Google Nexus 5X review:

The lightweight, affordable choice for Android purists

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.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say I'd pick this camera over the ones in the Nexus 5X's closest competitors: the Moto X Pure and the OnePlus 2. When I took some side-by-side pictures under identical conditions, those other cameras actually captured a little bit more detail in the center of the image, but objects near the edges seemed a little blurry. Low-light pictures also turned out noisier: I saw more little colored blotches when I zoomed into a Moto X or OnePlus 2 photo.

Shot in a fairly dim room, the Nexus 5X pulls plenty of detail out of the shadows. Sean Hollister/CNET
You can see loads of detail in my black backpack, even though it's so much darker than the brightly lit interior of this train. Sean Hollister/CNET
Despite having more megapixels, the Moto X Pure Edition can't achieve the same clarity. Sean Hollister/CNET

I will say, though, that I miss the optical image stabilization (OIS) of my Galaxy S6 whenever I try to take a picture with the Nexus. OIS really does meaningfully cancel out the way my hands shake when I try to take a smartphone picture, and it means I have to take more pictures with the Nexus 5X before I get a shot I like. It sucks that Google dropped it from these latest Nexus phones when it used to be a standard feature.

I really like train platforms. Sean Hollister/CNET

And I also don't know if I'd necessarily pick a Nexus 5X over a Nexus 6P if the camera was important to me. While Google says both phones have identical cameras, right down to the individual lens elements, we definitely noticed a couple differences in low-light shots. The Nexus 6P images look a bit cleaner zoomed in, probably thanks to some additional noise reduction, and they also seemed a touch warmer and truer to life in various lighting conditions. (Well-lit daylight shots seemed almost identical; only the low-light ones really differed.)

The Nexus 5X also doesn't have the burst mode, electronic image stabilization or 240fps slow motion mode of the Nexus 6P. It doesn't have a burst mode at all, actually.

The Nexus 5X (left) and Nexus 6P (right) take very different selfies.

As far as selfies are concerned, I think the Nexus 5X's front-facing images actually look quite good. They're sharper and more detailed than ones I get from my Galaxy S6 or the Nexus 6P. But that's probably because the phone isn't softening them to hide the bags under my eyes and correct for harsh lighting. Honestly, it's a matter of personal preference: do you really want an accurate-looking selfie? Also, be warned that the front-facing camera doesn't shoot a very wide angle; if you stumble across your favorite boy band it might be hard to fit them all in the picture.

If you ask me, the biggest thing Google needs to fix is the camera app. It's ridiculous just how little it can do. You can't even adjust the brightness. It's pitifully slow -- I measured 0.73 seconds per shot -- compared to high-end smartphones that can continually capture photos just by holding down the shutter button. I've also seen the app freeze a couple of times. I do like how you can double-tap the Nexus 5X power button to immediately launch the camera when the screen's off -- I can do it one-handed -- but if you try it when the screen's on, it'll often just lock your phone instead.

The Nexus 5X also shoots 4K-resolution video, which definitely seemed sharper than its 1080p-resolution video, but nothing to write home about. It's becoming a standard feature on new smartphones. It's also turned off by default.

Hardware performance

  • 1.8GHz six-core Snapdragon 808 processor
  • 16 or 32GB storage
  • 2GB RAM
  • 2,700 mAh embedded battery
  • USB-C port for data and charging

Here's the real reason you might buy a Nexus 5X: performance.

You know how most Android phones ship with a whole bunch of preloaded apps -- aka bloatware -- that bogs things down? The Nexus 5X has none of that. Plus, it's got a six-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor that's powerful enough to make phones feel fast even if they come with some junk. (Just take a look at the LG G4 , one of 2015's best handsets.) The Nexus 5X has both of these factors in its favor, and -- photo performance aside -- they seem to make the Nexus 5X a speedy, competent phone.

I'm seeing speed that's not far behind my personal Samsung Galaxy S6, which costs hundreds of dollars more. Not only is swiping around the Nexus 5X interface fast and fluid, but it handles games pretty well -- though I did notice intense 3D titles like Goat Simulator and Riptide GP2 ran a little smoother on my Galaxy than the Nexus phone.

