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Nexus 6P review: the best Android phone

The Nexus steps up to the big leagues

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The Nexus 6P is a premium phone.

"Premium" is a funny word when it comes to phones. It's as though everybody in the business of judging them got together in a secret cabal to come up with the most awkward language possible to describe the set of ineffable qualities that separates the very best phones from the rest. They get designated as "flagships" with "elegant" design that are "top tier" thanks to some combination of their materials, craftsmanship, specs, and of course their (usually very high) price.

It’s a pretend category, maybe, but you know it when you see it. For a long time, it included the iPhone and not a whole lot more. Later, you would see Samsung and Sony's best in there (and maybe HTC, in a good year). But Nexus phones never really played at this level. The history of Nexus phones is a history of great, clean software paired to hardware that is usually flawed in some fundamental way: cheap plastic or a bad camera or missing some vital thing like LTE. The Nexus 6P has none of those flaws. It's the first Nexus device made by Chinese manufacturer Huawei, and Huawei came to win.

This is a Nexus phone, and it's also a premium phone. It's nice to finally be able to say that.

Read next: Nexus 5X review and Android 6.0 Marshmallow review

Nexus 6p

The Nexus 6P is built on a frame of aluminum, and it's a big, solid slab of a phone. Instead of smooth, rounded curves, the 6P has chamfered corners and 90-degree angles — but they're done well enough that it doesn't feel rough in the hand. You can get the phone in white, silver, or black (well, "graphite").1 Everybody always worries about aluminum phones being too slippery, and I can't really say that the 6P is better or worse than anything else in that regard.

I like the black one, if only to signal to phone manufacturers everywhere that black phones are still cool and it's dumb that so few of them give us that option anymore.

Phones designed this way have a sense of unity and coherency, and the best of them also have a sense of inevitability — as though you couldn't imagine a phone looking or feeling any other way. The 6P doesn't quite get there, but it gets very close.

The reason it doesn't is that there's a glass bulge on the back where Huawei has crammed a bunch of components like the camera, flash, autofocus laser, NFC, antennas, and who knows what else. Calling this little panel a "bulge" is unfair, though, because it doesn't stick out all that far — it looks far bigger in photos than it does in person.2

And I have this weird problem of not knowing which end of the phone is up when I pull it out of my pocket, so if nothing else the camera bump helps me align the thing.

Don't sweat the bulge: it gives the 6P a visual identity and doesn't hurt anything; it doesn't make it feel tippy, either — its weight is evenly distributed. And yes, the phone is big, much bigger than the Nexus 5X.3 It's nearly the exact same size as the iPhone 6S Plus and noticeably taller than the Note 5 — so I do wish that it were a little bit shorter. Most importantly, it feels just as well built as both of those phones.

It’s also more expensive and has more powerful specs than the Nexus 5X. I am sympathetic to people who don’t want a phone this large and think the 5X could be a viable option for them. But call me a convert: big phones forever.

There is plastic here, too: subtle antenna lines on the sides and a tiny rail between the screen and the body. Pay them no mind. More annoying is a plastic panel on the rear bottom of the phone — again for antennas. It doesn't exactly match the color or texture of the aluminum, at least on the graphite model. But it does have a benefit, I'm getting much better wireless performance on the 6P than I ever did with the Nexus 6.

But I quibble. The Nexus 6P feels solid, whole, and balanced. The glass on the front symmetrically frames the 5.7-inch screen with dual speakers and a blessed lack of logos. And heck, if you want, you can turn on an RGB indicator light for notifications, located in the upper lefthand corner.

The screen on the Nexus 6P is a 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display, which works out to a "you'll never see the pixels" 518PPI. It's sharp and bright, and like many AMOLED displays, it has its color saturation settings cranked up pretty high. I actually don't mind that, but if you do, you can turn on developer settings and set it to the sRGB color mode.

The other thing I like about the screen is that Huawei nailed the little details that are often all screwy on AMOLED screens. It doesn't show any weird banding when you look at it from an angle. Even better: when you turn the brightness way down, it doesn't turn whites into a hideous shade of maroon. I'm also happy with the adaptive brightness settings on the 6P, which is not something I can say of every smartphone.

If you compare it to last year's Nexus 6 (appropriately codenamed "Shamu"), it's simply no contest. The Nexus 6 is like an A10 Warthog, all big and bulbous and kind of silly. It has not aged well. The Nexus 6P is an F22, sleek and toeing the line of looking aggressive without crossing it. It's a beautiful object.

