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After a weekend with the Google Nexus 5X, we think we know who this phone is for (ongoing review)

Google's no-frills $379 smartphone seems fast, but it may leave you wanting more.

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I'm starting to think that 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 (it works with AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint in the US), no unwanted pre-installed software, and no cumbersome chassis. Like a good bike, it's also a bargain price for the raw horsepower you're getting.

For just $379, the Nexus 5X is a small, slim, featherweight phone you can steer with a single hand and park in a pocket with ease. Its 6-core Snapdragon 808 processor is a stone's throw away from the performance of pricier handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S6. The 12.3-megapixel Sony-manufactured camera seems pretty great, too.

But there are good reasons most people choose cars over motorcycles. You know, little creature comforts like windshields. Stereo speaker systems. Plush, comfortable seating. With the Nexus 5X, the smartphone equivalents of these are missing. For instance, you won't find a shiny metal frame or nice clicky buttons. The design is pretty underwhelming. Sure, it's more powerful than you'd expect for a $379 phone, yet still it feels cheaper. (It starts at £339 in the UK and AU$659 in Australia, and should work with all major carriers in those countries, too.)

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

At least, that's how I feel after spending three days with the phone, which along with the larger, pricier Nexus 6P -- currently being reviewed by my colleague Jessica Dolcourt -- are the two new Google-branded, pure Android smartphones for late 2015. We're still putting both phones through their paces, subjecting them to a gauntlet of tests, so keep watching this space for the full review. It'll be coming later this week.

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. It's a single device that should work on most major wireless networks around the world, including all major US cellular carriers. Here's the pricing breakdown so far:

Google Nexus 5X pricing

16GB 32GB
US $379 $429
UK £339 £379
Australia AU$659 AU$759
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 7.9 mm)
  • 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 again, cheap is the word of the day. The power button and volume rocker, on the right edge, feel shallow when I press them. The two front-facing speaker grills look cheaply manufactured, and stick out awkwardly from the scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 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 versus new Nexus 5. 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.

But you should also probably know that the Nexus 5X is just one of several excellent new smartphones you can find under $400. In fact, its closest competition (the OnePlus 2 and the Moto X Pure Edition) have even nicer screens and feature lots of strong, shiny metal in their construction. They're far heavier, though.

And even though the new Nexus 5X's display is pretty good -- maybe a bit dimmer than I'd like -- 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. It's a place where it can rest, and serve as a balance point when you're using 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 Motorola's divot, 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 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.

Also, in my testing so far, the new Nexus Imprint fingerprint reader is remarkably easy to use compared to the ones I've tried from Samsung and Apple. Not only is it faster than the one on my Galaxy S6, and on par with the latest iPhones, but you also don't need to fully cover the sensor with the tip of your finger like on other devices, and it doesn't seem to matter which direction your finger is pointing when you press it.

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.

OS and apps

  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • Google Now on Tap
  • Project Fi

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 which scrolls vertically instead of paging through apps horizontally, because it feels like I can find things quicker. 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 screw me over. (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 (yet) and the biggest one was a bit of a disappointment for me personally. It's called Google Now on Tap.

Basically, 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 Nino. You could just hop on over to the Google app and type in El Nino -- but Now on Tap takes 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. Google

It's pretty amazing seeing it work in all sorts of apps, even text messages. But I can't say I ever found it useful. It just takes too long to start searching, and it doesn't always find very many results. And since I would never know whether it would work before I dedicated several seconds of my life to the feature, 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.

There are a couple other major software features that we haven't gotten to fully test yet. One's called Doze, and it's supposed to automatically prolong your battery life by putting the phone into a deeper sleep when it detects that you've left it sitting idle for a while.

The other is Project Fi, Google's own cellular service starting at $30 per month, which combines multiple existing cellular networks (T-Mobile and Sprint in the US, but it works around the world) into a single network that gives you more reception in more places and includes cheap global roaming to boot. It's only available on the Nexus 6, Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, and could be an intriguing reason to choose one of the new phones. It's currently only available to US residents.

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

We've still got a lot of testing to do with the new Sony rear camera in the new Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, but so far we're pretty impressed. 12.3 megapixels may not sound like a lot of megapixels, but Google says it picked the Sony IMX377 sensor because of its comparatively large 1.55-micron pixels. Bigger pixels let in more light, the argument goes, leading to better pictures.

