Google’s latest Nexus smartphone is its most powerful yet. It has the fastest processor, the most RAM, and also the biggest battery of any Nexus phone to date. It also has the best camera, the biggest screen… and the biggest price tag.
The Google Nexus 6 has a high-resolution 6 inch screen, a speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, up to 64GB of storage, and a battery that can easily power the phone for more than a day of ordinary use.
It’s also the first phone to ship with Android 5.0 Lollipop, although a growing number of device makers are starting to roll out Android 5.0 updates for existing phones like the LG G3 and Motorola Moto X.
But unlike the last few Nexus smartphones which have sold for about half the price of the competition, the Nexus 6 carriers a hefty price tag: Google sells carrier unlocked models for $649 and up, although you’ll be able to pay less (or nothing) up front if you buy the phone from a wireless carrier and sign up for a 2-year contract and/or pay for the phone in monthly installments.
The Nexus line of phones weren’t always cheap. The Google Nexus One sold for $529 when it launched in 2010. But folks who’d been hoping the Nexus 6 would be priced like last year’s $349 Nexus 5 smartphone were a bit disappointed when Google revealed the price for its new phone.
So is the Nexus 6 worth the asking price? That depends on what you’re looking for in a smartphone. Not only is it Google’s biggest, fastest phone to date, but as a Nexus phone it’ll receive updates directly from Google for at least a year or two and will probably get a few more years of support from custom ROM builders and other independent developers.
On the other hand, expensive phones with 6 inch screens aren’t for everyone… and you don’t need the latest and greatest hardware to have a decent experience. Maybe that’s why Google’s continuing to sell last year’s Nexus 5 even as the new Nexus 6 starts to ship.
I’ve been using a Nexus 6 loaned to me by Google as my primary phone for the past week and a half, and while it’s probably the best phone I’ve ever used in a lot of ways, I personally have no plans to upgrade from my Nexus 5 after I send my review unit back to Google. I am, however, looking forward to the Android 5.0 update that should be rolling out to that phone soon.
Google doesn’t build Nexus phones (or tablets, or TV boxes) itself. Instead the company partners with device makers including HTC, Asus, LG, and Samsung. The Nexus 6 is the first to be built by Motorola, which was owned by Google for a while… but which is now a subsidiary of Lenovo.
In fact, the Nexus 6 looks a lot like a Motorola Moto X with a bigger display.
The idea behind Nexus products is to build devices that Google engineers use while developing Android software, but which can also be sold to the public. Since Nexus phones have a pure version of Google Android with no custom skins or third-party apps, they basically run Android as Google intended and they also sort of serve as a showcase for what Google things an Android device with the latest technology can (and maybe should) be.
Google stands to benefit when you buy almost any Android phone, so the company doesn’t really see the Nexus line as competing with phones from Samsung, HTC, or others. But Nexus phones have developed a cult-like following in recent years.
With the growing popularity of big-screen phones in recent years, it would have been odd if Google hadn’t developed a 6 inch phone at some point. The Nexus 6 provides developers with an opportunity to test their software on a big phone without dealing with Samsung TouchWiz, HTC Sense, Asus ZenUI or any other custom skins.
So if you’re looking for a Nexus phone with a smaller screen, buy last year’s model. This year’s model might not be for you.
But it does have some great hardware under the hood.
The Google Nexus features a 5.96 inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel display, a 2.7 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB to 64GB of built-in storage, a 13MP rear camera, 2MP front-facing camera, 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, 4G LTE, and a 3220mAh battery.
The unlocked model sold in the US by Google should work with any major US wireless carrier, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. I’ve been using the phone with a Cricket pre-paid SIM card with no problems.
The phone also comes with a Motorola Turbo Charger which gives you up to 6 hours of run time from 15 minutes of charging. You can use any microUSB cable to charge the Nexus 6, but it’ll charge most quickly if you use the charger that comes with the phone.
The rear camera features a dual LED flash and optical image stabilization and the phone also has stereo, front-facing speakers.
The phone measures about 6.3″ x 3.3″ x 0.4″ and weighs 6.5 ounces. It’s pretty small… for a tablet. But it’s kind of enormous for a phone.
The big screen is great for watching videos, playing games, viewing pictures, or reading. And it’s not particularly hard to hold the phone in one hand. But using it with one hand is another story.
