Google Nexus 5X review: Not the Nexus you expected

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Google’s Nexus line has always stuck to a single phone representing a year’s innovations in Android until the next installment is ready to debut. But the decision to introduce two new members — the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P — to the family simultaneously in 2015 was special because it signaled Google’s changing view that the line is beyond the developer-focused narrative born at its inception. Consumers long complained Nexus phones weren’t good enough to compete with flagships from other companies, so Google partnered with Motorola to develop the monstrosity known as the Nexus 6. That phone, despite being highly competitive with specifications, was way too expensive and become out of reach for many consumers. Back to the drawing board Google went and out came the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, two phones finally giving the Nexus line variety at multiple prices.

We’re going to be checking out the more affordable Nexus phone today, the Nexus 5X.

The Nexus 5X exists because the Nexus 6 showed not everyone wants a massive phone to carry around with them. It was bigger and pricier than any of its predecessors, a departure from the Nexus line’s style of being simple and rather inexpensive. Both issues were solved by Google with the latest editions of Nexus phones as the Nexus 5X sticks with a compact size and low price while the Nexus 6P is bigger and less expensive than the Nexus 6. Many initially viewed the Nexus 5X the successor to Nexus 5 from 2013, but I find that it’s better to call this phone a “spiritual successor.” The names are similar and LG manufactured both for Google, and that’s really it when it comes to similarities. The Nexus 5X represents something completely different than what the Nexus 5 did.

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Back in 2013, the Nexus 5 launched with high-end specifications to put the competition on notice. Google finally deserved proper attention from a mainstream audience. The Nexus 5 was less than $400 but didn’t really sacrifice anything worth considering too much of a compromise. Different areas of the Nexus 5 — like the display, camera, and battery — were as good or better than alternatives on the market. Shocking, right? Usually to meet an attractive price point you have to give up something to get there. With the Nexus 5X, Google didn’t need to fight to stay in the high-end sector because of the Nexus 6P’s existence. The impression was that the Nexus 5X would be at the bottom of the high-end segment with a savory price.

Pricing originally started at $379 for 16GB of internal storage but has since come down to $349. If you’ve never read anything about the Nexus 5X, that’s a really attractive price for a phone from Google. The problem is, though, that Google didn’t pack enough value to make the Nexus 5X worth it.

Design

Lately we’ve been seeing companies aiming to offer phones with nothing but premium materials. Metal and glass have never been so popular in the history of the mobile industry, even for devices outside of the upper echelon of high-end have benefited from this shift in focus. The Motorola Moto X Pure Edition and HTC One A9, which the Nexus 5X is clearly competing with, have a multitude of premium materials on them. Motorola’s flagship can be had with wooden or leather backs secured by a metal frame while HTC’s One A9 is cold and smooth because aluminum or glass is covering every inch. What did Google ask LG to use for the Nexus 5X’s body? Plastic, sadly. At least Google and LG have done a great job keeping the Nexus 5X from coming across as cheap.

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The Nexus 5X has a two-piece design split where the back panel meets the front, and both of them are of course plastic. Plastic is commonly a very bad thing to have on a notable phone like the Nexus 5X because of it being more inclined to slip out of your hand or generating fingerprints with ease. But this phone isn’t slippery or a fingerprint magnet like other devices we’ve seen with the fading material. It’s seems like the same material Google used for previous Nexus devices like the Nexus 5, Nexus 6, and Nexus 9.

Remember, the Nexus 6P is Google’s flagship (until later this year). That’s why the Nexus 5X is smaller and cheaper-made than the Nexus 6P. Measuring 147 x 72.6 x 7.9mm, Google’s secondary flagship is bigger than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and slightly smaller than the LG G5. The Nexus 5X ranks in a weird position because its display is an unusual 5.2 inches. I’ve used the Galaxy S7 already and can tell you their size to the naked eye is pretty much the same. Handling the phone is perfectly fine because of the narrow build and normal-sized display. Weight, too, is acceptable at 136g. Google played it safe with design and I’m alright with the company doing so. Bigger decisions should be left to the real flagship.

Using the Nexus 5X day-to-day, you won’t be getting anyone’s attention because of its appearance. It’s just plain. The front, no matter which color option you get, is black with only the front-facing speaker grills, front-facing camera, and ambient light sensor being present.

The back of the Nexus 5X is very attractive, and I almost have no way of explaining why I think so. Google made it simple yet smart. Stamped on the bottom of the Nexus 5X’s back is the LG logo to give credit to the company for creating the phone on Google’s behalf. Directly above that, positioned vertically, is the Nexus name. Neither of these branding pieces are overbearing, unlike what we’ve seen in the past from HTC. Sitting at the very top of the Nexus 5X’s back is the camera, which is slightly raised, along with the two-tone flash and laser autofocus mechanism. Between the camera and the Nexus logo is a smallish circle surrounded by a piece of metal-like plastic to highlight where the fingerprint scanner is. Where the fingerprint scanner is on the Nexus 5X is just perfect. It’s always accessible because you’re guaranteed to have your index finger close to it while using the phone.

