The “Nexus phone” has meant many things to many people since the Nexus One rolled off the assembly line nearly six years ago. It’s been a platform for Android developers; a poke in the eye at the traditional carrier sales model; an ill-fated attempt to play nice with those same carriers; a super-affordable smartphone and a not-so-affordable one. And through it all, the Nexus has been saddled with the responsibility of serving as the Android baseline, the showcase for Google’s idealized vision of its mobile platform.
That’s a lot of weight for any one smartphone to carry, so for 2015 Google has split its annual Nexus offering in two. The LG-built Nexus 5X resurrects the concept of an affordable Android smartphone that sacrifices a minimum of features, while the Huawei-made Nexus 6P furthers the legacy of last year’s spec-packed Nexus 6 in a slightly less imposing, significantly less expensive package. Like its smaller sibling, the Nexus 6P brings a stock build of the brand-new Android 6.0 Marshmallow – but unlike the veteran LG, Huawei has built few smartphones for the US market (and no Nexus devices period). The result is a fresh take on the concept of a “Nexus phone” that, while not flawless, is probably the best-balanced Nexus yet.
Google Nexus 6P Review Video
Specs & Hardware
At a glance, the Nexus 6P could easily be mistaken for many of its competitors. Lying face-up on a table, its twin front-firing speakers breaking up the smooth expanse of Gorilla Glass 4 stretched across its display, it vaguely resembles its Motorola-made predecessor. Resting in the hand, its chamfered edges glinting in the light, the anodized aluminum chassis recalls the old HTC One M7 or Huawei’s own Ascend Mate S. From most angles, it could be almost any phone.
Plop the phone face-down on that same table, though, and the 6P immediately stands out. Above the oversized Nexus brand at its centerline sits a rounded rectangle spanning the width of the phone, a black Gorilla Glass 4-protected window that the folks at Google have nicknamed the “visor.” It contains a 12.3MP camera mounted oddly off-center within an elliptical ring, along with its accompanying dual-LED flash and IR autofocus module. The visor is counterbalanced by a barely-visible antenna plate at the phone’s bottom, a subdued “Huawei” silkscreened above. The final detail is a fingerprint scanner contained within a circular crater, identical in design and functionality to the one on the Nexus 5X. It’s a lot to fit on one phone, but the 6P is large enough that the backside doesn’t feel cramped or overloaded. The result is a device that’s interesting in an odd way, like a small car with a big spoiler. The 6P isn’t an ugly phone, necessarily, but neither would we call it particularly attractive. Your mileage will vary.
Like all phones, the Nexus 6P makes some sacrifices in usability to accommodate its design. While it’s quite thin at 7.3mm, it’s also tall and wide with a slippery finish, and the result is a pretty awkward slab of metal. (Fortunately it’s also durable: we’ve dropped it onto a hardwood floor from waist height about five times and the only sign of damage thus far is a tiny ding in the polycarbonate gasket between the display and the casing.) The textured power/standby key is easy to discern from its neighboring volume button, but it’s a bit too easy to press accidentally when picking the phone up from a tabletop. Unfortunately that button is the only way to light up the screen when the phone’s sitting idle: there’s no double-tap-to-wake option. This wouldn’t be a big deal if Android’s Ambient Display worked as advertised, but just like on the Nexus 6, it’s so slow and inconsistent that you’ll be better off just picking up the phone and scanning in with a fingerprint to see your waiting messages. Moto Display this is not. On the plus side, the fingerprint scanner is very accurate, and very fast.
The 6P’s display is quite beautiful: it’s a latest-generation Samsung AMOLED panel measuring 5.7″ at Quad HD resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 515ppi. Those accustomed to AMOLED screens will appreciate the high saturation and near-perfect blacks here, and Google says it worked especially hard to tune the panel’s gamut and white point for color accuracy. The whites look a little blue/green to our eyes, and we could stand for a little more brightness in direct sunlight, but aside from those minor issues this is indeed an excellent screen.
