Nexus 5X Review: Setting the standard for what an Android phone should be

Historical Friction

In Google’s eyes, what the Nexus line stands for has always remained resolute: a reference device to develop the latest version of Android. However, what has wavered is whether Google wants Nexus devices to succeed in the mass market.

The Nexus One was Google being idealistic and wanting to upend how phones are sold in the United States. Google wanted all phones to be sold unlocked and without contract and through the web. For a first attempt at making a phone in its brand, this was more or less excusable.

The Nexus S to the Nexus 5 was a more straightforward play if the amount of advertising and low price correlates to how much Google wants a device to sell to the mass market. Additionally, these phones were sold in carrier stores (a necessary evil to sell in numbers and get in front of people) and were very affordable for what you were getting when compared to flagships.

The Nexus 6 was an anomaly and assembled in the last minute if the rumors of the failed Android Silver initiative are true. What we got in the Motorola made Nexus was a very high powered phone with an equally high price point to match. That and its launch sibling, the Nexus 9, were not advertised. Though the the 6 made it to carriers it was all very quiet and not adopted save for by Android enthusiasts.

The Nexus 5X is very much a return to form for Google. Here is a device that Google wants to succeed in the mass market. It is cheap, it is powerful, and it highlights the best of the latest version of Android.

Design

Quartz, Carbon, Ice

The Quartz (white) Nexus 5X is a thing of beauty. It’s two-toned in color: a white back plate and black front which meet in the middle of the sides. I am not a fan of white, with black (Carbon in this case) being my usual forte, but there is something different with this white and black phone. This use of white looks very clean, stark, and, daresay, futuristic. It’s very Googly and very much reminded me of the robot EVE in Pixar’s WALL-E.

The un-intended futurism continues with the raised camera hump and two pill-shaped holes for the flash and for IR laser-assisted autofocus. While the flash is transparent plastic, the autofocus is a covered in a black piece of plastic and would be a reason to opt for the black model. The raised camera hump makes it so that the phone is slightly raised when put on a flat surface. It’s inconsequential and the bump is wide and short enough that the phone is stable when you are using it on a flat surface.

The lock button and volume rocker are on the black half side of phone. There’s a very minor wiggle to them, but it is solid and works every time. They are placed high enough as so your hand doesn’t touch the volume rocker when you are gripping the phone with your right hand. On the bottom of the device, you get the USB Type-C port at the center and the audio jack at the right. The jack is very firm and your headphones require a solid push in. This being my first USB Type-C device I found pulling the cable out to be harder than with micro-USB. It is much firmer in and takes more effort to pull out as a result.

Unlocking the Phone

Also on the back of the phone under the camera is a fingerprint sensor, branded Nexus Imprint. It is smaller than a dime in diameter and ringed by a silver piece of metal. Don’t fret that your finger is larger than the circle, it will recognize it without flaw.

Having a fingerprint sensor is an absolute requirement for a modern smartphone. Its conveniences cannot be overstated. With Nexus Imprint all you need to do is tap your finger to the sensor, followed by a slight vibration, and it unlocks. In my time with the Nexus 5X, I have barely seen my lockscreen. The 5X is larger than my previous phone and partly the reason I had an easier time adjusting to it was because I rarely had to reach the edges for the lock button. Having it at the center back of phone is optimal placing.

I actually wish I could lock the phone by tapping my finger to the Imprint sensor, so that I’d no longer have to reach for the lock button. I have average hands and when I hold the phone with my left hand and reach over to tap the lock button on the right side it is not the most comfortable action.

Android Sensor Hub

Every modern Android phone needs what is being branded as the Android Sensor Hub. The Sensor Hub is an always-on, lower processor that allows for a wide variety of very useful features while maintaining power efficiency.

On the 5X, this translates to an Ambient Display on an LCD screen and allows for always-on hotword recognition. Being able to shout ‘OK Google’ from across the room is useful, particularly for finding out the time when your hands are full. Do not close your mind to always-on hotword detection until you’ve tried it. It is a useful feature and Google’s backend can answer questions perfectly.

I feel like Google wants you to speak to your phone more because on the lockscreen the Phone shortcut has been replaced by one to immediately do a verbal Google search.

