Nexus devices have always been for developers—or so they say. Google works in concert with hardware partners to make sure developers have an affordable phone that runs Android, and just Android, but a growing number of consumers want pure Android too.
Indeed, Android enthusiasts have always been interested in Nexus phones, but the LG-built Nexus 5, released in 2013, caught on especially well. It featured a top-of-the-line processor and an 1080p display, and the version of Android it shipped with (4.4 KitKat) was usable enough for most people without requiring an interface overhaul. At a very reasonable price of $350, you could forgive its workmanlike design.
When Google opted for a much bigger and more expensive phone in the Nexus 6, legions of Nexus 5 fans were disappointed. Sure, it was “better,” but at what cost? Well, you can now consider the Nexus 5X, again built by LG, a love letter to the substantial number of Nexus 5 fans.
At $379 for 16GB or $429 for 32GB, the Nexus 5X is exactly the update the Nexus 5 fans have been asking for. It’s got the right size, right price, right performance, and right feature set. It captures everything the original Nexus 5 did so well, and then some.
Punching above its weight
You get a lot for your $379. The 5X sports a Snapdragon 808 processor and 2 gigs of RAM—not top-of-the-line, but 2G is good enough to power the LG G4, among other more expensive phones. The 5X comes with a 12-megapixel camera with big 1.55 micron pixels and an f/2.0 aperture that performs great in low-light environments. The 5.2-inch 1080p LCD display offers great color reproduction.
But the first thing you’ll notice is how chunky it looks. At 7.9mm, the phone isn't thick, but its plastic two-tone build gives it a somewhat inelegant appearance. Pick it up, and you’d be forgiven for thinking something must be wrong: It can’t be that light, can it? At only 136 grams, the Nexus 5 weighs less than the iPhone 6s (143 grams), which only has a 4.7-inch display. The size and weight combined make it feel light as a feather in the hand. In fact, the Nexus 5X is almost exactly the same weight as the original 3.5-inch iPhone!
Still, despite the plastic build, it feels solid. It doesn’t bend, twist, or flex. The buttons activate with a satisfying click. Your headphones and USB-C cable snap in with precision. It’s inexpensive, but it is doesn’t feel cheap.
Outright performance is good, as you would expect from a device with pure Android and a fairly high-end processor. Benchmarks are roughly in line with other Snapdragon 808 devices, and in everyday use the interface feels snappy and responsive, with smooth scrolling and quick app switching.
There are times when it bogs down a little, but these are rare. Every now and then, launching the camera app is just a little bit slower than it should be. I also experienced some hitching when scrolling down Twitter, as well as slightly laggy taps in games. These issues aren't frequent and they don't persist, but a Snapdragon 808 with 2GB of RAM shouldn’t run into these problems. I chalk it up to hot-off-the-presses Android 6.0 and drivers that aren’t quite fully tuned yet.
Pure Android, better than ever
Of course, one of the motivations for buying a Nexus phone is to get a pure Android experience, unsullied by manufacturers who change up the interface where it’s not needed, and unencumbered by bloatware from carriers and phone makers that you’d rather not use and can’t remove.
With the 6.0 Marshmallow release, pure Android is better than ever. The interface design took a big leap with Android 5.0 Lollipop and Material Design, and 6.0 adds plenty of welcome tweaks. You can more easily control permissions for your apps, notifications are improved, the app drawer is better, uninstalling apps is easier, and enthusiasts have more visibility into how their apps are behaving. Google’s OS delivers a great user experience all on its own, and makes a tough case for TouchWiz and Sense and the LG UI.
Of course, you also get Android updates direct from Google the instant they’re available. You don’t have to worry about broken promises for rapid updates that still take weeks, or whether your carrier will ever roll out some minor patch. You don’t have to wonder if your phone will get Android 7.0 next year. Given the sorry state of Android OS updates on most phones over the last year, this is no small benefit.
More than an all-day battery
The Nexus 5X offers no removable battery nor SD slot for expandable storage. That’s a bummer, but it’s par for the course with Nexus phones now. Fortunately, the battery is not likely to be a problem. The 2700 mAh battery is quite beefy for a 5.2-inch phone under $400. Tack on the new Doze feature of Android 6.0, which puts your phone into a deeper sleep state when you’re not using it, and you get some killer battery life.
Our PCMark and Geekbench battery tests ran for 5 hours 43 minutes and 4 hours 53 minutes, respectively. Those are good (but not amazing) numbers, particularly for such an inexpensive phone. In real-world use, the situation was better. I went all day with typical use, from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, and still had 20 percent remaining. I left it unplugged overnight and woke up to find the battery drained only 6 percent.
