I have a confession to make. I love the Nexus 5. Despite its obvious flaws compared to newer and shiner phones (all of which I’ve tried and tested), the Nexus 5 has some intangible quality for me that no other phone has replicated before or since.
But now, there’s the Nexus 5X.
The Nexus 5X is an updated homage to the pocket computer I’ve loved so dearly since 2013, and it’s built for people like me—people desperately clinging to our favorite-yet-outdated Google phone. LG, who also made the original Nexus 5, wants me to finally say goodbye and move on. They want me loosen that death grip. And It just might be working.
Every new Nexus phone has always had clear advantages over its competitors. For one, they’re built with Google shoulder-peeping over manufactures so the hardware perfectly matches all the latest software features on Android. The Nexus 5X, and its big brother the 6P, are absolutely no different.
In fact, this year it’s even more so. Not only only is the hardware and software in beautiful synchronicity as always, the 5X also gives you another carrier option by joining the 6P and last year’s Nexus 6 as the only devices certified for Google’s Project Fi service (which could be a good or a bad thing.)
But the 5X was created to do two things: Fit Android Marshmallow like a well-worn glove and reinstate Nexus as a great-yet-cheap smartphone option. But the Nexus 5 was a trendsetter when it came it came out in the fall of 2013. A simple design, matte plastic with a soft-touch finish, a small phone (by today’s standard) but still packing a 5-inch screen, and of course, running the latest and great Android software.
But where the 5 was a truly one of a kind device two years ago, the 5X is just one in a crowd. It needs to have more going for it than just an attractive price.
Let’s see if it does.
Following in the Nexus 5’s footsteps is no feat taken lightly, and LG and Google have nearly managed it, faltering in only a few areas.
When you pick up the Nexus 5X, you’ll immediately realize that we’ve left “premium” smartphone territory, that pricey world of glass, aluminum, and pixel dense displays. (If that’s what you’re looking for, maybe the 6P is more your speed.) But the 5X isn’t trying to compete with those phones, especially at half the price. Instead it’s the OnePlus 2s and the Moto Gs and the Asus Zenfones out there that the 5X has its eye on.
The entire casing is plastic, not soft touch polycarbonate mind you, just plastic. The 5X also has this clearly marked back plate/front display separation (that pic above), so much so its hard to resist trying to pull off the back over to access any battery or SD card lurking underneath. But DON’T DO THIS, you will be out a brand new Nexus if you try to Hulk Smash this thing open. The battery and storage is staying right where it is.
The back plate has the familiar Nexus markings with two circles an inch or two north. The first one is the new Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensor, designed to take advantage of Android’s new biometric security capabilities. The second is a waaaaaaaaay better 12.3 MP camera that makes the Nexus 5 shooter look like a hunk of hot garbage.
On the front, you’ve got a wonderfully compact 5.2-inch LCD display, which at the very least, retains one of my favorite things about the Nexus 5—You can comfortably use it with one hand. Some times the old ways are the good ways. But the display comes with a respectable 423 ppi, which isn’t going to blow the eyeballs out of your skull with pixel greatness.
Sure, compared to QHD alternatives, it lacks in definition and color richness (I prefer AMOLEDs usually for those deep blacks and battery-saving advantages), but I had no real gripes at all. Netflixing. Photo viewing. Video taking. Game playing. No issues worth note. The display and hexa-core Snapdragon 808 just chugged right along, only stalling for a few moments during heavy multitasking.
So far so great for the 5X, but the plastic-y plastic-ness doesn’t do quite enough to obfuscate the fact that your phone is cheap. It’s not just the material per se, the Nexus 5 did a great job with that soft touch finish, but the plastic here has a sense of hollowness to it.
But its actually the vibration motor that really gets me. Where most phones have perfected the subtle art of haptic feedback, giving you a small quiet rumble of affirmation, the 5X doesn’t. The feedback kind of rattles around, making it way louder than it needs to be. In the busy and loud day-to-day, it’s not too noticeable, but in the quiet moments when you’re futzing around at home, you’ll start to take note. After a few annoyed days, I just turned it off entirely.
The Nexus 5X is a great and frustrating (but mostly great.) Let me explain.
When picking up the Nexus 5X, it was really Android Marshmallow that I needed to adjust to in the first few days. It was almost uncanny. The operating system looked so similar, but I could do things I never could before on Android.
