Google Nexus 6 review: Android’s next logical step
The Nexus 6 is like no Google smartphone that’s come before. Built to prodigious dimensions with the fortified heft that few but Motorola can manage, this newest Nexus debuted to a wave of demand – and discord. With a price tag nearly double that of last year’s model and the footprint of a small tablet, the Nexus 6 comes as a significant shock to those who expected more of the same in 2014.
The wonderful thing about shock, though, is that it wears off. And once it does, you start to remember that affordability has only occasionally been synonymous with the Nexus brand. You realize that stocky smartphones have been gaining traction since 2011 (2010, if you count the Dell Streak). And, if you’re like us, you start to think that maybe what Android needs isn’t another bargain-priced slab of vanilla. Maybe it needs something burly and brutish, something that’s not afraid to stand out. And maybe it’s entitled to ask a fair price in return.
Does the Nexus 6 live up to the price that Google is asking? And does it make the most of its outsized potential? The answer lies somewhere between yes and no – and the details lie below, in our Nexus 6 review.
Software · Camera · Performance · Pros/Cons
Google Nexus 6 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
Motorola’s codename for the Nexus 6 was “Shamu” for a reason. This is indeed a whale of a smartphone, massing 184g and ballooning from 3.8mm at the aluminum edges to 10.1mm in its meaty center. Compared to the smartphones on our Boston review desk, the Nexus 6 is taller than the Galaxy Note 4, heavier than the iPhone 6 Plus, and roughly the same feel-in-hand as the Huawei Ascend Mate 7. Only the HTC One max beats it for sheer bulk in the palm, but that’s a special case in more ways than one.
Filling the face of that oversized fuselage is a sweeping 5.96-inch AMOLED display, its 2560 x 1440 resolution resulting in a densely-packed mat of pixels: 493 of them for every inch. The panel on our review unit has some trouble reproducing accurate whites, tending toward cooler and greener tones at normal brightness and crashing into a pronounced salmon/pink at the lowest setting. The former defect is a hardware limitation that we’ve seen examined more closely elsewhere; the latter seems to be a software issue, as it’s also in evidence on our Lollipop-running Moto X. (We’ve reached out to Motorola for comment on this and will update this review if the company replies.) We haven’t seen the image-retention or temperature variance problems reported by other reviewers on either our unlocked Play Store unit or our AT&T demo device. Overall, the Nexus 6’s display isn’t the best we’ve seen, but its high resolution, vibrant colors and perfect blacks mean it’s plenty pretty to look at.
Motorola seldom struggles with fit and finish, and the Nexus 6 does the company’s legacy proud. A pleasant curve to the plastic backside minimizes the phone’s bulk somewhat, the solid polycarbonate joining forces with contoured aluminum sides and Gorilla Glass 3 display protection to give the device a sturdy, tank-like feel. The textured volume and power keys are placed within easy reach of a thumb low on the right-hand side, and Motorola’s signature dimple sits under the camera lens to help your forefinger find an anchor point. Our “Midnight Blue” version is quick to pick up smudges though, and dirty or clean it’s a slippery sucker; if you’re a Clumsy Carleton, you’ll want to invest in a protective case.
Humming away underneath all that premium material is some of the best hardware you can find on an Android phone in 2014. This being a Nexus device, expandable storage and a removable battery are out of the question – but Motorola makes up for that with higher integrated storage tiers (32GB or 64GB), a bigger battery (3220 mAh), and the most widely-compatible radio stack available on an Android phone. Short-range connectivity is taken care of by Bluetooth 4.1 LE and 802.11b/g/n/ac (with 2×2 MIMO support for faster throughput). Meanwhile, the cellular radios connected to the phone’s integral antennas support all the LTE bands necessary for carrier aggregation and 700 MHz interoperability. That means our North American XT1103 model isn’t just compatible with all the major US carriers; it’s already set to take advantage of network capabilities some of them haven’t even debuted yet. About the only thing missing is an FM radio, which is par for the course with Nexus phones.
Powering the software experience is a Snapdragon 805 running at 2.7GHz, its Adreno 420 GPU handling graphics at 600 MHz, and the whole thing is backed up by a whopping 3GB of RAM. That’s a truly thunderous power plant for a mobile device, and were it driving an older version of Android, we’re sure it would be a match made in robot heaven.
Unfortunately, there’s still some work to be done in Android 5.0 to ensure it properly takes advantage of all that power. When we ran into performance issues on the Nexus 9 a few weeks back, we assumed the tablet’s Tegra processor was to blame for its occasional bouts of sluggishness. But after ten days with the Nexus 6, it seems clear that something in Android Lollipop itself –be it the platform’s new device-wide encryption, wrinkles in the new Android runtime, or something else entirely– is impeding the performance of the formerly “buttery” OS. It’s nothing bad enough to make the phone unusable, but in 2014 any lag on stock Android is disheartening – particularly on hardware this capable.
