Nexus 5X Review


WhistleOut
09 November 2015

The LG-manufactured Nexus 5X is a bang-for-buck mid-range phone that delivers as close to a top-tier user experience as you can get, without actually paying top price.

The few problems there were with LG’s former huge Nexus success – the Nexus 5 – are gone. What remains is one of the most rewarding phone experiences on the market. This is simply the best phone we’ve used in a while, when you consider the asking price.

As far as direct competition goes, the Nexus 5X can sort-of compete with the likes of the Galaxy S6 or the iPhone 6s. In a direct guns-out contest against such competition of camera vs camera, or CPU vs CPU, it would lose, but not by much. That’s high praise for something aimed at a completely different price range in the market.

Instead, the Nexus 5X is supposed to go up against phones like the cheaper Moto X Play, the similarly-priced Moto X Style (AKA the Moto X Pure), and a slew of other devices in the same pricing category that simply cannot compare to the 5X, no matter how hard they try.

In short, ask yourself not if the Nexus 5X is better than other phones in its price range. With the possible exception of the Moto X Style (which we’re reviewing next), it is. Instead, ask yourself if you’re willing to pay a lot less than you would for a Galaxy S6, or iPhone 6s, and sacrifice only a very small amount of user experience and camera quality in order to save a big slab of cash.

Design

Physically-speaking the Nexus 5X isn’t much of a head-turner. It’s well-designed, solid, easy to use and is by no means ugly – but it’s a far cry from some of the stunning designs we’ve started seeing in recent years.

For a fully-plastic device it does manage to cut a decent figure. Smooth, elegant curves flow down from the protruding camera lens and over the edges, giving the impression of a single, seamless case. The material itself is some kind of polycarbonate that doesn’t provide the same tacky feel found in other devices with plastic construction, and offers good grip and no-doubt contributes significantly to the incredibly-light weight.

Below the camera lies the circular finger print scanner. This is excellently-located, and seems to have been inspired by a mixture of LG’s own rear lock button placement on the LG G3 and G4, and Huawei’s (the manufacturer of the 5X’s sister phone – the Nexus 6P) own finger print scanner positioning.

It’s easily reachable with the forefinger of either hand, giving lefties access right alongside righties. The location on the rear means you barely have to move your finger when using it, making it a more hassle-free experience than if it were located beneath the home button, as on an iPhone or Samsung device. Visually, it also contributes to the overall design. The simple circular shape, located between the logo and camera, looks pretty cool; this is no sloppily tacked-on extra.

Finally, and worth mentioning, is the location of the volume and lock buttons on the right-hand side. While this is admittedly less of a great thing for lefties, the important thing to note is that both buttons are easily-reachable without performing any kind of finger gymnastics. Despite it being 2015, a lot of phones still hit shelves with top-mounted lock buttons, or volume controls shoved way up near the top of the phone where they can be hard to get at.

Considering the average person checks their phone dozens, or more, times per day, little things like ease-of-access really do matter in the long term.

User experience

With each update, the un-skinned, pure Android experience gets better. Attractive, fluid, fast, and functional, there’s a lot to be said for Google’s own vision of what Android should be, as opposed to the UI overlays employed by the likes of Samsung, HTC, Sony and other equipment manufacturers.

Nexus devices are usually the first Androids to boast the latest update out-of-the-box (and the first to update with new releases). This time around it’s Android Marshmallow (6.0), and it’s a helluva thing. Snappy, subtle animations throughout the whole system are a constant reminder that you don’t need heavy overlays to create a fun, modern-feeling experience.

Moreover, now that fingerprint scanning is built right in to the OS, the rear scanner on the 5X is probably the fastest and most-accurate we’ve used. That’s not to say others are bad: scanning tech on smartphones has pretty much reached the point where it could be considered “hassle-free” most of the time, but there’s still something to be said for being just a little bit better.

The placement is definitely one of the best bits. Only having to move your forefinger slightly to the side, as opposed to reaching for the home button on an iPhone or Galaxy S, is a noticeable improvement. It might not sound like much, but after the 30th or so time you do it in a single day you start to get very appreciative.

As for what it does, that’s simple: security and security. You can unlock your phone from standby mode (no need to wake the phone first, which is a nice touch), or do anything else that would normally require a phone PIN. That might not seem like much, but taking something like locking down your phone, and removing the time commitment that usually implies every time you want to use it, is a rare best-of-both-worlds situation.

The display itself is a 5.2 inch 1080p affair. That’s on the smaller side of standard for a modern flagship, and the 1080p resolution doesn’t do it any favours on paper. In reality it’s a little different. Even the best of eyes have trouble telling the difference between 1080p and anything better, especially on a ‘smaller’ 5.2 inch screen.

For comparison, that resolution and screen size gives you around 423 pixels per inch (ppi). An iPhone 6s affords just 326ppi, and an iPhone 6s Plus 401ppi. Even though this is the cheaper, ‘lesser’ Nexus screen option, it still has image clarity that can compete with the most popular flagships on the market.

