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Nexus 5X REVIEW: The all-around champ retains its belt

by Mark Burstiner | November 3, 2015November 3, 2015 11:00 am PDT

The Nexus 5 is arguably the most universally loved Nexus device ever. After the launch of the Nexus 6, Nexus enthusiasts wondered if an updated Nexus 5 would have been a batter option than the whale-sized Motorola phablet. Well, those folks are in for a treat, as the Nexus 5 is back and better than ever.

The Nexus 5X is the spiritual successor to the Nexus 5, and although the devices are far from identical, it immediately feels familiar. The body is a pleasant polycarbonate with a soft-touch finish that feels wonderful and comfortable in the hand. The device is startlingly light, too. It feels totally natural to pull out of your pocket and use one handed. Coming from a Nexus 6, I never felt the 5X was too big; the device really is a Goldilocks focused build.

As you hold the phone in your hand, your index finger will rest conveniently on the phone’s rear fingerprint sensor, which is phenomenally fast and accurate. So fast, in fact, that you’ll likely never see the lock screen as you pull the phone out of your pocket; the reader is right where your finger will naturally touch it as you grab your device, so in practice, it’s usually unlocked by the time you start to use it. Even training it takes a fraction of the amount of taps you’d expect it to take to learn a fingerprint, especially compared to how long it takes to train Apple’s Touch ID. It’s impressive.

You might miss unlocking your device via fingerprint while it’s laying down on a table, but I found I didn’t mind drawing my security pattern in that scenario, and it was more than worth it for the device almost always being unlocked by the time the screen hit my face.

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And what a screen it is. I really miss AMOLED, but in the context of the 5X, the display is very strong. Viewing angles are excellent, color reproduction is great, and pixel density is high. It’s not the best display I’ve ever seen, but it’s a good one. It’s one of those situations where you can’t tell what you’re missing unless you have it next to an AMOLED panel.

You might be surprised to know, however, that the 5X does not rock stereo speakers. The only speaker is just under the display. It’s louder than most bottom or rear firing options, but its still gets tinny at higher volumes.

You can check out more about Android Marshmallow in any number of our hands ons. It’s stock Android in all its glory. A few new shortcuts are totally welcome here, too. But while double clicking the power button to invoke the camera did get a lot of use out of me, I’d like to see stock Android expand to support more gestures and shortcuts soon. I found myself missing a lot of the gestures present from OnePlus, Motorola, and even ASUS devices. You don’t realize how useful twisting for the camera or chopping for the flashlight is until you don’t have it anymore.

My major takeaway with Android 6.0 isn’t Now On Tap, either. Native fingerprint support is my big score. It means Lastpass and just about any other app that might use my fingerprint are ready to go. Very pleased to see this finally become standard.

Shortcutting to the camera came in handy. The new 12.3 megapixel Sony sensor knocks the original Nexus 5’s out of the park. While the new camera app did have a number of hiccups, the optics themselves were excellent. Photos with rich colors, high contrast, and sharp subjects were not hard to achieve, though the new laser autofocus did occasionally disagree about what to focus on. It was fast to focus, just not always on the right thing; this left me needing to tap the subject more often than not, which was a bit of an annoyance.

Low light performance was just above average, but I would say that capturing objects in motion is a bit of a challenge. OIS would have been nice in situations like these, but otherwise I don’t miss it. Slow motion video at 120fps worked really well, too, and I’m happy to see slo-mo editing support built in.

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The 2700 mAh battery started off really strong, then took a turn toward the ordinary. I was able to make it through a full day, but any longer than that and you’re pushing it. Luckily, it’s easy to top up with crazy fast charging. The 5X can make it from 15 percent to 30 percent in just a few minutes. With an hour, it can be back up to almost full.

I did find that needing to have a USB-C cable on my person was frustrating, but no more than with any other USB-C device, aside from the fact that the cable Google provides is dual USB-C rather than the type A connector on one end. This means the cable can’t be used with any other charger I have, and the AC adapter can’t be used with any other cable I have. Inconvenient at worst, yes, but worth noting.

Overall, my major gripe with the 5X has been inconsistent performance. From out of the box, it went from well exceeding expectations, to thoroughly disappointing them, to meeting them exactly. This made the review difficult to put together, especially since the Snapdragon 808 in the 5X has performed very well in other devices that sport it.

I removed a number of apps that I initially thought were the culprits, but there’s no way to know for sure even though performance improved after they were removed. While normal every day usage wound up totally reasonably, there were more than a few times I noticed serious sluggishness and what I would refer to as GPU “jank.” More than once, I missed a photo opportunity because the camera didn’t open quickly enough. The stutters weren’t relegated to the camera either. I occasionally felt the 5X need to take a breather when doing things it should have been able to handle.

I have a horrible sneaking suspicion that the all-around sluggishness is due to the 5X’s software accelerated encryption. This was an issue with last year’s Nexus 6. Many users found themselves disabling encryption at the command line in favor of better performance and if it were up to me, I’d do the same on the 5X. With Marshmallow, Google is now requiring manufacturers to support full disk encryption, so I’d be surprised if we ever saw a toggle in the settings.

Despite all that, once the device settled into a groove, I found myself relatively happy with the performance of the 808 under the hood. I really hope this is something small and simple enough that it can be tweaked/improved with an OTA, because otherwise I don’t see the 5X aging well.

Rating: Buy

The Nexus 5X is the Nexus 5 all over again in the best possible way. It’s not without its compromises, but that’s the name of the game. It’s the phone to beat in its category.

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The Nexus 5X is an excellent device for the price, a competent older brother to the 6P and a worthy successor to the classic Nexus 5. For me, with so many devices in a similar price range, what it comes down to is the features. If having Nexus Imprint is a must for you, the 5X is your phone. If that doesn’t matter to you as much as having gestures and customization, the Moto X Pure might be more your speed.

It’s a device with very few compromises for just $379 off-contract. Whether the issues with occasional sluggishness are remedied sooner rather than later, I still feel confident recommending the second coming of the all-around champ. For me, the Nexus 5X gets a very solid Buy.

PROS

  • Phenomenal form factor
  • Super affordable
  • Excellent camera
  • It’s a Nexus, so it’s running Marshmallow and will be updated frequently

CONS

  • Inconsistent performance
  • So so battery life

Disclaimer: Mark used the Nexus 5X for 12 days before this review.


Mark Burstiner

Mark is a former entrepreneur from New York by way of Chicago. He's a tech enthusiast and heavy gamer. If it's bleeding edge, he wants it. If it's...

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