Google Nexus 5X Smartphone Review
Nothing short of a great Android experience.
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Android has come a long way in the past few years, finally growing into a mature, stable platform that can stand toe-to-toe with Apple's iOS. But Android's greatest strength—its openness—can also be a double-edged sword; once Android leaves Google's capable hands, it tends to get an unnecessary makeover by the likes of Samsung, LG, HTC, and (to a lesser extent) Motorola.
What does that mean for you as a smartphone-toting human? It means that often, Google's legitimate design improvements get buried underneath a veneer of features. Sometimes these are good, but mostly they're just redundant and bloated. Google's answer to this has been the Nexus program. The highlight to date has been the LG-made Nexus 5, a flagship-quality phone that cost right around $300 but provided a stock, no-nonsense Android experience.
This year's batch of Nexus phones—including the new Nexus 5X (MSRP $379.00)—reiterate the core values that made the Nexus 5 so popular, with straightforward designs that don't get bogged down with a bunch of junk. The Nexus 5X may not be the biggest, flashiest phone on the shelf, but it's packed with simple touches that show just how far Android has come.
Design & Usability
Lightweight and lithe
While we ended up really liking last year's Nexus 6 for a lot of reasons, there's one thing that might not have appealed to some phone shoppers: the size. The Nexus 6 was huge, heavy, and it was the only Nexus phone Google put out last year. Phablets aren't for everyone, and Google's decision to release only a giant phone put a lot of people out. The Nexus 5X is a welcome return to form that feels like a slightly bigger Nexus 5, with a simple plastic body, squared-off sides, and rounded edges that are easy to grip.
Front and center is a 5.2-inch HD IPS LCD screen that is nearly bezel-free on the sides. It's flanked on top and bottom by two small bars both containing front-facing speakers—something we were really excited to see and hear, given the Nexus 5's anemic audio output. Unfortunately, the top speaker is only good for phone calls as an earpiece, while audio from YouTube videos and the like are piped in exclusively through the phone's bottom speaker. Embedded in that bottom speaker is a green notification light that blinks when you get a text, tweet, or Facebook message.
There are very few physical controls on the phone's body, which is pretty common nowadays. There's a power button, a volume rocker, and a fingerprint reader on the back. Other than that, the Nexus 5X focuses your attention on the display and away from the plastic rectangle you're holding in your hands.
Of course, there's a headphone jack and a single USB port on the bottom. The USB port is a newfangled USB-C connector, which gives you a lot of nice perks. For one, it's bidirectional, so there's no "wrong" way to insert a cable. USB-C also provides for much faster data throughput and charging speed, though you'll likely need new chargers and accessories.
There are a couple of design quirks we weren't happy with, though. First of all, on both the 5X and the larger 6P the Nexus Imprint fingerprint readers are on the back, which takes some getting used to. It's a convenient feature to have, to be sure, but it's in an inconvenient place. We also wish there had been more attention paid to making things feel different. The fingerprint sensor and the camera, for example, feel basically the same, so we were constantly wiping smudges off of the lens. Similarly, the home button and volume rocker are so close together that you'll often hit the wrong one by mistake.
Marshmallow-y goodness (hold the fluff)
The Nexus 5X comes out of the box with Google's latest major version of Android, Marshmallow. In practice, we really liked the subtle changes that Google's made. The software, for the most part, felt smooth and responsive with a design language that is quite consistent across the core apps. It's also not much different from the last couple of versions, so experiences Android users should have no issue upgrading.
And since this is a Nexus device, you'll also get the first crack at each new Android version. Google promises specific support for at least two years, but the Nexus 5 is still going strong, so support often extends even further. Perhaps the only issue we had with the Nexus 5X was that downloading cloud-stored apps from the Google Play store took forever on this device, making the initial setup a bit of a time sink.
That does lead to our biggest gripe with the Nexus 5X: its iffy built-in storage and lack of expandable memory. Google only sells a 16GB version and a 32GB version, so if you prefer to have loads of media and files on you at all times, you might want to consider a different Android phone. Unfortunately this seems to be a trend that isn't going anywhere. Google's only solution seems to be the bigger Nexus 6P, which is offered in 32, 64, and 128 GB versions so you can bring all your important files with you.
While its main functionality is the same as it has been, Android's best feature continues to be Google Now. The impressive personal assistant utility lives to the left of your home screen, keeping track of your appointments, email, purchases, location, and general interests and delivering information without you needing to ask for it. While it isn't always on top of things, it's pretty cool when you've bought movie tickets and Google Now automatically pulls up your digital tickets and looks at traffic conditions to make sure you leave on time.
The Nexus 5X takes this even further, doing things like responding to voice commands when the phone's display is off. Google's new Now on Tap feature also makes Google Now usable inside applications, so that assistant functionality will try to feed you useful information based on what you're currently viewing and not just what's in your inbox or on your calendar.
