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Featured Review: Google Nexus 5X

October 19, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

LG is a familiar name in the smartphone space, especially when it comes to Nexus devices.  After all two of the most loved Nexus devices were made by the South Korean electronics giant; the Nexus 4 and 5.  Last year’s Nexus 6 ballooned the size of Google’s yearly reference device and alienated quite a few customers who just wanted something more reasonably sized, and ever since then there have been rumors that Google would follow up with a second Nexus 5 for all those that asked for it.  This year those folks’ wishes have come true, and the Nexus 5 is not only back in true form, but it’s yet again made by LG.  This now makes LG the longest-running Nexus partner, and has even been dubbed the best Nexus partner by Google themselves.  There are some trade-offs here though when compared to the Nexus 6p, and we’re not just talking a size change but internals as well.  Does the cheaper price mean a worse experience, or will previous Nexus 5 owners be happy with the upgrade found in the Nexus 5x?  Let’s find out!

Specs

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Google’s Nexus 5x is a leaner and more efficient machine than the Nexus 6p, which goes for the all-in brute force style hardware design.  The size is the device is a more palatable 147mm high by 72.6mm wide and 7.9mm thin, while packing a 5.2-inch 1080p (423 ppi) LCD with Gorilla Glass 3 on the front.  The whole package weighs a mere 136g making this one unbelievably light phone and among the more thin flagships on the market.  Inside sits a Snapdragon 808 1.8GHz hexa-core 64-bit processor and an Adreno 418 GPU for great graphics performance.

2GB of LPDDR3 RAM is packed inside and you can choose from either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage space.  The new Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensor is here and is located on the back, right along side that brand new Sony Exmor IMX377 camera sensor packing 1.55-micron pixels; the first of its kind and generation in any smartphone aside from the Nexus 6p.  There’s also a dual-LED flash, laser auto focus and a 2,700mAh battery inside.

In the Box

USB Type-C is paving the way to the future, and there’s nothing like pushing everyone into the future than only including forward-thinking cables.  Yes that’s nice talk for saying you’re going to have to buy all new chargers, but at least Google included a USB Type-C to Type-C cable in the box as well as a wall charger for the Nexus 5x.  Check out the unboxing video plus a look at the Speck case for the Nexus 5x.

Display

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LG is sort of a funny company when it comes to displays.  On the high-end TV side of things it recognizes the innate superiority of the OLED display, but in just about every other division it pushes LCD technology instead.  Thus is the case with the Nexus 5x which uses a cheaper and less impressive 5.2-inch 1080p LCD panel when compared to the glorious panel on the Nexus 6p.  I’m being a little silly here in my comparison but it stands within reason that I constantly sent pictures taken from my Nexus 5x to my Nexus 6p just to make sure it looked as good as it should, a problem I really shouldn’t have to do on a flagship phone in 2015.  Let’s start with the positive though, shall we?  First off the display is impressively bright, shining bright even in the brightest Florida sunlight and keeping reflections to a minimum.  Colors are incredibly accurate and this is some of the nicest white balance I’ve seen on any mobile display in a long time; it’s not too warm or too cool, it’s just right.

Refresh rate is phenomenal and touch response is as good as it gets, with phenomenal multi-touch response and ultra accurate fast touch support.  This is particularly important when typing fast, as digitizers with less accuracy will exhibit ghost swipes and other problems that become frustrating.  Contrast and black levels were good for an LCD but nowhere near the goodness of AMOLED.  Viewing angles were again decent and while the screen didn’t exhibit the weird rainbow shimmering I saw on the Nexus 6p, the black levels and overall screen got washed out when holding it at many different angles as LCDs tend to.  Overall this display seems to go more for color accuracy than anything else, and coupled with the fairly standard 1080p resolution and moderate contrast ratio won’t be leaving anyone with their jaw on the floor, although you’ll not likely be complaining about the quality all the time either.  Interestingly enough Google is using Ambient Display here even though this isn’t an AMOLED panel, something that’s not commonly used on LCD-powered phones.

