Nexus 6 deep-dive review: A supersized smartphone that shines

Google's new Nexus 6 packs pure Android Lollipop software into a plus-sized package that's pleasant to use. Could this be the phone for you?

The line between smartphones and tablets is officially gone.

It's been blurring for a while now, but with the size of phone screens pushing up to 6 in. and tablet displays dipping as low as 7 in., I think it's safe to say that the way we categorize a device has become more or less arbitrary. They're all Internet-connected, and they can all even make phone calls; the only real difference is that some of them need the Internet connection to make and receive calls, while others do not.

That certainly seems to be the mindset behind Google's new supersized Nexus 6. The Motorola-made Nexus 6 -- on sale now from Google for $649 (32GB) or $699 (64GB) and coming soon to all major U.S. carriers starting at $199 on contract -- is basically a small tablet that you carry around and occasionally use to make and receive calls. Along with the Nexus 9 tablet, it's one of Google's two flagship devices for the new Android 5.0 Lollipop platform.

I've tested plenty of plus-sized phones before. Despite their inherent benefits, I've never been fully sold on the concept; they're usually just too bulky, too awkward and too compromise-filled for my liking. The Nexus 6, however, is different. After living with it for more than a week, it's the first plus-sized phone I could actually see myself using.

Big -- but not burdensome

Part of what makes the Nexus 6 different from other plus-sized phones is its form: The device is basically a scaled-up version of Motorola's 2014 Moto X, which is one of the most ergonomic smartphones on the market today.

The Nexus 6 is quite a bit bigger than the Moto X, as you'd expect: 6.3 x 3.3 x 0.4 in. compared to the Moto X's 5.5 x 2.9 x 0.39-in. frame. But it maintains the Moto X's gently curved back and soft-touch plastic material (though only in two color choices and without the options for leather or wood). Even with the Nexus 6's ample footprint, those factors make it surprisingly comfortable to hold; it feels like it fits my hand and seems far less hefty than it actually is.

What's interesting is that the device is actually slightly larger than Samsung's plus-sized Galaxy Note 4 -- by about a third of an inch in length and a little less than that in width -- but its shape makes it significantly less awkward and more natural to hold than the Note's flat and boxy form. Design makes a major difference in usability -- and relative to the plus-sized class, the Nexus 6 is about as ergonomic as it gets.

Still, big is big -- and the Nexus 6 isn't the type of phone you're going to be able to use single-handedly. Carrying it is no cakewalk, either: Even in roomy men's pants, I'm always acutely aware of its presence in my pocket. I often have to be extra careful when sitting down and standing up, too, as it's large enough that it sometimes pokes out of the top of my pocket and can slide out if I'm not careful.

The Nexus 6 is visually attractive, with an aluminum frame around its perimeter almost identical to the one on the Moto X. On its back is a smooth and subtle dimple you can rest your finger on while holding the phone -- similar in appearance to the understated dimple on last year's Moto X phone -- along with a silver textured Nexus logo. All in all, it's simple yet elegant. My only gripe is that the finish on the phone's casing is a magnet for oily fingerprint smudges, so you'll be doing a fair amount of shirt-wiping if you want to keep it looking clean.

The real reason to get a device of this size, of course, is for its screen -- and the Nexus 6 definitely doesn't disappoint in that department. The phone's 5.96-in. Quad HD AMOLED display is absolutely stunning, with strikingly rich and true-to-life colors and razor-sharp detail. Its whites are a little more yellowy than the Note 4's similarly equipped (though 5% smaller) screen, but that aside, it's tough to tell much difference between the two -- even when studying them closely side by side.

The new Nexus also excels when it comes to audio. The phone has dual front-facing speakers, a step up from the single front-facing speaker on the Moto X. Music played from the phone is loud, clear and full. It's pretty similar to the Moto X in both volume and quality, though the addition of stereo sound obviously provides some extra punch.

