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Nexus 5X review

One for the fans

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There’s a funny thing about fans (whether they’re fans of a sports team, a band, or a particular company or product): they can be hard to please. Google learned this with last year’s Nexus 6. It was a much larger and more expensive phone than the Nexus 5 that preceded it, and there was no guarantee that if you loved the Nexus 5, you’d also love the Nexus 6. In fact, many Nexus fans did not like the 6, as they were either not interested in spending $650 for a new phone or using one that’s roughly the size of a mid-’70s Coupe de Ville.

So this year, Google has rolled out two new Nexus phones. There’s the larger and more expensive Huawei-made Nexus 6P, which my colleague Dieter Bohn will examine in detail. And then there’s the Nexus 5X, the first real successor to 2013’s Nexus 5. The 5X carries many of the aspects that made the Nexus 5 so beloved: it’s usable in one hand, has a solid list of specs, and has a starting price south of $400 ($379, to be exact). It’s also built by LG, which was responsible for the Nexus 5 and Nexus 4.

If ever you could say a smartphone was fan service, the Nexus 5X would be it.

Read next: Nexus 6P review and Android 6.0 Marshmallow review

Nexus 5X

The Nexus 5 wasn’t known for having great design, and the 5X is no different. It’s a boring phone. It’s boring to look at, boring to touch, and doesn’t engender any sort of emotion when you use it. It looks and feels like a reference design for what a smartphone should be, not a finished product that you can actually spend money on.

That isn’t to say it’s poorly made or prototype-y: its plastic pieces are snapped together tightly, and I’m not too concerned with the durability of the phone. (Though, in retrospect, maybe I should be, given how many shattered Nexus 5 screens I’ve seen first hand. Google says it is using Gorilla Glass 3 on the 5X, which is the same glass as on the Nexus 5.) It just doesn’t excite me when I pick it up, and I’m not compelled to hold it just for the sake of feeling its build or materials. There’s also a hollow echo sound whenever I tap the 5X with my finger, which quickly reminds me that I’m not using a top-tier flagship smartphone, but something less.

The 5X's design doesn't evoke any emotion, but works well in one hand

But materials aside, the 5X does fit really nicely in my hand. This year, I’ve been using (and enjoying!) so many giant phones that I’ve forgotten how great it can be to have one I can use in one hand. I’ve been using it while carrying groceries, holding a kid, pushing a shopping cart, and sipping a cup of coffee, and I’ve not dropped it once nor had any issue using it to its fullest. The matte plastic finish on my white review unit is dull to look at, but it’s not slippery like a metal or glass surface might be, and I can easily manage it with a single hand.

I’ve also become a master at unlocking my phone before it’s even out of my pocket thanks to the new fingerprint sensor on the back of the 5X. I was really skeptical that this would be as good as a front fingerprint scanner, like you’d find on an iPhone or Samsung device, but the 5X’s scanner falls perfectly under my index finger and is lightning fast. By the time I’ve gotten the phone out of my pocket and up to my face, the screen is on and it’s unlocked. It’s so fast that I’ve gotten used to just not seeing the lock screen at all. The downside to all of this is that I can’t use my finger to unlock my phone when it’s sitting on my desk, which is a slight, but noticeable annoyance.

There are a couple of other minor changes with the 5X compared to the 5. The 5.2-inch, 1080p display is slightly larger, but otherwise very similar in appearance. It’s sharp and nice to look at, but colors are noticeably flat and lack the punch or vibrancy of other smartphone displays. The speaker has been moved from the bottom of the phone to the front, but it’s still a single speaker. And the 5X now uses a USB Type-C cable for charging, which is more of a hassle than a convenience at this point. Google provides a single, short Type-C cable in the box that can’t plug into a standard USB port without an adapter, so you should budget for spares to replace all of those now-useless Micro USB cables lying around your house. The 5X also lacks wireless charging, so if you bought a bunch of wireless chargers for your Nexus 5, those are now useless, too.

