Google Nexus 5X review:

The lightweight, affordable choice for Android purists

Close
Drag
  •  
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
Compare These
3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good The Google Nexus 5X offers great performance, wide carrier compatibility, great pictures, an excellent fingerprint sensor and a relatively small, lightweight chassis, all for a fairly low price.

The Bad Battery life can be a little weak, and the Nexus 5X looks and feels cheap compared to similarly priced phones. The front-facing speaker sounds terrible.

The Bottom Line The LG-built Google Nexus 5X is a fantastic pick for people who want a relatively small, lightweight smartphone with excellent value for money.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Camera 8.0
  • Battery 6.0

I've just spent six days with the Google Nexus 5X. It's not quite like any other smartphone you can buy today. It's one of a growing crop of handsets that provide high-end performance for under $400 (or £339 in the UK) -- only this one's made of plastic.

At first, I hated it. I couldn't get over how cheap this phone's plastic frame feels for the money. Why would anyone buy a $379 Nexus 5X when they could have the solid metal construction of a Moto X Pure Edition for just $20 more? But I grew to understand the Nexus 5X's charm.

At 5.2 inches, it's smaller and lighter than today's jumbo phones. I can carry the Nexus 5X around with ease. Smart hardware features -- like a fingerprint reader around back that can also power on the phone -- let me use it with a single hand. Compatibility with both GSM and CDMA network technologies mean I can pop in a SIM card from practically any cellular carrier around the world and it'll just work.

That's right, in the US it supports AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint, plus a lot of other regional and prepaid carriers as well.

And because the 5X is a Nexus phone, it also has the Google home advantage.

Along with its big brother -- read my colleague Jessica Dolcourt's review of the Nexus 6P here -- the Nexus 5X is one of the first phones to officially include the latest Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system, and offers guaranteed updates to future versions of the OS. (That's a far cry from nearly any other Android phones, which often leave you waiting up to a year -- or more -- for upgrades to the latest version of the operating system.) It's also one of only three phones that officially support Project Fi , Google's own cellular service.

The Nexus phone family. From left to right: Nexus 4; Nexus 5; Nexus 6; the new Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. Josh Miller/CNET

Those are the reasons I like the Nexus 5X. Would it be a good phone for you, though? Let's dig into the details.

Availability

The Nexus 5X is available from Google's online store in the US, UK, Ireland, Korea and Japan to start, with devices shipping in late October. In Australia, you can preorder now, with the phone shipping on November 3. It's a single device that should work on most major wireless networks around the world, including all major US cellular carriers, and it comes in three colors: black, white and mint green. Here's the pricing breakdown:

Google Nexus 5X pricing

16GB 32GB
US $379 $429
UK £339 £379
Australia AU$479 AU$559

In the US, Google also offers the Nexus 5X for as low as $15.79 per month on a 24-month installment plan for customers who sign up for its Project Fi cellular service. It also offers a two-year warranty against accidental damage and mechanical failures, called Nexus Protect, which costs $69 for the Nexus 5X. There's no word on when either Project Fi or Nexus Protect might come to other countries.

The Nexus 5X design leaves something to be desired. Josh Miller/CNET

Design and build

  • 5.2-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution LCD display (423ppi)
  • 5.78 by 2.86 by 0.31 inches (147 by 27.6 by 7.9mm)
  • 4.8 ounces (136 grams)

There's no easy way for me to say this: I don't think the Nexus 5X is a particularly good-looking phone. The handset, made by South Korea-based LG, looks cheap. It feels a bit like a toy. Honestly, it reminds me of the cheap plastic phones I used to find for free (with a two-year contract) at the back of my local AT&T Wireless store. The rear cover feels like it should pop right off, even though it doesn't. If this phone could speak, it would say, "It's okay if you drop me, because I'm made of plastic."

That's not always a bad thing. I like the idea of not needing to be quite so protective of my phone. And at least the plastic back is oleophobic, meaning it resists fingerprints quite well.

But cheap is the word. The power button and volume rocker, on the right edge, feel shallow when I press them. The two front-facing speaker grills look a little cheaply manufactured, and stick out awkwardly from the scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3 display. The edges of the phone, while nicely bevelled towards the screen to add extra grip, are a rough plastic that digs into my skin. I find myself feeling a desire to take some fine-grit sandpaper to them.

Old Nexus 5 (top) versus new Nexus 5X. Guess which one costs more? Josh Miller/CNET

Why am I harping on these things when the Nexus 5X starts at just $379? Haven't we already established that this is a cheap phone? Sure, but so was the original $350 Nexus 5 from two years ago.

That phone, also built by LG, looks and feels so much better to me now than the new Nexus 5X. It's got higher-quality buttons, a much nicer silky smooth soft-touch rubber texture, and all sorts of little design touches like embossed lettering and metal details around the camera lens. (Upgraders be warned.) I do like the new display, though, which seems a smidge sharper despite providing the same 1080p resolution.

And even though the new Nexus 5X's display is pretty good -- maybe a bit dimmer than I'd like outdoors -- it seems as though LG may have cheaped out on the speakers too. And by speakers, I mean a single mono speaker, and one that sounds positively terrible at that. I tried watching movies, playing games, and listening to music on the Nexus 5X, and I couldn't bear to do so without plugging in a pair of headphones into the 3.5mm jack on the bottom. The weak, shrill, lopsided sound my Nexus 5X speaker produces is an affront to anyone who appreciates audio. You may think your old iPad's single speaker sounded crappy, but trust me, this is worse.

Thankfully, design is only part of the Nexus 5X story.

The Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanner is smartly positioned. Josh Miller/CNET

Nexus Imprint

Despite all of the design flubs, there's one physical feature of the Nexus 5X (and larger Nexus 6P) that totally charmed me. There's a raised silver disc on the back of the phone that serves as a divot for your index finger. You can rest your finger there, and use it as a balance point when you're wielding the phone with one hand. (It's easy to find by feel.) If that sounds familiar, it's because Motorola has been using the same idea for a couple of years . But unlike the divot on Motorola's backing, the one in the Nexus 5X surges with electricity -- because that's where Google hid the phone's fingerprint reader.

It makes so much sense. I just place my index finger where I'd be placing it anyhow, and I'm automatically securely logged into the system. It doubles as the phone's secondary power button, too: one tap and my screen flares to life, immediately ready for action. No need to swipe across the screen, reach down for a home button, or any other potentially awkward gesture (though you can do those things, too).

Also, I've found the new Nexus Imprint fingerprint reader remarkably easy to use compared to ones from Samsung and Apple. It's so amazingly accurate. You don't need to fully cover the sensor with the tip of your finger like on other devices, and it doesn't matter which direction your finger is pointing when you press it. The only times it failed to recognize my finger were times I completely missed touching the sensor, which was clearly my fault.

And gosh, is it fast, too. I timed it at around half a second to go from a sleeping phone to one that's ready for action. That's faster than my Galaxy S6, faster than the OnePlus 2, faster than the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and on par with the latest iPhones.

There doesn't seem to be any pocket protection for Nexus Imprint, though. More than once I've felt the phone buzz and turn on after brushing my finger against the scanner in my pocket. And since it's on the back of the phone, you can't easily activate it when it's just sitting on your desk or mounted to the dash of your car. That can sometimes be annoying.

OS and apps

  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • Google Now on Tap

One of the best parts of Google's Nexus smartphones is that they come with a totally clean version of the Android operating system. You won't find loads of unwanted apps or half-baked software features. And in the case of the new Nexus 5X (and Nexus 6P), we're also seeing the launch of Android 6.0 Marshmallow , a brand-new version of the operating system.

The Nexus 5X runs stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Josh Miller/CNET

Let me start by saying that I'm really glad the Nexus 5X runs Marshmallow, because I hate being behind in the technology world, and I'm partial to a few of the new features that Google added.

For instance, I like the new app drawer that scrolls vertically instead of paging through apps horizontally, because it feels like I can find things quicker (a search bar at the top of the apps tray also lends a hand). I'm also a big fan of the new app permission system that lets me tell an app it can access my camera, location or other personal information only at the time it actually needs it, instead of granting every single program I install carte blanche to potentially siphon off my information. (Not that they ever have.)

But honestly, I don't know if Marshmallow is reason enough to actually buy a new Nexus. I haven't found many standout new features in this new version of Android, and the biggest one was a bit of a disappointment for me. It's called Google Now on Tap.

Now on Tap lets you perform a Google search for all sorts of things without interrupting the things you're already doing on your phone. Say you're scrolling through your Twitter feed, and you spot someone talking about El Niño. You could just hop on over to the Google app and type in "El Niño" -- but Now on Tap might takee care of that for you. Just hold down the home button, no matter what you're looking at, and theoretically, your phone will automatically Google it for you.

Google Now on Tap can scan your screen and pull up relevant Google results. It works in any app.
Now on Tap also recognizes contextual voice commands.

It's pretty amazing seeing it work in all sorts of apps, and even text messages. It doesn't require app developers to support the feature, which means it could get more and more useful as Google invisibly adds more search results. But for me, invisibility is actually the problem right now. It just takes too long to start searching, and it doesn't always find what I'm looking for. And since I never know whether it'll work before I dedicate several seconds of my life to finding out, it feels like more of a curiosity than a useful tool. An actual Google search in my browser always works, and doesn't take much longer.

But again, the reason to buy a Nexus phone isn't to get a whole bunch of crazy new software features baked into the OS. It's about having a pure, unadulterated experience where the software gets out of your way. On the Nexus 5X, Marshmallow delivers that.

Cameras and video

  • 12.3-megapixel rear camera with f/2.0 aperture and laser autofocus
  • 5-megapixel front camera
  • 4K video at 30 frames per second, slo-mo video at 120 frames per second

They say "the best camera is the one you have with you," but that's always felt like a stretch when talking about Nexus phones. Most of them have had pretty terrible cameras compared to your average iPhone, particularly in difficult lighting situations.

This year, Google decided to do something about that. The new Nexus 5X comes with a brand-new 12.3-megapixel camera designed to turn around that mediocre reputation. It boasts a Sony IMX377 sensor with comparatively large 1.55-micron pixels (because bigger pixels let in more light) and a laser autofocus system to lock onto targets quickly.

The 12.3-megapixel Sony camera could be the most important feature. Josh Miller/CNET

And sure enough, this camera takes some pretty great smartphone photos. I've gotten some bright-looking shots in less than ideal lighting, and I'm generally pretty impressed with the clarity I'm seeing across the entire frame.

Editors' Top PicksSee All

  • Samsung Galaxy S7

    Starting at: $595.00
    4.5 stars

    We reviewed the new Samsung Galaxy S7 in London, Berlin, San Francisco and Sydney. It's...

  • Apple iPhone 6S

    Starting at: $32.41
    4.5 stars

    3D Touch promises a new type of future input on iPhones. It joins an improved camera and...

  • OnePlus 3

    Starting at: $499.99
    4.5 stars

    You just don't see cheap phones with this combination of price, polish and prime-time...

  • Motorola Moto G4

    Starting at: $149.99
    4 stars

    The G4 packs everything you need from an everyday phone into a water-resistant body. And...

 

Discuss: Google Nexus 5X (16GB, ice)

Conversation powered by Livefyre