Where 5.0 Lollipop was the update that laid the foundations for a new Android look and feel, 6.0 Marshmallow is the revision that cements the good stuff in place while smoothing over the rough patches. That combined with Google’s increased focus on app-level Android updates (rather than sweeping overhauls of the platform itself) mean that some of Marshmallow’s changes have already been pushed out to phones running earlier Android versions, while many others are the behind-the-scenes kind. Still, there are some exciting new features in 6.0 that we were dying to try out the moment we tapped our way past the full-device encryption.
Easily the most anticipated update to the Android experience is the new Google Now on Tap feature, which uses Android’s Assistant API to offer contextual suggestions based on whatever’s on your screen when you long-press the home button. This feature raised a lot of eyebrows at the Marshmallow unveiling, and for good reason: it seems kind of like magic. Getting a text message from your friend about dinner and a movie, then having your phone give you showtimes at the closest theater and directions to a restaurant with a single button tap? It sounds almost miraculous.
In our seven days of testing, Google Now on Tap did show considerable potential. In a text message exchange debating possible dinner and movie destinations, a long-press of the home key generated a Google Now card for each restaurant mentioned in the thread, containing quick links to call or navigate and offering an associated Yelp review if there was one. Where we mentioned specific timing plans (e.g., “let’s meet at the theater at 8,”) One of the Now on Tap cards offered a shortcut to create a calendar reminder. While scrolling through the website for the town of Shelburne Falls MA, a long-press produced about six individual cards for all the potential travel destinations it was able to pluck from the page’s text. It even factored in what we were listening to on Spotify at the moment we pushed the button, tossing up an additional card for the band and song title.
Overall though, Now on Tap is more erratic than extraordinary. It’s plagued by the same issue faced by many new smartphone features: it seems like it was rushed out the door before it was ready, and as a result it’s maddeningly inconsistent. A button-press on the album art for Pinback’s Information Retrieved at first gave us two cards, both of them offering only generic Google searches for the song “True North” and “Pinback Information Retrieved review.” But a second button press on the same image –literally five seconds later– provided us with much more specific links to the band’s Wikipedia page and to YouTube results both for Pinback itself and for that particular album. In both cases, tapping the “True North” card led not to more information about the album, but to the website for a coffee shop of the same name located nearby. In the earlier Shelburne Falls example, Now on Tap provided an information card for one of the movies filmed there, but offered no card for the other film mentioned on the website. A text message asking if we wanted to see Black Mass at the Somerville Theater generated a card for the venue but not the film in one instance – and the film but not the venue in another. And despite the fact that we were listening to music non-stop during the entirety of our testing, we were never able to summon the Spotify card again to tell us more about what we were listening to.
So Now on Tap has a long way to go before it becomes truly useful, and likely even longer before it becomes the kind of intelligent assistant Google’s aiming for. On the bright side: it wasn’t long ago that we said the same thing about the first-generation Google Now, a feature that’s since woven itself into the very fabric of Android on phones, tablets and wearables alike. So while we find Now on Tap rather undercooked at the moment, we remain excited for its future.
Another big deal in Marshmallow is better app permission management, formerly a big selling point of security-conscious devices like the Blackphone. Apps in previous versions of Android would demand access to various phone components on an all-or-nothing basis: if you didn’t grant Instagram access to your address book, say, you couldn’t install it. In Marshmallow, you approve or deny permissions case-by-case. The first time you run Evernote, for example, the app asks permission to access your location so it can auto-generate a note title based on your location. If, like us, you don’t like that feature (or don’t want to give a memo-taking app access your location) you can deny Evernote that specific permission; the app’s other functions won’t be affected.
Other upgrades are more modest, but no less welcome. The hated Lollipop notification scheme is gone, replaced by a much more straightforward trio of sliders that appears with a tap of the volume key: alarm, notification, and media volume can be independently controlled, with the global “Do Not Disturb” option moved to a toggle in the notification shade. The app drawer now scrolls vertically rather than horizontally, with a permanent search bar at the top to help jump to a specific app more quickly. And the standard Google Now view (still contained in a scrolling ribbon on the leftmost home screen) has gotten a denser layout that packs more information into a smaller space, echoing the new 5-by-5 app capacity on the home screen.