Our benchmark scores back that up:

3DMark Score (Ice Storm Unlimited) performance charts

Google Nexus 6P
24,224
OnePlus 2
22,685
Samsung Galaxy S6
20,778
Moto X Pure Edition/Style
19,725
Google Nexus 5X
18,973
Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (5.5)
7,588

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench 3 performance charts

Samsung Galaxy S6
1,371
4,608
Google Nexus 6P
1,286
4,313
OnePlus 2
1,142
4,261
Google Nexus 5X
1,246
3,536
Moto X Pure Edition/Style
1,271
3,528
Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (5.5)
609
2,548

Legend:

Geekbench 3 Score (Single-Core)
Geekbench 3 Score (Multi-Core)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Two things to note, though. First, the Nexus 5X can take a little while to boot up -- as long as 50 seconds. Second, it only comes with 2GB of RAM. While those two gigabytes definitely seem sufficient for everything I do with a smartphone, newer phones are starting to ship with more. Last year's Nexus 6 and the new Nexus 6P come with 3GB, and the new Galaxy Note 5 has 4GB by default. It's something you might want to consider if you'll be using this phone for a while.

Battery life

I've been watching the battery meter like a hawk the past five days, and it's pretty clear: If you're the kind of person who uses a smartphone non-stop, and doesn't charge it mid-day, the Nexus 5X's battery life might be a concern. I want my smartphones to make it to my bedside charger no matter what, but I saw my battery dwindle to critical levels on days I used it heavily. On days I connected a Bluetooth smartwatch for a little additional battery drain, it threatened to die before dinner.

In our standard video looping test, which uses the phone non-stop, we only saw 8 hours, 55 minutes from the 2,700mAh battery. That's not a particularly great score. While that result would be on par with the Moto X Pure Edition, it's far behind the 12.4 hours we saw from the pricier Galaxy S6, which comes with an even smaller 2,550mAh battery. You'd think the Nexus would last longer.

And yet, if you're the kind of person who sets your phone down for prolonged periods, you might not notice a problem at all -- because the Nexus 5X drains remarkably slowly when it's just sitting out. Likely thanks to Android Marshmallow's new Doze feature, which puts apps into a deep sleep when the phone detects it's not moving around, I saw the battery dip just 10 percent over a three-hour period. And that was with my Bluetooth smartwatch still connected.

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The USB Type-C charging and data port, next to the headphone jack. Josh Miller/CNET

USB Type-C

While the Nexus 5X and the larger Nexus 6P don't have wireless charging, they do happen to feature the fancy new USB Type-C port. It's a bit of a mixed blessing, I'm afraid. On the plus side, these phones top up fast with the included 15-watt charger: I'm regularly seeing the Nexus 5X battery hit 30 percent after just 15 minutes.

The catch is that you have to use a USB-C cable and a suitably fast charger, and the Nexus 5X doesn't even come with a simple adapter to convert your existing USB chargers or Micro-USB cables to the new standard. They won't work. (Google sells those adapters and cables separately for $13 or £11 each, and you might also try these cheaper ones from OnePlus.)

Update, November 16th: Actually, those OnePlus cables might not be the best pick. A Google engineer claims they don't include an important resistor -- required for phones like the Nexus 5X which feature fast charging -- that could help protect your electronics from damage.

What makes the USB-C port a little more annoying is that these phones don't actually support new features like faster data transfer and video output that USB-C was supposed to be synonymous with. Even though they use the new reversible connector -- admittedly it's nice to fumble around less in the dark -- the phones are stuck with the old USB 2.0 data speeds instead of USB 3.1. Transferring a big video file to the Nexus 5X took quite a while.

Call quality and data speeds

  • GSM and CDMA technologies
  • LTE Cat. 6, bands B1, B2, B3, B4, B5, B7, B12, B13, B17, B20, B25, B26, B29, B41
  • Dual-band 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi
  • Project Fi

The Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P are two of the very few smartphones available in the US that offer so many different cellular options in a single device. You can slot in a SIM card from practically any carrier.

