Between 2010 and 2014 Google and its hardware partners released half a dozen Nexus phones. The Nexus One was one of the first smartphones to feature a 1 GHz processor and it sported a 3.7 inch display. At the time that was pretty big for a smartphone screen, but the times have changed and each time Google launched a new Nexus it had a larger screen than the last… until now.
One phone has a 5.2 inch full HD display and a starting price of $380, while the other is a 5.7 inch phone priced at $499 and up. Both phones are designed to run Google Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Both feature Google’s new Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanner. And both have the same excellent 12.3MP rear cameras.
But there are some important differences between the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P. The larger model has a more powerful processor and more RAM. It has a higher quality display, better speakers, a metal case, and a bigger battery. And thanks to the hardware differences between the two phones, the camera app on the Nexus 6P supports a few extra features.
Objectively, the Nexus 6P seems like it should be the better phone… and for the most part it does outperform its smaller sibling. But there are a few key things you should know before buying a Nexus 6P.
First, unless you’re a giant there’s no way to do some things on this phone using just one hand. Second, while it performs better in benchmarks, it’s not always easy to spot a speed difference when performing day-to-day tasks. And third… it might be a bit less stable. I’ve been testing the Nexus 6P for a few weeks, and several times it’s rebooted unexpectedly on me while I was surfing the web or trying to snap a photo.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews suggesting that the Nexus 6P is the best Nexus phone to date. It’s certainly the model that scores the best on benchmarks. It gets better battery life than most earlier Nexus phones. And it has the best camera. But is it worth spending $499 on, or would you be better off with a Nexus 5X or a non-Nexus phone?
Google loaned me a Nexus 6P so I could find out. I’ve already posted a review of the Nexus 5X.
Overview and Design
Google partnered with Chinese phone maker Huawei to build the Nexus 6P, but the only indication that this is a Huawei devices comes from a tiny logo on the back of the screen, below big letters proclaiming that this is a Nexus phone.
That back panel is all metal and feels cool to the touch when you first pick up the phone after it’s been idle a while. The phone gets a little warm after a few minutes use… and uncomfortably hot during long gaming sessions or when recording videos for more than a few minutes.
Near the top of the phone is a camera bar that protrudes a bit from the case. While the camera bar looks a bit different than the camera bump on the Nexus 5X, both phones have the same 12.3MP camera with a Sony image sensor, IR laser assisted autofocus, and 1.55 µm pixels pixels for shooting photos in low-light environments.
The sides of the phone are also metal, with power and volume buttons on the right side and a nano SIM card slot on the left.
Speaking of buttons, the power button has a rough texture, making it easy to differentiate from the smooth volume buttons with your fingertip so you don’t have to look at your hand to know which you’re pressing.
The front of the phone is mostly screen, but there are rather larger black bezels above the top and below the bottom. This is where you’ll find the front-facing stereo speakers (which are loud and clear… especially compared with the tinny mono speaker found on the Nexus 5X), as well as an 8MP front-facing camera and an LED notification light at the top.
That notification light isn’t super bright, but it’s certainly visible and provides a way to detect notifications even when the screen is off.
The Nexus 6P also supports Android’s ambient display feature. If you enable ambient display from your phone’s settings, a portion of the screen will brighten to let you know when a notification arrives, showing you the time and a little info about the new messages.
You can also get a quick look at the ambient display notifications by picking up your phone or just nudging it after a period of inactivity — but this isn’t always super reliable. Sometimes you have to nudge the phone so much that you might as well just unlock the screen.
Since the phone has a large display, it would be difficult to hold the Nexus 6P in one hand and reach the power button if it were all the way at the top of the device, so the volume button is just about halfway down the side of the case, while the power button is a little above that.
But you might not actually need to hit the power button at all to turn on the Nexus 6P. Like the Nexus 5X, this phone has a Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensor on the back. You can register a fingerprint in just 6 taps, and once you’ve done that you can unlock your phone just by placing your finger over the sensor. It’s almost as fast as pressing the power button and certainly faster than pressing power and then entering a PIN or swipe pattern.
You do still need to hit the power key to turn off the screen if you don’t want to wait for it to go dark on its own.
Since this phone is substantially larger than the Nexus 5X, I’ve noticed a few things about the placement of the Nexus Imprint sensor and the buttons on this phone.
