/2.0, 1.55 µm pixels), only with a couple of additional features (6P has a burst mode and slow-mo at 240fps). I say all of that because you get a camera experience that can be incredibly quick, that focuses fast, captures a good amount of detail without a whole bunch of off-putting processing, and is above average in low light thanks to its bigger 1.55 micron pixels. Oh, you can also launch it quickly with a double tap of the power button.

If you were looking for downsides, well, as you will see in my performance section below, I ran into issues where the camera struggled to load and shoot. I think those issues can be fixed as Google issues bug fixes to the phone, but that’s never a guarantee. Also, the stock Google camera app is about as bare-bones as it gets, so if you want manual controls on any level, you should probably look for a third party option.

Here are some of the samples from the review:

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Price

At $379 (16GB) and $429 (32GB), the Nexus 5X is a heck of a deal. You get the return of the Nexus 5 and Google’s vision for Android (which includes the fastest updates) at a price hundreds less than many of the flagships from other manufacturers. While this phone might not have the fit and finish or specs of some of those (like a Galaxy S6), the value in terms of the specs you do get coupled with that price and Google behind the wheel, is tough to beat. Sure, the storage options aren’t great, especially with no expandable storage, but if you only have $400 to spend on a phone, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a couple of options better.

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Connectivity

Like with last year’s Nexus 6, Google built its new Nexus phones with best-in-class connectivity. The Nexus 5X (6P too) is an unlocked phone that works on every single major US carrier, including Verizon. It also works with their own wireless service, Project Fi. If you want to know why unlocked phones like this are so important, read this piece from a few months back. But basically, unlocked phones like this give some power back to consumers, a power that (at least in the US wireless market) has been gone for a long time. Unlocked phones let you decide where your money goes in terms of service. And if that situation isn’t working out, you don’t have to hesitate in leaving and finding another provider. It’s a bit of a freedom play that we hope everyone gets behind soon. Carriers in this country have long had too much power and unlocked phones that are affordable, may eventually help return some of that to you and I.

Size

One of the most likable aspects of the original Nexus 5 was its size. Even two years ago, some of us were fighting the “Why can’t people make smaller phones” battle and so we appreciated the in-hand feel of the 2013 Nexus. In 2015, that battle has already been lost, so when we see a phone break the trend because there are people out there who don’t like whales, we get excited.

The Nexus 5X isn’t tiny, but it is smallish for today’s standards with its 5.2-inch display and trim body. It’s comparable to the Galaxy S6, if not slightly taller and wider. Overall, though, it’s a phone that can be used in one hand and that’s awesome. It is thin without being too thin, is reachable at all corners without much of a shimmy, and will certainly slide in and out of your skinny pants. It’s also very light, thanks to its plastic body.

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Fingerprint Scanner

I’ve already written plenty about this, but in my opinion, Google’s implementation of fingerprint scanners on the Nexus 5X and 6P is the best in the business. The rear placement combined with the speed and accuracy at which they read prints is unmatched. Your fingers can casually and naturally find the rear-mounted location each time you pick up your phone, plus they learn fingers in far fewer touches than any other phone (six touches to be exact), which hasn’t at all seemed to hamper their ability to read them at record paces. And let’s not forget the fact that the rear location allows Google to not deteriorate the front of a phone’s appearance, which can’t be said for the iPhone, Galaxy phones, HTC’s newest, or the OnePlus 2.

Somewhere-in-the-Middle


Design

Is the Nexus 5X “hot,” as we tend to proclaim when something is attractive? Eh, it’s OK looking. Google isn’t going to win any design awards here with this heavy use of plastic, but it’s also not going to completely offend anyone. The 5X comes in three colors, an all-black model, a two-tone black and white model, and a two-tone black and mint green/blue model. The all-black version is probably the best looking of the three, as the other two give off a sort of “We didn’t want to spend much, so we just slapped a couple of colored pieces of plastics on our black model to differentiate and called it good.” I’m not saying we needed an all-mint green phone, but the two-tone look isn’t exactly clean.

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As for the overall design, you are getting a phone that is again, unapologetically plastic, with big forehead and chin, and subtle camera hump on the back. It does fit well in your hand, which is good, but I don’t think anyone is going to look at this phone and say, “Wow, Google, you did something special here!” It’s a nice plastic phone, don’t get me wrong, it’s just not even close to being as nice as a couple of the other sub-$400 phones, the OnePlus 2 or Moto X Pure Edition.

USB Type-C and Charging

This will eventually be the future of charging mobile devices, it just isn’t right now and that makes for a painful experience unless you are willing to spend some extra cash and start preparing before you buy a Nexus 5X or Nexus 6P. With USB Type-C, Google gives you a charging cable that can be flipped either way, so you no longer will find yourself cramming the wrong side of a micro USB cable into the bottom of your phone, in the dark. This technology also brings along with it fast charging, sort of like Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0, except this isn’t Quick Charge 2.0.

