Google's Nexus lineup of phones has been the building block of the Android community ever since Google began the program in 2010. It seems hard to believe that we're not even 6 years into the program yet, but there have been over half a dozen releases just on the phone side of the program, not counting tablets and other devices of course. The Nexus line was initially made to show OEMs how its done, to create a developer and tweaker-friendly phone that encompasses all the latest Android has to offer. Over the years that's changed a bit although last year's Nexus 6 was just as premium of a device as any other in Android land, but did it change the Nexus image too much? This year one of the two Nexus phones is the Huawei-made Nexus 6p, the Chinese smartphone giant's first Nexus device. Has their hardware expertise married successfully to Google's software expertise, or should you be looking elsewhere? Let's take a look!
Google has continued to up the game on every Nexus device so far, and this year the leader of the pack is the Nexus 6p. While it doesn't push the boundaries of the spec wars further than other competing phones in every category, it certainly does in some. This is a big phone, there's no doubt, coming in at 159.3mm high and 77.8mm wide but only 7.3mm deep and weighs 178g. Starting with the front we're looking at a 5.7-inch Quad-HD (2560 x 1440, 518 ppi) Super AMOLED display with Gorilla Glass 4 and of course the front-facing stereo speakers that became a staple of the Nexus brand starting with the Nexus 6 last year. Underneath the hood sits the infamous Snapdragon 810 v2.1 octa-core 64-bit processor clocked at 2.0GHz and the Adreno 430 GPU.
3GB of LPDDR4 RAM is there for great multi-tasking and customers can select from 32, 64 or 128GB of non-expandable internal storage. A brand new Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanner sits on the back alongside the top-tier 12.2-megapixel Sony IMX377 camera sensor, the first of its generation in any smartphone. You'll also find a dual-LED flash next to the camera, an 8-megapixel shooter up front and a non-removable 3,450mAh battery packed inside.
In the Box
Google's move to the new USB Type-C port brings with it faster charging capabilities, faster data transfer rates and the ability to reverse the cable when plugging it in. Inside the box you'll find a USB Type-C to Type-C cable, regular USB to USB Type-C cable, wall charger, manual and SIM ejector tool.
Last year we found the first Nexus device in a long time sporting a Super AMOLED display, the technology that Samsung pioneered many years ago and has become increasingly popular in high-end phones over LCD displays. Since this is the larger, higher-end Nexus model out of the two launched this year it makes sense for it to be the one using the SAMOLED display over the LCD panel found on the Nexus 5x. Google says that this is their highest quality panel yet on any Nexus device and that certainly shows. Aside from the incredibly high resolution that delivers crisp, clear images you'll find that the color range is stunning to say the least. Saturation levels are a bit high and will likely get on color purists' nerves, but the wow factor here is simply going to be off the charts for most people. Being an AMOLED screen you know this provides incredible contrast ratio and true blacks as only an AMOLED can, and because of that it really makes the image pop. The color calibration of the display is still warm, although not quite as warm as the one on the Nexus 6, and shows some rainbow color shimmer when holding the phone at certain angles. Most likely this weird rainbow effect is due to the oleophobic coating that's on the screen to resist fingerprints and smudges though and doesn't affect the screen quality much.
Brightness is good but not the best I've ever seen. It's easier to see in the direct sunlight than the Nexus 6 but not as easy as some super bright LCD panels I've used. Those who don't care for that AMOLED look will obviously not be happy here, but overall the display's positives far outweigh their negatives. Refresh rate is incredibly fast, touch response is second to none, and the ability that AMOLED has to only light up the pixels needed means Google's Ambient Display tech shines here. What's also nice to see is that weird purple trail left by some older AMOLED panels when scrolling between certain colors is completely gone with this panel. Honestly I have to look pretty hard to find faults in this display, and while it would have been nice to see one of the really high-end AMOLED displays like the Galaxy Note 5 or S6 family have, this is only a slight notch under the quality of those, and will look amazing to anyone you're going to be showing the phone off to. This display was sort of like a fine wine for me, where at first I thought it looked great but wasn't anything special per say. Then as I compared it with other displays and used it longer I realized just how incredible it really is.