Nexus 6p

There's one more design element on the 6P to talk about: the fingerprint reader. Google calls it "Nexus Imprint" because the impetus for companies to Brand All The Things knows no bounds. But luckily, the scanner itself is designed to look subtle and restrained: it's just a simple recessed circle on the back of the phone.

Google's decision to put it there instead of on the power button or a physical home key leads to some hassles. You can't use it when the phone is set on a table, for example. And if you're the kind of person who walks with your hands in your pocket, get ready to be annoyed. I cannot count the number of times the 6P read my palm in my pocket and briefly vibrated to let me know that I had not, in fact, unlocked the phone.4

Sorry, introverts, you're going to have to learn to take your hands out of your pockets. It sucks — believe me I know.

But all of those hassles pale in comparison to how well Nexus Imprint actually works. It's perfectly positioned for your index finger when you're holding the phone, and like Dan with the Nexus 5X, I've gotten used to just tapping it as I pull my phone out of my pocket. It's so fast it's uncanny, simultaneously unlocking and turning on the screen with a single tap. Training it is fast, too; it only takes about five or six taps to get it set up. Google says that it continues training itself as you use it, and I've yet to have anything but the most glancing touch fail to unlock the 6P.

Separating the fingerprint sensor from the power button on the side also makes sense, because you get two different functions. If you have notifications on your lock screen, you can hit the power button to quickly glance at them and interact with them5 or just tap Nexus Imprint to jump directly into the phone. It's great.

The 6P also has an ambient, low-power display in black and white that's supposed to kick on when you move the phone. But in my experience, it's really hit and miss when it turns on. However, it does light up on incoming notifications if you want it to, which is convenient.

Speaking of the power button, it has a new trick: double-tapping it launches the camera. From a powered-off state, it's crazy convenient. From a powered-on state, it's crazy annoying. That's because the first tap of the power button locks the screen, and so the camera launches in a locked mode. For whatever reason, Android 6.0 isn't smart enough to just let me unlock the phone with Nexus Imprint while in a locked camera mode, so I end up bouncing back to the home screen to interact with the photos I just took.

You can also use Nexus Imprint to authorize Android Pay and buy stuff in the Google Play app store, and beyond that Google has set it up so third-party app makers can use it, too. I haven't found any that do yet, but I saw 1Password on Google's list of partners at the announcement event, and I can't wait for it to be updated.

Nexus 6p

And now, at long last: the camera. It's the most fraught part of any Android phone review and certainly of any Nexus phone review. We live in a world where you can buy any number of phones with beautiful (or at least passable) hardware, with decent speed and great screens, and with about a day of battery life. Really, it's an embarrassment of riches. But until this year, all but a very few Android phones have fallen short of where they really ought to be when it comes to the camera.

This year, things have changed and the bar is set much higher. Samsung, Sony, and LG have shown that you can produce a great camera that gives you great results without making you fiddle with manual settings. Even Motorola has done a much better job than in years past. If Google couldn't step up and finally produce a Nexus phone with a good camera, tables would be flipped.

Leave your tables planted safely on the floor: the camera is great.

To make that happen, Google turned to Sony for a new 12-megapixel camera sensor.6 Sony’s sensors have sat inside some of the best camera phones on the market, so it makes sense that Google would go there. It was the right move: the difference with this sensor is that the pixels on it are larger than usual (1.55μm), which allows them to bring in more light, more quickly.

Technically, it's 12.3 megapixels. Actually, technically the shots you get are 12.2 megapixels, as Google says "Final resolution of the images may be less than 12.3MP." Probably it's to get the images cropped to an exact 4:3 aspect ratio.

But we've seen other companies make similar claims about pixel size yet turn out simply bad results (Hi HTC), so the real proof is in the pictures. And, as I said, the pictures are really good. In sunlight, the Nexus 6P yields sharp photos with rich colors — maybe even a little too rich for some people. But that saturation also includes really good color accuracy, especially in the reds. Indoors, in normal light, the white balance is accurate and human skin tones look, well, human.

In low light, the 6P performs much better than the Nexus 6, but the story isn't quite as good as Google would have you believe. The company says that these larger pixels obviate the need for optical image stabilization, but there were times that the camera was no match for my shaky hands. Even so, in all but the dimmest of rooms you'll get a pretty solid shot that's at least in the same ballpark as the competition.