Hardware and Build

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One of the main reasons someone is likely to pick the Nexus 5x over the 6p is the sheer size of the device.  With a 5.2-inch screen and smaller top and bottom bezels, the Nexus 5x is a smaller device in every way imaginable.  When compared to the original Nexus 5, however, it’s a much larger device and may irritate some smaller phone purists out there.  Side bezels around the screen are pretty small but nothing groundbreaking the way LG normally does, and because of the way the top and bottom bezels are set on the phone the vertical size of the device shouldn’t affect one-handed usage.  Those looking for a smaller phone will likely be mostly happy here because of that design, although you’re likely going to have to alter the way you hold the phone a bit to keep one-handing it.

As far as quality is concerned no this doesn’t feel quite as top-tier in build as the Nexus 6p, however it really doesn’t feel cheap either.  It definitely borders on impossibly light but keeps from feeling cheap because of the solid construction.  The all-plastic build is polished up a bit thanks to the quality eggshell texture used on the back, and the super rounded edges of the phone make this one comfortable device to hold.  The vibration motor here delivers strong, short vibration that feels almost electronic, and while it’s quiet I’ve heard people liken the sound to a mosquito.  On the back you’ll find a large circular camera lens that protrudes out of the body about one millimeter and makes the phone feel a bit off balance at times when using it on a flat surface.  To the left of the hump is an incredibly bright and warm dual-LED array that uses a reflective surrounding to brighten up the LED further, much like the headlights of a car do.  There’s also a laser auto focus module next to that, and of course the new Nexus Imprint fingerprint reader is located just under the camera hump.

Camera hump makes the phone lay at a bit of an angle.
Camera hump makes the phone lay at a bit of an angle.

Power and volume rockers are located on the right side of the device and both feature a very square, very smooth finish to them.  These are in the perfect spot because they’re exactly where your finger rest while talking with the phone up to your ear.  SIM card tray is on the left side of the phone while the USB Type-C port and 3.5mm headset jack are both located on the bottom, much to the praise of quite a few people when the phone was announced.  There’s nothing more annoying than cords sticking out of both ends of the phone and this gets around that problem.  Prominent front-facing speakers are above and below the screen, although these aren’t stereo speakers are you’ll find on the Nexus 6p as only the bottom speaker outputs music and other external sounds while the top speaker is reserved for the phone earpiece.

Performance and Memory

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A less powerful Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor is found inside the Nexus 5x versus the 6p, but you’d never know it in real-world performance.  Never once did I even have to think about the processing speed of the device while using it, and honestly it might even feel a touch faster than the Nexus 6p at times, likely due to the reduced resolution of the display.  Less pixels means less processing power needed, and since Quad-HD is 50% more pixels than 1080p you’ll need significantly faster overall processing to make that feel as fast.  Unlike the Snapdragon 810, the Snapdragon 808 that powers the Nexus 5x isn’t known for its overheating or aggressive underclocking, rather it’s been a steady and true performer in the phones it powers.

The Nexus 5x has trouble multi-tasking sometimes.
The Nexus 5x has trouble multi-tasking sometimes.

The Adreno 418 GPU inside isn’t as powerful as the 430 found in the Nexus 6P, but it hardly matters because the resolution is significantly lower.  Remember that Quad-HD is 50% more pixels than 1080p, meaning significantly more processing power is required to display the same detail at the same framerate.  I found that games in general ran buttery smooth on the Nexus 5x, pushing 60FPS in even most detailed 3D games while the Nexus 6P consistently ran slower even though it has a stronger processing package.  Multi-tasking was near perfect but I found that the 2GB of RAM definitely became a hindrance when utilizing lots of different apps at once.  Those who are heavy users and constantly have to switch between apps may find them reloading more often than you like, but it’s not common.

Benchmarks

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Benchmarks are a different story than real-world performance and show the pretty big chasm of performance difference between the Nexus 6p and 5x in some applications.  More graphics intensive applications could suffer because of the difference between the horsepower behind the Adreno 418 GPU in the Nexus 5x versus the Adreno 430 found in the Nexus 6p.  Overall though it only scored a little lower than most Snapdragon 810-powered phones and consistently much higher than the same Snapdragon 808-powered LG G4.  This shows some great improvements in software performance over LG’s skin and possibly some advantages of Android 6.0 Marshmallow too.