I tried a little bit of that with my Nexus 5X, swapping out a T-Mobile SIM for a Verizon one here and there with no difficulty whatsoever. (I didn't even have to restart the phone.) And I also spent a couple days testing Google's Project Fi -- a service which actively hops between multiple cellular networks in the US (T-Mobile and Sprint) to give you better coverage.

Like most recent handsets, the Nexus 5X is capable of some serious speed over an LTE data connection if you luck out. I saw download speeds as fast as 50Mbps, and upload speeds as high as 32Mbps, when measuring with Ookla's Speedtest.net mobile app in downtown San Jose. Then again, I also saw download speeds as low as 2Mbps, and uploads as low as 1Mbps. It depends on your location.

The good news is that it performs just as well as other phones with the same capabilities. I measured nearly identical speeds on a Galaxy S6 and the Nexus 5X on the same T-Mobile USA network in the same exact locations -- and regardless of whether I was using a T-Mobile SIM or a Project Fi SIM to access that T-Mobile network.

As far as actual calls are concerned, I could hear people about as well with the Nexus 5X as I usually do over a cell phone, which is to say not very well. The earpiece gets loud enough, but phone calls always seem a little garbled compared to a good VoIP call over Skype or Google Hangouts. (The Nexus 5X speakerphone, on the other hand, sounds terrible no matter what.) On the other end of the line, however, my caller told me I sounded a little more muffled than usual.

Conclusion

Google's Nexus 5X is the motorcycle of smartphones. It's the freedom of the open road, with nothing standing in your way. No restrictions on which cellular carrier you choose, no unwanted pre-installed software, and no giant, heavy chassis. It's a smartphone you can park in a pocket with ease, and steer with a single hand. Like a good bike, it's also a bargain price for the raw horsepower you're getting.

But there are good reasons most people choose cars over motorcycles. You know, little creature comforts like windshields. Stereo speaker systems. A big gas tank. Plush, comfortable seating. With the Nexus 5X, the smartphone equivalents of these are missing.

I miss the silky soft-touch rubber finish of its predecessor, the Nexus 5. I miss the clicky buttons, and the wireless charging, and being able to watch a movie without having to plug in a pair of headphones. Yes, the speaker audio quality really is that bad. I also miss the firm metal chassis, wireless charging, gorgeous screen and optical image stabilization of my pricier Galaxy S6, too. For me, the Nexus 5X definitely feels like a step down.

Still, the Nexus 5X has everything you actually need in a smartphone, and it's got a relatively smaller footprint than some admittedly great larger, heavier alternatives you can find for around the same price.

If you want a meticulously constructed, highly personalizable handset with a far better screen and stereo speakers for watching your movies, the $400 Moto X Pure Edition (known as the Moto X Style in some countries) is your phone. Like the Nexus, the beefy 5.7-inch handset is also compatible with most major cellular carriers worldwide. It starts at £399 in the UK, but comes with 32GB of storage. You can only get it in Australia on contract through Vodafone.

The Nexus 5X alongside its closest competition: the Moto X Pure Edition, aka Style, and the new Nexus 6P. Josh Miller/CNET

The OnePlus 2 is another solid, metal-rimmed 5.5-inch handset with better battery life and an even cheaper $330 starting price (about £215 or AU$450), though the company's invite-only system makes it hard to buy one.

Then, of course, there's Google's own Nexus 6P , the biggest of them all. It starts at $500, £449 or AU$799, but includes 32GB of storage for the price. (The 32GB Nexus 5X is $429, £379 or AU$559.)

We originally thought the HTC One A9 , shipping in November, might also be worth waiting for. It has an even smaller battery than the Nexus 5X, but also a smaller, all-metal unibody frame surrounding its 5-inch AMOLED screen. HTC says it will get new Android updates within 15 days of the latest Nexus phones, and will ship with Android Marshmallow too. But it's tough to recommend its notably slower performance and weaker battery life at $399, much less the $499 it costs after November 7. (It's an even steeper £430 in the UK, and pricing or availability for Australia hasn't been announced yet.)

But if you get the chance, I highly recommend borrowing a Nexus 5X from a friend before you make your decision. Who knows: you might be a motorcycle fan.

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