Dec 28 2015
One of the problems with being a technophile is the rapid pace at which new technology is released. It seems that every other day I see something drool-worthy that would make my life immeasurably better, if only I could cram it into my house alongside my other troves of junk. I try to resist these base urges, but don’t always succeed. A few weeks ago I was tempted by Google’s Black Friday sale, and ended up purchasing a new 32GB Nexus 5X for $350 (the same price I paid for a 16GB Nexus 4, three years ago), and figured I’d provide my thoughts regarding one of Google’s newest reference devices.
When reading other reviews before my purchase, I was worried about the “feel” of the phone. It’s made out of plastic, and one reviewer at The Verge mentioned that it felt cheap and “hollow.” Personally, I didn’t experience the same reaction – the phone feels fine to me. It is made out of plastic, which I was worried about. The phones that I’ve used the most in previous years (iPhone 4/5) have been primarily constructed of glass/metal, which are heavy and feel nice. The Nexus 5X is surprisingly light (as you might expect) for being a 5”+ phone, but the matte plastic finish on the back is actually pleasing. To be honest, I think that plastic is a decent tradeoff for a phone these days, even though “premium” phones have metal bodies. The problems with the metal enclosure are weight, as well as the fact that metal interferes with wireless reception. What Apple (and other manufacturers) have done is to make cutouts in the back of the phone. The iPhone 5 had a decent-looking solution for this, which was to use glass panels at the top and bottom of the phone’s back. The glass panels obviously didn’t match at all with the aluminum enclosure, but it looked pretty good. The iPhone 6 family eschews the glass cutouts for plastic lines around the back of the phone, and they look terrible. To be honest, I prefer the solid plastic back of the Nexus – at least it’s a uniform.
The other area where I prefer the design of the Nexus 5X is its camera bump. I guess we’ve reached a point these days where the demands of high-performance camera lenses and thin enclosures mean that camera lenses protrude from the back of our phones. The iPhone 6 has a little nub, which asymmetrically juts out from the upper right side of the phone. The Nexus 5X puts the camera in the center of the body, and the plastic back smoothly rises up around it to create a pleasing beveled effect. Seriously, if you’re going to have the camera extend from the phone’s back, at least embrace it, as opposed to making it look like an embarrassing afterthought.
My last phone was an iPhone 5, so I’ve never used Touch ID. For that reason, I can’t really compare it to Google’s version, which they call Nexus Imprint. The position of the fingerprint reader on the Nexus 5X is OK – yes, you have to pick the phone up in order to use it, but one of the things I like about Android phones is the software buttons, so the sensor had to go somewhere else. The sensor will both turn on and unlock the phone, as opposed to the power button (which shows the lock screen), so it’s nice to have that choice (I use the lock screen for media controls). I will say that once you have a phone with biometric security, it would be hard to go back – it’s obviously super convenient. It’s pretty egregious that Apple has had a lock on this tech for the last two years, but I guess that’s what you get when you buy the company.
USB Type-C. I like it. It’s the future for sure. Reversible connectors are so much better it’s not even funny. But for now, it’s kind of a pain – you’ll have to buy some new cables or adapters. I wanted to do some remote debugging, and was annoyed to remember that I needed to physically connect the phone, and didn’t have a Type-A to Type-C cable. One good thing about the iPhone’s ubiquity is that everyone has a Lightening adapter. You can forget your charger at home and it’s not too big of a deal. If you don’t bring a USB-C cable for your Nexus, you’re outta luck.
As far as the rest of the package, the software is Google. I find that I use Google services a lot more these days, and they have the added advantage of a web-based presence. For example, I can upload a book to Play Books from my computer, start reading, then download the book/pick up where I left off on my phone. I really like the Google Now launcher, which to be honest is still probably the best part of Android phones. There are a few games that don’t have Android ports (Kero Blaster, for example), but I can live without those. I like how Android/Chrome makes web apps more like first-class citizens. In general, the software Just Works.
I have until the end of January to decide whether or not I want to keep the Nexus, but as of right now I’m thinking I’ll stick with it. It does enough of the things I care about well enough for me to be satisfied. At least until I see the next iPhone revision.
I ended up returning the phone. What an anti-climax, eh? I really liked the hardware, and to be honest I kinda like Android’s UI more than iOS. It really came down to two things: slow interface, and bad camera. I kept on experiencing random delays when trying to launch apps, or otherwise interact with the phone. Not terrible, but enough to be on par with my 3 year old iPhone 5. What’s the point of buying a new phone if it performs the same as the old one? The camera was also a disappointment. It took decent shots, but I had two separate instances where I pulled the phone out to take a picture, and couldn’t. The first time, it gave me an error message like “Camera is disconnected.” Um, what? I had to reboot. Second time, the camera app just never started. I had done the ol’ “double-tap power button to wake camera” trick, and it just sat there with a black screen. Both times I missed the shot I wanted; even a slow camera is better than none at all.
I read the other day that Google is publishing an update which supposedly fixes some of the sluggish performance of the 5X. It is tempting, but I’m not sure I want to pay to be a beta tester. Maybe I’ll take the leap again if I can independently verify the fix is, in fact, a fix.