New Nexus 5X, 6P smarties: Google draws a line in the sand
If you're going for Android, go to the source
Review Google’s latest Nexus smartphones, the 5X and the 6P, were announced last month, and while there's a lot to be said for the upgrades, there's some unfortunate omissions.
It has been five years since the first Nexus smartphone was unveiled, and since then the Chocolate Factory (and assorted hardware partners) has used the brand to show off the latest builds of its Android operating system - in this case Marshmallow, version 6.0 of Android.
The advantage of this is that Nexus owners get Android updates first, and the same goes for security updates too. The disadvantage is that historically the Nexus series has been built with good-enough hardware rather than something that will blow your socks off, in a good way.
The original Nexus 5 was the first handset to carry Android 4.4 (KitKat) back in November 2013 and is getting very long in the tooth by modern standards. By contrast, the Nexus 6 running the first build of Android 5.0, aka Lollipop, came out less than a year ago, but Google has decided to upgrade both with the new OS build.
Google handed out the handsets to journalists to review on Thursday, and we’ve been putting the new handsets through their paces. Based on early findings, the new "Nexi" are going to be the smartphone of choice for the serious Android user, and give Apple and Samsung users something to think about.
The LG-built Nexus 5X
- Size and weight: 147.0 x 72.6 x 7.9 mm, 136 grams.
- Display: 5.2" Corning Gorilla Glass 3.
- Power: 2700mAh battery, and USB Type-C connector for charging.
- Camera: rear: 12.3Mp; front: 5Mp.
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808, 64-bit ARMv8 1.8GHz hexa-core system-on-chip with Adreno 418 GPU.
The Huawei-built Nexus 6P
- Size and weight: 159.3 x 77.8 x 7.3mm, 178 grams.
- Display: 5.7" Corning Gorilla Glass 4.
- Power: 3450mAh battery, and USB Type-C connector for charging.
- Camera: rear: 12.3Mp; front: 8Mp.
- Processor: Qualcomm® Snapdragon 810 v2.1, 64-bit ARMv8 2GHz octa-core system-on-chip with Adreno 430 GPU.
Evolution, with a hint of revolution
From a technical perspective, both the Nexus 6P and 5X are upgrades rather than new devices, especially in the latter's case.
The LG-built Nexus 5X
Google has stuck with LG as its hardware partner for the Nexus 5X, and it shows in the familiar design. Slightly taller and wider than the Nexus 5, and with thinner side bezels, the 5X ups the screen size from 4.95 to 5.2 inches, and the 1920 x 1080 LCD screen is bright and clear.
The 5X is billed as thinner than its predecessor, in some ways. LG shaved 8mm from the new model, but the rear-facing camera adds a few millimeters standing proud on the back. Despite a more rounded feel, it has also gained six grams on its earlier incarnation.
Something existing Nexus 5 users might find initially unsettling is that the ceramic volume rocker and power button are now both on the right hand side of the new handset. This makes things very awkward for lefties, but the Nexus 6P has the same setup.
Motorola built the original Nexus 6, but Google sold off the mobile firm to Lenovo, and has now gone to Huawei for its hardware. The results look rather impressive.
The 6P is the same height as its predecessor, and thankfully slightly slimmer - even the most fanatical Nexus users at Google bitch about the chunky Nexus 6 being difficult to hold onto. But Huawei has managed to chop the thickness down from 10.1 to 7.3 mm, making it much easier to manipulate.
The width of the 6P is now only half a centimeter more that the 5X, and it’s clear that the new design is less of a media player and more for users who want the extra battery life and screen size and don't mind a little extra bulk.
Huawei-built Nexus 6P
Six-inch plus screens are not the way to go it seems and the 6P comes down to a 5.9-inch AMOLED display covered in version 4 of Corning’s Gorilla glass. While the Snapdragon 810 processor in the 6P gives it as much grunt as anything else on the market, both phones have enough iron inside, and smart software, to do most jobs.
Separate, but subtly similar
Besides the operating system, both of the devices share a number of features - most notably the camera hardware. Both carry the same 12.3 megapixel rear-facing camera, which Google has been raving about since launch, and come with Google’s upgraded Photos app.
The camera has a Sony sensor set to handle 1.55 micron pixels, significantly larger than any other mobile phone vendor out there. Google claims this improves both low-light photography, and makes optical image stabilisation much less of an issue.
That works, up to a point. In low light conditions both handsets did better than their predecessors, particularly for indoor photography. But image stabilization is still – well – shaky, at least for off-the-cuff shots.
Pleasingly, Google has recognised that we don’t want to be wasting time clicking icons when there’s something picture-worthy happening. A double-click on the power button instantly brings up the camera and a simple swipe changes the recording to a video.
A bit of a handful ... the two new Nexus smartphones (the 6P is on the right)
Also included is software that can handle recording 4K video, or taking 30 frames-per-second recordings and then storing them as gifs or sorting through each still image to produce the best picture. This, and the hardware, puts both handsets on a par with the latest iPhones.