Phone Calls and Network

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Perfection is the name of the game when it comes to actually being a phone, and the Nexus 5X has support for nearly every network worldwide that you want to use.  The phone supported T-Mobile US’s LTE network perfectly and even provided HD calling, something more than enough unlocked phones never do.  Data was consistently excellent and it’s because of the incredible worldwide modems that Google uses in the Nexus 5x.  This covers the gamut of worldwide carriers as well as every carrier in the US, meaning one phone can go anywhere you’d like once you pop that single SIM card in.  In fact the Nexus 5X covers more spectrum than the 6P in general.  Check out the range of spectrum supported for the US, Hong Kong and international models below.

North America:

2G: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G UMTS/WCDMA Bands: 1/2/4/5/8

CDMA Bands: C0/1/10

LTE FDD Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/12/13/17/20/25/26/29

LTE TDD Band 41

LTE Carrier Aggregate Bands: 2-2, 2-4, 2-5, 2-12, 2-13, 2-17, 2-29, 4-4, 4-5, 4-7, 4-12, 4-13, 4-17, 4-29, 41-41

Hong Kong:

2G: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G UMTS/WCDMA Bands: 1/2/5/8

LTE FDD Bands: 1/3/7/8/26

LTE TDD Bands: 38/40/41

LTE Carrier Aggregate Bands: 1-3, 3-3, 3-7, 3-8, 41-41

International:

2G: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G UMTS/WCDMA Bands: 1/2/4/5/6/8/9/19

LTE FDD Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/9/17/18/19/20/26/28

LTE TDD Bands: 38/40/41

LTE Carrier Aggregate Bands: 1-3, 1-5, 1-7, 1-8, 1-18, 1-19, 1-26, 3-3, 3-5, 3-7, 3-8, 3-19, 3-20, 3-28, 5-7, 7-7, 7-20, 7-28, 40-40, 41-41

Battery Life

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Battery life of Nexus devices has been pretty hit or miss throughout the years, but previous Nexus owners will likely agree more with the miss than the hit.  Both of LG’s previous Nexus devices suffered from some pretty terrible battery life, and thankfully I can say that the third time’s a charm without a doubt.  Inside you’ll find a 2,700mAh battery, and while it’s smaller than the Nexus 6p’s battery it doesn’t really mean much given the other hardware differences like screen resolution and processor.  As a result we’re looking at a much more efficient phone that’s able to pull some truly astounding numbers.  I was able to get around 8 hours of screen on time in my testing, and Futuremark’s PCMark benchmark suite backs this up with its battery test showing over 7 hours of screen on time.  That was with heavy usage including browsing, music streaming, downloading, benchmarking, etc.  This thing took everything I threw at it and didn’t seem to chip through the battery any faster.

I can’t really ask for more in a smartphone’s battery life and can’t see people complaining about this one any time soon.  Battery savings is the name of the game with Marshmallow’s new Doze feature, which works by keeping the phone in deep sleep and pausing any unused apps while the phone is resting flat on a surface.  This is done via the new Nexus Sensor Hub inside the Nexus 5x and keeps the battery draining only single percentage points when left overnight, for instance, instead of the usual 30% or so over an 8 hour period.  Even if your battery gets low the included 15W charger will charge up the Nexus 5x from 0% to 100% in under an hour, but keep a couple of things in mind here.  First off this is USB Type-C, and only a USB Type-C to Type-C cable is included in the box, meaning you’re going to need new chargers or at least adapters for your old ones.  There’s also no Qualcomm QuickCharge chipset in here to those QuickCharge 2.0 and 3.0 chargers you’ve likely got will only charge these as a standard rate, not the new 15W rate.

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Sound

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The Nexus 5x may not have the stereo front-facing speakers of the Nexus 6p, but it’s still got a single front-facing speaker below the screen that’s almost as loud and almost as good sounding.  Being front-facing is a more natural position than on the bottom or the back, meaning the sound is being projected directly to your ears instead of needing to be cupped by your hand to do so.  The sound is a tad tinny and there’s not a whole lot of bass, but it’s still better than the speakers stuck on most phones and doesn’t feel like an afterthought, rather a purposeful part of the design of the Nexus 5x.