The new Nexus phones feature USB Type-C plugs, and come with special USB-C chargers. They’ll quick-charge when using the included charger, and charging speeds are impressive. I went from dead to half-charged in about 40 minutes, and a full charge took only an hour and a half. Note that the fast-charging tech in these phones is not compatible with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge nor Samsung’s technology. I tried about eight different chargers of various makes, and they all worked, but the only one that would produce the “charging rapidly” text on the lock screen was Google’s own included charger.
It’s unfortunate that the phone doesn’t support wireless charging, though. The Nexus 6P can blame its lack of support on its metal body, but the 5X doesn’t really have an excuse. It’s about the only feature I really miss on this phone.
An affordable Nexus with a good camera?
No Nexus phone has ever had a good camera. Some were passable for their time, others were a disappointment. But never have you been able to say, “the latest Nexus has a really good camera.”
The Neuxs 5X and 6P share similar rear-facing cameras. The 12 megapixel sensor with huge 1.55 micron pixels and f/2.0 lens are the same, but the image processing differs slightly. In the case of the 5X, the burst-shooting mode is absent and the slo-mo video mode is limited to 120fps and 720p resolution. They both have dual-tone rear flashes and laser autofocus. Both phones take fantastic photos with the rear camera. No, really!
In all lighting conditions, the Nexus 5x produced photos that were sharp and well exposed, with good color reproduction and tone. The white balance errs slightly on the cool side, but not so much as to be a problem.
The camera experience, however, is not quite as good as the final photos. Google’s camera app is improved over past versions, where every setting was hidden away in a menu. Now, a couple of the most common controls, like timer, flash, HDR, and slo-mo video, are instantly accessible along the edge of the display. And all it takes is a swipe left or right to switch between photo and video mode. It’s still simple to a fault, though. With such good camera hardare, and support for Android’s new Camera2 API, it’s a shame that Google’s own camera app doesn’t offer an expert mode with manual controls, or the option to save RAW image files.
Camera speed is good, but could be better. The app launches quickly, but in general it still takes too long before you’re ready to take a shot—the Galaxy S6, Note 5, and iPhone 6s offer much better “pocket to shutter” performance. There’s a handy shortcut whereby you double-tap the power button to jump right to the camera, which is useful if your phone is locked. But it’s jarring if you’re using another app and want to pop over to the camera quickly; the phone actually goes to sleep and then wakes up and jumps over to the camera. The laser-assisted autofocus helps the phone focus quickly, and shutter lag is a lot better than on previous Nexus phones, but it’s still not as snappy as the fastest phones you can buy.
It’s a testament to how far camera performance has come on Android phones in the last year that I consider the Nexus 5X to have a “very good, but not outstanding” photo-taking experience. A year ago, this would have been one of the best cameras on any phone.
Of course, when you buy a sub-$400 phone, you can’t have everything. And as much as you get with the Nexus 5X, you still leave plenty on the table for more expensive phones to pick up. There’s no premium all-metal construction. There's no wireless charging. The phone’s speaker is loud and clear, but there’s only one—it's not stereo. The display is bright and color reproduction is good, but in bright sunlight you’ll wish it would get brighter. The vibration motor is surprisingly weak—it feels like an insect buzzing in your pocket.
It would have been nice to have these things, and indeed you spend a bit more on the Nexus 6P to get some of them. But this is clearly a mid-tier phone meant to provide core Android features and perform well with an eye on the price tag. If you want a phone to show off to your friends, you’ll have to spend a little more.
Not the best Nexus, but Nexus at its best
For long-time Android phones, the Nexus 5X is what it’s all about. It’s like an affordable pickup truck. It won’t turn heads, and doesn’t have every feature on the market. It’s not the fastest thing on the road. But when your friend needs to run to Ikea, who do they call? The guy with the pickup truck.
Nexus fans are used to not having every little feature of every other phone on the market. They buy a Nexus because they want a carrier-agnostic, bloatware-free phone that performs well and doesn’t cost much. It’s what made the Nexus 5 of two years ago so popular, and it’s why there was such an uproar in the Android community when the Nexus 6 hit the market at $650 in a gargantuan frame. Google was wise to offer two Nexus phones this year, one larger, high-end premium "show off" phone with a higher price tag, and a less expensive, smaller workhorse for Android enthusiasts and developers.
The Nexus 5X isn’t the best phone; it’s not even the best Nexus. It’s not meant to convert buyers of $600 Samsung and LG premium phones to the Nexus program. It’s meant to please the Android fans who have been buying Nexus phones for years, and it will.