Where Lollipop lags in performance, it shines in aesthetics. We shared our feelings on Android 5.0’s design in the aforementioned Nexus 9 review, and all the bright spots remain intact on the smartphone version. Upon unlocking, the phone’s notification cards slide neatly into a single stack before slipping away beyond the top bezel, the lock screen’s clock neatly fading away in the background. Pulling down on the notification tray is an exercise in virtual elasticity, with more options appearing the “harder” you pull – and here too, more options fade into existence via subtle animations as you do so. Pressing on items makes ripples. Pulling on already-extended lists makes waves. Phone calls appear as bright full-screen blasts if the device is dormant, and less-obtrusive drop-down boxes if you’re in the middle of something. It’s all very slick – and for the first time it’s also very friendly. Lollipop is the first Android flavor we’d feel fine recommending to a grandmother, and best of all, it didn’t give up any of its power or extensibility to achieve that accessibility. It’s not talking down to the user like Samsung’s Easy Mode, or shackling basic functionality like Huawei’s Emotion UI. It’s just beautifully designed, elegant software that speaks for itself.
In some places, cosmetics have been placed above utility – and here the user experience suffers accordingly. Most frustrating is the new volume control paradigm: pressing the volume rocker now summons an “Interruptions” dialog that lets you specify what kind of alerts to let through and for how long you’d like to stay undisturbed. That’s great, but it’s also more complex. Where it took two steps to silence the ringer on the previous version of Android, it now takes double that on Lollipop. Worse: if you’re listening to a song (or podcast) via earbuds and you want to change your ringer volume, you need to burrow all the way down into the settings menu to do it. That, or stop your music – and even that won’t work if the media app you’re using stays persistent in the background, holding the volume rocker hostage from behind Lollipop’s pretty new app carousel.
The software’s major shortcoming lies in where it defines the role of the Nexus 6 as a smartphone, rather than a smartphone/tablet hybrid. Judging from the comments we’ve seen on our Nexus 6 coverage, this seems to be users’ biggest complaint about the device, and it makes sense: smartphones like LG’s G Flex and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 make the most of their large displays by offering software that splits the screen into separate apps or work areas. Stock Android can’t do that, so it’s left out of the fun. More frustrating: even king-of-the-immovable-grid Apple beats the Nexus 6 in this regard. The iPhone 6 Plus will happily re-orient its homescreen to landscape if you tilt it sideways, and it provides dual-pane views of some stock apps in an effort to use its display canvas more intelligently. The Nexus 6 has a bigger screen than the Plus (only an inch shy of last year’s Nexus 7 tablet) yet it doesn’t even give us a persistent number row on the keyboard.
But enough about the big screen. If you’re a one-app-at-a-time guy or gal, you’ll find plenty of new features hiding inside Lollipop. Multi-user support lets you set up profiles for spouses, children, or one-time guests, with each login getting its own customized homescreen and app selection. Screen pinning gives you the ability to lock the phone into one specific app, so you can share your photo gallery with an acquaintance without worrying that he’s sneaking a peek at your texts. And if you’ve got real trust issues (or you just want to share a photo to a friend’s Android phone in a hurry), the new version of Android Beam has been simplified and built right into the standard Share menu, so you can just bump phones and go. No need for anyone else to get his/her grubby paws on your new Nexus at all.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the Nexus 6’s pedigree, there are a few Moto X-esque features hiding within its batwing-branded chassis. There’s a low-power lock screen called Ambient Display that mirrors the functionality of Moto Display; it pulses in a dim grayscale mode when you pull the phone from a pocket or pick it up from a desk, and you can tap once on a notification to bring the screen to full brightness and color, or double-tap to jump right into the relevant app. Also, you can give the Nexus 6 voice commands even when the screen is off using the trigger phrase “OK Google.” Both of these features are better realized on the Moto X, but it’s great to see them here nonetheless.
The Nexus 6 camera is powered by a slightly refined version of the Google Camera app we got to know a few months back. It’s friendly, colorful and simple to use, and that goes a little way toward making up for its lack of more granular controls.
As for the camera itself: this is a 13MP Sony sensor (IMX 214, f/2.0) with optical image stabilization and a fancy ring diffuser on its dual-LED flash. The photos it produces fall on the plus side of adequate – most of the time. Thanks to the comparison videos embedded above, we know we prefer the Nexus 6’s photos to those of the new Moto X, and the same usually holds true for the Nexus 5. We wouldn’t mind a bit more punch to colors and contrast –this camera tends to err on the safe side when it comes to the authentic-vs-oversaturated debate– but you may enjoy more faithful color reproduction to a more vibrant photo, so that’s a matter of preference.
Our only significant complaint is that low-light performance is just average. It’s possible to get decent shots from dim environments using the HDR+ mode, but that’s not the most intuitive solution – and there’s no helpful hint to nudge you toward it, either. Plus, isn’t that what optical stabilization is supposed to be for? To hold the optics steady during longer exposure times, so you can milk the most possible light from a dark scene?
Thankfully, stabilization does a fine job in video mode. While the focus jumps around a little bit during panning shots, the autoexposure is very quick to adjust to changing lighting conditions. The camcorder defaults to 1080p; 4K shooting is available if you’re fancy, but we’d recommend springing for the 64GB model if you’re going to shoot a lot of UHD video. See the review video at the top of this piece for our sample Nexus 6 video footage.
