My first smartphone was an iPhone 3G that I purchased not long after its launch in 2008. It was life-changing in all the right ways. We called it the Jesus Phone.
When Google announced Android and the HTC Dream (a.k.a. the T-Mobile G1) shortly thereafter, I was intrigued, but skeptical. I had of course been using and administrating Linux systems for over a decade at that point, so Android’s Linux roots piqued my interest, but I was not yet fully invested in Google’s ecosystem. A friend had one, though, and I spent hours playing with it. I liked the flexibility and customization, and it had some excellent features (such as the drop-down notification “shade” and interactive homescreen widgets) that weren’t available in iPhone OS. Overall, it lacked the polish and third-party apps I was quickly growing to love within Apple’s walled garden.
I was able to reevaluate the situation when it came time to replace my iPhone a year or two later. Apple’s now-rebranded iOS had “borrowed” some features from Android, and Android was rapidly maturing thanks to ever-increasing efforts from Google and the Open Handset Alliance. Google, HTC, and Samsung had, of course, “borrowed” themselves—from Apple and RIM, among others—to make Android handsets more competitive and feature complete when compared with premium offerings from other companies. The so-called “smartphone wars” were beginning in earnest.
Cost-wise, it was a no-brainer. A new Apple iPhone 4 was $199 down (with a two-year contract) and a new Samsung Galaxy S was only $0.01! I needed new phones for myself and my girlfriend at the time, so that was nearly $400 to be spent or saved. The Galaxy S had expandable storage, a removable battery, a high-contrast Super AMOLED screen, and killer audio. Most importantly, it was a chance for me to learn a new operating system and put the supposed “open” nature of Android to the test.
The subsequent five years and three generations of non-Nexus Android handsets were educational, to say the least. Much of my time and energy was spent violating warranties to remove carrier bloat, enable wireless tethering, clean up grotesque and unnecessary manufacturer UI skinning (think TouchWiz, MotoBlur, and Sense), and resolve bugs and crippling performance issues for which neither the carriers nor the device makers would take responsibility (such as the terrible GPS on my original Galaxy S). The biggest problem I faced was keeping my phone’s software up to date: Google would release a new version of Android but this would mean little or nothing for me due to lackluster support and arbitrary end-of-life declarations from the manufacturer. This phone would only get upgraded to Android 2.2, six months after release; that phone would only get upgraded to 4.1, eight months after release; this phone would only get upgraded to 5.0, three months after release (actually, that upgrade was canceled—we ended up getting 5.1, over a year after release); etc. For a person who likes to keep abreast of technology trends and new features—and protect his gadgets from security vulnerabilities—it was torture. So I would flash and run CyanogenMod or some other patched-together release of an unofficial, unsupported Android version, but this came with its own assortment of busywork and unsettling compromises on features, security, and stability.
Don’t get me wrong: as a nerd, it was fun and rewarding. However, as someone with a job and other responsibilities, it was beyond frustrating when my phone wouldn’t make a call or get a GPS signal, or spontaneously freeze up or reboot in the middle of something important. And I’ve always felt a pang of sympathy for non-technical users who are stuck on the ancient versions of Android their phones came with, especially with the recent rash of Android malware such as Stagefright. Fortunately, the major device makers have announced that they will start sending out regular security updates (whether the carriers play ball is another matter). It remains to be seen whether version upgrades become more prompt and/or commonplace. And all this in light of the fact that an iPhone 4s from 2011 can still—over four years later—run the latest version of iOS!
The fact of the matter is that Android is open for manufacturers, not for users. Unlocking and rooting your phone, giving you full control over it, often violates your warranty and breaks sensitive features such as encryption and NFC. There are developer editions of some devices, which are great for tinkerers and ROM developers, but not well-suited for the average consumer. Features like expandable storage and removable batteries seem to be on their way out, so whether devices have those features or not is somewhat of a moot point. The fact of the matter is that most users just want devices that work well when they buy them and continue to work well until they decide to buy new ones. They don’t want to have to worry about upgrading their microSD cards or replacing their batteries!
It is with these thoughts and experiences in mind that I set out to select a new phone a few weeks ago, and decided to do what I should have done a long time ago: get a Nexus phone. Google works closely with a single manufacturer to design each Nexus product to exhibit the newest features in Android, and ensures that the software and hardware are well-integrated. Updates come straight from Google—not through a carrier—and they promise at least two years of major Android releases and three years of security patches. These devices typically lack top-of-the-line hardware and build quality (although Huawei tries to break that trend with the recent Nexus 6P) but are widely admired by technology enthusiasts like myself who want to stay on top of their game and maintain a secure mobile presence.