There are new modes, too. You can take a burst shot where Android will show you eight still photos and also flag which one it thinks is best. After you're done, you can hit a button to make either a collage or an animated GIF from your bursts (without having to wait for Google Photos to offer it up to you). It's all a bunch of great ideas, especially making a GIF, which is more shareable than the iPhone's Live Photos. Unfortunately, I've yet to create a GIF that's any good; they're not built with enough photos to really feel alive.

You can also do 4K video and slo-mo at 120 or 240 frames per second (at 720p). All three worked really well in my testing, and I like that you can adjust which section of your video gets slowed down, similar to how you can with the iPhone.

Really, my biggest complaint about the camera software is that the HDR mode is still slower than I'd like. Whether HDR is on or in auto, there's a longer processing delay than there ought to be on a phone this powerful. That said, going into HDR really does help with low-light performance, so I'm glad the button to toggle it is right there on the main viewfinder.

So, camera: really good, just not quite as good as the best of the best in all situations. But you're getting this camera on a phone that costs $150 less than those others. I've long argued that a phone's camera has one job above all else: make it simple to get great shots without having to do anything more complicated than hit the shutter button. You need to be able to just trust them to get it right.

I trust the Nexus 6P's camera.

Nexus 6p

The Nexus 6P comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor clocked at 2GHz, backed by 3GB of RAM and a separate chip for tracking data like your movement. The upshot of those chips is that the thing is fast and fairly power efficient. Combined with Android 6.0, I've not detected any lag or dealt with any slowdowns, even in intensive games. This is a huge difference from the Nexus 6, which struggled under the new Android way of encrypting storage by default.

As long as I'm talking about specs, kudos to Google for going with 32GB of storage on the base $499 model of the Nexus 6P (unlike the base model of the iPhone 6S). That's exactly how it should be.

Battery life is fine. I'm getting through a full day without issue, and on our battery test of refreshing a web page every 60 seconds, it clocked in at a little over 8 hours. That's not quite as good as the Note 5, but it'll do. Even though I basically trust this (actually surprisingly large) battery, I still have to admit that watching it drain when I'm shooting video or doing intensive gaming can be a bit of a nail-biter.

But rather than chew your nails, learn to stop worrying and trust Android 6.0's new battery management features. There's App Standby, which shuts down little-used apps, but it will only make a marginal difference. The game changer is Doze, which seems to shut down damn near everything when the phone is sitting on a desk (priority messages like SMS and phone calls will of course come through). Pick it up, and everything pops back on. Since I received the phone on Friday, I've intentionally not plugged it in overnight and only lost a couple of percentage points while I slept. That's really good.

I'm also super impressed with fast charging. I was able to get from 25 percent up to 45 percent in just 15 minutes and charge from nil to full in just over an hour. Getting those numbers requires using the provided power brick and, yes, the new USB Type-C charging cable. Type-C is great tech: it is reversible, enables these faster charging times, and, hell, you can use it to charge another phone off the 6P. It's definitely going to be the future for phones, laptops, and tablets. But until everybody gets on board, it does mean you're going to have to make sure you have all the right cables with you.

We've already reviewed the software on the Nexus 6P, Android 6.0 Marshmallow. If you want to know what the software experience is, that's the best place to look. But I will add that in addition to being fast, Android on the Nexus 6P feels both clean and natural. Google makes Nexus phones in part so it has a development platform, so it makes sense that the software feels like it belongs here.

Nexus 6p

The Nexus 6P effectively levels the playing field with other great phones by offering really beautiful hardware and a camera that can finally compete. And it does that while undercutting all of them on cost. The Nexus 6P starts at $499, and for that price there is not a single phone on the market that's better. Not one.

If you compare it to the other "premium" phones like the iPhone 6S, Galaxy S6, or Note 5, you're going to end up finding yourself putting a different set of things on your decision scales than before. With the Note 5: is a slightly better camera and a stylus worth $240 more, or would you rather have a clean Android experience? And the iPhone 6S: is iOS's superior app ecosystem and 3D Touch worth $150 more,7 or do you live in Google's ecosystem and want Google Now on Tap?

And actually, the price difference rises to $300 once you match up both storage (64GB) and screen size (Nexus 6P vs. iPhone 6S Plus).

I'm not going to answer those questions for you here, only point out the remarkable fact that with the 6P, these are the questions now. Call it the premium category, call it the big leagues, call it whatever you what: the Nexus 6P and Google are competing at a different level than they did before. The Nexus was always a good Android phone, sometimes a great one, but never the best one.

Now it is.

Photography by Sean O'Kane