Hardware and Build
The Nexus 6p is the first all-metal Nexus device, and those that have ever used one of Huawei's 2015 flagship phones like the Mate S or P8 will know exactly how this feels. It's thin, strong and well built all while feeling light and modern. The metal has a very matte look and feel to it and looks more high quality than a gaudy shiny chrome would. Even the vibration motor inside the Nexus 6p feels higher quality than any other Nexus device and delivers short, subtle bursts of vibration through the metal frame rather than the obnoxious vibrations from the original Nexus 6. The biggest fault with this device are the pretty huge top and bottom bezels, both of which are notably larger than last year's Nexus 6. These are there to house the front-facing speakers without a doubt and are likely compromises made to keep the phone flat and thin, but they are distracting when admiring the phone and feel like wasted space when compared to previous generations of phones with shrinking bezels.
Aside from this large top and bottom bezel actual usage of the phone, especially one handed, is considerably improved from the Nexus 6. Bezels on the left and right side of the screen are nearly non-existent and the 16:9 aspect ratio on the display means it's taller and thinner than the Nexus 6's display too. It's certainly got a nice weight to it and feels incredibly well built, yet light enough to not give your hangs fatigue after holding it for a while. On the right side you'll find the volume rocker nestled right in the middle of the phone while the textured power button sits right above it. These are in a brilliant place because they're right where your fingers rest when on the phone, a necessity to be sure. The left side holds a single SIM card slot while the bottom holds the USB Type-C port and the top has the 3.5mm headset jack.
On the back we find the brand new Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanner centered just above the vertical Nexus logo, while above that sits the slight camera hump. This hump only protrudes about a single millimeter and even curves around the edges of the phone, making it look almost nonexistent unless you're really studying the device. The placement of the fingerprint scanner is ideal when holding the device in your hand to unlock, but poses a bit of an annoyance if you're just looking to leave it on the table to check messages, a problem that can be fixed either by letting the phone display the Ambient Screen although you'll still need to pick the device up to use it.
Performance and Memory
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 was once thought to be a boon for the industry, but has turned into quite a bane instead. Many handsets that use it tend to get a little too hot, like the HTC One M9 Xiaomi Mi Note Pro or the Sony Xperia Z5, while some seem to stay away from serious heat problems like the OnePlus 2. Either way this chipset has proven to be an incredible challenge for phone manufacturers looking for that next-generation performance and 64-bit architecture all while trying to keep battery life and heat in check. Having a metal body automatically means the Nexus 6p could get significantly hotter than other non-metallic phones powered by the Snapdragon 810, but thankfully that's not the case here. There were times when the phone got warm to the touch but that was about it. Many years ago the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon used to scorch ears with its horrendous modem setup, and that's definitely not going to happen on this phone.
The Snapdragon 810 isn't exactly known for being cool in some phones, and people wondering about whether or not the Nexus 6p is one of the phones that suffer from this problem can take a sigh of relief. After running graphical and physics stress tests for a solid hour I never saw the Nexus 6p's internal temperature rise above 40 degrees Celsius, a temperature that's only a little above the average temperature of the human body. This means the phone will feel slightly warm but that's about it, and honestly I thought the phone was cooler than some other non-Snapdragon 810 phones I've tested in the past. The kicker here is that the CPU down-clocks quite a bit and I found that performance was consistently 25-30% lower after about 20 minutes of testing to keep temperature in check, something that doesn't really affect user experience now but could in the future as graphics ramp up on common apps and games.
