Google's Nexus line of phones has always been capable of grabbing headlines, but it arguably wasn't until LG stepped on board as a manufacturing partner that the brand found commercial success. The Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 were both solid hits, with the latter being held up as the most accomplished offering yet, delivering decent specifications at a mid-range price point. After a minor slip-up last year with the massive Nexus 6 - a phone which, if rumours are to be believed, was rushed to market after the collapse of Google's premium-focused Android Silver concept - it's service as normal this year. LG is back in the saddle (alongside newcomer Huawei, which is producing the larger and more expensive Nexus 6P) and has created the true successor to the Nexus 5. Does this sequel hit all the right notes, or is it little more than a futile exercise in nostalgia? We're about to find out.
Nexus 5X Review: Design & Display
Back when the original Nexus 5 launched, the idea of an all-plastic smartphone wasn't unusual - in fact, in the Android arena, it was practically the norm. What a difference a couple of years makes. Metal-clad Google phones are now more common, with the likes of Samsung, LG, HTC and Sony all incorporating the premium material into their phone designs. Consumers seem to view metal-cased phones as a more premium proposition, and even last year's Motorola-made Nexus 6 mixed metal and plastic to pleasing effect.
While the Nexus 6P - made by Huawei and the sister phone to the 5X - boasts a lush metal frame, LG's 2015 Nexus is an all-plastic affair. The front of the phone is black and largely featureless save for the front-facing camera, two grilles (one for the earpiece, one for the speaker) and an LED notification light (hidden in the bottom grille and curiously turned-off by default), while the back, non-removeable panel comes in either "Carbon" (black), "Quartz" (white) or "Ice" (light green). On the rear you'll find the camera, LED flash, fingerprint scanner and that oh-so-familiar Nexus logo. The power and volume buttons are on the right-hand side of the device, while on the bottom there's a USB Type C port and the 3.5mm headphone socket. The left-hand side houses the Nano SIM tray.
The fact that the Nexus 5X is fashioned from plastic isn't an issue in itself, it's just that more Android users than ever before have become accustomed to metal phones, and this makes LG's handset feel a little cheap in comparison. Of course, plastic does have its benefits - the Nexus 5X can take a bump or two and it's very lightweight for its size. In terms of pure design it's understated but appealing; while it won't turn heads like the flagship handsets of rival firms, you'd have to be incredibly mean-spirited to call it ugly - functional is a more accurate description.
The USB Type C port is going to be quite a talking point - you'll be seeing more phones with
this connector in the future as the industry is adopting it as standard, putting the Micro USB port put to pasture. The benefits are worth the painful upgrade process; not only does the connector work both ways round (like Apple's Lightning connector), but it also delivers faster data transfer and quicker charging. The bad news is that you'll need to invest in additional cables in the short-term, as none of your existing leads will work. Also, unless your laptop already has a USB Type C port on it, you won't be able to link up your phone unless you buy an adapter, which in turn means you won't benefit from the increased transfer speed. Give it a few years and USB Type C will be as ubiquitous as Micro USB is now, but for the time being, you'll have to remember to carry the charger and cable around with you when you're travelling - you can't rely on using someone else's cable any more.
The IPS LCD screen is slightly larger than the one on the original Nexus 5, measuring 5.2 inches from corner to corner over the 4.95 inch panel on the earlier model. In terms of quality, it's very similar to the previous model - it even boasts the same resolution of 1080 x 1920, which is, in our opinion, the most pixels you really need on a device of this size. Anything above that is practically unnoticeable and simply gives the processor more work to do. Clarity and sharpness are excellent, but colours do look a little washed out compared to the punchiness of the AMOLED screens seen on other Android smartphones. It's covered by Corning's Gorilla Glass 3 with a special Oleophobic coating to reduce the impact of fingermarks.
The Nexus 5X uses the same "Ambient Display" feature which made its debut on the Nexus 6, which, when enabled, allows notifications to flash up on the screen in black and white even when the device is idle. It's a neat touch but the fact that the phone doesn't have an AMOLED screen means that the entire display lights up (black pixels on AMOLEDs are effectively turned off and do not emit any light). As a result, it's a little more distracting than it was on the Nexus 6 (especially when you're in a dark room), and you might want to turn it off if you're keen to preserve your battery.
Nexus 5X Review: Hardware Specifications
Next year will see the introduction of the Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chipset and the processing power standard will once again increase. However, Google and LG clearly aren't playing that game with the mid-range Nexus 5X - it comes equipped with the less potent but still dependable Qualcomm Snapdragon 808, a revision of the 810 chipset which fell foul of much-publicised overheating issues a short time ago.
