The smartphone business has changed. It’s time for Android users to put down their Samsungs and look to the mother ship itself. Google’s impressive new Nexus 5X and 6P deliver a better user experience than what is typically sold by carriers—and for less money, too.
But they’re only sold by Google. Americans usually buy phones from their carriers, which generally haven’t distributed Nexus phones. Carrier subsidies also meant that nobody really knew the true cost of their phones, or cared. An iPhone or a Samsung
Galaxy cost $200 plus a continuing monthly fee, so why hunt down a phone that might cost you $600 up front?
Carriers have changed their business models, throwing out the subsidy and two-year contract. Whether you pay for a phone up front or in monthly installments, there are now hundreds of dollars to be saved by choosing a phone more carefully.
Decent, lower-priced Android phones are starting to crop up, including the OnePlus 2 and Moto X Pure Edition, both phones I’ve recently recommended. But while Google is good at making most of its apps available on Android (and even on iOS), buying a Nexus phone gets you first-in-line access to many services the company has been rolling out at an increasing rate, such as Android Pay and the Project Fi wireless service.
This year, Google got aggressive with its Nexus phones, dialing up the hardware while reducing the price: The Nexus 5X starts at $380, while the Nexus 6P phablet starts at $500.
The result is hard to ignore.
Though they’re built by two different manufacturers, the LG-made 5X and the Huawei-made 6P were both designed in collaboration with Google, and offer a similarly pure Android experience. You won’t see any bloatware or alternate interfaces, like many phones sold through your carrier.
Instead, you get Android 6.0 Marshmallow, an operating system that my colleague Joanna Stern and I agree is just as good as iOS in many ways. It even one-ups Apple with Google Now On Tap, which predicts what you’ll want to search for next based on what you’re looking at on the screen.
But the software has always been good on Nexus phones—and older Nexus phones can upgrade to Marshmallow. What makes the 5X and 6P stand out is their stellar hardware. Thoughtfully designed, ergonomically friendly and well-built, these two phones are the best examples yet of what Google can offer.
Both the Nexus 5X and 6P run on speedy Qualcomm
processors, and while the 6P’s has a couple of extra processing cores and is slightly quicker, the differences in real world performance between the two is minimal. Both are superfast and fluid, with the impressive zip and speed you’d expect on any top-of-the-line smartphone.
Both have gorgeous displays. The 5.2-inch Nexus 5X has a 1080p LCD screen, while the 5.7-inch Nexus 6P has nearly twice the pixels on a bright AMOLED display, similar to what’s found on a new Samsung. Both screens are so dense, you won’t spot a pixel on either. I prefer the 5X’s screen, because the colors seem more natural.
Fingerprint readers have become vital with the rise of smartphone pay systems like Android Pay, not to mention the growing concern over smartphone security. The fingerprint reader Google developed for both phones is the fastest I’ve ever used. Because of the reader’s position on the back, the phones unlock right as you’re picking them up.
This hardware is future-proofed in other ways, too. Both phones have USB Type-C interfaces. That means you may have to toss out your old charging cables, but you would be buying into the next big standard. (Apple, Dell and Google have all started to use this interface.)
Google also made sure both phones had the proper cellular connectivity to run on any major U.S. network, something only matched by Apple and Motorola.
Needless to say, they work well with Google’s own fledgling wireless carrier, Project Fi, which leverages both the Sprint
networks. The ability to move between carriers as you see fit should be standard.
The two new Nexus phones do differ a bit in size and materials.
The Nexus 5X is slightly longer than Apple’s iPhone 6s, but it’s just as easy to use with one hand. Besides its Gorilla Glass face, it’s made almost entirely of matte plastic. Yet it doesn’t feel like a toy the way 2013’s Nexus 5 did. And as a phablet resistor, I’m most comfortable with the 5X’s size.
The Nexus 6P is nearly the same exact size as Apple’s 5.5-inch phablet, the iPhone 6s Plus, but Huawei managed to fit in a slightly larger screen. And similar to an iPhone (or the HTC One), the 6P’s sculpted aluminum body feels both solid and luxurious.
Battery life on both the Nexus 5X and 6P is good, but not stellar. I’ve had no problem ending the day with about 10% worth of battery life following relatively intense photo, video, email, app and Web usage.
Both phones have the same 12.3-megapixel camera. In my tests, shooting indoors and out, it managed to keep up with the camera inside Samsung’s fantastic Galaxy S6. It captures 4K video at 30 frames per second and slow-motion video at 120 frames per second. Both Nexus phones also have the same infrared-laser-assisted focus and a dual-LED flash.
Google has bragged that the camera’s sensor is larger than the iPhone’s. However, the new Nexus camera proved no match for the camera on Apple’s latest iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, particularly in low light. That may be because the Nexus phones lack optical image stabilization, which the iPhone 6s Plus uses to reduce motion blur and jitters.
With decent lighting, the Nexus camera takes crisp, rich photos. It’s certainly the best ever found in a Nexus smartphone, even if it won’t impress anyone with a newer iPhone—or even paid top dollar for the latest Android models from Samsung or LG.
But that’s the beauty of these new Nexus phones: You don’t pay top dollar.
The entry-level Nexus 5S has 16GB of storage, while the Nexus 6P starts at 32GB. There’s no MicroSD card reader, so you have to pay extra if you want more storage space, but a Nexus will still be cheaper than a Galaxy S6, which starts at $600, and an iPhone 6s, which starts at $650.
If you’re on a budget and want the latest, cleanest version of Android, the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P are impossible to beat. And buying them outright then picking any carrier you want? That’s not a burden. That’s bliss.
Write to Nathan Olivarez-Giles at Nathan.Olivarezfirstname.lastname@example.org