Real-world performance of the phone was nothing short of breathtaking. It's incredibly fast, fluid, never once hitched and never reloaded any apps for me. It's incredible how far Android has come in the last 3-4 years when it comes to buttery smooth performance, and Android 6.0 Marshmallow has definitely brought that feeling to its peak. Apps loaded almost immediately upon first boot, likely only taking slightly longer because of the strain on performance that data encryption causes, but once open switching back and forth between apps was only as slow as your finger movements to select each app. Internal storage speed was a little low for what I expect out of a high-end phone (see benchmark shots below), but again this is likely due to encryption slowing things down in the initial transfer than anything else and doesn't actually feel like it changes the every day experience at all.
As expected the performance of the Nexus 6p in benchmarks is among the top-tier of all smartphones available no matter the test. It performs under Samsung's Galaxy Note 5 and S6 family, which should be expected given the horsepower behind the newest Exynos processors in those phones. Regardless the Snapdragon 810 is no slouch and will absolutely power through anything you throw at it. You'll find that the Nexus 6p runs a tad under some other Snapdragon 810-powered phones but that's most certainly because of the combination of data encryption as well as the Quad-HD resolution. Check the benchmarks below for the results from the suite we run.
Phone Calls and Network
Phone calls are really an excellent experience on the Nexus 6p. Voice calls sound better than ever thanks to a combination of HD Voice support as well as a loud, crisp and clear earpiece and front-facing speakers to listen to them on. I used the phone on Project Fi as well as T-Mobile and both sounded absolutely top-notch, with incredibly clean and clear voice support when LTE was available. Google's Nexus 6p is a beast when it comes to actual phone usage, and it's basically guaranteed to support whatever carrier you choose in whatever country you live. Google started this last year with the Nexus 6 and has really continued to expand its reach globally with its phones.
North American customers can expect all carriers to support the Nexus 6p out of the box, including Google's own Project Fi hybrid network that switches between a number of major networks and Project Fi hotspots automatically. Carrier Aggregation is supported across a massive array of bands and even Cat 6 LTE is supported too for the fastest in current wireless communication. Amazing data is all but guaranteed and it's clear that Google's reliance on data has translated to its newest Nexus line. Here's all the supported bands for each version of the phone:
3G UMTS/WCDMA Bands: 1/2/4/5/8
CDMA Bands: C0/1/10
LTE FDD Bands: 2/3/4/5/7/12/13/17/25/26/29/30
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, 4-13, 4-17, 4-29, 41-41
3G UMTS/WCDMA Bands: 1/2/4/5/6/8/9/19
TD-SCDMA Bands: 34/39
CDMA Bands: C0/1
LTE FDD Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/9/17/19/20/28
LTE TDD Bands: 38/39/40/41
LTE Carrier Aggregate Bands: 1-5, 1-8, 1-19, 3-3, 3-5, 3-7, 3-8, 3-19, 3-20, 3-28, 5-7, 7-7, 7-20, 7-28, 39-39, 40-40, 41-41
Over the years the Nexus lineup has changed significantly in the battery life department, much like Android has. Android 6.0 Marshmallow includes a number of new features that help with battery life including snoozing apps that aren't often used, as well as the new doze feature that puts the phone to sleep when it's been sitting idly on a flat surface for a while. On top of this the Nexus 6p packs in a large 3,450mAh non-removable battery that's bigger than the majority of phones on the market including all previous Nexus devices. On top of this the new USB Type-C port allows for 15W charging via the charger included in the box. In my usage I found that the phone charged from 0-100% in under an hour, a feat that's not matched often.
Keep in mind though that this uses Intel's quick charging solution of 5 volts 3 amps instead of Qualcomm's QuickCharge 2.0 or 3.0 chips, so all those QuickCharge chargers you might have lying around from the Nexus 6 or other devices in the past few years aren't going to charge the device quickly. Instead you'll need to get new chargers that support this new 15W standard instead. This seems like a negative at first, but given the fact that USB Type-C is designed to have a single type of port on each end of the cable it forces users to move to the standard instead of continually buying new adapters to work with old cables and chargers.