- The Nexus Imprint sensor is just as accurate on this phone, but since you have to reach further to get your fingers around the screen, it can be harder to tap it when holding the phone in one hand. This makes me far more likely to hit the power button to turn on the Nexus 6P than I was when using the Nexus 5X… although when holding the phone in two hands, it’s at least as easy to use the fingerprint sensor as the power button to unlock the phone.
- When holding the phone in two hands, I find myself pretty regularly bumping the power button accidentally and turning off the screen. While the button placement is ideal for one-handed use, it’s less than perfect for two-handed use… and this is very much a phone that requires you to use two hands for some tasks. When cradling the phone in both hands, it’s pretty easy to turn off the screen by accident, but I suspect this is something you can train yourself not to do over time.
If you’re detecting a bias toward smaller phones, that’s because I do generally prefer a phone I can hold in one hand and use to read the news while eating breakfast in the morning. While I can almost do that with the Nexus 6P, any time I need to reach up toward the top of the screen to save a news item for later viewing, I need to put down my coffee and reach over with my other hand to tap the screen.
To be fair, I often had to do that with the Nexus 5X as well, because that phone is just enough bigger than my 2013 Nexus 5 to make single-handed operation a little tough. But sometimes I could make do by changing my grip on the phone a bit to reach the top.
That said, a funny thing happens when you use a big phone for a while: smaller phones start to look small. Every time I pick up my Nexus 5 now, it takes me a moment to get over just how tiny the screen looks. The same thing happened last year when I reviewed the similarly-sized Nexus 6.
I guess I’m saying you can get used to anything, and there are certainly some things to like about phones with big screens. While web surfing, email, and social media apps don’t feel much different, videos, games, and photos can all look much better on a big screen.
The Nexus 6P has enough screen real estate for you to feel like you’re getting lost in a virtual world when you fire up games like Star Wars: Uprising, for instance. And you don’t even need to hold the phone right in front of your face to get that feeling.
It helps that the Nexus 6P also has a high-resolution display with vivid colors. It uses a Samsung 5.7 inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel AMOLED display panel with 518 pixels per inch.
I find the LCD display on the Nexus 5X can get a little brighter than the Nexus 6P’s AMOLED screen, but on the flip side, the dimmest setting on the Nexus 6P is much darker than on the Nexus 5X, which could make the phone more comfortable to use in the dark. It also has a generally warmer feel to it, although both screens are certainly adequate.
The display is protected with scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass 4 and it has an oleophobic coating to keep the screen from getting smudged up with fingerprints.
Google’s Nexus 6P measures about 159 x 78 x 7 millimeters, making it a tad thinner than the 2014 Nexus 6 which has a 159 x 83 x 10mm body. The new model’s also a tad lighter at 178 grams (6.3 ounces) compared with 184 grams (6.5 ounces) for last year’s model.
What’s under the hood
The Nexus 6P is powered by a 2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 v2.1 octa-core 64-bit ARMv8 processor with Adreno 430 graphics and the phone has 3GB of RAM and up to 128GB of storage, although the entry-level model has just 32GB of storage.
Google’s Nexus 5X, by comparison, has a 6-core Snapdragon 808 processor, 2GB of RAM, and just 16GB to 32GB of storage. Neither phone has a microSD card slot, so if you think you might need more storage storage space, you should spring for it when choosing which model you want to buy.
Note that there’s only a $70 price difference between the 32GB Nexus 5X and 32GB Nexus 6P… but the larger phone has a faster processor, more RAM, better speakers, and other features to help set it apart. On the other hand it is larger and requires, well, the other hand.
The Nexus 6P also has an 8MP front camera, compared with a 5MP front camera on the Nexus 5X.
Other features include stereo front-facing speakers above and below the screen, a 3,450 mAh battery, and support for fast charging. While the Nexus 6P doesn’t support Qualcomm Quick Charge technology, it does have a USB Type-C connector which allows it to charge more quickly than a typical phone with a micro USB port.
Note that the phone only supports USB 2.0 data transfer speeds with a USB cable. But Google says you should get up to 7 hours of battery life from a 10 minute charge, and I’ve found that you can go from a nearly empty battery to a nearly full one in about an hour.
Speaking of USB cables, the Nexus 6P comes with two: there’s a USB Type-C to Type-C cable that works with the included power adapter, and a short USB Type-C to Type-A connector that you can use to hook up the phone to a PC (or charger or other device).