So here are my early thoughts on USB Type-C and this new Google version of fast charging. Type-C cables are awesome! You can flip them over every which way and plug them into your phone. Fast charging is also still awesome! We like charging phones fast, especially as we continually find ways to burn through batteries in record time.

With that said, I don’t love the whole concept just yet even though I know that I probably will in a year. First, none (or very few) of your current chargers will work with this phone in a fast charging capacity. Sure, you could buy a USB Type-C to USB Type-A cable, plug it into all of the 8-dozen adapters you own and charge the phone, but there is no telling if it will charge it fast or not. Google is using 5V/3A current, which is not at all the same as what your other Quick Charge 2.0 adapters use. Finding one that does is going to be a struggle for a while. On that note, all of your 12-dozen micro USB cables are now worthless as well, because you need Type-C tip cables.

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USB Type-C very well may be the future. It makes plugging in cables easier and will also help usher in more fast charging. Eventually, it will do things like make data transfers really fast too, once we get to USB 3.1 and Type-C. For now, you have to work on buying new cables and new adapters, which is a bit unfortunate, but part of the way new technologies work. So don’t take this as me poopoo-ing USB Type-C, I’m just warning you that it’s going to take a bit before we’re all ready for this future. It’s a future that will be brighter, for sure, just be prepared to be attached to a single charger for a while.

Display

Here’s the deal with the 5.2-inch 1080p display on the Nexus 5X – it’s fine. Typically, when you buy a phone at a sub-$400 price point, you aren’t expecting the greatest set of pixels the world has ever seen. So with the 5X, you don’t get that, you get a solid LCD display with average viewing angles and sold color reproduction, which is really about all you can ask for. When I buy a $600 phone like the Galaxy S6 or Note 5, I expect the best. Here, I don’t, and so I’m not offended at all by the panel Google has chosen for its mid-range offering.

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As you can see in the images above, it by no means stands up well to some of the other panels being used at the moment. Then again, this is only made evident by the fact that I matched it up directly to some other phones (including the original Nexus 5), cranked all of their brightnesses to max, and shot these two photos. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have really had a complaint about the display, other than its brightness can be a bit finicky (sporadic dimming) and doesn’t necessarily get bright enough at times.

But if you want to compare it to the phones above, I think it’s obvious that the panel has a brownish tint to it, is quite dark, and isn’t exactly going to impress anyone in a viewing angle test. Still, I keep the phone at arm’s reach on my desk and have had no issues with viewing content. I also had not really noticed the brownish hue until I took this photo. So again, the display here is fine, it’s just not going to blow your mind.

Availability

You can buy the Nexus 5X directly from Google, which is fine, assuming you like buying phones at full retail directly from Google. You can’t walk into a carrier store and do one of their monthly payments plans. You can’t buy the 5X from LG or from Best Buy or from Amazon. You have to go to Google. Again, that’s fine if you don’t mind buying from Google, but people like options and they also often like holding phones in hand before they spend hundreds of dollars on them. While the 5X is priced quite reasonably, we would still like to see it arrive at some sort of retail partner. And it may do that before long, it just hasn’t at the time of this review.

I know that some of you will point to this and say, “But, you put this in the bad section on the Moto X Pure Edition!” And yes, I did. The difference is that Google has almost always sold their phones this way, with limited availability, and so I can’t really completely hammer them for it. Google phones still fly under the radar and are mostly Android enthusiast/purist phones. Motorola, on the other hand, is taking a pretty big risk in doing so with their new flagship phone, because unlike Google, they need to sell lots of them to succeed.

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Battery

In these reviews, I often reference the black hole of signal death (BHOSD) that I live in as an opportunity to defend battery life. In this situation, I can’t even use that as an excuse to call the 2700mAh battery life on the Nexus 5X, even with Doze, average at best. For the first week, I spent my time with the Nexus 5X at my house/office in the BHOSD and averaged right around 14-15 hours before the phone was essentially dead. We’re talking with my usual 2 hours of screen on time and a mix of WiFi and LTE (I’m running this on T-Mobile, by the way).

After that first week, I spent ample amount of time outside of the office on a trip to New York for Motorola’s DROID event. Battery life during that trip, was not great either. For example (and apologies for not having screenshots), on my trip back to Portland, I unplugged at around 4AM, used the phone for a good couple of hours before my 2 hour flight, switched the phone to airplane mode and listened to music the entire time I was in air, and then landed with around 40%. So in 5 hours or so of use, 2 hours of which were in airplane mode with media streaming, I killed 60% of my battery. And it was like this most of the 3-day trip. I felt like I was constantly asking myself if I should charge a bit before heading back out in Manhattan for hours.