Nexus 5X

But the biggest update for the 5X is its new, 12-megapixel camera. It’s the same camera Google is using on the 6P, and it’s by far the best camera ever put in a Nexus device. It has large pixels and can take great photos in most lighting conditions. As lighting conditions get trickier, the 5X can stumble, and I don’t think it’s as good as the best smartphones in low light. But it’s so much better than the cameras on earlier Nexus phones, it’s hard to complain. Most people will be really happy with the pictures coming out of the 5X.

Most people will be really happy with the pictures coming out of the 5X

Google’s new camera app is a different story, however. It’s slow, especially when shooting HDR, and barebones, and it doesn’t let you do basic things like capture still photos while recording video. There are no manual controls to speak of, and it can take a long time to launch on the 5X. The camera can be launched with a double tap on the power button, but it’s a clumsy and awkward experience that turns the phone off, then turns it back on to use the camera. For all the good Google did with the actual 5X camera output, the experience is tainted by the lousy app.

Though the 5X and the 6P share the same camera sensor, f/2.0 lens, and laser-assisted autofocus system, there are a few things the 6P is capable of that the 5X is not. The 5X lacks the 6P’s intelligent burst mode (in fact, it has no burst mode to speak of at all), and though it can record 4K video, slow-mo options are limited to 120fps at 720p resolution. The 5X’s front camera is 5 megapixels, while the 6P has an 8-megapixel selfie shooter.

Nexus 5X

The 5X also differs from its bigger sibling in processor and RAM, and it’s here where you can really see that corners were cut on the 5X. The Snapdragon 808 processor and 2GB of RAM aren’t up to pace with the most powerful phones in 2015, and from time to time, it really shows in the experience. A lot of the time, performance is just fine, with smooth scrolling in apps and responsive and quick interactions. But then the phone might hang for a few seconds when launching the camera and I’ll miss a crucial shot of my kids, or I’ll get annoyed waiting for the browser to pop open after clicking a link. Another gig of RAM would likely do wonders for the 5X.

Fortunately, the battery life on the 5X is greatly improved over the 5, which was inconsistent and largely disappointing. The 5X’s 2,700mAh battery isn’t the biggest you can get, but it’s strong enough to get me through a day of heavy use without topping up halfway through. Part of that likely has to do with Android Marshmallow’s new Doze feature, which really aids in standby time when I’m not using the phone, but it’s also clear that the 5X is just more efficient when I am using it. I’ll never get two days between charges, but I’m not forced to charge at 3PM either. The 5X supports quick charging with the included power brick, and it took just over an hour to bring it from zero to fully charged.

Being a Nexus phone, the 5X comes with the latest Android software and zero bloatware. We’ve already reviewed Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but I’m just going to note here that the 5X takes advantage of all of Marshmallow’s highlight features, such as the aforementioned Doze, fingerprint scanner support, Now on Tap, and better app permission control. Like the iPhone 6S and Moto X, the 5X can also respond to voice commands without having to wake the screen, and I’ve been finding myself using it a lot to set alarms and do random Google searches throughout the day.

Nexus 5X

Hardcore fans may be difficult to please and even fickle at times, but if you give them what they want, they can be your biggest supporters. With the Nexus 5X, Google is giving those die-hard Nexus 5 fans all that and then some.

But Google is now selling two Nexus phones, and through that lens, the 5X is very obviously the lesser one. Compared to the larger (and pricier) 6P, it has compromises in both performance and design. And though it fights really well in its mid-tier price bracket, if you bump it up to the next weight class, it doesn’t quite hold up to the true flagships from companies such as Apple or Samsung.

Still, if you’ve been holding onto a Nexus 5 for two years just waiting for Google to do right by you, those points might not matter. Barring few exceptions, such as the lack of wireless charging, there’s very little that a Nexus 5 lover will find to complain about with the 5X. It’s compact, cheap, and performs well, even if it’s not the best-looking or best-feeling phone you can get. If you’ve been eyeing Motorola’s new Moto X or the plethora of other phones in the sub-$500 price range, the 5X is a really compelling option. In fact, among phones under $450, I don’t think there’s a better option, and it’s easily the one I’d pick.

Sometimes, listening to the fans isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Product photography by Sean O'Kane