Not specifically an Marshmallow feature, but rather that of a recent update to Google Play Services is a ‘Trusted voice’ Smart Lock that unlocks your phone when it recognizes your voice. If the phone recognizes your voice when you are doing a voice search, it will unlock your phone. So, when you are done asking Google for the weather and press the home button, it will automatically go to the homescreen rather than push you to your lockscreen to enter your passcode. For me, it has worked every time.

Lights, Camera, Action

The third thing a modern Android phone needs is a good camera. This has long been the curse of Android phones in general and until recently in the Nexus line. If you tell a Nexus owner their camera sucks, they will vehemently show you a great photo taken with their device. Past Nexus phones could take good photos under optimal conditions, but not a good photo every single time.

The Nexus 5X can take not just a great photo, but a good photo every time. I can firmly say that with this camera Nexus phones have reached the iPhone-level of camera quality. In my usage, I didn’t push the 5X to great-photo-level, but I can say I am happy with every shot I took on the first take.

Google Camera 3.0

One gripe I have is about the Google Camera app, it has a much higher error rate than the app on my previous phone. I’m sure it can be fixed by Play Store updates, but it’s not yet an that iPhone-level of camera quality and stability. I also disagree with a UX decision in the 3.0 version of the device. Formerly, swiping from right-to-left in the app would show you previously taken photos. That behavior now switches to the video camera. I am so ingrained to that gesture taking me to my camera roll I keep doing it, even though to the right of capture button is your last taken image and shortcut to the camera roll.

6.0 Animal Byproduct

Visually Marshmallow should really be a .x update rather than a X.0 update. Everything is the same just refined. The biggest UI feature that’d you interact with is the System UI Turner to add, remove, and reorder Quick Settings and show/hide items in the Status Bar. One can end up with a very sparse looking Quick Settings and Status Bar as a result.

Everything else about Marshmallow is under-the-hood. There is much more fine control over apps. You can fine tune what permissions to give them as well as know to the mAh how much battery life they are using. A rather pro set of features were added and they are more for Android enthusiasts who like going into everything in the Settings app when they first get their phone. However, the average consumer doesn’t need a pro to take advantage of architecture improvements in 6.0

The Doze feature, that puts the device into a sleep state when it is physically not moving for a long period of time, reduces how much battery life is sucked up over night. It is features like these that justify Marshmallow’s jump to 6.0.

Misc

The last thing a modern day Android phone needs is USB Type-C and fast charging. That ‘firmer than micro-USB’ Type-C cable allowed me to go from a dead battery to 100% in a little bit over an hour. That is impressive and along with Doze has changed my charging habits. I usually plug my phone in before I go back to sleep, however, that means I can rarely use my phone in bed as I don’t keep my charger in my bedroom. With fast charging, I have enough time in the morning to get a full top up.

The vibration motor is on the wimpy side. It’s not strong enough, nor can it pass for silent and as such firmly in the annoying side due to the noise it makes when it vibrates. I immediately turned off the vibration when tapping letters on the keyboard and grudgingly live with the feedback when I tap the on-screen buttons.

Though the 5X has two grills on the top and bottom of the phone, there is only one front facing speaker. It is not as loud, though passable, as HTC’s BoomSound speakers and slightly tinny to my ears. Though, I like how the grills are receded below the glass not raised, as per Motorola’s implementation on their last gen Moto X. I frequently tapped the grill thinking it was a button.

I’m putting Performance under Misc because all it is simply good. I have not encountered lag (save for in the garbage dumpster fire of an app that is Snapchat, which likely needs optimizing on Snapchat’s part, story for another day…) and all of the Material Design flourishes and animations run perfectly. A particular visual change I like to Marshmallow is how apps animate out from their point of tapping. It is very much in Material fashion. As I said in a previous post, I think Google made the right call to go with a Snapdragon 808 processor in this device:

“a combination of the Snapdragon 808 SoC and better software optimization, it seems that LG has made a phone that can perform everyday tasks better than Snapdragon 810 devices” — AnandTech’s LG G4 Review

In Closing

The Nexus 5X sets the standard for what a modern day smartphone running Marshmallow should have: a fingerprint sensor, a Sensor Hub for always-on hotword detection, a good camera, and fast charging. Do not settle on a phone until you can get those features. The Nexus 5X gives you all the needed features of a modern day smartphone at a fair price point. It’s not a steal like the Nexus 4 and 5, but it is fair price for a solid phone.