Over the past week I constantly found myself stretching my thumb as far as I could to tap or swipe something near the top of the screen… only to find that I couldn’t reach that point and needed to use my other hand.
I also like to carry a phone in the front pocket of my jeans… and I can do that with the Nexus 6, but just barely. When I sit down with the phone in the pocket of some (loose fit, not skinny) jeans, the top of the phone pokes me a bit.
But a funny thing happens when you use a 6 inch phone for a week: when you pick up a 5 inch or smaller phone, it feels tiny, the screen seems small, and you wonder how you got by with an on-screen keyboard on a screen that size. As I’ve already said, I expect to go back to a smaller phone after returning the Nexus 6, but for the first time I can see why some folks figure bigger-is-better when it comes to smartphone displays.
There are speakers above and below the screen which are reasonably loud and clear: I normally pair my Nexus 5 with a Bluetooth speaker to listen to internet radio while I’m in the kitchen making breakfast or dinner. But during my time with the Nexus 6 I never felt the need to use an external speaker. That’s not to say a good Bluetooth speaker doesn’t sound better, but the Nexus 6 speakers are loud and clear enough to hear over cooking and dish washing noises.
The area around the speakers can be dust magnets though — I’ve found that the bottom speaker is particularly prone to filling with pocket lint.
Google and Motorola did make one move that helps you use the phone with one hand: the power and volume buttons are almost half-way down the right side of the phone instead of near the top, where they would be on most smaller phones. This makes it easier to turn the screen on or off or adjust the volume without shifting your grip, whether you’re holding the phone in your right or left hand.
It’s easy to tell which button your finger is on without looking because the power button has a ridged texture, while the volume rocker button is smooth.
The back of the phone is curved so that the thickets point is in the center, while the edges of the phone are thinner. This makes the phone look a bit thinner than it is and arguably makes it easy to hold since it meets the curvature of your hand. But it also means the phone may wobble if you place it on a flat surface.
The rear panel is covered with branding: there’s a Nexus logo and a Motorola logo, and for some reason they’re facing different directions.
Like the Moto X, the Nexus 6 puts the Motorola logo in a small, circular indent which I guess gives you a place to put your finger while holding the phone… but with a phone this size, it’s not like there’s a lack of places to put your fingers.
Above the logo is the camera lens surrounded by a ring with two LED lights which you can use as flash bulbs or as a flashlight (one of the new features baked into Android 5.0 is a flashlight toggle built into the Quick Settings panel, letting you turn your phone into a flashlight with a swipe and a tap).
There’s a micro USB port at the bottom of the phone, along an edge that’s slanted up toward the screen. At the top of the phone is a headset jack and a nano SIM card slot.
Like most recent Nexus devices, there’s no microSD card slot for removable storage. But the entry-level model features 32GB of built-in storage, and Google also offers a 64GB model for $50 more.
Google’s new version of Android features a new design language, stronger security, support for 64-bit processors, and many other improvements.
We’ve already taken a close look at Android 5.0 Lollipop, but here are some of the highlights.
Android 5.0 introduces a new design language called “Material,” which uses bold colors and shadows to resemble physical textures. Switching between recently used apps, for instance, now feels more like flipping through a stack of cards than like hitting Alt+Tab on a PC to view thumbnail icons.
The operating system also features a new, bright color scheme, a redesigned settings menu, simple new triangle, circle, and square buttons for back, home, and recents functions, and a new keyboard with a minimalist design (there are no visible spaces separating one key from the next).
Note that if you use the Chrome web browser, browser tabs will also each get their own entry in the recents menu — although you can disable this feature if you’d rather manage browser tabs within Chrome instead. But I noticed that Firefox only gets one entry in the Recents menu no matter how many browser tabs I have open.
If you don’t like the new keyboard you can install a third-party keyboard or use one of the other keyboard themes included in Android 5.0 including light and dark themes as well as “Holo” themes which make the Android 5.0 keyboard look like the Android 4.4 keyboard.
Google has updated the pull-down menus. Swipe down from the top of the screen and you’ll see notifications. Pull down again and you’ll also see your Quick Settings panel with a brightness slider and toggles for WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular and other functions.
There are also buttons for enabling airplane mode, toggling location reporting, turning on the flashlight function, and casting your screen to a Chromecast or other supported device.
You can also jump straight to the Quick Settings by swiping down from the top of the screen with two fingers.