If you want to get crazy you can also connect the phone to another phone to charge one device using the other’s battery.
The Nexus 6P supprots 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, and LTE Cat 6. It should support most major US wireless carrier networks. I’ve tested it with my home WiFi network and Google’s Project Fi, and it wireless performance seems to be pretty strong (although this will of course vary depending on the network you’re using).
How does it perform?
Run benchmarks on the Nexus 6P and you’ll find that while this may not be the fastest smartphone on the market, it’s certainly the fastest Nexus phone to date.
CPU and graphics performance
It outperforms the Nexus 5X, the Nexus 6, and the Nexus 5 in every test I threw at it, including Antutu, GeekBench, GFXBench, 3DMark, and PCMark.
But these benchmarks only tell part of the story, since they’re designed to measure CPU and graphics performance under very specific conditions. In terms of day-to-day performance, the Nexus 6P is pretty fast… but when I’m actually using it to surf the web, watch videos, or play games the phone doesn’t really feel noticeably faster than my 2-year-old Nexus 5.
The good news is that it’s also not noticeably slower. Run the same exact tasks on the Nexus 5 and Nexus 5X and at times the newer phone will seem to be the slower of the two. Scrolling through web pages and home screen widgets can be a bit more sluggish, and the Nexus 5X seems to run out of memory a little more quickly than the Nexus 5.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Nexus 6P, which makes sense since this phone has a more powerful processor and more advanced graphics.
But the Snapdragon 810 chip used in the Nexus 6P has taken a lot of heat from users and reviewers this year… for generating too much heat. Under heavy workloads, the chip has a tendency to run at high temperatures. This can cause phones to get warm… and it can also cause phones to throttle CPU speeds in order to give the chip time to cool off.
That means that while the Snapdragon 810 is capable of great performance it’s also been known to run slower than other chips when under heavy load, making phones with the processor seem less powerful than models with less powerful chip.
I don’t review a lot of smartphones, so the Nexus 6P is the first model with a Snapdragon 810 chip that I’ve tested — and as you can see from the benchmark results above, it does offer strong performance in CPU and graphics benchmarks. But a funny thing happens if you try running some of those tests over and over — the scores go down.
For instance, the chart above shows what happens when you run the 3DMark Slingshot test over and over again on the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P. The first score shows the best score I was able to get after leaving the phone inactive for a while, rebooting and then running the test right away.
The orange and grey lines show what happens when immediately after finishing a 3DMark test I run the benchmark again… and again. I actually did this 5 times, but the results for the final two tests weren’t notably different than the third.
Both the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P saw their scores dip in the second and third runs, suggesting that while the phones can offer high performance, they may have difficulty sustaining that performance for an extended period of time. But while there’s a 9 percent difference between the best and worst scores I obtained with the Nexus 5X, there’s a 26 percent difference in best and worst scores for the Nexus 6P.
Are you going to notice this during day-to-day tasks? Probably not. But there are a few other things that you might notice.
First, the phone can get very warm when playing some games for more than 10 or 15 minutes. It also gets hot when using the camera app for an extended period of time: the back of the phone got very hot when I used the phone to shoot four minutes of 4K video.
And several times during the weeks that I’ve been testing the phone, it’s rebooted unexpectedly. I can’t say with certainty that this has anything to do with the Snapdragon 810 processor, and the phone doesn’t reboot constantly… I can count on one hand the number of times it’s rebooted in the past two weeks, but it did happen twice in one morning, including once when I simply pulled the phone out of my pocket to snap a picture.
Here’s what happened: I aimed the phone at my cats and the camera app froze while saving the first picture. I wasn’t able to snap a second picture and for a moment I couldn’t even exit the camera app.
So I hit the power button to turn off the screen, turned it on again, and managed to get to the home screen. I tried opening the camera app again, and I saw a black screen. There was no way to save another photo. So I went back to the home screen and double-tapped the camera button to try taking a picture again.
This time the camera app loaded, and I saw a black screen again. After trying to tap the screen a few times the phone rebooted.
The phone works fine most of the time. After the incident I just described occurred yesterday, the phone hasn’t rebooted at all. And I’ve been mercilessly running benchmark test after benchmark test to try to make the it overheat. But it’s a little disappointing that the phone which is, in many ways, the best Nexus phone ever released, is also a bit unreliable.
