Nexus 5X review: is the “all-around champ” back?

Another year, another Nexus. Except this time around, Google has released two Nexus phones. One of which is the phablet sized Nexus 6P, the all-metal Huawei smartphone that packs a punch in nearly every way possible. The other is the LG made Nexus 5X, marketed towards those looking for affordability and a smaller sized phone. Plenty of attention and anticipation has been given to the Nexus 5X this year, as it is the successor to the top sold Nexus phone back in 2013, the Nexus 5. The 5X attempts to fill the big shoes of its predecessor by bringing the year’s high-end specifications into a minimal, rectangular slab of plastic that’s around half the price of most premium flagship phones. Do Google and LG succeed this time around?

Before I start the review, a point must be made. Ever since last year, the smartphone market has taken a new direction. Many smartphone manufacturers now realize the potential of more affordable handsets, and have begun offering stellar hardware for almost half the price of the competition. We’re seeing more and more consumers purchasing these more affordable unlocked smartphones rather than the subsidized versions offered by many carriers.

High-end smartphones are entering into the “mid-range” price point, which is around $200-$300 less than they use to be a few years ago. Mid-range smartphones are going for price points between $100-$300 unlocked, and budget phones can be found for less than $100 outright, a la Moto E.

What’s my point? Compared to a couple years ago when the Nexus 5 came out, the current Nexus line has some heavy competition when it comes to price unlocked. No more can we say, “this is an amazing phone… for the price.” because there are currently a plethora of amazing phones… for the price. This leads me to the first category of the review, the overall design and build quality.

 

Design and Build Quality

My daily driver before the 5X was the Moto X 2014, another 5.2 inch phone, which currently goes for $299 unlocked. My immediate impressions of first holding the 5X left me with no excitement. I was holding a phone that felt lighter, cheaper, and more uncomfortable to hold. The first thing I noticed about the Nexus 5X design was how tall it was. Google went with an HTC kind of style that gives the phone a giant top and bottom bezel, making it look tall and narrow. I would be okay with this if there was a solid reason for how tall these bezels are, especially compared to the much more compact feeling Nexus 5 of two years ago. So far, I can’t seem to find one.

Sure, the 5X includes what looks like top and bottom front-facing speakers, but similar to the Moto X 2nd gen., only the bottom speaker provides sound for audio, while the top is merely there for voice calls.

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“Who cares? At least the speaker is facing the right direction!” Well, while that statement is very popular, you won’t be very impressed with the sound coming out the 5X’s speaker. I usually love turning my phone speaker up to full volume to listen to music and for YouTube videos, but the 5X is almost painful to hear at that volume. It gets loud, louder than my Moto X, but the quality is just not there and not worth listening to at high volumes.

It’s just a bit of a bummer that the smallest Nexus offering from Google is still barely qualified to be held and used with one hand. I don’t have the biggest hands on the block, which is why I use smaller handsets and loved the original Nexus 5, but I feel betrayed that even by holding the 5X with my pinky on the bottom for support, I can barely reach the notification bar of the screen, thanks to the giant bottom chin of the phone.

As for the build quality, I have mixed feelings. The device is very light at 136 grams, but it almost feels hollow. As I tap the front or back of the phone, I feel a “springing” reaction inside, as if there is a lot of empty space. This makes me even more confused as to why Google would add so much space to the top and bottom of the phone. I cannot accept the excuse that the phone’s build quality and materials resembles the price asked, because it doesn’t. There are numerous phones that feel twice as solid and premium for the same price if not less.

Not to point out specific devices, but believe when I say the 5X build quality could be better for the price.

Negatives aside, I like the feeling of the matte plastic on the sides and back of the phone, mainly because of how smooth the backs feels when I hold it. The buttons on the right side feel great and durable, however I’ve gotten used to barely using the power button thanks to the addition of a fingerprint scanner on the back, AKA Nexus Imprint.

Nexus Imprint

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One of my favorite features of the 5X is the new fingerprint scanner that Google calls Nexus Imprint. It’s placed on the back of the device right beneath the camera, and performs amazingly. The best part about it? It wakes the device without even needing to press the power button. Just place your finger on the scanner for a split second and your phone is awake. I did a quick test with my roommate’s iPhone 6 to see which scanner is faster at going to the homescreen from the unlock screen, and while it was extremely close, the Nexus 5X definitely unlocked faster. LG and Google nailed this part of the phone.

Performance

The Nexus 5X uses the Snapdragon 808 hexa-core chip capable of 64-bit computing. While this isn’t the fastest Snapdragon chip offered by Qualcomm this year, every day performance of it is incredibly close to the more powerful 810 chip. Apps launch quickly, animations are very smooth, and overall navigation of the device is easily one of the smoothest experiences of any phone out there.

The only downside to the Nexus 5X in terms of performance is multitasking, but only slightly. When using both my Nexus 5X and 6P and switching between apps, it was obvious which device had 3GB of RAM and which one only has 2GB. On average, I found that I could switch back and fourth between 5-7 regular apps (not games) before they were closed by the system and had to relaunch. If I kept the device on without powering it off for almost a week, the amount of apps the phone could keep running shrunk down to around 3-4 before closing them.

Gaming on the device is also quite smooth, as I played Modern Combat 5 Blackout, Contre Jour, Smashy Road, and Asphalt 8. Modern Combat wasn’t a very smooth gameplay experience, averaging about 25 frames per second, but other games performed just fine. From the one second launch of Google’s camera app, to scrolling through Google Now, Google+ and Chrome, the Nexus 5X is a solid performance upgrade from the original Nexus 5 and many other phones.

