A new Nexus phone used to be something to get excited about for Android devotees; it represented what Google thought could be an ideal mobile experience for others to build off of. The Nexus 5X doesn't quite engender that same mystique, but after spending over a week with one, we can still recommend it as one of the best overall value smartphones around.
The Nexus line has had some ups and downs the past few years, beginning with the beloved Nexus 5, which was followed by the huge Nexus 6 phablet that was less beloved (especially with retail prices starting at $699), and now we have the new Nexus 5X released alongside the larger, more premium Nexus 6P.
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Is Google trying to simultaneously re-capture the magic of the Nexus 5, while offering phablet fans a choice? It sure seems that way, but lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place.
What does happen twice in the same place though is a phonemaker like LG making a pretty good follow up to a popular predecessor like the Nexus 5, and that's what has happened here with the Nexus 5X -- it's not magic or lightning in a bottle, but it is a good phone at a good price.
From the moment you pick up this 5.2-inch phone, you can understand why it starts at only $379 for a 16 GB model. It's made of lightweight plastic, but we find it to be a refreshing change from larger or heavier, metal-frame Android phones.
In an age of leather and ballistic-nylon-backed devices, it's understandable why some might find the Nexus 5X a little plain, but it's important to point out that simple isn't the same as cheap. There are plenty of inexpensive phones out there that feel budget through and through, but this isn't one of those – it's solidly constructed with a matte back that isn't too slick and provides a nice hand feel.
If there is one thing to love about the Nexus 5X, it's the perfectly positioned fingerprint sensor on the back panel, just below the camera. Expect this to be something that becomes standard on many Android smartphones in the relatively near future. It makes one-handed operation as easy as it's ever been by simply just touching any registered fingertips to the sensor surface to unlock or power on the phone.
Nexus Imprint, the name Google has given its fingerprint ID system, also works as well or better than any comparable fingerprint security system on other devices. It can be setup in under 30 seconds, recognizes fingerprints regardless of your fingertip's orientation on the sensor and is also blazing fast. Just reach for your phone, pressing your index finger on the sensor as you pick it up, and by the time you've actually brought your phone up to your face it's already locked and ready to go.
Nexus Imprint also allows you to use the fingerprint sensor for payments in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which comes loaded on each Nexus 5X. Marshmallow hasn't been the most exciting upgrade to the mobile OS, as we haven't found its biggest new feature, Google Now On Tap, to be all that useful in these early stages (it's more a foundation for the future than a killer feature right now). But it's always good to know that each Nexus device will be towards the front of the line for future updates.
The other notable improvement over previous Nexus models in this phone is a camera that's finally respectable. Past Nexus devices have shipped with, at best, good enough and, at worst, sub-par cameras, but the 12.3 megapixel camera with laser auto-focus on the back of the Nexus 5X is competitive with the best smartphone shooters.
Here are a few sample shots (downscaled resolution, but you can click on each image to see a higher-res version):
The 5 MP front-facing cam is also average and serviceable for selfies.
The stock camera app seems like a clean and simple interface at first, until you realize that it seems that way because it is profoundly lacking in features and settings. There's no burst mode, or any other modes, really, save for photo sphere, panorama and "lens blur" features, none of which are particularly easy to use.
The ability to quick-launch the camera by clicking the power button twice is nice and the laser autofocus does speed up the process of composing a shot, but it seems like the software slows it back down. There's also no optical image stabilization in this camera, which can slow down the process of getting that perfect shot even more. Yet, with all these complaints, this is still a better camera than the Nexus 5 had – that's more an indictment of the older phone than praise for the 5X.
Video is also average and will get the job done on the fly. The camera is capable of shooting in 4K, but that's turned off by default, which is probably wise for a phone with limited storage and no microSD card slot.
Speaking of limitations, the front-facing speaker is quite unimpressive. It's not capable of much volume and the quality gets muddy really easily when it's turned all the way up. This looks to be one of the places where corners were cut to keep costs down.
The chipset is built around a speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.8 GHz 808 processor and 2 GB of RAM. It's not the most powerful setup out there, but it's pretty nimble. We did manage to bog it down when multitasking – streaming audio, texting, Facebook messaging and navigating Chrome all at once overwhelmed the Nexus 5X, but perhaps that's a lot to ask of most smartphones.
This is also the rare phone that has near universal network compatibility, be it GSM, CDMA or even Google's own Project Fi. We popped in a Verizon sim card and it hopped on to the network without needing so much as a reboot. Call quality is just as marginal as any other phone call over a wireless network and connecting to mobile data and making VoIP calls over Skype or Google Hangouts Dialer works just fine, except that the speakerphone coming through that one front-facing speaker still sucks.
The 5.2-inch display, at 1080 x 1920 (423 pixels per inch) is another upgrade over the Nexus 5. It isn't mind-blowing but it's still plenty of pixels for a screen this size for almost all uses.
The USB-C port is a welcome upgrade, as is turbo charging, just be sure to buy yourself a USB-A to USB-C cable so you can plug into your laptop and older chargers. It doesn't come with the Nexus 5X, but it's only about US$10-15 via Amazon, Google or elsewhere. Unfortunately, while you get the ease of the reversible USB-C port, it's still USB 2.0 versus a later version, so data transfers actually aren't much faster than older USB connections.
Battery life is not great for heavy use, as it just barely gets me through most days, but the Doze feature in Android Marshmallow is great for preserving battery life when the phone isn't being used. More than once already we've forgotten to plug the phone in at night and found the battery depleted by less than 25 percent in the morning, after sitting on a desk for several hours. Consider it a small consolation for the lack of wireless charging capability in the Nexus 5X.
In our looping video test, with brightness set to about 75 percent, we saw battery charge decrease by about 12-20 percent per hour, which is pretty average.
If you've read all the way to this point, you might be starting to get the idea that this is a pretty average phone, which it is in many respects. But the low starting price of just $379 for a 16 GB model running stock Android and all the future updates puts the Nexus 5X into a very small group of solid Android phones that aren't elite flagships, but deserve to be elevated above the flock of mid-range phones, especially when the price is factored in.
We'd put the Moto X Style (Pure Edition) and the OnePlus 2 in that same group with the Nexus 5X. The Moto X offers a slight bump in specs like the screen, camera and RAM for just $20 more, but it's a bigger phone (that isn't an advantage in everyone's book) with no USB-C or fingerprint sensor.
The OnePlus 2 is cheaper at $329, but its invite and order system is a hassle, it's GSM-only and a little bigger at 5.5-inches.
The Nexus 5X is available now. It doesn't have the magic of some earlier models in the vaunted line, but it is a great value for a versatile, stock Android phone with some key forward-looking features that will do most things well enough.
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