Sound output via the 3.5mm headset jack and Bluetooth was nothing short of phenomenal and ranks among the best sounding phones I’ve ever heard.  This was tested with earbuds, high quality over the ear headphones, a home surround sound system and a car audio system with subwoofer.  Incredibly well balanced sound flows from the Nexus 5x and doesn’t need much equalizing at all for most of the devices I used.  The biggest fault is when you do have to equalize the audio to fit the equipment you’re using, as there’s no built-in equalizer and no way to do this well from the phone since software EQ solutions are generally not good.

Software

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Android 6.0 Marshmallow is certainly a treat for all Android enthusiasts and casual users alike and provides a couple new features that are specifically integrated with the new Nexus phones.  There’s no radical face lift here like we saw with Android 5.0 Lollipop last year, rather more under the hood tuning and some additional features to make things more secure.  The biggest new feature is Google Now on Tap which is activated by holding down the home button for 1 second.  This presents a neat little animation that signifies Google Now’s scanning of the screen to find information for you.  The idea here is to keep you from having to copy/paste all the time between apps and more intelligently look up information for you.  For instance I found myself needing to go visit a friend in the hospital but didn’t know where to go, so another friend gave me the address in a text message.  With the text message open I simply held the home button and Google Now on Tap gave me the address right there on the screen as well as a quick one button press to navigate to it.  It’s a smarter way to parse information than just clicking it, as it doesn’t force the user to select a default action or again to copy/paste from one app to another.

Voice actions are now more deeply integrated with Android as well, providing Google Now-like queues in your favorite apps once they’re updated to support such a feature.  Google uses the example of asking Google Now to “play some music in TuneIn,” in which case the TuneIn app will launch and prompt you “What genre?” after opening.  It’s an incredibly useful feature that’ll only get better with time as more support is added.  Sharing is also better designed this time around, as that familiar sharing dialog will still pop up but will now present you with contacts most often spoken to or texted, letting you share with them in a single click rather than having to select an app and then a contact.

Backup and restore are back with a vengeance and provide more functionality and a more seamless experience when switching devices.  More data is backed up to the cloud than ever before including individual app data when an app developer chooses to support it.  This means that those switching between phones constantly or those that have just gotten a new phone will find more apps will take off right where you left them on your previous phone and will require less first-time setups because of this additional data.  Call Logs, sync settings and preferred apps, among plenty of other categories, are all synced now too and help alleviate setup when moving between devices.

Security and Privacy

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The biggest deal in Marshmallow is likely the new slew of security features though, mostly all hinging around that brand new Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanner found on the back of both new Nexus phones.  Finger print support is now officially part of Android, and as such can be utilized in ways that fingerprint scanning couldn’t in the past.  This includes being able to use it with supported apps, the first of which is Android Pay.  In addition to giving more secure access to personal information you’re now able to unlock the phone with the fingerprint too, a practice that proved beyond perfect in my experience.  The new Nexus Imprint scanners are fast, accurate and reliable.  They’ll read your finger no matter which way you place it on and do it lightning quick in a fraction of a second.  There’s also a new secure boot that asks you for your PIN or swipe code before Android even boots, alleviating some of the secure lockscreen exploits that have been found recently.

App permissions are something that many Chinese manufacturers have done seemingly forever at this point but are finally a native part of the Android experience.  When an app is first installed and run you’ll be presented with individual permissions the app is asking to access, for instance call logs, contacts, text messages, GPS location and more.  You can then allow or deny these individual permissions on a per-app basis, giving you a more secure and personal experience than ever before.  In addition to this you can now turn off those pesky pop-down notifications called “heads-up notifications” on a per-app basis too right from the app info page.  It’s a more personable and private experience than ever before all without having to download additional apps or hack the system.

Camera

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While Google had LG scale back in some regards between the Nexus 5x and 6p, the camera experience is identical between the devices.  This means the same incredible performance from the camera in every single way, from the launching time of the software to the quality of the photos.  It’s absolutely astounding to see how far Nexus cameras have come, and I can truly say this is among the top cameras in the smartphone market without a doubt.  Sony’s new 12.2-megapixel Exmor IMX377 sensor is an entirely new generation of sensors that’s made its way into the new Nexus phones first among any smartphone out there.  This includes a new much larger sensor with 1.55-micron sized pixels, nearly 50% bigger than other 12 and 13-megapixel sensors’ pixels, and thus takes in more light and detail than any other can.  This combined with Google’s new camera software provides a winning combination for users no matter what size phone they want.