Problem-free performance

Performance isn't something you'll ever have to worry about with the Nexus 6. With a 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM, the system is fast as can be. Web browsing is speedy, system animations are jitter-free and app-switching is satisfyingly snappy. There's really nothing to complain about -- which is a relief after the performance-related issues I encountered while evaluating the device's Nexus 9 sibling.

Battery life is commendable, too: Even with moderate to heavy use, I've never come close to running out of power within a single day. In fact, with as much as three to four hours of screen-on time, I've consistently made it from morning to night with at least 20% to 30% of the battery still remaining -- and often even more. That's a notch above than what I experienced with the also-impressive Note 4; aside from a stamina-focused phone like the Nexus's Droid Turbo cousin, you aren't going to get much better than this.

The new Nexus also ships with Motorola's Turbo Charger, which promises to boost battery life by as much as six hours with just 15 minutes of being plugged in. The phone supports wireless charging, too, so you can top it off with any Qi-compatible pad if you want.

As for storage, the Nexus 6 includes either 32GB or 64GB of internal space, depending on which model you buy. On my 32GB review unit, about 26GB of space was actually available for use out of the box. Like most Nexus devices, the Nexus 6 does not have an SD card slot for external storage expansion.

Call quality on the phone has been fine for me, though I have noticed one strange quirk: When I'm talking on the handset, the screen periodically flickers on -- despite the phone being held against my face. It seems to be a result of the width of the phone and the placement of the proximity sensor, which is toward the top-left corner of the device's front. Since I hold the phone up to my left ear to talk, the sensor often ends up falling behind my ear and thus not detecting the fact that it's actually against my face. It's more of a mild annoyance than any sort of deal-breaker, but it warrants a mention.

Data speeds, meanwhile, have been A-OK; the review unit I'm using is connected to T-Mobile's network, but the same model is capable of working on any major U.S. carrier (and I mean any -- the single unit evidently supports both GSM and CDMA).

An exceptional camera

For all of its Moto X similarities, the Nexus 6 is a whole new beast when it comes to the realm of imaging. Both phones have 13-megapixel shooters, but the Nexus uses a new Sony-made sensor and includes optical image stabilization.

The result is a camera that's easily among the best you can find on a smartphone today. On the whole, the Nexus 6's photos tend to be crisp and clear with vibrant and realistic colors. The Google Camera app's HDR+ mode also works remarkably well, delivering vivid images with strong contrast and fine detail. The phone even performs admirably in low-light conditions.

That being said, it's still a smartphone camera -- and it isn't perfect. Some shots I took, particularly in bright natural light, ended up looking overexposed in parts. But by and large, the Nexus 6 doesn't disappoint. For perspective, in a side-by-side shootout, I found it to be close in quality but a noticeable step ahead of the Galaxy Note 4 in most scenarios.

The Nexus is quick to snap pictures, too -- not the fastest I've seen, but perfectly speedy; I had no cause for complaint. It's pretty much neck-and-neck with the Note 4 in terms of capture time.

Google's Camera app is reasonably easy to use, though not quite as user-friendly as Motorola's (and no, the Nexus 6 doesn't have the Moto X-like "double twist" gesture to launch the camera on demand). It includes a couple of genuinely useful effects, like the aforementioned HDR+ mode as well as a Lens Blur mode that emulates the background-blurring "bokeh" effect used in professional photography.

The Nexus 6 is capable of capturing video at 1080p or 4K resolution. Its front-facing 2-megapixel camera, meanwhile, can take video as high as 1080p in quality.

Standout software

Even if its hardware weren't impressive, the Nexus 6 would still be noteworthy for its software alone: The phone is the first to run Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system -- and unlike the majority of Android devices, it runs a "pure" version of the software, just the way Google designed it and without any manufacturer meddling. It also comes with the guarantee of fast and frequent future OS upgrades directly from Google, which is a valuable assurance to have.