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Looking at the left and right sides of the phone, you won’t see anything out of the ordinary. The SIM card slot is on the left side while the volume rocker is beneath the power button on the right side.

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One of the most innovative components the Nexus 5X has is the USB Type-C port. If you planned on getting this phone and using all of your existing micro-USB cables and accessories, think again before pulling the trigger on a purchase. The Nexus 5X comes with a USB Type-C to USB Type-C cable and a charger that only has a USB Type-C port, so you’ll definitely need to purchase additional cables and chargers made specifically for the new technology. USB Type-C is such a big deal because of its benefits. The technology handles both charging and multiple types of data transfers, but, more importantly, USB Type-C increases the speed of a task.

Color options for the Nexus 5X include Carbon, Quartz, and Ice. All of them have predominantly black sides, which is also the color of the volume rocker and power button.

Hardware

The Nexus 5X features a 5.2-inch Full HD (1920×1080) IPS LCD display covered with Corning Gorilla Glass 3, Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor, Adreno 418, 2GB of RAM, 16/32GB of internal storage, a 12.3MP rear camera, a 5MP front camera, a 2700mAh battery (non-removable), a fingerprint scanner, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, and Bluetooth 4.2.

Bands:

American version
4G LTE (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13, 17, 20, 25, 26, 29)
3G (850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100)
2G (850, 900, 1800, 1900)
CDMA (800, 1900)

Asian model
4G LTE (1, 3, 4, 8, 26, 38, 40, 41)
3G (850, 900, 1900, 2100)
2G (850, 900, 1800, 1900)

Global model
4G LTE (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 17, 18, 19, 20, 26, 28, 38, 40, 41)
3G (800, 850, 900, 1700 AWS, 1800, 1900, 2100)
2G (850, 900, 1800. 1900)

Performance

Google chose 5.2 inches for the display’s size because of the coziness. The Full HD resolution, however, probably wasn’t a choice. I can get by with Full HD because I’m not a spec-demanding consumer, but you’ve got to execute other areas of the display if you’re not giving me Quad HD. The IPS LCD display on the Nexus 5X is passable but disappointing, especially when put next to another phone. Owners of the Nexus 5X get to stare at a cold, lifeless display while those with the One A9 are treated to vibrancy. Now I know the One A9 has an AMOLED display, but Motorola’s Moto X Pure Edition also has an IPS LCD display that still manages to be accurate and bright. And I’m not exaggerating when I say even the Moto E (2015) can produce colors on same level as the Nexus 5X. Spending hundreds of dollars to get a Nexus phone must have advantages in the display. It’s inexcusable for a sub-$199 budget phone to be competitive here.

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This is all so underwhelming because a large part of LG’s business is display technology. The company makes displays for primarily for televisions and mobile devices. Uh… The Nexus 5X is a mobile device and this isn’t LG’s first time collaborating with Google on a Nexus phone. LG should have been able to provide Google with a sharp, colorful display. Was LG pricing a better display too high for Google’s liking? Did Google not care to examine display quality? Who knows what went wrong here. Google and LG left me wanting much more from the Nexus 5X and its display.

Although the Nexus 6P has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810, the Nexus 5X rolls with the now-dated Snapdragon 808. You’d be correct in assuming it’s because of Google wanting to keep costs low. Well, it backfired because this phone’s performance is all over the place. The Nexus 5X cannot perform consistently for a few hours let alone an entire day. It’s impossible. Countless times has the phone locked up after I press the Recents button to jump between apps. I’m particularly puzzled because I used the LG G4 and Motorola Moto X Pure Edition a lot and never saw either of those phones go through struggles. Hell, my old HTC One (M8) could do better. The potential culprit holding back the Nexus 5X could be its 2GB of RAM instead of the industry standard 3GB of RAM. Software is the other potential culprit, but Google could have quickly pushed out a software update to fix these performance woes.

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No, the Nexus 5X does not have dual front-facing stereo speakers despite what your eyes are telling you. Don’t assume something is wrong and you need to get a new unit. The phone, in fact, has just one front-facing stereo speaker located below the display. The similar piece you see above the display is just for hearing people during calls. Sound is average from the sole front-facing speaker, which stores a pulse notification light underneath.