Daily battery life was nothing short of astounding and ranks among the best any modern smartphone can offer. The larger battery certainly helps and it's likely that optimizations within Android 6.0 Marshmallow are doing quite a bit of work here too. I was able to get over 6 and a half hours of screen on time here with normal web browsing, chatting and video watching during a full day. This is among the best battery life you'll find on any smartphone regardless of the specs, you're looking at something truly magical here.
As of the Nexus 6 Google started placing an emphasis on sound quality, particularly the sound coming from the phone itself. Prominently placed front-facing stereo speakers is the most obvious sign of this emphasis, and it's a well placed one at that. These speakers are absolutely incredible, delivering full, loud and deep sound with a wide frequency range. The size of the speakers limits the amount of bass that can be output, but there's definitely an audible bass tone coming from them that's not always there in phone speakers. In the car and my house I found that I could use the phone instead of connecting it to an external speaker set it was so loud and clear. Again the bass limits this more than anything else, so if you're listening to music where bass is important you may only want to do this in certain situations. Watching videos on YouTube and movies on Netflix was beyond perfect, and the volume on this thing can be so loud it hurt my ears on more than one occasion.
Loudspeaker while using the phone was just as incredible, and even my grandma could hear me on the phone with loud speaker; something that I don't ever remember happening in the past. Having 3 microphones for superior noise cancellation while on calls or recording video also helps, delivering clear sound that's mostly free of background noise and echo. Sound output via Bluetooth or the 3.5mm headset jack was fantastic and ranks among the best I've ever heard from a phone. Our sound tests include ear buds, high quality over the ear headphones, a home theater surround sound system and a car audio system with subwoofer. The default sound output is well balanced and delivers crisp sound without the tinny undertones that some phones deliver. There's no built-in EQ software so you'll have to rely on whatever is included with your favorite music software or better audio hardware if you need to adjust things.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow is a big step for Google in a number of ways. Visually Marshmallow looks the same as Lollipop with only a bit of tweaking here and there, but there's a lot more going on behind the scenes that you won't always see until apps interact with it. Google Now on Tap is the first big new feature that's probably most prominent, and it basically works like Google Now is on any screen you want. The idea here is to cut down on the need to copy information on the screen, open up another app and paste the information in. For instance if you're having a conversation with someone and are talking about an upcoming event, pressing and holding the home button will bring up Google Now on Tap and will parse all the information on the screen. Theoretically this should come up with things like information on the event being talked about, the address and times where it's located so you can put an event on your calendar, and more. This doesn't always work like you would expect it to in practice but it's probably more accurate than it isn't. At the very least holding the home button for a second to see whether or not the information needed was successfully gathered is still more convenient than copy/pasting all the time, and Google will most certainly improve this over time.
Along with On Tap Google has built better voice support into Android, so now app developers can build in Google Now conversational support straight into their app. This also includes integration with Google Now, so Google's example is that if you ask Google now to "play some music in TuneIn," the TuneIn app will actually respond with "What genre?" This is a significant improvement in hands-free operation of the phone that'll likely be even further used in Motorola's next line of devices more than anyone else, unless someone feels like switching up the game of course. In addition to building in more integration with Google Now, Google has added a new Direct Share feature with supported apps. For instance those that you speak with most in Google Messenger will automatically appear right at the top of the sharing dialog no matter what app you're sharing from. This keeps you from having to select the app then select the contact to share with.
Then there's the new app backup feature that takes Google's old cloud backup methods and adds to them considerably. Apps need to have built-in support to take full advantage of this, but now Google offers developers space specifically on their cloud servers for all your app data. This means that apps sync behavior across devices running Marshmallow, so if you switch to a different phone from your regular daily driver or just get a brand new phone, these apps will not only automatically download but will also sync the data you've accumulated within them. Other system settings like Do Not Disturb, Call Log, Accessibility settings and more are also synced with the cloud so you don't have to constantly set these up if you switch devices.