Sadly absent from this latest build of Android are two features which would be very welcome on the large canvas of the Nexus 6P’s display: native multiscreen view, and some kind of trigger for deploying the notification shade. Google has historically left such modifications to its handset vendors who bake them into their Android “skins.” Most of Samsung’s Galaxy devices can run two apps side by side, for example, and Sony, HTC and LG have all offered shortcuts on their phones to trigger the notification shade without having to reach all the way to the top of the screen. Power users who really want these features can approximate them through the use of custom ROMs, so we can understand why Google seems to feel no rush to bake them in out of the box. Still, if Apple can offer “Reachability” to its customers (and Microsoft can rip it off for Windows Phone) we don’t see why Google can’t throw Android users a bone here.
Nexus devices have historically been somewhat lacking in the camera department, a shortcoming Google is keen to address in this generation. That starts with the new IMX377 sensor, which Sony designed for camcorders and point-and-shoot cameras rather than smartphones. It’s a 12.3 MP sensor with oversized 1.55 µm pixels, an f/2.0 aperture and laser-assisted autofocus. While the Nexus 5X shares the same sensor, the Nexus 6P brings a few additional features like higher frame rate in slow-motion video (240 fps), burst-shooting capability, and electronic image stabilization.
The Google Camera viewfinder has also been redesigned. With a refined focus animation and a minimized interface, it’s now much easier to operate the viewfinder with one hand (though settings are still buried in a settings hamburger positioned frustratingly far away in the upper-left corner). Google has built in a new launch shortcut as well: double-clicking the power/standby button immediately activates the camera whether the display is on or off. While it’s much more straightforward than the classic lock screen swipe action, this new shortcut is also just inconsistent enough to annoy us, failing to launch the camera on the first attempt about 15% of the time.
Where it stumbles in the interface, Google shines in picture quality. The Nexus 6P camera is a solid shooter, its colors falling just a titch on the saturated side for a slight bit of punch. Color reproduction suffers in low light, as with all cameras, but the Nexus is able to resolve subjects using much less light than the Moto X Pure Edition, and it’s capable of adapting to a surprisingly wide range of settings. Old favorites like Photo Sphere are here, for capturing a more extensive panorama than other phones can boast. The 6P has a tendency to overdo it on warm tones in indoor scenes lit with incandescents, and the HDR mode doesn’t quite live up to the shadow-brightening alacrity of phones like the Galaxy Note 5 or OnePlus 2, but this is still a solid all-around shooter.
The front-facing camera is an 8MP sensor with a pixel size of 1.4 µm, an f/2.4 aperture and video quality maxing out at 1080p/30fps. We found the exposure settings a little wonky and low-light captures pretty grainy, but that’s no different than most other front-facing cameras on the market today. Google has also provided the ability to use its faux-bokeh “Lens Blur” function with the front-facing shooter, allowing for a depth-of-field illusion that the Instagram set will appreciate (see far-right capture below). For them, as well as the Snapchat crowd, this selfie camera should serve nicely.
While video maxes out at 4K resolution, the out-of-box default is 1080p at 30fps, and to be kind to our review device’s limited internal storage we left that setting alone for the majority of our testing. Video quality is about average; focus and exposure are quick to automatically adjust and audio capture is just fine. As we saw in our 5X vs 6P comparison, the larger phone’s electronic image stabilization does indeed make a difference in walk-and-talk shots, but it doesn’t quite live up to the super-smooth performance of the Moto X Pure Edition. Still, this is a camera we’d readily recommend to anyone who doesn’t need crazy professional-level video performance in their smartphone.
The Nexus 6P is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 SoC – the processor that got such a bad rap for its thermal throttling problems earlier this year. Our extended experience with other Snapdragon 810-powered devices has convinced us that those problems (while certainly not illusory) are nonetheless somewhat overblown, and we can now add a fourth device to that list. Android 6.0 runs even more smoothly on the Nexus 6P than on the Snapdgraon 808-powered 5X. It’s almost flawless, in fact. While it’s too early to tell how well Marshmallow will age over time, the Nexus 6P packs enough CPU power and high-speed RAM (3GB LPDDR4) to give it at least some room to grow.
