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Google Nexus 5X review: The lightweight, affordable choice for Android purists

This no-frills $379 smartphone is fast, but it may leave you wanting more.

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Sean Hollister
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Sean Hollister

Senior Editor / Reviews

When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.

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18 min read

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Striking a nice balance between compact form factor and full features, the Nexus 5X remains a compelling, lighter-weight alternative to bigger Android Marshmallow smartphones like the Nexus 6P and Moto X. Having helped partners make the hardware for its Nexus phones for six years, however, Google knows a thing or two about designing Android devices -- and, in Summer 2016, there are rumors suggesting that it may make its own house-branded phone by the end of the year.

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7.9

Google Nexus 5X

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.

Summer '16 update

But we don't know for sure what that means. Will Google make a super-premium device, another Nexus-type phone, or a Tango-style phone or modular device like Project Ara? HTC is rumored to be hard at work building its next Nexus smartphone for Google. In April 2016, veteran leaker Evan Blass reported that HTC was building devices that would run the next version of Google Android (Nougat). HTC is believed to be making two devices with similar specs but different screen sizes. The rumors suggest that the next Nexus will feature a curved aluminum exterior instead of the 5X's polycarbonate body.

Editors' note: The original Google Nexus 5X review, published in October 2015, follows.

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.

The Google Nexus 5X in all its cheap, plastic glory (pictures)

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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.

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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

16GB32GB
US $379$429
UK £339£379
Australia AU$479AU$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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Google Now on Tap can scan your screen and pull up relevant Google results. It works in any app.
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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.

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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 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.

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Shot in a fairly dim room, the Nexus 5X pulls plenty of detail out of the shadows. Sean Hollister/CNET
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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
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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.

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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.

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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 24,224OnePlus 2 22,685Samsung Galaxy S6 20,778Moto X Pure Edition/Style 19,725Google Nexus 5X 18,973Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (5.5) 7,588
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench 3 performance charts

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

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.

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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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7.9

Google Nexus 5X

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7Camera 8Battery 6