Google sells Nexus phones with the intention of providing a blueprint for other phone makers to follow. As such, they function more like prototypes, created to highlight new hardware and software features for Android, than as devices put out to crush phones made by hardware partners like Samsung.
Nexus phones exist to act as a catalyst to push Android in a singular, focused direction (e.g. stock Android, no bloatware, quick software updates, and on and on), and clamp down on years of “forked” software, which has resulted in many sub-par Android devices and experiences.
The Nexus 5X is a return to a more reasonable size and affordable price (starting at $379), after the huge and expensive Nexus 6 failed to meet Google’s expectations. Designed by LG, the 5X is what everyone has been asking for: an updated version to the beloved Nexus 5. (Those who do want a phablet should consider the larger Nexus 6P made by Huawei.)
LG’s phones are at their best when they’re made under the Nexus moniker. The company has a reputation building winners for Google that started with the Nexus 4. (I bought two, one for each of my parents, as their first smartphones and they still love them.)
Nexus design honed
Though not made of premium materials, the 5X’s polycarbonate construction feels solid in the hand. The back cover is a matte finish, which gives it a touch more grippiness and downplays oily fingerprints. The white (Quartz) model Google provided doesn’t show fingerprints easily, but that may be a different case for the black (Carbon) and mint green (Ice) colors.
For a plastic phone, the 5X’s quality is great. The pieces all meet flush together with no seams jutting out where they shouldn’t be. The power and volume rocker on the right side of the phone are flatter than I’m used to; a little textured pattern on the power button like on the Nexus 6P would have made all the difference.
The 5X is really light, too, with good weight distribution; it doesn’t feel heavier on the top where the back camera module protrudes slightly, which is probably why the phone felt so well balanced in my hand.
The front of the 5X is the neatest it’s ever been on a Nexus phone and shows an attention to the tiniest details that I’ve only seen on the iPhone. There are a pair of perfectly symmetrical grilles on the top and bottom of the display (top is the earpiece and the bottom is a single front-facing mono speaker). The 5-megapixel front-facing camera is also straightly aligned with the top grille. Stereo front-facing speakers would have been a real treat for the ears, but I guess we should be lucky to have any front-facing speaker at all. The mono speaker produces decent sound, though mids and highs sometimes made me scrunch my face and lower the volume.
A 5.2-inch screen spans almost the entire front of the phone. Google went with a full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution panel, which is more than sufficient for a smartphone. Lots of smartphones play the resolution and pixel density game, almost to a silly degree, at the expense of battery battery life. In that regard, it was wise of Google not to go with a QuadHD screen. The screen is crisp and renders most colors accurately without any of the artificial saturation and color-boosting other phones have. The blacks could be deeper and the viewing angles could be wider, though.
The bottom of the phone has a new USB Type-C charging port. Like the iPhone’s Lightning port, USB Type-C is reversible. The only downside is all of your old Micro USB cables won’t work with it. Worse, the box only includes a USB Type-C to USB Type-C cable and the charger also has a USB Type-C port. It would have made more sense to include a charging cable with USB Type-C to full-sized USB like the One Plus 2. One thing is for sure, you’re going to need to invest in some new cables if you plan to use battery packs or charge in more than one location (work, home, etc.).
Fast fingerprint sensor
Right below the 12.3-megapixel camera on the back is a ring-shaped fingerprint sensor, or as Google calls it, the “Nexus Imprint.” Unlike the iPhone 6S’s TouchID home button, the Nexus Imprint is not a button, just a fingerprint reader. Setting up a fingerprint is quick and easy, and it can recognize up to 10 fingers (or toes — yeah, I tried it and it works, don’t judge me).
Apple may have pioneered the best (not the first) fingerprint sensor starting with the iPhone 5S, but the 5X surpasses it and even the iPhone 6S’s second-gen TouchID sensor, which is twice as fast. Compared to the iPhone 6S, unlocking the 5X with a fingerprint doesn’t require the screen to be turned on first, just a tap of the finger. The Nexus Imprint works really fast and is even quicker than the OnePlus 2’s (already very fast) fingerprint sensor.
The back placement of the fingerprint can be a little awkward if you’re used to placing your phone face up on a table or flat surface. It’s much more natural to have the 5X’s screen facedown so that when you go to pick it up, your index finger goes right to the sensor. I never place my phone with its screen facedown, as it means exposing the screen to gradual scratching, so it was a little weird for me.
Unlocking the 5X is what you’ll mostly use the fingerprint sensor for. Android Pay is another feature that uses your fingerprint as a form of verification. I tested Android Pay at a Duane Reade drugstore. When I was ready to pay, I placed the locked 5X near the NFC terminal and expected it to bring up my stored credit card, but it didn’t. Turns out, you need to unlock your phone with your fingerprint first and then the stored card will pop up and confirm the transaction. Paying with Android Pay happened in a blink of an eye, I wasn’t even sure the transaction went through, but it did. Apple Pay on my iPhone 6 is a slowpoke compared to Android Pay on the Nexus 5X.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Alongside the new hardware is also a new version of Android, 6.0 Marshmallow. It runs like a boss and I didn’t notice any sluggishness that hindered usage, no doubt due to the powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor and 2GB of RAM.
The big number version, as opposed to a dot release, may trick you into believing there are lots of sweeping updates, but there really aren’t that many. Marshmallow is all about squashing all of the bugs and oddities that plagued and lingered from Android 5.0 Lollipop’s rocky release and its subsequent updates.
Most of the fixes are nerdy stuff you’ll gloss right over, like better apps permissions, tweaked animations, USB Type-C support, and redesigned menus and settings. These are all small stuff we all take for granted, but make for a more polished Android experience.
Marshmallow does have some big new additions. Android Pay is pretty great and so is fingerprint sensor support. Doze is another powerful and understated feature, s baked right into the OS, that helps improve battery life by using the motion sensors to disable certain settings and app background processes when the 5X is idle. With Doze, I was able to stretch battery life from a day to almost a day and a half, when I managed my power savings features properly. And while we’re talking battery, yes, 5X supports quick charging — a 10 minute charge will juice it up to around 25%.
Google Now On Tap is the most important new Android feature of them all. It’s essentially Google search…in your apps. When you’re in an app, you can press and hold the home button (O) and special cards will appear with related information.
For instance, in Gmail, when I opened up an email for a UPS package tracking confirmation, it showed options to Google “UPS,” go directly to UPS.com, or look up UPS on Google News. In YouTube, I opened up our “McLaren 657LT vs. a Bicycle” video and Now On Tap, brought options for visiting and searching online for Mashable, as well as a McLaren 650S.
Now On Tap is very much a work in progress. Sometimes it works and works well, and sometimes it doesn’t and fails hard. In a third-party app, like Facebook, Now On Tap often failed to identify the information on the screen, such as a Mashable article about NASA. It brought up options for NASA, but not Mashable. In another situation, in Hangouts, it brought up contact and Google Maps info for a Dr. Stanley when it identified my friend Stanley (who is not a doctor).
It’s a hit-or-miss feature and I can only see it getting better with more time. This is, after all, Google’s vision of creating what is essentially a search engine based on the apps ecosystem.
It’s ridiculous how long it’s taken for Google to realize cameras matter.
I could spend an eternity bringing up Google’s past blunders, but I won’t, simply on account the 5X has two of the best cameras on Android. On the back is a 12.3-megapixel camera paired with a laser autofocus sensor (that little black pill on the back) and a dual-LED flash. These are the same camera systems LG puts into its flagship G-series phones, like the G3 and G4, and it shows when you pull the phone out to take pics.