Nexus 5X and 6P deep-dive review: Google's dynamic duo

Google's latest Nexus devices set a new standard for how good Android can be -- and how much a standout smartphone should cost.

Other new touches

Software stuff aside, Android 6.0 enables some significant new hardware-level features that are relevant to both new Nexus devices. First and foremost is the newly added support for USB Type-C, an up-and-coming standard that'll soon be used across all of Android as well as on laptops and even Apple products. It has plenty of advantages over Android's previous micro-USB standard, the most immediately noticeable of which is that you can plug a cable into the phone either way and have it fit (huzzah!).

USB Type-C also creates a more secure physical connection and allows for super fast charging -- 10 minutes on the outlet gets you up to four hours of extra battery life for the Nexus 5X and up to seven hours of power for the 6P. (Neither phone supports wireless charging, however, which is a shame.) You can use one USB Type-C device to charge another, too, which could eventually be a very useful capability to have.

The challenge for now is that the new Nexus phones are among the first devices to support the standard -- so that means you're going to need to stock up on extra chargers and adapters, as your existing ones won't be compatible. The 6P (but not the 5X) comes with one USB-C-to-USB-A cable that'll let you plug the phone into a computer and both phones come with a single USB-C wall charger. But beyond that, it's up to you to get what you need.

And here's the real rub: Since the standard is so new, accessories are still somewhat tough to find. The transition will be worthwhile in the end, but this kind of shift is inevitably going to be a hassle in the short-term -- and being a pioneer in the changeover doesn't make it any easier.

One Marshmallow-enabled element that's unequivocally enjoyable to use is the new fingerprint sensor present on both the Nexus 5X and 6P. I've used plenty of phones with fingerprint sensors before, and it's never been anything I've felt terribly excited about. On Google's new phones, though, the sensor does more than just keep your data secure; it actually transforms the way you use your device.

The circular sensor is situated in the upper-middle of each phone's back. Once you've set it up -- a process that takes all of 15 seconds -- you simply touch your finger to the circle and shazam: The phone is awake, unlocked and ready to roll. It's practically instantaneous and almost perfectly accurate; I've had maybe one or two missed readings in the entire time I've been using the phones.

It's gotten to the point where I rarely turn either phone on with its power button; it's just quicker and more intuitive to touch my finger to its back -- right on the spot where my finger instinctively falls when I pick up the phone, anyway -- and then jump right into action.

The Nexus camera surprise

Google's making grand promises about the camera quality on its new Nexus phones, and let me tell you: The identical imaging setup on these two devices doesn't disappoint.

I pitted the Nexii against the Galaxy Note 5, Android's current photography leader, to see if they could hold up to its impressive imaging standard. You can see the results for yourself -- but the short answer is that the phones are very much neck and neck, and the Nexus family actually pulls ahead of the Note in some areas.

Photos taken with the Nexus phones look fantastic in almost any lighting condition. The Note's pictures are occasionally a little lighter and less richly saturated, while the Nexus's pictures consistently have a crisper focus and greater detail when you zoom in and look closely at the full-resolution versions. These observations are nitpicking, though; for all intents and purposes, the Nexus devices and the Note are in the same top-tier league, and any of them will give you superb pictures almost all the time.

05 nexus 6 camera sample a 2

The cameras on the Nexus phones offer good general daylight picture-taking. (Click on photo for full size.)

The two areas where there's a meaningful difference are in motion-filled photos and images taken in low light -- and much to my surprise, the Nexus phones actually outperformed the Note in both departments, with less motion blur in the former and clearer, more realistically colored results in the latter. (Check out my side-by-side comparisons; the differences are quite apparent.)

The only thing separating the Nexus devices from each other, meanwhile, is that the 6P has a few extra photo-centric features. One is a Smart Burst mode that lets you hold the shutter button down and take a ton of rapid-fire photos -- then have the phone automatically select and save the eight best shots, and also generate an animated GIF of the movement. With a perpetually flailing eight-month-old in the house, this has proven to be a great way to capture a cute moment without having to worry about missing the right frame.

The 6P can also record video with two levels of slow-mo -- 120fps and 240fps -- while the 5X is limited to one. And only the 6P has electronic image stabilization for video recording, which helps cut down on visible shakiness.

If there's any limiting factor to the phones' photography capabilities, it's Google's new camera app. The app works well much of the time but is sometimes bafflingly slow to focus and take a photo -- on both phones, regardless of whether the default Auto-HDR+ mode is activated or not. Some basic features are also M.I.A., like the ability to capture still images while recording a video and any sort of burst mode for the 5X.

The app is simple as can be to use, though -- focused more on quick photo taking for the masses than granular control for photography buffs. (Those who want more advanced controls can always turn to the Play Store to find a more fully featured third-party alternative.) And a system-wide shortcut of double-tapping the power button makes it easy to open the camera at a moment's notice, regardless of whether the phone is sleeping or awake.

Performance, stamina and storage

Before we wrap up, a few quick words on fundamentals: Both Nexus phones are smooth and snappy, with no discernible jerkiness or lag. The 5X does have a limited amount of horsepower compared to the 6P, but for most people, the real-world difference should be minimal -- if noticeable at all.

The only issue I've seen is that when I'm moving rapidly between several resource-heavy apps, the 5X will occasionally run out of active memory. As a result, apps refresh and start over when I return to them instead of picking back up where they left off. I've only encountered this a couple of times, during particularly intensive use -- but if you consider yourself a power user, it's something to keep in mind.

I've generally had no trouble making it through full days of use with either device, meanwhile: The Nexus 5X has what I'd describe as acceptably average stamina -- passable but not exceptional in terms of active use -- whereas the 6P has very good battery life. Marshmallow's ability to consume minimal power when the phones are in standby goes a long way, too.

Last but not least, the 5X comes with either 16GB or 32GB of internal space, the latter of which adds $50 onto the base price. (On my 32GB review unit, about 25GB was actually available for use out of the box -- so free space on that 16GB model will likely disappear fast.) The 6P starts at 32GB and is also available in 64GB and 128GB variations, which add $50 and $150 onto the base price, respectively. Neither device has an SD card slot for expandable storage.

Bottom line

Google's Nexus brand has been a lot of different things over the years. With the Nexus 5X and 6P, it's fully living up to the idea of representing true universal flagships for the Android platform. Both devices serve as demonstrations of just how good Android can be -- not only for power users but also for ordinary folks just looking for an outstanding all-around experience.

This year's offerings manage to pull together the greatest pieces of the Android ecosystem into cohesive packages that are a pleasure to use. I've long said Nexus devices are the closest equivalents to an iPhone-like arrangement on Android -- with one company controlling the whole kit and caboodle, from hardware to software and ongoing upgrades -- and the benefits of that approach have never been more apparent than now.

And unlike past years, this duo of devices allows Google to address two very different needs: a simple and mundane phone for most people with the 5X and an elevated option for more demanding users with the 6P. (It'd be nice if we had a third option that offered the premium elements in a smaller size, but alas -- can't win 'em all.)

Add in the fact that each device costs significantly less than most competitors in its class and it's basically a no-brainer. If you want the best overall user experience Android can provide -- at an exceptional value -- the only question you need to answer is which of these two phones makes more sense for you.

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