We’ve had the Nexus 6 for a week and a half – enough time to answer some of the questions you asked in the comments of our unboxing video. In lieu of benchmarks, we’ll field a few of those here.
A popular one was “what’s it like to use such a big phone as a daily driver?” – and the answer is: awkward on the ear and taxing on the pockets. But as we said on the most recent Pocketnow Weekly podcast, not only do you get used to it; you learn to appreciate it in everything from added space on the keyboard to more room for movies, browsing, and reading. Soon, even a modest downsize to the 5.2 inches of the new Moto X feels like a significant sacrifice.
The Nexus 6’s front-firing speakers are very loud and offer a rich sound that rivals even HTC’s famous BoomSound. They’re plenty throaty for everything from speakerphone calls to Netflix binges, and we’ve even been able to make out song lyrics over the hiss of a shower using the Nexus 6 as an impromptu bathroom boom box. Again though, the hardware is more complete than the software here: we’ve noticed distorted audio in some games and randomly shifting volume in some apps like Spotify, as though a volume-limiting system was turning on and off at random. On the brighter side, audio through earbuds is just as good here as on any other modern Android. That goes for everything from podcasts to hardcore gaming, the latter of which the Nexus 6 handles as nicely as you’d expect given its burly spec loadout. (Games sampled: Galaxy on Fire 2 HD; Sparkle 2; Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy; Asphalt 8; Interstellar Pilot)
We had no trouble talking on the Nexus 6 –this is a Motorola handset after all– and everything from reception to audio quality was spot-on. Curiously, we didn’t get any complaints from callers about background noise, despite finding no evidence of Motorola’s customary multi-mic CrystalTalk noise reduction system. Callers sounded plenty loud and clear on our end as well.
Our trouble came instead when we wanted to talk for a while … or do anything for a while. Because with a 3220 mAh battery, the Nexus 6 should really last longer than 5.5 hours of screen-on time on a 14-hour day. And for us, that’s the upper threshold: more often, we’re lucky to get to four hours of screen-on time in a day-long period, with moderate mixed use, screen brightness set to medium-automatic, and excellent LTE coverage on AT&T. These figures aren’t bad per se, but they’re also nowhere close to Motorola’s claims of 24-hour endurance. Fortunately, Lollipop gives you a low-power battery-saver mode if you get into trouble, and the Nexus 6 also offers a few ways to charge it: you’ve got a Turbo Charger right in the box that’ll kick the phone up from zero to 15% in ten minutes, 25% in twenty minutes, and a 50% charge in forty minutes. If you’re more beguiled by convenience than speed, you’ve got Qi wireless charging built right in so you can drop it on a charger like the AUKEY Luna and keep an eye on your notifications while you top up. (Check the description on our Nexus 6 review video for details on the Luna.)
+ Excellent build quality, fit & finish
+ Top-tier specs
+ Best North American radio compatibility of any Android smartphone
+ Lollipop is the most approachable Android yet
+ Loud, full sound from dual front-firing speakers
– Just average battery life
– Ungainly form factor, slippery casing
– Fails to intelligently leverage larger display
– Lollipop still needs optimization
Pricing and Availability
The Nexus 6 is available in models called “global” (XT1100) and “Americas” (XT1103), in 32GB or 64GB capacities and two color trims: “Midnight Blue” or “Cloud White.” In the US, it’s available in the Google Play store, which also offers sales portals to AT&T, T-Mobile US, and Sprint for carrier-specific models. As of press time, Verizon Wireless availability is listed as coming soon, and the device is also showing as sold out on the Play Store and Motorola’s online storefront. The full retail price is $649.99.
Given the compromises detailed in this review, this phone’s $650 price tag might seem high – even strikingly so. But (in our view) that’s because the last two generations of Nexus phones have been grossly underpriced. Look at the Nexus 6’s equivalents on iOS and Windows Phone: on AT&T, the Nexus 6 fits neatly between the $584.99 Lumia 1520 and $749.99 iPhone 6 Plus. And you can get the Nexus 6 for much cheaper if you agree to a contract on that same carrier: $249.99 on a 2-year term, or $22.77 per month for 24 months on AT&T Next.
What we have in the Nexus 6, then, is a somewhat mixed bag. In some ways it really excels: you’re getting a fantastic spec sheet that’ll future-proof you well into next year, mated to the most compatible and capable radio stack around, and Lollipop is the prettiest Android release yet. In other ways –like fluidity, display usage, and living up to big promises about the battery life– it falls flat.
But here’s the funny thing: “a somewhat mixed bag” is how we refer to most large-format smartphones these days. Nearly all suffer from a similar mixture of missed opportunities on hardware and software alike. Yet these larger phones are selling. So while we’d like to have seen a smarter Nexus phablet, we can’t fault Google’s tactical decision to build a Nexus phablet in the first place. The Nexus 6 is a big phone because it has to be … and it’s a pretty good big phone at that. Add in the (mostly) timely updates the Nexus brand has become famous for, and what you get is a solid buy – even if it’s not exactly the Nexus we would have liked.