Launching the camera is as easy as can be, and the new double-tap on the power button to launch the camera from anywhere is brilliant.  The camera launches in under a second no matter which method of launching it you perform, and more than one time I found that I got that quick moment just in time whereas with other phones I simply would have missed it due to the camera software taking a while to start up.  On top of this the shutter speed was incredibly responsive, and in most cases I found that the picture taking was instantaneous after pressing the shutter button.  Exceptions to this are when it has to focus, which is a little longer than some flagships like the Xperia Z5, and when HDR+ is used.  HDR+ picture taking time and processing has been significantly improved this time around though, and there’s even an auto HDR+ mode that’s enabled by default too.  That means that the software will intelligently decide what to used based on the situation it sees, guaranteeing the best shot every time no matter how little you tweak with the software.

It’s this sort of new intelligent design that Google has done that makes the software really shine too.  Swiping left and right moves between photo and video mode, the two modes that are most often used and needed quickly for users.  Other modes like panorama, photosphere and lens blur are found in the left-hand slide-out menu along with settings.  Within each mode you’ll find toggles on the top of the screen, for instance a toggle for flash as well as a slow-motion video toggle.  These context sensitive toggles are well marked and obvious as to what they do and provide a better user experience at the end of the day.  I could have done with a less iOS-like look here but it is what it is, and at least it isn’t a direct clone of the iOS interface anyway.

Picture quality was second to none, and without a doubt this is in the top 3 cameras on the market as of this writing.  Comparing the photos taken with previous generations of phones shows an astounding amount of additional detail even with the slightly lower overall resolution, proving once again that megapixel count doesn’t mean everything.  Contrast and color balance was probably among the greatest increases from previous generations of cameras, and I found my jaw dropping so many times during the review process after taking a picture.  Low light performance is off the charts and I’ve honestly never seen a better low light performer.  Even in near pitch-black situations the camera took the picture fast, without blur and pulled in more light than my eyes could see.  HDR+ only helps bring out more detail and erase the noise that creeps up in low light, providing pictures that you’d swear are from a multi-hundred dollar standalone camera.  This is the ultimate no-brainer camera, and that’s a good thing since Google doesn’t really provide any manual adjustment modes whatsoever.

Video recording was equally as good as picture taking, and the lack of optical image stabilization isn’t all that apparent.  There’s no digital image stabilization here like there is with the Nexus 6p, and while Google said this is down to sheer processing power we’d like to beg otherwise considering phones have had this ability for years on significantly less powerful processors.  Either way you’re probably not going to get the most stable video if you’ve just jumped on a bull and try to record for 8 seconds, but most other activities like walking will see great video without issue.  Again the larger sensor pulls in more light and even at a night time event there’s boatloads of detail here that you just won’t find on any other camera software.  Check out all the samples below including pictures and video and see for yourself just how good Google’s new cameras are!

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The Good

Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box.

Light and well balanced build.

Smaller sized device than lots of other flagships this year.

Performance is super fast in everything.

Camera is mind-blowing.

Front-facing speaker.

Amazing audio output.

The Bad

All-plastic build, even if it feels good.

LCD screen isn’t great, especially compared with the AMOLED on the Nexus 6p.

Only a single front-facing speaker, not stereo.

Could use more RAM for better multi-tasking.

Final Thoughts

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Simply put this is one of the finest phones of 2015 without a doubt.  Users looking for a phone that’s smaller than 5.5-inches will feel right at home here, but I’m afraid the larger top and bottom bezels will still make some smaller phone enthusiasts feel alienated.  The all-plastic build actually feels excellent and the super light and thin build makes up for any negatives the plastic might garner at first glance.  While there are some areas that could be improved, like the screen quality and using both front-facing speakers in a stereo configuration, the phone is overall a perfect successor to the original Nexus 5 and will delight users who are waiting for that upgrade.  The camera is absolutely the highlight here and produces some of the absolute best images we’ve ever seen from any smartphone on the market, and is absolutely the best of the best when it comes to low light situations.  Those willing to pluck down $379 for the Nexus 5x will be more than happy with the device and its software, and the evolution of the Nexus line continues with more successful devices that will please users for years to come.