It contains a 64-bit hexa-core processor with each core clocked at 1.8 MHz, while an Adreno 418 handles the graphics processing. There's 2GB of RAM on-board, which will come as something of a disappointment to those of you who keenly follow technical developments in the Android arena. Most leading handsets in 2015 came with 3GB, and some even packed 4GB - a ludicrous amount for a phone to ship with. Still, more RAM means smoother performance and we noticed more times than we'd like that the Nexus 5X seemed to hang or
struggle with certain tasks. That's hardly a shock when you consider that it has the same amount of RAM that the original Nexus 5 had two years ago; an additional 1GB would have surely resulted in better performance overall. That's not to say that the 5X is sluggish - in fact, when navigating around the UI it feels smoother than the more powerful Galaxy S6 - but there's clearly a bottleneck when lots of processes are occurring at once.
Benchmark tests confirm that while the Nexus 5X is no slouch in processing terms, it not quite at the cutting edge of the Android sector. Antutu benchmark returns a score of 52475, which places the phone behind the likes of the HTC One M9, Galaxy S6 and Xperia Z4, but ahead of the LG G4, Nexus 6, Moto X Style and Note 4. Geekbench is slightly less kind, and the phone's score of 3538 puts it head of aging handsets like the Galaxy S5 and (unsurprisingly) the original Nexus 5, but behind pretty much every leading handset from 2015. Again, it's worth stressing that this isn't a top-tier flagship and costs around half as much as some of the leading Android handsets out there.
Nexus 5X Review: Software & User Experience
The Nexus line exists to showcase the power of "pure" Android - it gets updates first and offers a completely unsullied version of Google's OS, free from the bloat and modifications that third-party manufacturers regrettably indulge in. For this reason, hardcore Android fans are usually prepared to accept shortcomings in the hardware, and that's very much the case here - while the tech under the hood might not be cutting-edge, the software certainly is. The Nexus 5X and 6P are the first phones to ship with Android 6.0, also known as Marshmallow. While the visual differences between this and Lollipop - the previous version - are slight, there are plenty of under-the-hood optimisations that enrich the experience dramatically.
The most notable addition is fingerprint security, which has been featured on Samsung's phones for well over a year now. However, Google has now baked it into Android itself, so you can use it to pay for items on the Google Play store or - when it eventually launches in the UK - make contactless payments in shops with Android Pay. Dubbed "Nexus Imprint", the fingerprint recognition in Android 6.0 is arguably the best available right now, effortlessly outpacing Apple's TouchID when it comes to speed and even bettering Samsung's latest take on the tech, which impressed so much on the Galaxy S6.
Setting up a fingerprint is a breeze - the software even asks you to adjust your finger during the setup process so it can be read from different angles - and once it's done, the scanner "learns" and gets better at detecting your print. During our review period it worked fantastically, certainly much better than the already-brilliant scanner on the Galaxy S6. The only issue is that the scanner itself is located on the back of the device, so you can't use it to unlock the phone when it's resting on a flat surface. However, because of the placement, it means it's easier to unlock the device when you pull it out of your pocket. It's personal preference, but after a week we found we were more comfortable using the scanner on the Nexus 5X than the front-facing scanners on other phones.
Elsewhere, Android's new "Doze" feature helps conserve battery life when the phone is idle, only allowing priority notifications to come through and shutting down all the other unnecessary processes that sip away at your battery. The best time to test this feature is when you set your phone down at night; we noticed that the battery level only dropped a few percent, whereas previous Android phones would have shaved off around 10 to 20 percent of their stamina during the same time period.
Another big change is how Google Now works. It's not just consigned to the left of your home screen anymore - it can be activated from anywhere in the UI, bringing up pertinent information instantly. Get an email which contains a famous person or place you're not familiar with? Hold down the 'Home' command and you'll trigger Google Now On Tap, which searches the page for keywords and suggests possible weblinks or apps. It's a genuinely useful addition which we've used more times than we can count.
While the Nexus 5X isn't packing the most powerful specs in Android history, it's worth pointing out that the user experience is rarely less than fantastic. Everything is (generally) buttery-smooth, with pauses and stutters being rarer than they've ever been on Android - in fact, we found that in terms of moving around the UI, opening apps and performing general tasks, the Nexus 5X feels smoother and faster than the Galaxy S6 - a phone which, according to benchmark results, is much more powerful. This is almost certainly down to the lack of bloatware on the device; you're getting pure Android here, with no third-party UI skin over the top or duplicate processes performing the same tasks as Google's own suite of apps. That means a faster, more pleasurable experience overall, and that's precisely why Android fans gravitate towards Nexus phones despite the lack of bleeding-edge internal tech.