Maybe our favorite feature of the Nexus 5X is its handy Ambient Display mode. This gives you a quick glance at everything your phone is doing—your notifications, the weather, the time, etc.—without powering the screen on all the way. All you need to do is flip the phone towards you or pull it from your pocket to trigger this handy low-power mode. While we've seen features like this from Nokia and Motorola for years, it's nice to see it built into the stock Android experience.
Great...for the price
Since the Moto G hit the scene years ago, we've seen an explosion in mid-range phones that can easily hang with flagship-level phones. While this means it has quite a bit more competition, the Nexus 5X still stands out for more than its clean design and un-messed-with Android experience. In our benchmarks and in day-to-day usage, we were impressed with how well Android handles itself on slightly older hardware, giving us a consistently fluid experience.
The Nexus 5X has specs that would have been in a more expensive flagship phone even just a year ago, with a hexa-core Snapdragon 808 that's paired with 2 GB of RAM. We never were left waiting for apps to spring back to life, and the default Chrome browser was pleasantly quick to load webpages. In our intensive battery test, we were able to squeeze 4 hours of runtime from the Nexus 5X, making this a device that will last around a day phone when compared to bigger devices like the Galaxy Note 5.
If you're an intensive phone user who regularly burns through your battery, then the Nexus 5X has been designed with you in mind. Not only does Android manage its power better than ever, Google and LG have included a very, very fast charger in the box with the Nexus 5X. Anecdotally, we were able to go from around 40% to 100% in only about 45 minutes. Google claims that only 10 minutes of charging can get you enough power for 4 hours' run time, and, we'd be inclined to agree. The Nexus 5X is among the fastest-charging phones we've yet seen.
The only caveat is that, unlike some recent Samsung phones and the previous Nexus 5, the Nexus 5X leaves wireless charging out. It's a technology that we love, but doesn't have the adoption that we'd hope at this point. Well, maybe next year…
Great images for a low price
As far as photography and videography go, the Nexus 5X has one of the better cameras available in an Android phone. Not only does it capture 12MP still images, it's also equipped to shoot 4K video footage at 30 frames per second, not bad for a $400-ish phone. Our only concern relates to the limited amount of storage that you have on tap with either the 16 or 32 GB versions of this phone. 4K footage has a price, and that price is that is takes up a lot of space on your phone.
The camera module itself has laser-assisted autofocus and a bright f/2.0 aperture. While the autofocus system is good for big objects, we found that the Nexus 5X struggled to find smaller objects in the foreground like tree branches and flowers. The only thing this camera is lacking is optical image stabilization, which Samsung added to its Galaxy Note series and Apple features in the iPhone 6s Plus. It's definitely not a huge loss in a right-priced phone like this one, and we didn't lament much when using the phone to snap a quick pic. Shot-to-shot speed was zippy, and we were very pleased with the test shots from the lab and in the real world. Google's built in a shortcut to start the camera without unlocking the phone—just a quick double-tap of the power button does the trick.
The noise reduction software built into the Nexus 5X does an excellent job balancing noise and fine detail in low-light. Some phone cameras are very guilty of squashing fine detail into oblivion, giving photos a smeary appearance. Using our spilled coin noise chart, we were happy to see that while noise is still visible in low light, the Nexus uses kid gloves to tastefully reduce noise without completely ruining the way the image looks. In our nighttime shots, noise and gradation was noticeable but not too awful.
In fact, what might have been the worst part of using this camera at night was how much flaring is introduced by brighter sources of light. In our experience, the iPhone 6s and its lens coatings do a much better job at eliminating flares from low-light shots with bright sources of light. That said, the Nexus 5X still impressed just for how much cheaper than and iPhone it is, and how well it acquitted itself as a camera regardless.
Maybe our biggest complaint is that Android's camera app is truly barebones—you can use it to shoot, and that's about it. There are no filters and certainly no manual controls, areas where smartphone makers like LG and HTC have added value with custom camera interfaces. If you want more control, you'll have to find an app for that.
Back-to-basics without skimping on the good stuff
While the Nexus 5X isn't the fanciest phone on the block, after using it for a few weeks we're impressed by what you get for the price. Compared to the off-contract price of something like the Galaxy Note 5, the $349.99 ($299 on sale) Nexus 5X is cheap as chips—especially if you don't need features like an optical heartrate sensor, a pen, or special covers.
The value of the Nexus 5X is even more impressive when you realize that the old way of buying expensive phones—paying a few hundred dollars upfront and then the rest off in some kind of vague monthly fee over two years—is finally coming to an end. With every major carrier offering some kind of contract-free setup, you can buy a phone like the Nexus 5X and save hundreds of dollars per year by shopping for just the voice and data plan that fits your needs.
Even putting the value proposition aside for a moment, the Nexus 5X is a pleasure to use. It's fast, responsive, has a great camera, and there are just enough features to keep it interesting. Whether you're new to Android or completely plugged into the Google ecosystem, if you just want a great phone at a great price, the Nexus 5X is a no-brainer.