The “Nexus phone” has meant many things to many people since the Nexus One rolled off the assembly line nearly six years ago. With the debut of 2012’s Nexus 4, it morphed into a super-affordable smartphone for anyone who didn’t want to be tied down by a contract. That was succeeded by 2013’s Nexus 5, which brought LTE and a more accessible design to become the first Nexus to be embraced by the masses. In 2014 Google arguably “jumped the shark” with the oversized Nexus 6, a Motorola-made phablet that some considered an abandonment of the fundamental principles behind the platform.
This year Google released two Nexus phones: a Huawei-built phablet to follow the Nexus 6, and an LG device many are calling a return to the roots of the program, the Nexus 5X. Did LG build a phone worthy of the Nexus 5 name? Did Google cut too many corners with the specs inside the smaller of this year’s pure-Android offerings? We’ll dive into all of that after the jump!
Specs & Hardware
The first thing you notice when you take the Nexus 5X out of its box is how light it is. At 136g, it’s slightly heavier than the original Nexus 5, but only slightly. It feels light because we’ve become accustomed to bulkier and heavier phones, specifically the 184g behemoth of last year’s Nexus 6.
The Nexus 5X doesn’t sport the aluminum and glass that many of this year’s flagships flaunt. Instead, almost as a throwback to two years ago, the 5X uses a matte polycarbonate in one of three colors: Carbon, Quartz, and Ice. The edges feature the subtle tumblehome construction we’ve seen on other Nexus devices which provides just the right amount of grip, without getting in the way of looks.
On the front of the phone is a 5.2 inch screen under a slab of Gorilla Glass 3. With a resolution of 1080 x 1920, the pixel density is an impressive 423 ppi. Though this is slightly lower than the original Nexus 5, thanks to improvements in screen technology the color saturation, deep blacks, and overall sharpness make the screen on the 5X very crisp and clear, bright when it needs to be, and able to accurately replicate colors even in sunlight and in the dark with the brightness turned down low. Some reviewers disagree with this sentiment when compared to the Nexus 6P, but while those conclusions may be accurate, they’re also somewhat unfair. The average user won’t be dissatisfied with screen on the Nexus 5X.
At 147.0 x 72.6 x 7.9 mm the Nexus 5X isn’t a particularly small phone, but it’s not “big” either. It’s easily pocketable and can be held securely even in petite hands. It’s a little taller than the previous model, but we don’t think you’ll mind.
Other than color, the Nexus 5X comes in two configurations: 16GB and 32GB, with the latter asking a US$50 premium over the $379 price of the base model. Despite having over 100 apps installed on top of the few that come pre-loaded, our 32GB review unit used only 8.15GB of the 24.89GB available – including just over a gig of images, “other”, and “cached data.” Even so, we think the 32GB version is well worth the cost of an upgrade; over two years, 16GB will likely be too small for all but the most diehard cloud users.
The few hardware accoutrements are laid out in familiar fashion. On the top of the phone is a single microphone port. To the right is the power button above the volume rocker. On the left is the nano-SIM slot. At the bottom is another microphone port, the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the USB-Type C port – a new addition to the Nexus lineup. More on that in a bit.
The front of the phone features a selfie camera that we’ll cover in more detail further on, an ambient light sensor, handset speaker, front firing speaker, a third microphone, and a tri-color notification LED hidden within the lower speaker component. Unlike other Nexus devices, despite having two speaker grilles, it’s only got one front-firing speaker. The sound it produces is loud and clear, but doesn’t have the encompassing volume that we’ve heard on other Nexii.
It’s on the back where things get really exciting. For the first time a Nexus device has a fingerprint scanner, which Google refers to as “Nexus Imprint”. It’s situated near the top of the phone where the “dimple” on last year’s Nexus 6 and some of Motorola’s other phones can be found. Also on the back is the reflective “Nexus” logo with fairly prominent LG branding, and the main camera.
As you’d expect with a phone carrying the Nexus label, the 5X runs pure Android, the way Google intends it. The bells and whistles are all stock, but sometimes it’s the simplicity, the lack of superfluous features that makes something truly elegant. Such is the case with Android 6.0 Marshmallow on the Nexus 5X.
With Marshmallow, Google continues its foray into ambient alerts with Active Display, which pushes rich but black-and-white notifications to the screen rather than relying on a notification LED to get your attention. Unlike previous generations that may have had an LED but didn’t make it accessible, here access to your LED is tucked neatly inside the Sound & notification settings.
Android Pay also makes its debut as a pre-loaded application on the Nexus 5X, replacing Google Wallet which has been a staple of the Nexus brand since its debut on the Nexus S in 2011.
In the “new to Nexus” thread, Google picked the Nexus 5X as the first device to officially support the aforementioned Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanning and security subsystems. Other OEMs beat Google to the punch, offering many of the same features of Nexus Imprint, though in separate and proprietary ways. The fingerprint scanner on the back of the Nexus 5X is perfectly located and is easy to find and use after just a few times to get oriented with it and how it works. How does it work? Very well, and very fast! I have encoded my two index fingers so far, and recognition is all but instantaneous with a very high accuracy rate. If your print can’t be matched you’ll feel two quick vibrations to tell you to try again. When comparing to a saved fingerprint, when your finger is scanned at an odd angle (or even upside down), the software is smart enough to match your finger, despite the difference in orientation, and quickly unlocks the phone.