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Now, there are a whole bunch of factors here that could affect battery life. Maybe my T-Mobile signal in NYC was terrible the whole time (I don’t think it was) or maybe this build of Android 6.0 is super buggy (it’s still this odd MDB08G because Google hasn’t sent my review unit an update). I definitely didn’t ever see much of the Doze action you’ll see if you do a quick search on Google+, where people are showing their phone’s battery life flat-lining for hours as it sits idle. So maybe I have an app that is keeping the phone alive in the background and not letting Doze do its thing.

My hope is that this build of Android 6.0 on my review unit is just not good and that the current version (MDB08I) makes all of this better. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to flash the factory images on this device of the newest build and re-test or we might be another week out on this review. What I can tell you is that the battery life should be good enough in most situations to get you through the day, or at least from your morning until you get home at night. Just make sure when you get home or are in the car on your commute, that you have a Type-C charger handy if you want to extend your evening.

The Not-so-Good


Performance

During my initial camera review of the Nexus 5X, I talked about the camera experience being slow at times, with some noticeable lag in launching the app and taking photos. I hate to continue that conversation, but need to by saying I often found the Nexus 5X stuttering and lagging elsewhere as well. This wasn’t a half the time or all day type of situation, but once per day I would run into enough lag, hang-ups on button presses, or general slowness that I felt the need to reboot the phone entirely.

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Now, this (once again) could all be due to the fact that my review unit is still running MDB08G instead of MDB08I. Or maybe it’s the Snapdragon 808 processor and only 2GB RAM. Or maybe Google cared more about fine-tuning the Nexus 6P experience. Whatever the case may be, this phone isn’t exactly the performance king of Android. And that’s odd, because the original Nexus 5 with its 2-year old processor, is as buttery smooth on Android 6.0 as any other phone I’ve used within the last year. The original Nexus 5 runs almost flawlessly still to this day, so I am a bit surprised to have to report back that this 5X of mine isn’t as good. And trust me, I’m not the only one experiencing this.

UPDATE:  The performance issues were not there because of the slightly older build I was running, which I had already sort of noted. I’ve since received November’s most recent update and the phone still struggles at times. Also, just cruise through this comment thread where we asked readers for their feedback after owning the device and you can see that the Nexus 5X really does have performance problems. Here’s to hoping Google steps up and fixes them via software.

Like with the battery life, I’m hopeful that a quick update will fix all of this. If the Nexus 5 runs as good as it does after two years, I can’t imagine Google isn’t figuring out a way to get this phone on that same level. You are, right, Google?

The 16GB model.

The base model Nexus 5X should not be bought by anyone, even with its attractive $379 price. It only comes with 16GB of storage and doesn’t have a slot for a micro SD card. Before you ever install anything on your phone, you are probably looking at 10GB or less available, which doesn’t leave you much room for a bunch of apps, offline music collections, a few big games, and a movie or show or two. Your best bet is to pick-up the 32GB model, but then you are jumping up $50 in price. So yeah, this phone, because its price has been kept low, isn’t exactly a great choice for those who store a lot on their phones.

Other Notes


  • Cables:  Not to get back on this USB Type-C rant, but this phone does not come with a USB Type-C to Type-A cable. In other words, if you want to plug it into a computer, you need to buy one of those cables. This phone, unlike the 6P, only ships with a Type-C to Type-C cable and adapter.
  • Call audio:  I haven’t had any issues with call audio quality. The phone makes and takes calls, and no one has complained to me about audio on the other side, nor have I had any complaints about the audio or volume levels coming through on my side.
  • No wireless charging:  This phone (6P too) doesn’t have wireless charging, which is kind of odd since Google has been a big supporter of wireless charging over the years with its Nexus products. In fact, the Nexus 7 (2013), a tablet, even had the technology embedded. Google says they care more about fast charging with Type-C and so they are moving away from wireless charging. At this point, I agree that fast charging is the better technology, but they still could have included wireless charging without sacrificing much.

Video


Unboxing

Comparison

Fingerprint Scanner

Gallery


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The Verdict


The Nexus 5X is a mostly-solid phone for the price you are paying. You get a really good camera, pure Android and quick updates, the best fingerprint scanner, and connectivity with the carrier you choose. If you need a phone on the smaller side, don’t mind an all-plastic body, have faith in Google fixing performance issues, and don’t have a big budget, it could make you happy.

With that in mind, at the price point ($20 more than the 5X), the Moto X Pure Edition is probably a better bet. It’s only slightly larger, is much more premium in terms of hardware and design, can be fully customized at no extra charge, has as good of a camera, runs mostly stock Android, and works everywhere. If you don’t trust Motorola right now (and I can’t say I blame you for questioning everything they say at the moment), are willing to jump up another $100 in budget, and want the best Android experience on the planet, then go for this phone’s brother, the Nexus 6P.

I had high hopes for the new Nexus 5X, many of which were met. But in 2015, I want the best (or close to it) in a smartphone at a great price, so in this situation, I would probably spend the extra cash to get it.

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