Google has a long way to go before it can compete on camera quality with Microsoft’s top-end Lumia devices, which use very large sensors and break the 20 megapixel mark – albeit at the cost of having to use Phone 10 and suffer an app famine. Nevertheless, Google’s new cameras are a welcome improvement.
Google has also embraced fingerprint recognition with the new smartphones. Both have a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor just below the main camera and in testing it worked very well indeed.
Getting the software to learn your fingerprint takes less than 10 swipes and, once installed, the reader is surprisingly versatile. The prime fingers can be applied at any angle and still unlock the phone.
Another similarity is the shift to USB Type C connectors with both handsets. The new connectors have a number of technical advantages, but that’s just window dressing on the sheer joy of never putting a USB connector in the wrong way again.
The new connectors are certainly marvellous when it comes to charging. Android 6.0 has a fast charging function built in and this, coupled with the new connector, means you can get much better amounts of battery life out of both devices than we’ve seen so far.
Bigger and smarter batteries
In El Reg tests, the Nexus 6 went from drained to fully charged in 94 minutes. But the battery was half-full in a quarter of that time thanks to fast-charging power systems, and the Nexus 5X was even faster to the 50 per cent charged mark.
That’s not the entire picture, however. The Nexus 5X hit 51 per cent of battery power after 27 minutes, and was 90 per cent charged after an hour, but then took another 28 minutes to get the last 10 per cent. The 6P’s charging slowed less rapidly towards the end, but sip power early and often seems to be the message.
Battery power is the bugbear of portable tech users, but the Nexus family, and particularly the ageing Nexus 5 handsets, were renowned for their failing battery life. The fast charging capabilities, and the improved battery sizes, are a smart move from Google and its hardware partners.
Another important factor in this is the Marshmallow build of Android, in particular the Doze function. Smartphones sitting in standby always lose power, but the Doze code powers down larger chunks of the operating system when the phone is not in use.
On the new hardware the results are very impressive. The phones last much longer in standby mode and the resultant power savings are impressive if users configure settings to get the most out of it but standing by often.
A smart user can easily get a full day’s use out of the Nexus 5X - six hours of Wi-Fi streaming video and normal call functions didn’t kill the battery until we turned the flashlight on for an hour or so. As for the 6P, the 3,450 mAh battery could easily give two days' normal phone use.
And the downsides
Despite some good advances, however, the Nexus line is still lacking in too many areas and suffers from some bizarre choices.
For example, both the Nexus 5 and 6 carried Qi-compliant wireless charging systems. Neither of the new phones do and it’s something Google is keeping quiet about. During the hands-on sessions at the launch the prevailing answer was “You’ll have to speak to the engineers about that,” of which there were none.
From an accountant’s point of view it’s easy to see why wireless charging might have been cut. There’s a standards war in progress, it adds to the unit cost, and very few people have wireless charging kits, yet. But that will change.
Something a lot of El Reg readers get annoyed about is the lack of removable storage in phones, and again the Nexus line falls down in this regards. Yes, Google is an internet company and we should all be using the cloud, but if you’re selling a 16GB phone then some extra storage would be polite.
The bottom line, and the hidden kicker
When it comes to pricing Google is sticking with more of the same; the Nexus 5 line is low cost and you pay for power.
The 5X comes in 16 and 32GB flavors, with prices starting from $379 - a little more than the Nexus 5 but still cheap at the price. In the UK, you're looking at £339 and upwards.
A top-of-the-range 6P, with 128GB of storage, will set you back $649, but if onboard storage isn’t a big deal, a 32GB version will set you back $499 plus tax. At the time of publication, they were out of stock at the Google Store.
Neither of those are a bad price, compared to paying a carrier for the privilege of being locked into a two-year contract in the US. As an added bonus Nexus users get Android updates (and latterly security updates) sooner than anyone else.
But Google has one more trick up its sleeve; it hopes to grow not only as a seller of mobiles, but also as a mobile ISP servicing them too, via Project Fi. In April the Chocolate Factory confirmed that it was buying mobile access from network operators to service the Nexus line.
Project Fi is invitation-only in the US at the moment, but the premise is simple. Pay a flat fee of $20 a month for domestic voice calling and SMS, unlimited international SMS, cheap international calls, and coverage in more than 120 countries, with no annual contract or termination fee.
Data gets charged at $10 a gigabyte but, crucially, any unused data get refunded. It’s a very tempting package for those in the US paying hand-over-fist for crappy cellphone plans, and could prove a major spur for the Nexus line.
Presently only Nexus 6 phones can use Google as a provider, so the 5X and 6P could bring the service more mainstream when they launch later this month. Google’s going to find more competitive markets harder to crack, but Fi could become a major force in the mobile industry if it plays its cards right. We’re testing the service now and will let you know how it turns out. ®