The fingerprint scanner is a relieving bright spot. It’s positioned exactly where you want it, easy to set up (which you can follow here), and straightforward to use. Android Pay is the logical use for the fingerprint scanner, yet I found simply having my fingerprint unlock the phone a huge value. I didn’t have to wake the screen and then put my finger on the little circle. Any time I put my finger on the little circle, my Nexus 5X would unlock. Whether you’re using it for a swifter unlocking or enhanced authentication, the fingerprint scanner will serve you well. The Nexus 5X has one of the fastest-reading fingerprint scanners I’ve ever come across.

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Overall, the phone is not worth any dollar amount right now because of what it presents to owners. A cold display and inconsistent performance is not what anyone should be spending a dime on, let alone $349. Consumers should stay away from the Nexus 5X until Google and LG explore performance issues and push out a fix. You’re not getting a hallmark Android experience with the phone in its current state, a statement never expected to be said regarding a Nexus device.

Battery

Inside the slim body of the Nexus 5X is a 2700mAh battery made by LG because of the company’s massive LG Chem subsidiary. Again, like the display, you would expect battery life on the phone to be pretty good because of the in-house element of the component. Sadly that expectation is not met. The Nexus 5X can either go very short and almost average under normal use. When I first got the phone, I was able to go from 9AM to 9PM before needing to charge it. Mind you I’m not a heavy user who uses Snapchat all day or plays games pushing the processor with complex graphics. My daily activities include using Hangouts, Gmail, Twitter, Chrome, and Threes. Now, four months later, I’m getting even worse battery life. Getting twelve hours without finding a wall outlet for charging is impossible. But some days it’s surprisingly better than usual and I’m baffled. The point is consistency is an issue in this department, too.

Saving the Nexus 5X from having downright awful battery life is optimization from the software. Doze, one of Android’s newest features, recognizes when the phone is inactive for a period of time and defers apps’ network and processor access until you return to using it. Overnight or during other stretches of inactivity, the Nexus 5X’s barely is hardly scathed.

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Wireless charging is a no-go and a physical connection at the USB Type-C port is the only way to recharge the phone. Included in the box, like I mentioned before, is a USB Type-C to USB Type-C cable and a wall outlet adapter. I’ve never been spoiled by wireless charging; therefore, charging the Nexus 5X at wall outlets is nothing but common practice for me. Google says ten minutes of charging leads to around four hours of battery life, and I can’t really accept or reject the company’s claim. I do know the Nexus 5X ‘charges rapidly’ whenever I use its official charger, and I’m a little afraid to use any chargers not sold by Google because of recent issues leading to damaged devices. You can expect the Nexus 5X to go from 0% to 100% in about two hours of charging.

Software

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Because Android 6.0 Marshmallow has been out for several months, I’m going to keep this section short and sweet. The Nexus 5X is running the latest version of Android without any fluff covering it, a perfectly good reason to buy it over non-Nexus phones. Everything you’ve seen and heard about Marshmallow is here in an untouched format, and I doubt you haven’t heard it’s beautiful. Material Design, in my opinion, is the best thing to ever happen to Android. Google has been able to mold Android into a beautiful experience with colors and animations ingeniously placed throughout.

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In 2012, Google launched Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with Google Now as the centerpiece. It transformed Google Search into a digital assistant that knows you and your habits. Users could fire up Google Now by swiping up from the bottom of the display. The other way, which is now the only way, to get to the digital assistant activated is by going to the left of the home screen. Marshmallow introduced Google Now on Tap, a new way to automatically perform searches using on-screen information. Google Now on Tap appears when you hold down the Home button for more than a second. It’ll then get to work and analyze whatever is on the screen. Results are quick and contain links to sites, social media accounts, and contact information.

Google Now on Tap keeps getting new features as well. Late in 2015, Google added a screenshot action and additional information to its contextual arm of Google Now.

You’ve probably been bothered by having to jump through all sorts of menus to share a link, file, or other item. Android, prior to Marshmallow, made it difficult to just share something in a brief way. Direct Share cuts out the middleman by putting shortcuts at the forefront when you want to share something. Frequent contacts and apps will appear at the top of the list when you want to share an item, and selecting one will go directly to that person or app.

Minor productivity on Android is improved because of the floating panel when selecting text. In Marshmallow, the floating panel gives Cut, Copy, and Paste actions in addition to Select All and Share.

App permissions has been a sticking point for Android over the years. Google’s solution in Marshmallow is making permissions a case-by-case option. Users have the ability to choose which permissions they want to give to an app and which permissions they don’t want an app to take advantage of. Opting to give an app like Instagram access to the camera is obvious, but maybe handing over your contacts isn’t necessary. Case-by-case app permissions is golden in this world of securing your world of information.

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My favorite feature ushered in by Marshmallow is called Chrome Custom Tabs. Google used to force developers to decide between launching a device’s browser or an in-app browser when a link is tapped. Chrome Custom Tabs gives developers the control they want and the speed they need.