LG’s new Nexus 5X is a fairly plain-looking piece of hardware, with two pieces of polycarbonate formed around a single pane of Gorilla Glass 3. It feels solid and well-made in my hands, but it’s not going to elicit the same “oohs and aahs” that an iPhone 6s+ Plus, Galaxy S6 edge+, or Nexus 6P might. Considering our group tendency to covet the sleekest, prettiest devices and immediately upon acquisition shroud them in the bulkiest, ugliest cases we can find, I’m not convinced looks matter all that much. Accordingly, I purchased a case and a screen protector to invest my $429 investment. The phone comes with a decent six-core processor and only 2GB RAM—middle of the pack, to be sure—but it seems more than capable of handling anything I can throw at it without stuttering or overheating. I went with the 32GB model for a modicum of future-proofing; I have difficulty recommending 16GB of storage for anyone these days (but considering I installed every app I could ever possibly want and still have 25GB free, perhaps I shouldn’t).
The screen is perfectly average, if a little warmer than you might be accustomed to at first (it grows on you). Some early adopters have complained about a strong yellow tint; Google is replacing these units if you find yourself with one. Again, it’s not going to blow anyone’s socks off, but it’s a capable display that’s pleasant to look at in a variety of lighting conditions. A feature called Ambient Display is designed to show you important information when you pick up your phone and glance at it—without fully waking the phone and consuming a few milliampere-minutes of precious battery life. It works reasonably well, but it could be better. The camera is fantastic, and as other reviews have noted, it’s definitely the best camera ever offered on a Nexus device. There is a slight delay opening Google’s Camera app but it’s safe to expect this to be fixed in a future software and/or firmware update.
The real game-changing feature of the Nexus 5X (and its bigger sibling, the 6P) is the fingerprint sensor located on the back of the unit. While I am a firm believer that biometrics should only be used for identification—not authentication—the industry is still evolving on this topic. Paired with a password and other factors provided by Smart Lock, fingerprint authentication in Android M is reasonably secure and very convenient. The sensor is incredibly fast and accurate and I’ll often reach into my pocket and have the phone unlocked and ready to use by the time I’m looking at it. Full device encryption is enabled by default, which is a fantastic leap forward for mobile device security, and Android Pay comes pre-installed for use with NFC at participating merchants.
Battery life is quite reasonable, thanks in no small part to Doze (more on this below). A full charge easily lasts an entire working day, including four hours or so of screen-on time. USB-C is a little bit of an adjustment but it’s a much sturdier (and less infuriating) connection, and the included charger can restore four hours of battery life in about 10 minutes (note that the new Nexus phones are incompatible with both the Quick Charge 2.0 and Qi wireless charging standards). Some research led me to purchase a Tronsmart-brand car charger that apparently allows for rapid charging, but I haven’t yet received it so I can’t comment on it. I have had good luck triggering rapid charging with USB-A to USB-C cables from Monoprice and charging ports on my OWC Thunderbolt 2 dock and even on a Leviton-brand combo outlet that I installed in our kitchen counter a year or two ago. Your mileage may vary!
The wireless radios in the Nexus 5X are great. I get near-perfect 802.11n/5GHz reception at home (802.11ac is available, but I don’t have a newer access point to test it) and speedy 4G LTE on T-Mobile’s network here in Chicago. Wireless tethering to my laptop works flawlessly (more on this below). It’s definitely the best connectivity I’ve ever experienced in a phone, and I have to believe that the non-metal frame makes it much easier for the radios to send and receive. Call quality is great; I haven’t tested WiFi calling, which is supposedly supported out of the box. There is an ongoing issue with the new Nexus phones and T-Mobile service on LTE band 12/700MHz that will hopefully soon be resolved, leading to even better coverage and support for high-quality voice-over-LTE (VoLTE). The upshot is that if you’re a T-Mobile subscriber and you live in an area where they only provide coverage on band 12, you should hold off on purchasing one of these phones for the time being—or look into switching to Google Fi, which will let you use Sprint’s network instead of T-Mobile’s in those affected areas.
The real treat of owning and using a Nexus phone is that you get early access to the latest and greatest versions of Android, and you get to experience Android in the way Google intended. There is no unwelcome bloat (i.e. preinstalled and un-installable applications, wallpapers, and widgets), no UI skinning by the manufacturer, no “special” calendar, music streaming, or contact management apps that no one else uses—just pure, unadulterated Android. This lets users take advantage of a larger community for support and updates and—with few exceptions—provides a much better user experience overall.