Tap the battery status meter and you’ll find detailed battery stats. Tap the gear icon and you’ll find the full settings menu.
Speaking of battery stats, Android 5.0 includes a new Battery Saver mode which disables some features in order to help you squeeze up to 90 minutes of extra run time out of your battery. Some apps might not sync while Battery Saver mode is on, so you’ll probably only want to use this mode when you really need it.
Android also now gives you an estimate of how many hours of battery life you have left instead of simply a percentage. And when your phone or tablet is plugged in and charging you’ll see an estimated time to full charge on the lock screen.
Speaking of the lock screen, Google now lets you see notifications without unlocking your device. You can choose not to show notifications, or to hide notifications which may contain sensitive information so that nobody can read your private communications without first unlocking your device.
When you hit the volume button you’ll also see an on-screen slider that lets you further adjust the volume, disable all notifications for the next 15 minutes to 8 hours, or only allow priority communications to get through during those times.
What strikes me most after using Android 5.0 for over a week is that while it looks very different from Android 4.x and earlier, it doesn’t actually feel all that different.
If you’ve used an Android device in the past it should take no time at all to get used to the new software. If you’ve never used Android before, it shouldn’t take long to get up to speed either. The operating system is designed to be navigated using a relatively small number of simple tap and swipe gestures.
For existing Android users, one really cool new feature is Tap & Go instant setup. If both your new and old devices feature NFC, you can tap them together during startup to transfer your settings from one phone to the next.
Using Tap & Go, I was able to quickly setup the Nexus 6 by importing all of my apps and many of my settings from my Nexus 5. The phone automatically downloaded most of my apps from the Google Play Store and even arranged apps and widgets in the same order on my home screen.
One thing that becomes instantly clear when you do this is that there’s extra screen real estate on the Nexus 6. The Nexus 5 has room for 4 rows and 4 columns of apps on your home screen. You can use the bigger screen on the Nexus 6 to fit 5 rows and 5 columns… which means that there was extra space above and to the right side of my apps after importing my home screen settings from my phone.
It’s hard to center 4×1 widgets now, but hopefully app makers will start producing widgets that take advantage of the extra screen space so we see more 5×1 or 5×2 widgets.
There are still some apps that haven’t been updated to support Android 5.0. While Amazon Music download and installed without any problems, there are blank spots where Amazon’s shopping and Instant Video apps should be. And any apps you’ve sideloaded rather than installed from the Google Play Store won’t be transferred through the Tap & Go process.
Update: Amazon’s mobile app added support for Android 5.0 on November 17th, 2014.
I still had to login to apps that require a password including Netflix, Facebook, and Pandora. But overall the new Tap & Go feature made the overall setup process pretty quick and painless.
Another nifty feature is Smart Unlock, which lets you use a Bluetooth or NFC device to unlock your device. For example if you have an Android Wear smartwatch you could use it to unlock your phone when the watch is nearby so you don’t need to enter a password, gesture, or use face unlock.
The Nexus 6 automatically detected a Bluetooth speaker in my house and asked if I wanted to use it to unlock my phone… but that seemed like a kind of silly combination. Still, I guess it’s nice to be asked.
The Nexus 6 isn’t the fastest Android device I’ve ever used… but it’s close enough that it’d be hard to tell the difference without running benchmarking apps.
Apps load quickly, games run smoothly, and HD video looks great.
I fired up the 3DMark, Antutu, and CF-Bench utilities to see what kind of raw processing power the Nexus 6 has, and in most tests it came in second only to the Google Nexus 9 tablet – although it actually came out way ahead of the tablet in the CF-Bench test.
The back of the phone does get a little warm when running benchmarks or other power-hungry tasks. But the case stays pretty cool during casual use such as web surfing, checking Facebook, or composing email messages.
Benchmarks aren’t always indicative of real world performance, but what you need to know is that the phone has plenty of processing power (and RAM) to handle multi-tasking and just about any app you can throw at it. And since the vast majority of Android devices on the market aren’t as fast as the Nexus 6, most games are designed to run on slower hardware. You should have no problem running those games or other resource-intensive apps on the Nexus 6.
While it has a higher-resolution display than most phones on the market, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor with Adreno 420 graphics never seems to have any trouble painting all of those pixels.
The high-resolution AMOLED display looks great when you’re viewing photos, videos, or games and it’s great for reading eBooks or other content thanks to crisp text and graphics.