Turning on the Nexus 5X is particularly easy using the fingerprint scanner. Simply rest your finger on the scanner and your screen is turned on and your phone is unlocked faster than you can raise it to look at it – much faster than hunting for the power button on the right side of the phone.
In addition to all that, Android 6.0 Marshmallow brings Now On Tap, a renewed permissions model, volume controls that finally work right, and an intelligent Do No Disturb function that does exactly that it’s supposed to. We covered these in more detail in our Nexus 6P review, and since they are functionally equivalent on the Nexus 5X, there’s no need to repeat all that over here.
For the last two generations of Nexus phones, quality of pictures taken has been at the top of the priority list. Though last year’s Nexus 6 had a decent camera, it wasn’t “great” – that honor is reserved for the Nexus 5X. The main shooter is housed inside the slight “bump” on the back of the phone (which looks a lot bigger than it actually is) and features a 12.3 MP sensor with 1.55 µm pixels and an f/2.0 aperture and broad-spectrum CRI-90 dual flash. OIS wasn’t included because Google claims that the larger pixel size and IR laser-assisted autofocus negate the need.
At 5 MP with 1.4 µm pixels and an f/2.0 aperture, the front-facing “selfie” camera isn’t anything to scoff at either.
When it comes to video, the Nexus 5X can shoot 4K at 30 fps, and can capture slow-motion at 120fps.
Despite being technically capable, the camera software on the Nexus 5X is inconsistent. It seems to be “unreachable” at times, doesn’t like to rotate once the camera app is fired up, and is overall problematic and slow. When it behaves, however, the pictures and video the Nexus 5X produces are nothing short of beautiful. There was an update for the Nexus 5X which was thought to address some of these issues, but our review unit had not gotten that update as we went to press.
On the whole, this camera’s up-sides far outweigh its negatives – and that’s something we’ve never been able to say about the camera on any other Nexus (Nexus 6P notwithstanding, which uses the same camera module as the Nexus 5X).
We’ve used the Nexus 5X for about a week in the Greater Salt Lake City, Utah area on the T-Mobile network. What’s nice about a phone marketed as compatible with any network, though, is that switching carriers is literally as easy as swapping SIMs, and the Nexus 5X should work with virtually any of the major US carriers.
At presstime, T-Mobile customers aren’t able to use HD audio or VoLTE, and the phone isn’t approved for use on Band 12 yet (though T-Mobile and Google are said to be working on this).
Additionally, despite reports to the contrary, we were unable to get T-Mobile WiFi calling to work on the Nexus 5X, despite it working just fine using the same SIM in our original Nexus 6 running Android Marshmallow. UPDATE: On October 27th, 2015 we were finally able to make and receive calls over T-Mobile’s WiFi calling.
Overall the phone is fast and responsive, in fact for the first few days the Nexus 5X performed faster and smoother than any other phone we’ve reviewed in the Utah offices. However, over the last few days it’s begun to hiccup and stutter. Upon investigation, when waking, the phone seems to max out the CPU cores for a short amount of time, slowing everything down. Whether this is the natural consequence of Doze Mode pulling a handful of data updates all at once or the hexa-core Snapdragon 808 processor showing its limitations, we’re not certain. Most of the time this has just been frustrating, but occasionally it has required a reboot to get things back on track.
Next up is battery life, which has been pretty good. On a full charge of the 2,700 mAh battery (which takes under two hours using the included charger and USB Type-C cable), the Nexus 5X should last you all day and most of the evening before dropping to battery saving mode at 15% battery. The Nexus 5X doesn’t include Qualcomm Quick Charge, but does support USB-Type C “rapid charging.” Pop the phone back on the charger for 10 minutes and you’ll get almost four more hours (according to Google, anyway; your mileage will certainly vary based on usage). To achieve this you’ll need to use the included charger, or one of the few compatible replacements. However, if you have access to a USB Type-A to USB Type-C cable (not included), you’ll still be able to use your old chargers – they just won’t charge as quickly as the one that comes in the box.
+ Outstanding value
+ Best camera yet on a Nexus smartphone
+ Easily pocketable
– Fair battery life
– Lack of support for all of T-Mobile’s features
– CPU seems to max out frequently
Pricing and Availability
At US$379 the Nexus 5X is a tremendous value for the price. It’s big enough to be functional, small enough to be pocketable, and is everything you’ve come to expect from the Nexus brand.
Still, we feel obliged to remind potential buyers of the old adage about getting what you pay for. If you want a top of the line flagship, the Nexus 6P is a better buy – if you’ve got the money and don’t mind the phablet form factor.
The Nexus 5X is very much like its 2013 predecessor in that it delivers a lot of capability for a very competitive price point, and it manages to do so while still looking fairly sharp. But the 5X is no show horse. It’s the phone you toss around without worrying about scratching it up; the one you buy because it’s a good deal, not because it’s delivering a premium experience.
There are a few T-Mobile specific issues that haven’t been worked out just yet. Those and the unexplained processor utilization issue are minor inconveniences, but they’re still troubling on a new smartphone – especially one carrying the Nexus name-brand. We’ll keep an eye on them and report back when the Nexus 5X gets our After The Buzz treatment.
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