The current iteration of Google’s mobile operating system is Android 6.0, a.k.a Android Marshmallow, a.k.a. Android M. It follows Lollipop, which was released in November 2014, and subtly enhances the features and Material Design look-and-feel that were introduced with that version. Lollipop lovers will be pleased with this update, which addresses several minor gripes with that version (such as the volume controls and do-not-disturbe mode) and adds a few new features that range in impact from “could be useful someday” to “why hasn’t this always been there?” Additionally, I keep finding little easter eggs that I’m eager to share!
The two headliners of Android M, so to speak, are called Now on Tap and Doze. Now on Tap adds contextual search that you can invoke from any screen in any application. Holding down the home button (the circle) for a few seconds brings up a screen-aware spot instance of Google Now, which reads all the text currently displayed and shows you different actions you can take based on what it finds. For example, if you’re looking at a text from a friend asking if you want to see The Martian this weekend, invoking Now on Tap might show you links to the entries for that movie on Flixster and IMDb. The downside at the moment is that it doesn’t seem to know a lot about you, the user, so clues that might make sense in the context of e.g. your calendar won’t influence the results of Now on Tap. It has a lot of potential, and it will be interesting to see how Google evolves it over the coming months. The big question is whether or not people will continue to use it in the meantime.
Doze is a completely different beast, one intent on optimizing the limited capacity of your device’s battery. It learns how you use your phone and selectively puts unused and unimportant apps to sleep when the phone is sitting idle for a certain period of time. It works well—unnervingly well, in fact. It’s crazy to look at the battery chart in the morning and see a smooth horizontal line over the period of time you were sleeping (with your phone resting on the nightstand). An interesting side effect is the flood of [ostensibly unimportant] notifications you receive when you finally do wake up and pick up your phone. I suppose it’s better than getting them when you’re trying to sleep, and it’s better than always putting your phone into do-not-disturb mode at night! It’s easily customizable, as well, so if Doze is sleeping an important app, e.g. PagerDuty, you can tell it not to optimize that particular app. It’s an awesome new feature that will play a major role in the day-to-day useful battery life of your handset.
Rounding out the new features in Android M is a new take on permission handling. Essentially, Android will prompt you each time an application tries to do something new. This more granular system should lead to apps asking for fewer permissions and improve the overall security and stability of the Android ecosystem simply because users will be more aware of what they’re approving. It’s one of those subtle user interface tweaks that should bend the curve on a systemic problem without impacting usability. Over the past few days, I’ve also discovered that Android M will allow you to put the wireless hotspot into 5GHz mode (on supported devices), which should greatly improve tethering performance in noisy environments. Additionally, USB seems to default to charging-only mode when connected to a computer, with a menu available in the notification shade to let you select between the different USB modes as needed. This should cut back on incidents of USB-based exploits such as the BadUSB vulnerability. I know I’m not the only one who has considered buying some USB “condoms” to protect myself from this type of security risk.
The Nexus 5X device and Android M operating system may seem like simple iterations on their predecessors, the Nexus 5 and Android L, but they are much more than that. I believe they represent a sea change in the way Google thinks about Android and I’m hopeful that there are even more good things to come in the future. Security, longevity, and usability have risen to the top of Google’s priority list, and this paradigm shift may be the best thing that has ever happened to Android.
No one does Android better than Google, and so the increasingly fervent cries for Google to start making their own handsets should surprise no-one. Other manufacturers’ Android implementations have been gradually converging on “stock” Android over the past few years, with several models on the market today running stock (or near-stock). This partly reflects Google’s gradual progress towards a stable and feature-complete collection of apps, disincentivizing the manufacturers to create their own custom apps, and partly reflects a growing realization that users crave a consistent Android experience regardless of the phone’s manufacturer. Google is being forced more and more to crack down on misbehaving device makers and carriers to provide security updates and version upgrades, realizing—finally—that any limitations of any Android phones reflect poorly on them.
I would gladly recommend either of the new Nexus phones over any other phone to anyone in the market for an Android phone today. If you want something smaller for one-handed use, get the 5X; if you want something larger for watching movies or playing games, get the 6P. It has little to do with the specific features and qualities of these particular devices and everything to do with Google’s commitment to keeping these devices up-to-date and secure. As someone who has been burned time and time again by empty promises from Samsung and Motorola, I strongly feel that there is no reason to even entertain another purchase until other device makers and carriers can demonstrate a similar track record.