Nexus 5X Review: Camera
One area where the Nexus range has always struggled is photography - the hardware has always been decent enough but Google's software leaves a lot to be desired. The story isn't quite the same this year, but there are some caveats to consider. On the plus side, the 12.3 megapixel sensor boasts 1.55-micron pixels which allow more light to enter, meaning the camera performs better in low-light situations. As standard, Google's camera app offers HDR support, panoramic shooting, lens blur and Photosphere, and in terms of video there's a 4K recording mode and slow-motion, which allows you to capture footage at 120 frames per second.
Photo quality is decent enough, with snaps displaying a large amount of detail and faithful colour replication. The laser auto-focus also means that unlike previous Nexus phones, the 5X can lock onto your subject quickly, ensuring that you don't miss a shot. That's the idea, at least - we found that blurry images were commonplace (there's no Optical Image Stabilization included here either, which surely contributes to this issue), and sometimes the camera wouldn't actually take the shot until a second or so after we'd tapped the button.
Having seen how amazing a camera on an Android device can be thanks to Samsung's amazing snapper on the Galaxy S6, it's disappointing to discover that Google can't make the same leaps and bounds with its own handset. The Nexus 5X is an improvement for sure, but a bit more work is required to make it truly satisfactory from a photographic perspective - the bare-bones camera app in vanilla Android being the prime candidate for an overhaul.
Nexus 5X Review: Memory and Battery Life
Shockingly for a phone launching in 2015, the entry-level Nexus 5X has just 16G of storage, with the 32GB model costing a little more. While the iPhone's recent refresh also begins with 16GB, this amount of space on a leading phone is quite stingy in this day and age. 32GB is the entry level for other phones - the Galaxy S6 included - and even some of the cheap and cheerful handsets coming over from China from the likes of Xiaomi are shipping with 32GB as the perceived norm.
It's annoying - especially as there's no way of adding in more storage via MicroSD cards - but it's not a deal-breaker, especially if you choose to fully embrace the many cloud-storage options available to you. Google Music can store tens of thousands of tracks free of charge, and Google Drive comes with loads of space for gratis. Third-party alternatives can also be used - such as Dropbox and Box - should you find yourself running out of room.
The 2700mAh battery inside the Nexus 5X is another example of LG cutting cost to keep the price low - a 3000mAh power cell would have been welcome, but we still managed to get a full day of moderate use out of the device before it required charging. The Doze feature in Android 6.0 certainly helps stamina - if your set you phone down for large portions of the day you can expect the battery life to extend by quite a bit. The inclusion of a USB Type C connector means that it doesn't take long to top up the battery - you can get around 5 hours of stamina from a 10 minute charge, and to totally fill the battery you're looking at around an hour and a half on the wall socket - not as fast as the Turbo Charging on last year's Nexus 6, but still decent enough.
One thing worth noting is that wireless charging - something that was present in both the Nexus 5 and the Nexus 6 - is absent from this device. It's an odd choice given how much Google pushed the feature over the past two years, but not a disaster - the USB Type C connection charges much faster anyway.
Nexus 5X Review: Conclusion
The Nexus range has always been a curious mixture of amazing software tied to hardware which is lacking in some way, and we're sad to report that hasn't changed this year. The Nexus 5X isn't a bad phone and has some stand-out features - the fingerprint scanner is best in class - but the processor lags behind some of 2015's most notable handsets, the screen is practically the same as the one which launched on the original Nexus 5 and the camera -
while vastly improved over past efforts - simply can't compete with the very best the Android sector has to offer. The plastic casing also feels very cheap, especially as so many other Android phones are now offering metal frames. Of course, it's important to keep in mind that the 5X is aiming for the mid-range with its £340 price point, so something had to give.
Not that any of this will matter all that much to hardened Android followers, of course. The fact remains that the Nexus line is where Google drops its latest versions of Android, and furthermore, it gets pure and unmolested updates, free from the irksome additions of third-party phone makers. This is Android as Google intended, and the end result is a smooth and hassle-free experience free from the horrors of duplicate apps, manufacturer sign-ins and alternative app stores which offer a watered-down version of the Google Play storefront.
While it's not a complete success, the Nexus 5X is still the best option if you feel the Nexus 6P is simply too large and you crave the "pure" Android experience, and at £340 it won't break the bank, either.