Battery

For a phone with a 5.2 1080p display and 2,700mAh battery, I was expecting a bit more from the 5X. My day starts at around 9:00 when I take the phone off the charger, and typically I was getting till about 8:30 pm. when the battery reached about 10% and I made the move to plug it back in. I consider myself a moderate smartphone user. I watch a couple YouTube videos (especially now that it’s holiday video game season), text using Google’s Messenger app, install and app or two and browse reddit quite a bit.

I have about three one hour long classes a day that I don’t use the phone at all either, so the 5X seems to have a heavy battery drain when the screen is on. I think this is because LG is still using some pretty old LCD technology that’s not very battery efficient, but I’ll talk about that in the display section of the review. However, when the screen is off and the phone is sleeping, that’s when the real battery saving magic happens. Doze, which is one of Android 6.0’s newest features, is a battery saving software optimization that restricts heavy app activity when the phone is sleeping. With my Moto X ’14, I lose about 3-5% battery when my phone is off during my hour class. With the 5X, I didn’t lose a single percent.

So, if you’re a user that doesn’t have the screen on all the time and keeps the phone asleep a lot, you’re going to be getting great battery life.

Software

The premier feature of Google’s Nexus phone are the promise of the latest and greatest Android updates before any other phone. The Nexus 5X ships with Android 6.0 AKA Marshmallow. Marshmallow is a much more polished and speedy version of Android 5.0 Lollipop. Performance of Android 6.0 on this phone flies through anything you throw at it, and because this phone will be updated for quite some time with newer version of Android, you should not expect this software to slow down anytime soon, especially compared to other smartphones on the market that weigh themselves down with heavy UI skins.

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Android has needed better battery management for a long time, and Google’s finally taking steps to improve this with Doze. Doze has eliminated my fear of not plugging in my phone overnight, risking the loss of 5-15% battery life. Now, I’ll be surprised if I lose more than one percent overnight. Doze works fantastically.

Google Now on Tap is a new feature exclusively for Marshmallow that allows the users to hold the home button on any screen to scan all words present to provide an overlay of Google search results right on top of the screen pertaining to information you need. It’s a really neat feature that works almost flawlessly, and I can’t wait to see what Google does next with it.

Overall, the software of this phone leaves me with the impression I’ve never experienced before with Android. I no longer feel like I’m beta testing Android. I feel like I’m using an incredibly polished software that does just what I need it to and more.

Display

The Nexus 5X sports a 5.2 inch 1920x1080p display using IPS LCD technology. If you have any worry that images won’t look as sharp as a 1440p display, ditch that thought now. The 1080p display on this phone is incredibly crisp and you’re not going to be noticing any pixels. The only problem with this display is the fact that LG is using the same screen tech that the original Nexus 5 had, which was considered cost-effective even in 2013. The only difference is this screen is .2 inches bigger. When you compared this screen against the Nexus 6P or most newer AMOLED panels, you’re definitely going to prefer the latter.

Colors are a bit washed out    and don’t pop as much as AMOLED panels. What’s most troubling is the fact that LG is capable of making LCD panels look amazing, such as their Quantum Dot displays on the G4 and V10 smartphones. Yet they still use dated LCD panels for the 5X because it’s considered a “budget phone”. Overall, I consider this screen average for today’s offerings, and wasn’t made to “wow” anyone.

Camera

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Nexus devices have always lacked an impressive camera, but Google aims to change that this year. The Nexus 5X and 6P share the same 12.3 megapixel camera with laser auto-focus and dual flash. While this doesn’t sound as impressive as other camera offerings on paper, such as the Galaxy S6 and G4’s 16 megapixel camera, the real world results are exceptional.

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“The best all-around camera we’ve ever put into a Nexus shines in low-light conditions.” Google was not kidding when they stated this on the device page.

The camera on the 5X captures the perfect amount of detail and is the best camera I’ve ever used in low light situations. As I took a walk through campus at night, I was amazed with the clarity the 5X was able to capture. Take a look at some of the pictures below. I wouldn’t dare attempt these with my beloved Moto X 2nd gen.

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Switching to the front of the phone, the 5X offers a large 5 megapixel camera, and it performs just as it should. I use my front-facing camera mainly for Snapchat, and I was very impressed with the camera capturing low-light selfies without much noise.

I don’t record very much video with my phones, but my judgement on the Nexus 5X’s video recording capabilities are average. The detail and focusing abilities are great for me, but I really wish they included optical image stabilization, something the original Nexus 5 included. Even with the software image stabilization enabled, the videos were shakier than I would have liked. The new Sony Xperia series, as well as LG and Samsung flagships provide much better stabilization in their cameras.

Conclusion

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The Nexus 5X is almost everything I wanted for the successor to Google’s 2013 flagship phone, but it’s not enough for me to keep as my new daily driver. The build quality feels cheaper than it should be considering other options in the same price range with better build materials, such as the new Moto X, OnePlus 2, OnePlus X, and more. I also don’t see why Google couldn’t have included the Snapdragon 810 instead of 808, considering they used the latest and greatest Snapdragon 800 in 2013’s Nexus 5. Google also skipped out on higher RAM memory, and it definitely shows when multitasking slows down when not powering the phone off after a few days.

However, the Nexus 5X offers a camera that competes heavily for best smartphone camera of 2015, the best battery life of any Nexus phone, and zippy performance that bests just about any high-end Android phone today. On top of this, you’re getting the latest Android updates before any other phone, and monthly security updates from Google, keeping this one of the most secure phones available today. Google currently offers this phone for $329, but that will go back up soon. For that price, I heavily recommend this phone. But once the price goes back up to the original offer, that recommendation is a lot harder to make.

Nexus 5X at the Google Store