I'll have a separate in-depth review of Lollipop to share with you soon, so I won't get into too much detail about the nuances of the software here. In short, though, Lollipop represents a completely fresh start for Android. Almost every area of the user interface has been reimagined with a modern, colorful design and slick new animations. The platform feels more polished and mature than ever -- and using it in its pure and unmodified form is truly a treat.

Design aside, a few of Lollipop's new features have particularly significant effects on what the Nexus 6 is like to use. First, the software allows you to wake the phone and give it commands by saying "Okay, Google" anytime -- even when its display is off.

That concept takes its inspiration from the Moto Voice system pioneered on Motorola's Moto X -- and in fact, Google tells me it borrowed some of Motorola's technology in order to make it work. Specifically, the system is able to learn the sound of your voice and then respond to you and only you (or someone who sounds very much like you).

Unlike with Moto Voice, however, you can't set your own custom launch phrase here; the only thing that'll work is "Okay, Google." That means if you have a Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 nearby and you've enabled voice activation on both, they'll both light up and start listening every time you say the phrase -- which is kind of silly. Same if you have an Android Wear device, which also uses "Okay, Google" as its wake-up phrase. But that aside, the system works consistently well and is an incredibly useful addition to have.

Another Moto X-like feature that's made its way into Lollipop and the Nexus 6 is Ambient Display, which is Google's take on Motorola's Moto Display system. Whenever you pick up the phone, its screen lights up with the current time and any pending notifications.

While the concept is similar to Moto Display, however, it works a bit differently: For one, anytime there's a pending notification, the Moto X "pulses" and flashes a small circle on the screen every few seconds so you'll see it. The Nexus 6 lights up when a notification first arrives but doesn't continue to flash the information frequently thereafter, which makes it harder to know at a glance -- without touching the phone -- when something needs your attention.

The Nexus's system also seems to be less sensitive than the Moto X's in general: While the Moto X lights up without fail every time I pick up or even nudge the phone, the Nexus doesn't do it a fair amount of the time. And the Nexus lacks the sensors present on the Moto X's face that give you the ability to activate the feature simply by reaching for the phone or waving your hand over it.

Finally, while the Moto X shows you notifications as icons in small circles, which you can then touch to view in detail or dismiss, the Nexus 6 shows you stacked notification bars -- just like you'd see in the phone's main notification panel, only in a scaled-down and black-and-white view. It's more info-dense than Motorola's implementation, which has its advantages but can also make the data less easy to digest at a glance.

If you're worried about privacy or security, by the way, Lollipop's settings allow you to prevent the system from showing notifications whenever the phone is locked. You can also disable the feature altogether, if you'd prefer.

There is a software-related asterisk I'd be remiss to omit: One new Lollipop-level feature, multiuser support for phones, was rather glitchy on my Nexus 6 review unit; I was able to use it, but the phone often acted erratically when I did. This is clearly the result of a bug and something I have to imagine will be fixed prior to the consumer release -- Google is aware of the issue and has confirmed that the phone will be receiving a software update of some sort within the coming days -- but as of this review, the feature appeared to be unfinished and rough around the edges.

I'll explore that and the rest of Lollipop in detail in my upcoming Android 5.0 review, which will be online very soon.

Bottom line

Assuming Google manages to address the multiuser glitch before the device ships, it's hard to find much negative to say about the Nexus 6. The phone is beautifully designed and ergonomic. It has a gorgeous and generously sized display, excellent front-facing stereo speakers, impeccable performance, outstanding stamina, support for both wireless charging and turbo charging, a great camera and the best user interface you'll find on any Android device today -- not to mention the guarantee of timely ongoing upgrades directly from Google in the future.

The only meaningful downside to the device is its size -- which isn't so much of a downside as it is a tradeoff you'll have to consider.

The Nexus 6 definitely pushes the limits of acceptable dimensions for a pocketable gadget, but such is the trend with mobile tech these days. If you don't mind lugging a device this large around with you all day, you'll gain a spacious screen and enjoy one of the best smartphones money can buy.

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