Security and Privacy
Security measures in Marshmallow are a huge step in the right direction for Android as a whole, and are prominently used on the Nexus 6p to show OEMs how it's supposed to be done on future devices. The most obvious new step is fingerprint scanning, which is nothing new to Android per say as some Android phones had this over 5 years ago, but official support was never built into the OS. Having this official support built in means apps can officially tap into Google's new development APIs and use your fingerprint if you authorize it. The first big app with this support is Android Pay, Google's redesigned mobile payments app that's a collaboration between SoftCard and banks and uses your fingerprint to identify you instead of a PIN. While nothing is ever possible to be hack-proof (if it can be made it can be unmade), this is likely the most surefire way to avoid hackers and protect your information.
Fingerprint setup is as easy as pie and literally only takes 6 presses to set up each finger you want. There's a maximum of 5 fingers that can be stored, likely for security reasons than anything else. Since it doesn't care about fingerprints of a single person you can obviously set up multiple people on each device, in my case my wife and I both set up fingerprints so we can access the device without having to worry about the pattern or PIN lock. Fingerprints can be used to unlock the device either with the screen off or on, although there's not much of a reason to turn the screen on first since Google is using the "breathing" notification Ambient Screen mode here. Scanning performance is almost near instant, and the only time it didn't accurately scan my fingerprint is when I was purposefully lazy or tried to trick it by placing the complete side of my finger on it or just barely brushed my finger against it.
App permissions are now built-in to Android and will ask you any time an app tries to access information or use parts of your phone. For instance when starting up apps for the first time a pop-up window will appear asking you if it's OK for the app in question to access certain parts of your phone. Notable permissions that you need to allow include access to the camera, storage, GPS location, text messages, contacts and a lot more. This keeps your information safe as well as keeps apps from accessing things you don't want them to. In addition to app permissions Google now finally has a way to keep apps from dropping down that Heads Up message that pops down from the top of the screen when messages are sent. In Lollipop there was no way to turn this off without downloading an app that blocks it, but now each individual app can be blocked from using these types of notifications right in the app settings dialog.
There's also a new verified boot that keeps the phone from booting at all unless you enter the registered PIN code or pattern lock during boot up, keeping exploits like the recently found lockscreen password exploit from happening in the first place. This makes the booting process a bit longer, especially if you're not paying attention, but the security payoff is well more than worth it.
Beginning with the Galaxy Nexus Google focused on new camera hardware and features that attempted to lead the way among OEMs and again show them what new features to use. While this was mildly successful at times it was often Google's simple software that kept Nexus phones behind in features when compared to other flagships. The Nexus 5 and 6 showed the world though that features don't always matter as much as sheet quality, and Google's HDR+ algorithm was the winning ingredient to getting these pictures looking so good. The new Google Camera software that ships with the Nexus 6p and 5x includes a number of new features, but one of the most important is auto HDR+ enabled automatically. This means that more people who don't normally mess with their camera software much will automatically have the best feature enabled when it's needed, something that will turn into better pictures for everyone.
The new camera software launches in a little over 1 second from any way of launching it, and there are quite a few this time around. The two "old-fashioned" ways are here in either launching it from the lockscreen or finding the app's icon on your home screen or app drawer, but there's also another interesting new way to do it; double tap the power button. Much like launching it any other way this is a split second launch that only goes as slow as your thumb takes to double tap the power button. It's a great way to fire off some quick shots when needed, and I found that I got shots I would have otherwise missed of my toddler son if the Nexus 6p didn't have this quick launch feature.