The Nexus 6P has the same 12.3MP rear camera as the Nexus 5X. And it’s a pretty great camera which can take excellent shots, even in low-light settings. It does a respectable job with video recording as well.
In fact, I used the Nexus 6P to shoot all the photos used in my recent Acer Cloudbook 11 laptop review, and I used the Nexus 5X to shoot most of the photos of the Nexus 6P featured in this review.
Want a few more examples? Here are a few high-resolution images:
While both phones have the same camera hardware, the Nexus 6P has a few tricks that the smaller, cheaper phone lacks. That’s because it has a more powerful processor which enables a few additional features to be implemented using software.
Neither phone has optical image stabilization, but the Nexus 6P has electrical image stabilization which helps compensate for shake hands when you’re snapping photos or recording videos.
This helps compensate for a shaky hand when you’re snapping photos or recording videos.
If you’re using the Nexus 6P you can enable a Smart Burst option which lets you shoot a series of photos at 30 frames per second, automatically saving just the best shots, and converting shots into animated GIFs and/or collages like this one:
Another Nexus 6P-only feature is support for recording slow-motion video at 240 frames per second. The Nexus 5X tops out at 120 frames per second. The video below was created by shooting about 30 seconds of video.
Wondering why the video is so dark? That’s what happens when you use the slow-motion video mode. If you’re in a very bright environment you might not notice a difference. But even though I shot this video near a window on a reasonably sunny day, the video came out pretty dark. This is what the camera app looked like as I chose between normal video, 120 fps video, and 240 fps video:
While I suppose it’s nice to have the option to shoot super slow-motion video, I think you’re probably better off sticking with 120 frames per second unless you’re in a very brightly lit place.
Generally though, I’m very impressed with the cameras on both the Nexus 6P and the Nexus 5X, and the camera is probable one of the features I’ll miss most when I go back to using my Nexus 5 full-time.
The other thing I’ll miss most about the 2015 Nexus phones is their battery life: both phones can easily make it from dusk til dawn without charging under normal circumstances.
In fact, if you don’t use the phone heavily, you should be able to get more than 24 hours of run time. Here’s a chart showing a typical day’s use:
The phone was unlpugged for over 20 hours. The screen was on for close to three hours of that time. And I’d used the phone for a variety of tasks including reading news in Feedly, surfing the web in Firefox and Chrome, and watching videos in YouTube.
I didn’t perform any super-scientific testing of the battery so I can’t say for certain whether the nexus 6P gets better battery life than the Nexus 5X. But I can confidently tell you they both run for much longer on a charge than my aging Nexus 5.
They also charge more quickly: Google says you should be able to get up to 7 hours of battery life from a 10 minute charge. Whether that’s true or not depends on what you use the phone for during those 7 hours. But if you want a more objective number, here’s one: when I plugged in the phone for an hour, the battery level went from 12 percent to 82 percent.
In a lot of ways, the Nexus 6P really is the best Nexus smartphone to date. It has all the features I loved about the Nexus 5X, including the excellent camera, the Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensor, long battery life, and quick battery charging. But it also has a higher-resolution display, stereo speakers that sound much better, more memory, a faster processor, and (optionally) more storage.
It isn’t a perfect phone though: it may be one of the fastest Nexus phones to date, but performance can be a little inconsistent, the phone can get hot while you’re using it, and the fact that it reboots unexpectedly from time to time is a little disturbing.
The Nexus 6P is also a big phone. If you’re looking for a smartphone that you can easily use in one hand, this isn’t it. But once I got used to the idea of needing two hands to operate the phone I started to notice some of the benefits of the big screen. Videos, photos, games, and websites look great even when the phone isn’t held inches away from my nose.
I’m not ready to trade in my Nexus 5 just yet… it still feels almost as fast as this year’s Nexus models, and it’s running the same Android 6.0 software as the newer models. But Google won’t keep updating the Nexus 5 software forever. The new phones are a little more future-proof for that reason. And they do offer better graphics performance.
If I were going to upgrade though, it would almost certainly be for the improved camera, improved battery life, and the addition of the Nexus Imprint fingerprint scanner. I wasn’t really sold on fingerprint scanners until I started using these phones, but now I’m convinced. They make unlocking the phones a snap, and also let you bypass passwords, PINs, and swipe patterns when logging into some third-party apps.