Colours are vibrant and accurate, sensitivity is high, contrast is good and brightness is easily enough to handle direct sunlight on a summer’s day, if turned to maximum. Overall, a great display.

Battery life is satisfactory, but un-impressive. You’ll get a day out of the Nexus 5X with medium-to-heavy use. That’s a fair bit of browsing and a whole lot of audio playback, with some streaming. This is no two day, or even day-and-a-half charge. You’ll be looking for a power outlet by bedtime, but we rarely found ourselves searching for a charging point before day’s end.

A new charging cable standard

Oh brave new world that has such cables in it. The Nexus 5X and 6P are the first of a new wave of devices that support the emerging "USB-C" port standard. This new port is a different shape that eliminates the classic USB problem of trying to plug it in upside down, but is thus incompatible with the micro-USB cables that preceded it.

Before you get up in arms please consider this: it was always going to happen eventually. As technology moves forwards, old standards become replaced with new ones. Redundancy is part of life in the 21st century. This is nothing more than micro-USB coming to the end of its 'natural' life.

The potential benefits of the new cable are two-fold, although only one has been implemented in the Nexus 5X.

  1. Faster charging means pretty much what it says. USB-C cables can carry more charge more-easily, juicing up your gadgets in a fraction of the time.
  2. Faster data-transfer. USB-C ports can be used for the USB 3.0 data standard. This is significantly faster for moving bits and bytes around. Unfortunately, the Nexus 5X is still working on USB 2.0.

The downsides of USB-C (for the moment) are also two-fold:

  1. The cable in the box has a USB-C port on both ends. This means you can't plug it in to the vast majority of PCs and laptops out there. Older cable styles had one full-sized USB port on one end, and a micro-USB on the other. You'll either need an adaptor, or to buy a cable with USB-C on one end and the old full-sized standard on the other. Which brings us to our second point:
  2. Buying new cables is way more expensive than the old micro-USB standard. This makes sense; USB-C is relatively new and right now demand isn't too high. That means higher prices. If you want extra cables around the house, be prepared for a decent outlay.

Eventually neither of these problems will exist, as new PCs, latptops and other devices move towards embracing the new standard and one day even forgetting the old, but we're not there yet.

Camera

This was always going to be a make-or-break area for the 5X. LG’s previous Nexus – the Nexus 5 – had a sub-par shooter at best. That was acceptable at the time; the Nex5 was a bit cheaper than the 5X, and the world had not yet become accustomed to high quality, affordable smartphones. In 2015 we’ve seen our fair share, not the least the Moto X Play, which has a thoroughly passable shooter.

Happily, the Nexus 5X passes the test. The camera captures some pretty great images in good conditions, although does admittedly struggle a little once the light starts to dim. That’s no surprise; even top-tier smartphones have difficulty in low light, so it can hardly be held as a mark against the Nexus 5X.

Oddly, the default camera mode is 4:3, and not the more-modern 16:9. If you want the full 12MP, you have to use the 4:3 ratio. At first this was dismaying, until we actually compared one of the 8MP 16:9 shots against the default setting. Although the wider photos are actually achieved by digitally zooming in on what would have otherwise been a taller picture with the same width, they somehow often come out looking a little better.

To the naked eye, when viewed full-screen on a PC, the two image modes are relatively identical in their level of detail. In terms of colour, we found 16:9 to be a little more vibrant. That's not to say it was more accurate; reality was somewhere between the two, but the coloration of the wider variant was definitely more pleasing to the eye.

Now the problem: switching between the two aspect ratios is super glitchy. Going between the two often caused out camera app to crash so hard that simply going in to the multitasker and disabling it was insufficient; a full phone restart was required. That shouldn’t come up too often, as most people just pic a single ratio and stick with it.

It’s also not the fastest camera. Shots can often take up to a full second to capture. That may not sound like much, but it’s easily enough time to miss the perfect photo opportunity, or even let a guanine smile fade in to one of those awkward “have you taken the photo yet?” looks that turn up in your feed from time to time. Most of the time delays were will under a full second, but it did crop up often enough to notice.

All told, the Nexus 5X takes good photos; they take a bit of time on occasion, but generally you’re going to be grabbing pics worthy of any social media feed. Just don’t go jumping between aspect ratios too often unless you’re a sucker for punishment.

Verdict

The only issues we had with the Nexus 5X were those with camera lag and the bugginess of switching between photo aspect ratios. Other than that, this is a fantastic phone; one of the best we’ve ever reviewed and so far my personal favourite of 2015.

Of course, these verdicts were reached by pairing the overall Nexus 5X experience with its attractive mid-range price. Where the Samsung Galaxy S6, iPhone 6s and LG G4 would all be first choices if smartphones were completely free, none of them can quite hold a candle to the 5X when you’re talking value for money.

The general user experience is the reason we fell in love with it. Hassle free, fast, smooth, and capable, with that surprisingly-useful fingerprint scanner and refreshing return to a 5.2 inch display (as opposed to the increasingly-standard 5.5 inches), the Nexus 5X is definitely worth considering very seriously as your next smartphone.


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