Google Nexus 5X: Australian Review

After a long time in the wilderness, Google's Nexus program is back. It's back with two new smartphones -- a 5.7-inch metal monster that we called "the Android phone for everyone", and this little ol' underdog.

Little is probably the wrong word for a phone with a 5.2-inch display, and underdog is probably the wrong word for a smartphone with the explicit backing and branding of a $350 billion tech giant, but it's hard to find a way in which the Nexus 5X looks better on paper than its flagship big brother. Then you pick it up.

What Is It?

Specifications
  • Screen: 5.2-inch IPS LCD (1920x1080 pixels, 424ppi), Gorilla Glass 3
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808, quad-core 1.44GHz ARM Cortex-A53 + dual-core 1.82GHz Cortex-A57
  • Graphics: Adreno 418
  • Memory: 2GB
  • Storage: 16/32GB
  • Battery: 2700mAh
  • Software: Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • Connectivity: LTE Category 6 (300Mbps), Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth v4.2

The $659 Google Nexus 5X is the smaller of the two newest phones in the US company's modest first-party device portfolio, joining the $899 Nexus 6P as the launch vehicle for Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the latest and greatest major upgrade to the Android operating system that runs the vast majority of (non-Apple) smartphones in the hands of Australians right now. It's the poster child for stock, simple, vanilla Android.

The Nexus 5X is built around a 5.2-inch, 1920x1080 pixel IPS touchscreen LCD -- 0.25 inches larger than 2013's Nexus 5. That display has a small, glass-fronted bezel on its long, vertical edges, but the upper and lower bounds are significantly larger, stretching the phone significantly and lowering its overall screen-to-body ratio. It's alright, though, because those voids are put to work with a (single) front-firing stereo speaker and a 5-megapixel, 1.4um-pixel-size front camera.

Around the back you'll see the same soft-touch rear plastic -- in black, white or aqua -- that adorned the Nexus 5, with LG (the phone's manufacturer) branding joining the vertical Nexus logo, below the Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensor, and the central 12-megapixel 1.55um-pixel-size rear camera and matching dual-tone LED flash. Power and volume control buttons are on the phone's right right, and a solitary nanoSIM slot is on the left -- with no microSD to be seen. Everything on the Nexus 5X looks simple.

Inside the Google Nexus 5X you'll find almost the same hardware that runs inside the excellent LG G4 -- a hexa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor with mid-weight Adreno 418 graphics chipset, 2GB of RAM, and either (only!) 16GB or 32GB of onboard strage. The nonremovable battery is a 2700mAh li-poly one, and Google is relying on software tweaks within Android 6.0 to push the phone to all-day-long battery life. Run low and you'll use the 5X's USB-C to add 4 hours' use from 10 minutes' charge time.

What's It Good At?

The Nexus 5X's killer feature isn't a feature at all. It isn't a fancy app or an amazing display or a design quirk -- it's the lack of every one of these. It's the simplicity and durability of the plastic back. It's the consistency with which Android 6.0 snaps between multi-tasking and the camera and the home screen. It's the fact that it's a flat slab of sensible computing. Nothing doesn't work, nothing is superfluous -- there's no janky Quick Connect bar that you can't remove from the notifications menu, there's no eyelash-lengthening selfie mode, there's no silly stuff. When you buy the 5X, you get a straightforward Android phone and that's it. There are no huge issues with this Nexus in everyday use, and that's a Good Thing.

You expect smooth performance from a Google-designed, stock-Android-loaded Nexus smartphone, and that's precisely what you get from the Nexus 5X. Nexus Imprint works very quickly to unlock the phone as soon as you place your finger on the sensor, and you're launched into a consistently quick -- if somewhat stark -- interface. Google's home screen is basic, sans widgets, the notification screen and quick settings menu are straightforward, Google Now is a swipe to the left. The entire experience is consistent and understandable, moreso than any other Android phone that I've ever used -- everything looks just right -- and features like ambient display for lock screen notifications are genuinely useful and convenient.

The Nexus 5X's camera is so much improved from the last generation that it's not even funny. This is a phone camera that I would actually use every day, and that I'd put into contention with the LG G4, Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and S6 Edge+, Appple iPhone 6S Plus and Sony Xperia Z5 -- it's well and truly within that tier of the best cameras on smartphones of late 2015. At 12 megapixels it's not the most pixel-dense, but its large 1.55um pixels capture a lot of light (especially compared to the Sony) and that means comparatively fast shutter speeds in any given scene. Colours are good, and there's a decent level of highlight and shadow information. No optical image stabilisation is disappointing in low light, though.

It's impossible to talk about a Nexus phone without talking about the fact that it'll get updates to the latest version of Android first -- not second, not almost first, but first -- for at least as long as it takes for Google to release a newer Nexus handset. This peace of mind that you'll always have the latest security software running, the latest Google apps and existing ones like Maps and Fit and Chrome working as they are designed to, and new features like Google Now on Tap in their most basic and untainted forms. This is a feature of huge appeal to some people, but less important to others, and at the end of the day it's good to know your new phone will be an investment and not a disposable device that goes in the bin in a year.