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

And certainly, I've already gotten some nice, bright-looking shots in less-than-ideal lighting. I've been taking a bunch of pictures side-by-side with a Galaxy S6 and a Moto X Pure Edition for comparison, and it's sometimes been hard to decide which phone took the best shot. Just take a look at this birthday cake:

Sean Hollister/CNET

I will say, though, that I'm missing 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 sucks that Google dropped it from these latest Nexus phones when it used to be a standard feature. And Google's camera app is still pretty bare bones. Not many ways to adjust your shot if you want to.

I really like train platforms. Sean Hollister/CNET

As far as selfies are concerned, my first couple of front-facing images actually looked quite good. They were sharper and more detailed than ones I get from my Galaxy S6. The front facing camera doesn't shoot a very wide angle, though, so if you stumble across your favorite boy band it might be hard to fit them all in the picture.

My favorite camera feature? If you double-tap the power button, the Nexus 5X will immediately launch the camera, even if the screen's off. It's a feature Samsung introduced in the Galaxy S6 and it's just as fast here, only now you can press the much easier-to-reach power key instead of reaching down for the home button. I can do it one-handed.

Hardware performance

  • 1.8GHz six-core Snapdragon 808 processor
  • 16 or 32GB storage
  • 2GB RAM
  • 2,700mAh 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 unnecessary 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 this year's best handsets.) The Nexus 5X has both of these factors in its favor, and -- so far -- they seem to make the Nexus 5X a speedy, competent phone. If there's a need for more than 2GB of RAM, I'm not seeing it yet. (Some technology enthusiasts were worried that this phone only has 2GB of memory, when high-end handsets have started shipping with 3GB and 4GB fairly recently.)

While I haven't pulled out a stopwatch yet to time all my daily tasks, I'm already 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 seems to handle 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

Battery life

Battery life is the hardest thing to test without simply spending day after day watching the battery meter like a hawk, but so far I'm pretty happy with what I'm seeing. The Nexus 5X hasn't failed to get me to my bedside charger yet, and (likely thanks to Android Marshmallow's new Doze feature) it seems to drain particularly slowly when I leave it alone for a while.

For instance, I just picked it up from my desk after just letting it sit there for a couple hours, spent a few minutes testing intensive games, and found the battery dipped just 8 percent during that period. An hour of turn-by-turn GPS navigation, with the screen on the whole time, ate up about 22 percent.

It's not yet clear whether the Nexus 5X will stand up to continuous use, though. In our standard video looping test, I'm only seeing around 9 hours of battery life in early results. 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 Samsung Galaxy S6, which comes with an even smaller 2,550mAh battery. You'd think the Nexus would last longer.

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

USB-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 $12.99 each, and you might also try these cheaper ones from OnePlus.)

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, B20, 25, B26, B29, B41
  • Dual-band 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi

The Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P are two of the very few smartphones on the market that offer so many different cellular options in a single device. In the US, now is a particularly interesting time for them to exist: Most US cellular carriers are in the process of phasing out two-year contracts, meaning you could buy one of these phones and hop from carrier to 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.) But I haven't been able to come to any conclusions about the quality of service quite yet, nor had a chance to test Google's Project Fi -- a service which actively hops between T-Mobile and Sprint to give you better coverage.

I can tell you, though, that this phone definitely does stream 1080p video, and like most recent handsets, it's 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.

As far as actual calls are concerned, I could hear people about as well 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. It's something I'll need to test a bit more.

Early impressions

Not everyone's going to want a motorcycle like the Nexus 5X. Many will choose more comfortable machines. They'll want their daily drivers to have more refined controls, bigger windows, and beautiful metal frames.

And amazingly, they'll be able to get those things for roughly the same amount of money. You see, the Nexus 5X is joining a whole crop of excellent new handsets under the $500 mark, including the OnePlus 2, the Moto X Pure Edition (known in some countries as the Moto X Style), and perhaps even its own cousin the Nexus 6P. If you don't need a relatively small, lightweight phone and are willing to deal with a few unwanted apps, you don't have to settle for a phone made of plastic.

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

Honestly, after a few days of testing, I already wish the Nexus 5X was a little bit better built. 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.

But I also can't deny that the Nexus 5X offers a combination of performance and features you won't find anywhere else. It could definitely be the right phone for a lot of people.

Watch this space for our full verdict.

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