T he Nexus 5X is at the vanguard of a new wave of smartphones. First established by Google with the hugely popular Nexus 5, and followed by phones such as the OnePlus One, this new breed sits neatly between the low-cost Moto G on one side and flagships such as the iPhone 6s on the other.
It’s an attempt to offer the best of both – a smartphone with everything you need, but with none of the bells and whistles you don’t. That, in short, is precisely what Google’s Nexus 5X delivers.
No supermodel curves
Given the $659 price, it isn’t a shock that the Nexus 5X is no supermodel. Available in black, white and light blue, it has a smooth, eggshell finish to its coloured plastic back, complete with clumsy branding for LG, which made this iteration of the Nexus.
In terms of shape, the 5X moves away from the Nexus 6’s curved case and chiselled edges, instead preferring a flat rear panel with only short radius curves at the sides. It’s a more practical design than the Nexus 6 – you can place the phone on a table and tap away without it wobbling – but it’s far less attractive.
The 5X’s power and volume rocker on the right edge feel plasticky and insubstantial. The nano-SIM drawer doesn’t close with a positive click. Overall, it’s a far cry from the Nexus 6. The only advantage the Nexus 5X holds from a physical perspective is that it’s extremely light for a phone of its size, weighing a mere 136g, and is comfortable to hold and slide into a pocket.
Flanking the 5.2in screen, top and bottom, are a pair of stereo speakers, which is a design decision carried over from the Nexus 6 and one I very much approve of. I’m tired of having to be careful how I hold a phone such as the iPhone 6s for fear of blocking the grille and muting the audio.
As for the screen itself – well, it’s unremarkable. With 1,080 x 1,920 pixels, it offers a high 423ppi pixel density, and it’s also bright. The problem is that it lacks the vivid punch of the best phones.
The latest tech
One thing this phone delivers, without dispute, is all the latest in smartphone technology. There are two aspects of this you’ll notice right away. First, the Nexus 5X has a USB Type-C socket, a new type of charging and data-transfer port, located on the bottom edge of the phone. Second, it has a fingerprint reader, which sits on the rear of the phone, just below the slightly protruding camera housing.
From a design perspective, the decision on Google’s part to implement both technologies is to be applauded. I much prefer Type-C’s physical design to the ubiquitous micro-USB. It’s reversible, so can’t be forced in the wrong way, and it engages with a more positive click than most micro-USB ports. You will need to budget for spare cables, though, and purchase an adapter straight away if you want to plug it into a laptop or car charger. Bizarrely, the cable in the box is a double-ended Type-C cable, which can’t be connected to most modern chargers and computers.
The fingerprint reader (dubbed Nexus Imprint) works beautifully, allowing you to access and purchase Google Play content quickly and simply, without having to type in a password. Its position on the rear means it falls naturally under your index finger as you pick up the phone. It’s quick and easy to register your fingerprints, and – so Google claims – it will also learn and become more accurate as you use it.
Frankly, I’m not sure it needs to. The only time the Nexus 5X failed to recognise my fingerprint was when I placed my finger half-on the sensor. On every other occasion, it worked flawlessly and quickly. It’s roughly on a par with the iPhone 6s’ Touch ID sensor in terms of how quickly you can unlock the phone.
Given all this cutting-edge technology, it’s disappointing that Google continues to omit one of the more humdrum elements – expandable storage – from its Nexus handsets. Once you’ve bought your 16GB or 32GB Nexus 5X, you’ll be stuck with it, so choose carefully.
Speed and battery life
Instead of going all out for the most powerful mobile chip on the market, which has been left for the flagship Nexus 6P, the Nexus 5X contains a hexa-core 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor. That’s the same as is found within the LG G4, and Google accompanies it with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 418 GPU.
In benchmarks, this means the Nexus 5X doesn’t hit the heights of the most expensive phones on the market. But it will be more than fast enough for most people. My only complaint is that the camera app is occasionally a little sluggish to launch, and stutters when you swipe from stills to video mode and back again.
One bonus of the slightly lower-specification processor is that the 5X avoids the overheating issues that has afflicted some phones featuring the faster Snapdragon 810 CPU. Sure, it gets warm when you fire up a demanding game such as Dustoff Heli Rescue, but it never becomes uncomfortable to hold.
There’s no payback in battery life, however. With moderate use – that is to say, not pounding the battery constantly with games and streaming over 4G – you’ll get a day out of it, and nothing more. This is a phone you’ll need to charge every evening.
The positive news is that those users moving up from a Nexus 5 will experience significantly better battery life, and it’s also worth noting that the 5X charges supremely quickly. In my tests, it hit 20% charge in the first ten minutes, which is impressive. After half an hour, the level of charge rose to 48%, an hour saw it reach 84% and the phone was fully topped up in only 1hr 40mins.
The area that let down the past two Nexus smartphones was the quality of their cameras, but not this time. The new camera is an absolute beast.
It matches the iPhone 6s for resolution, and its sensor beats it for size. Each of the Nexus 5X’s pixels are 1.55μm (microns) in size (the 6s’ pixels are 1.22μm), allowing them to capture more light at a given shutter speed.
The aperture is a wide f/2, and it can shoot 4K video and slow-motion 720p footage at 120fps. It’s equipped with “laser-detect” autofocus, and it has optical image stabilisation (OIS). The hardware, however, is only part of the story. If the software isn’t good enough to set the focus, exposure, white balance and ISO sensitivity at the correct level, you’ll get horrible pictures, no matter how potent the optics and sensor.
The good news is that the software and hardware on the Nexus 5X work perfectly in tandem, and the result is amazing photographs. The laser autofocus system locks onto subjects quickly and securely, with very little of the annoying hunting back and forth that plagued the Nexus 6. Moreover, the 5X’s camera proved incredibly reliable in all conditions. In good light, low light and under the steel-grey sky of a typically rainy Melbourne day, the Nexus 5X produced photographs bursting with detail, realism and colour.
At the front is a more run-of-the-mill 5-megapixel snapper, equipped with an f/2.2 aperture, but with slightly smaller 1.4μm pixels. That said, you shouldn’t underestimate it. It captures selfies with a scary level of detail, and its wide-angle lens makes group shots a doddle.|
If your priority is appearance, the Google Nexus 5X is not the phone for you. However, if you don’t give a hoot about that – and, don’t forget, you can always pop it in a case – the Nexus 5X is hugely appealing. The camera is simply stonking: it’s fast and doesn’t overheat. The software is also clean and simple, and Google and LG have squeezed in most of the components a modern smartphone needs – with the obvious exception of storage expansion.
Its main rival – the OnePlus 2 – still offers more for your money, with a nicer design, even faster performance and fractionally better battery life.
However, the fact that you need an invitation to buy one rules the OnePlus 2 out as an option for most people. Furthermore, the camera isn’t nearly as good as the Nexus 5X’s and it doesn’t have Android Marshmallow.
In short, the Nexus 5X is a serious option for your next smartphone. It certainly isn’t a beauty, but Google and LG get almost everything else right.