The new camera interface looks familiar and different at the same time, behaving closer to the OnePlus 2's interface than any other one out there. Swiping left or right switches between photo and video mode, and a single button will either take a shot or record a video depending on the mode. Both buttons look very different and help make it obvious which mode users are in, and all other modes are located in the left-hand slide-out menu. These additional modes are the ones users of Google Camera have come to know and love; panorama, photosphere and lens blur. In the main interface the Nexus 6p now has the special option of taking burst shots by holding down the camera shutter button. This delivers up to 30 full resolution shots per second, an incredibly fast rate that's industry leading among smartphones. On top of this the Nexus 6p is able to record up to 240FPS video while other phones are often relegated to 120FPS, and audio is also recorded at the same time too, besting many other smartphones on the market that have the slow-mo video feature. Additional options for each mode are found on the top of the screen such as video framerate, flash toggle, etc.
Quality of the pictures is absolutely top notch and lands the Nexus 6p in the absolute cream of the crop in smartphone cameras. The new Sony Exmor IMX377 camera sensor is the first in a new generation of camera sensors to be used in any smartphone and boasts 12.2-megapixel resolution as well as 1.55-micron sized pixels. That's almost 50% larger pixels than any other camera out there at this resolution, meaning that more light can enter the sensor than anyone other. This results in clearer, cleaner and brighter pictures with better color accuracy and contrast. It also means white balance is much better than many other phones on the market and that shot you're trying to get quickly is more likely to turn out just right on the Nexus 6p. I almost never had to do more than whip the phone out and smack the shutter button when I wanted to take a shot. This is truly a no-brainer camera that requires zero adjustment well over 95% of the time in my usage. Low light shots might actually be the most impressive part of the whole experience, often times picking up light my own eyes couldn't even see. Even without that OIS module I never found that the pictures were blurry, and I was surprised to see Google's claims in this regard were one hundred percent true.
Auto-HDR really is a Godsend here and provides that extra layer of simplicity that many desire in a smartphone camera. It also makes things dummy proof so that users don't have to constantly tweak settings and change modes to get it right; it just works®. Video mode is equally as good and again provides a pretty no-brainer solution to getting it right. By default video mode is set to 1080p resolution, one that works best for most people as it's a good balance between quality and size of the video files, not to mention the fact that 4K adoption is still in the low percentages for TVs. Image stabilization is available here but is done all digitally, meaning that while it works well and helps keep the video more stable under rough conditions it simply won't work as well as a dedicated hardware solution. It's a bit of a mystery why Google opted to take out OIS from its latest Nexus devices given that it really pioneered it with LG on the Nexus 5 (which was built on the G2's OIS solution), but this is a darn good replacement for anything outside of maybe journaling your latest mountain biking expedition. Check out all the camera samples below including pictures and video to see for yourself!
Incredibly high quality, all metal build.
Loud, clean and clear front-facing stereo speakers.
One of the best Super AMOLED displays on the market.
Fast processor, amazing multi-tasking.
Great battery life and fast charging.
Fast camera that produces some of the best images and video on the market.
Lightning fast fingerprint scanner and new software security features.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Rainbow shimmer at certain angles on the display.
No great options for sound adjustment if you don't like the default output via Bluetooth or the headset jack.
No OIS module for hardware camera stabilization.
USB Type-C has plenty of advantages but means you'll need to buy all new chargers.
Size will definitely turn some off from usage.
At this point it's difficult to recommend any other phone on the market outside of a few niche issues that may better suit some individuals. The Nexus 6p is an incredibly well built phone with almost no real negatives outside of the size. Every benchmark we used for measuring a smartphone's greatness has been met or exceeded with this phone in just about every way, and that's impressive given this one starts at $499. If size is a hindrance for you it may be good to consider the Nexus 5x, which is similar in many ways but will have some trade-offs and a cheaper price. Google's partnerships with case manufacturers means you can get a case right off the bat when ordering, and the choice of colors should help everyone be pretty satisfied. On top of that it works with basically every carrier in the world, so no matter who you're with or where you're at the Nexus 6p is easily among the top phones in existence, much less in all of 2015.