What's It Not Good At?

Plenty of people will see those sizeable top and bottom bezels and think that they're ugly. In the real world, they're usable and useful -- they hide antennae, they hide speakers, they make for a comfortable place to rest your thumb -- but they do make the Nexus 5X look a little less cool and fashion-forward than the flagship Motorola Moto X Play and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge and iPhone 6S that the 5X is competing with. If they were slightly smaller, I wouldn't be disappointed, and the 5X would be a little smaller and even more pocketable than its current diminutive form compared to 5.5-inch-plus rivals.

Plenty of people, too, will be disappointed with the fact that the Nexus 5X -- a 5.2-inch phone, not a planet-destroying super-flagship 5.5-inch-plus monster -- is a $659 smartphone. Make no mistake, we were spoiled with the relatively low price of the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. Nexus devices are cutting edge in their software, but not necessarily in their hardware, which makes it a difficult sale for a specs-poring fanboy. Unless I've sufficiently won you over with my praise of the innate value that lies within the vanilla-ness of the Nexus 5X's stock Android, you'd be hard pressed to buy the Nexus 5X when you could buy the larger, more versatile, leather-ier LG G4 for $100 less. Were the 5X $500, or even $550, I'd buy a dozen.

Now on Tap, Google's screen-reading contexual search engine that looks through your onscreen messages or the tweets you're looking at or the Web page you're browsing, is OK. It works as intended and as I was hoping it would about 50 per cent of the time, but I just can't see myself using it. The idea is that you'd be reading a message saying "let's grab lunch at [GENERIC RESTAURANT]", and then Now on Tap would bring up a Google Now card giving you info on said restaurant, directions from your location, and so on -- and more often than not, you'll get it, but I'm just not in those situations in my life where I get those messages and need Now on Tap to help me. For some users, it'll be invaluable and all they use; I prefer the combo of Google Now and voice search for setting directions or for checking business details.

Not having wireless charging or Qualcomm's Quick Charge 2.0 seems like a step backwards. Sure, the USB Type-C standard supports 15 Watt charging -- that's 50 per cent faster than the 10 Watts that other mid-size, mid-range Android phones charge at, but a far cry from the 18 to 20-odd Watts of high-end and flagship devices like the Samsung Galaxy S6. Wireless charging was the future of a few years ago, and it hasn't been realised, and that's a little disappointing. More troubling is the fact that you'll have to drop a few extra dollars on a spare couple of USB Type-C charging cables; I've been caught out more than once without one handy, having come to expect plentiful charging from the million micro-USB cables in my life.

Should You Buy It?

Google Nexus 5X
90

Price: from $659

Like
  • Beautiful in its design simplicity.
  • Excellent stock Android implementation.
  • Much improved camera versus Nexus 5 and 6.
Don't Like
  • Now on Tap has mediocre accuracy and utility.
  • Only 16GB and 32GB storage.
  • Expensive starting price for a Nexus.

Do you want a smartphone that doesn't have unnecessary bloatware? One that doesn't even have unnecessary hardware frills? Then you want the Google Nexus 5X. Earlier on, I called it a flat slab of sensible computing, and that's precisely what it is. There's nothing seriously wrong with it, and that's because there's nothing outlandish that could go wrong. This is a device that you could buy in the full knowledge of the fact that it's going to keep on being straightforward vanilla Android for its entire device.

There a few key reasons that you would buy the Nexus 5X over almost any other smartphone. The first is the speed and simplicity of Nexus Imprint, the second is the speed and simplicity of Google's home screen and apps drawer and notifications menu, the third is the peace of mind of regular and incremental software updates. The most important one, though, is just how generic it is, but in a good way. It's just some phone, but that's exactly what makes Apple's two iPhones so appealing. Google has made an iPhone.

Sure, it doesn't have fast or wireless charging, and its hardware is not as cutting-edge as the Nexus 6P or of Samsung's mid- and large-sized Galaxy S and Galaxy Note flagships. But it never feels insufficient; using the 5X, you never feel like you'd want a better camera for everyday snaps or a faster processor to combat lag. I'm also conscious of the fact that Now on Tap is not the most groundbreaking feature that Google has ever released, but it's certainly not a deleterious inclusion to the Nexus 5X's software package.

When you buy the Google Nexus 5X, you're getting a reliable smartphone with a plastic back that won't smash. You're getting a nice camera that you won't be disappointed by. You're getting a pared-back software experience that runs quickly and unobtrusively, with a few new features that will only get better over time. You're getting the latest software, good battery life, a fancy new connector. And yes, you're paying a little more for this experience than you did for the last Nexus. But for my money, it's worth it.