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Users benefit from the speed and Chrome-like nature. Let’s consider Twitter’s implementation of Chrome Custom Tabs. Go through a link from your timeline and you’ll get these options: Share via TweetShare via Direct MessageCopy linkShare via…Find in page, and Open in Chrome. It’s like you’re using Chrome without being in Chrome.

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Since you’re getting a phone directly from Google, expect to receive software updates with new features and security patches before anyone else. That’s the longtime major luxury of buying a Nexus device.

Camera

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Nexus devices, despite Google’s efforts annually, have generally suffered from pretty bad cameras. Things are said to be different with the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P as they have what Google calls the “best all-around camera we’ve ever put into a Nexus.” The 12.3MP camera has large 1.55μm pixels to pick up more light in any environment, and this is absolutely true. I’ve never experienced better low-light results on a phone than the pictures from the Nexus 5X. The larger pixels as well as the two-tone LED flash help the Nexus 5X produce results that can go head-to-head with the pricier phones on the market.

For recording video, you can shoot in 4K even though the phone doesn’t have a display ready for it. Be mindful that 4K video recording will go through storage space in a heartbeat and there’s no microSD card slot to save the day.

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Google Camera, picked by our Jared Peters as one of the best camera apps today, is pre-installed on the phone. The controls you see in the image above are for shutter, switching cameras, viewing the gallery, setting a timer, turning on/off HDR+, and adjusting flash. Google Camera can also allows for Photo Sphere images and panorama shots. Google’s in-house camera can’t get any simpler to use.

Pictures taken with the Google Camera app are automatically stored in Google Photos, the on-device and cloud storage hub for photos on the Nexus 5X. It makes for a seamless gallery experience across mobile devices and the web.

Closing

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Google might’ve been holding off on selling two Nexus phones at the same time out of fear of cannibalizing one of them. Part of the reason Apple never sold two models of the iPhone at once was potential cannibalization. Over time, Samsung and other companies have proved your bottom line can handle selling similar phones in different sizes. So Google warmed up to the idea late in 2015 with the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X, but the company didn’t figure out a way to give value to the lesser of the two. The Nexus 5X is currently lost at sea.

Think about the Motorola Moto X Pure Edition and HTC One A9 for a minute. The Moto X Pure Edition starts at $399, only a hair above the Nexus 5X, and comes with a number of edges over Google’s secondary flagship. Motorola’s flagship has a bigger and better display, masterful processor/RAM combination, lengthier battery life, and unique software additions like Moto Display. Google tried replicating Moto Display on its Nexus phones, but Motorola clearly knows what it’s doing as my Nexus 5X couldn’t figure out when to alert me with the right amount of information. The One A9, with its bigger $499 price tag, has a superior display and performance is too even with the weaker Snapdragon 617 processor. See what I’m getting at? Google’s Nexus 5X is surrounded by fierce competitors that can do better. Photography is the sole ‘easy’ win for this Nexus phone. Stock Android and timely software updates aren’t enough when Motorola and HTC are easing up of overlays and pushing out software updates within weeks or a few months of Google.

The Nexus 5X is made by LG, a very good hardware manufacturer who made a number of the components found in this phone; however, the display is underwhelming and the performance woes basically cause you to give up on using it. We’re not saying this about a phone imported from a no-name brand in China, my friends. Google called for an experienced partner, LG, to co-develop the Nexus 5X. Everyone wanted it to be a reborn Nexus 5 with updated specifications. On paper, that’s what Google and LG gave us. Going beyond the paper and actually using the phone, the expectation went unmet. The Nexus line is meant to be solid, but the Nexus 5X feels anything but complete.

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About the Author: Justin Herrick

Born and raised in New Jersey, Justin is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University where he studied marketing with a focus on digital marketing. He's very talkative and enjoys discussing anything from technology and sports to video games and television. As for Justin's current device rotation, he carries around the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and Nexus 9. In the rare case that his phone or tablet is not in his hand, he is either flicking through cards on his Moto 360 (2015) or typing away on the Microsoft Surface Book. Justin is patiently waiting for the day that Google replicates the Galaxy Nexus with modern day specifications.


  • brrndan

    Why is there a review for a device that has been out for so long already?

  • Bardo

    Not to mention we have been able to pick up a 32GB Nexus6 for ~$260 on sale several times since the 5x release. $100 cheaper than the 32GB 5x at its cheapest and arguably better specs (screen, battery, OIS, Qi charging, ram).

    The 5x is too big to cater to those who want a small phone, and too expensive to cater to those who are looking for value. : /

    I think it would have sold like hotcakes at $250.

  • Pete

    The Nexus 5X weighs 136g (not 152g as stated in the article).

    • Justin_Herrick

      Thanks for catching that!

  • Jeena Bittenbender

    Still a big contender. Nexus and MOTO are the way to go.