The big two were app permissions and Nexus Imprint. As I did the all-too-familiar song and dance of downloading, opening, and typing in credentials across all my Android apps while setting up the Nexus 5X, Android prompted me specific permission for certain apps. Would I like Evernote to track my location? Mmmmmm, NOPE. I’ve waited for this little detail to be brought to Android ever since I forsook my iPhone many moons ago. Now it’s here, and it’s fantastic.
But the fingerprint sensor is a different question. When it was originally leaked that the new Nexuses would have a fingerprint sensor on the back, I let out an audible groan. I imagined picking up my phone off my desk, just to fingerprint login, and then plopping it back down. Although, in reality, it wasn’t really that bad, I’m just not incredibly impressed with Android’s first go at fingerprint sensing.
It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not as good as others. The first thing you need to know, that took me a second to actually get right, is logging into your phone using your fingerprint requires a deliberate action. You have to plop down your finger with purpose. If you just give it a quick tap, it’ll retort with a “Finger moved too fast. Please try again” or more simply “Not recognized.”
I promise. You will get better than this, but it’s relatively inconsistent compared to an iPhone 6s or Galaxy S6, which basically let you log in with just quick button press. Also, maybe I hold my phone like a complete doofus, but I often found my digits naturally hovering around the camera lens when holding the phone and not the fingerprint sensor. But there are lots of different hands out there of varying size, so this is probably just a personal setback.
The other piece of newness on the hardware side of things is the new USB Type-C charging standard. In every conceivable way, it’s a step up from microUSB. Faster charging! Faster data transfer! Reversible cables! But goddammit, don’t go on a faraway trip and forget the cord—because then you’re fucked. How do I know this? Because that’s exactly what I did, and when I went on a hunt for a quick replacement. Nope. Nope. Nope. Just the confused look of sales people staring back at me. It’s an early adopter curse—one that will fade with time—but I’m so used to, and I mean this literally, everyone and their mother owning at least one microUSB cord, I never really even think to pack one when I travel.
This isn’t so much a knock against the phone, though. Just me being an idiot.
As for battery life, not too shabby. The new Android Sensor Hub lets you just tap the phone to wake up the low-power lockscreen, and Android’s new Doze feature ups battery management even further by putting your phone into something akin to Airplane mode when you’re not using it. It’s a 2-for-1 energy-saving knockout. I can easily get through a full 24 hours with medium to heavy use. No problem.
The USB Type-C quick charge won’t immediately change your life, and getting 4 hours of use off of just a 10-minute charge, which Google claims is possible, is stretching it unless you employ some other battery-conserving tricks. But honestly, just plugging a reversible cord in without having to figure which side was up is immensely wonderful.
But where there is absolutely no question that the 5X shines compared to the old 5, or any other sub $400 phone for that matter, is the camera. By double pressing the power button, you launch into the basic Google camera app. Resulting images are vivid and bright but details are a little mushy when blown up on a display. A possible cause is noise compression making some details look unnatural. It’s not enough to dethrone current Android bests like the G4 or S6, but if you’re just wanting some good pics to share with friends (or Instagram), the 5X is more than capable. Also 4K video capture (at 30fps) on such a budget device is just extra icing on the photography cake.
Here are some examples in daylight and lowlight:
Not quite, though this is a very good phone. The Nexus 5 was exciting in a time and place where smartphones were racing toward the $1,000 end of the spectrum. It encouraged us, to grammatically tweak a famous Apple motto, to think differently. But this isn’t 2013, and now the Nexus 5X is just one among many.
If you’ve been desperately looking for the low-cost wonder to replace your Nexus 5, or just to be your pocket-side champion in general, this should be a serious contender for your affection—along with maybe the Moto G (or Moto X for that matter) or OnePlus 2. Want something with a little more design conscience, then at only $130 more, maybe the Nexus 6P is more your speed.
At the end, the Nexus 5X is like mistaking someone for a friend. Close, but not quite.
- Network: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint
- OS: Android 6.0 (Marshmallow)
- CPU: Snapdragon 808 processor / Adreno 418 GPU
- Screen: 5.2-inch 1920x1080 LCD (423 PPI)
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 32GB
- Camera: 12.3 megapixel rear (f/2.0, 4k @ 30fps) / 5 megapixel front
- Battery: 2700 mAh
- Dimensions: 147 x 76.2 x 7.9 mm
- Weight: 4.80 ounces
- Price and Availability: Starting at $370, available now
- Extra notes: No wireless charging, LTE cat. 6, single font-facing speaker (the one up top is just for phone calls), Notification LED embedded in the bottom speaker
Images by Michael Hession.