The 6P also offers plenty of power in the literal sense: under its aluminum casing sits a large 3,450 mAh battery, which combined with Marshmallow’s new power-saving features makes the phone good for a solid day of moderate-to-heavy use. A typical day saw us put the phone through about 15 hours of mixed use including near-constant email and social browsing, an hour of audio streaming through Spotify or Pocket Casts, an hour of Kindle reading, frequent IM and SMS exchanges through Hangouts and Messenger, plus the odd voice call – all while connected via Android Wear to a Huawei Watch. The phone typically finished the day with around 20% remaining, generally yielding screen-on times north of four hours. A less-typical day saw the phone deliver 1.5 hours of social media and email usage before being pressed into service for six hours as a mobile hotspot. By the eighth hour off the charger, the device was still at 30%. That’s a pretty solid reservoir – and it’s one you don’t need to keep to yourself, either: like other Huawei phones before it, the Nexus 6P can charge other devices by plugging them in to its charging port.
That’s assuming you’ve got a USB Type C cable handy, of course. Both of the new Nexus phones come with the new port and accompanying cable, whose easy reversible connector goes a little ways toward making up for the inconvenience of buying all new chargers for your car, office, and what-have-you. Charge time is also impressive. Google claims up to 7 hours of usage from just 10 minutes of charging, and while that seems like a stretch, the Nexus 6P did manage to hit the 25% mark in 15 minutes, and it charged from zero to full in about an hour and a half.
The Nexus 6P offers band support for all of the major US carriers, and we tested it on two of them at the same time with Google’s Project Fi. Fi doesn’t provide information on which carrier it’s using at any given time, but we used the app CellID Info to periodically determine our serving site. We found that Fi would switch us between Sprint and T-Mobile US (Google’s current carrier partners) based on which network had the best reception at a given time, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. Service was solid over seven days in our densely-populated test area of Greater Boston, and while we should probably be able to tell the difference in call quality between Sprint and T-Mobile, we couldn’t. Calls were clear enough on the earpiece and serviceable on the speakerphone – though it’s a shame the 6P doesn’t allow both speakers to be used for loudspeaker calls. When both speakers are brought to bear on a media file or game audio, the 6P is quite a loud device. It doesn’t produce quite the warmth or volume of the Moto X Pure Edition or Nexus 6, but the sound quality here is plenty for those used to the tiny bottom-firing drivers of devices like the iPhone 6s or Galaxy S6.
+ Solid hardware with significant power
+ Android Marshmallow a big improvement over Lollipop
+ Camera finally does the Nexus family proud
+ Excellent fingerprint scanner
+ Above-average endurance
– Google Now on Tap not fully baked
– Ambient Display doesn’t live up to its potential (again)
– Slippery casing
– Lack of MicroSD is par for the course, but no wireless charging is a bummer
Pricing and Availability
As with every Nexus before it, the Nexus 6P sold out soon after it went up for sale. At press time its availability was intermittent in the Google Store, while Huawei was still taking preorders at its own sales portal. The phone is available in “Aluminum” or “Graphite” in storage configurations of 32, 64, or 128GB, while the “Frost” color option is only available in 64GB or 128GB trims. As usual for Nexus devices, there’s no MicroSD-expandable option to be found.
Pricing starts at $499.99 for the entry-level 32GB model, with 64GB raising the price to $549 and the top-tier 128GB model costing $649. While more expensive than the Nexus 5X, these prices represent a significant drop from last year’s Nexus 6, which started at $649.
Is the Nexus 6P worth that kind of cheddar? In a word: absolutely.
There are shortcomings here as with any phone: some of Android Marshmallow’s new features aren’t quite ready for primetime; there’s a missed opportunity to take full advantage of the screen size; and the slippery casing is a big drop hazard. But the Nexus 6P really nails the fundamentals. It’s got a great display, a really good camera, solid battery life, and smooth software that’s guaranteed to get timely updates. The Nexus 6P is probably the most balanced Nexus Google has ever commissioned: it’s got the power to keep most diehard Android fans happy, the price to keep it accessible to “normal” folks, and a design that doesn’t alienate either group. That’s a tough mix to achieve, and Huawei and Google deserve kudos for getting there.