Google also makes use of a new feature called Ambient Display which works a lot like Motorola’s proprietary Moto Display technology. When a new message comes in, the screen lights up to let you read notifications.
But in order to conserve power and keep notifications from getting too annoying, the screen will be black and white and it’ll stay on for just a moment before fading to black.
If you want to read or interact with the notification, just tap the screen and it’ll switch to full color mode and either let you tap the alert to open the appropriate app or prompt you to unlock your device if you’re using a PIN or pattern for your lock screen.
You should also see Ambient Display notifications when you lift the phone from a table, but this doesn’t always work perfectly.
Moto Display is also a bit difference since only a portion of the screen turns on when alerts come in, and the Moto X smartphones include sensors that let you view notifications by waving your hands over the screen. You can’t do that with a Nexus 6.
As someone who gets a lot of email messages, I found the Ambient Display to be more annoying than useful. But you can turn it off by flipping a toggle in the Android display settings.
There’s also an option to enable “OK Google” detection even when the screen is turned off. This lets you set reminders, send text messages, check the weather, or ask other questions without touching your phone. If you leave the feature turned off you’ll only be able to use “OK Google” when the screen is on.
The Nexus 6 gets longer battery life than any previous Nexus phone thanks in large part to the phone’s large battery. When you have a big screen and a big case, there’s plenty of room for a big battery, and the Nexus 6 packs a 3220mAh battery.
Google says it’s also made improvements to Android which are designed to help with battery life, and it’s likely that these “Project Volta” improvements also play a role. Android also now has a Battery Saver mode which Google says can give you an extra 90 minutes of run time in an emergency, but it seriously slows down your device and disables synchronization for most apps so you probably won’t want to use it unless you need it.
Anyway, it’s tough to truly measure a phone’s battery life because the way I use a phone isn’t the way you use one… and the way I use a phone today might not be the way I use it tomorrow.
That said, I never had trouble getting a full day’s use out of the Nexus 6. I unplug it when I wake up at 6:00 in the morning, and most nights the battery still has a 30 or 40 percent charge by the time I go to bed at 10:00.
Here’s an example of a typical day, with the screenshots grabbed after the phone had been unplugged for about 15 hours (except for a few minutes when I plugged it into a laptop to copy some pictures in the morning, which is why there’s an upward tick around 9:00.
I’m not even going to try to pretend that I know enough about good photography to pass judgment on the Nexus 6 camera… but I will say that the 13MP camera seems to take better shots than the 8MP shooter on my Nexus 5.
The Nexus 6 isn’t going to replace a DSLR anytime soon (or my Canon PowerShot SX130 with a 12x optical zoom, for that matter). But you can certainly take some pretty good pictures with it. Here are a few photos I snapped with the Nexus 6, including a low-light shot or two.
Want to root your Nexus 6, use a custom recovery, or install custom firmware? The first step involves unlocking the bootloader. It’s super easy to do that.
The steps are similar to those for unlocking the Nexus 9 bootloader (but don’t use the same SuperSU file to try to root the Nexus 6).
Just enable developer mode in the settings by tapping the Build Number under “About tablet” 7 times, go to Developer options and check the boxes that say “Enable OEM unlock” and “USB debugging.
Then connect the phone to a PC with the Android SDK or at least adb and fastboot installed, open a command prompt and type: “adb reboot bootloader” without quotes… wait for your device to reboot and type “fastboot oem unlock” (again without quotes).
Your phone will ask if you’re sure (and warn you that you may be voiding the warranty), and you can press the power button to continue.
After the process is complete you can reboot into Android by typing “fastboot reboot.”
Note that this will wipe data from your phone just as if you had performed a factory reset, so make sure to backup anything important before beginning. But once your bootloader is unlocked you shouldn’t have to unlock it in the future. That’s why I often unlock a device when I first get it, whether I plan to root the phone or tablet or not. This way I have the option.
Regular Liliputing readers know I review a lot of tablets, notebooks, and TV boxes but don’t regularly tackle smartphone reviews. So I’m not really the best person to tell you how the Nexus 6 stacks up against the latest phones from Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony, Motorola, or others.
But I have used most of Google’s Nexus phones and this model is the fastest, has the best screen, the longest battery life, and the best camera of the bunch. It’s definitely a step up from the Nexus 5 in every way… including price and size.
Like other recent Nexus phones the Nexus 6 has a few quirks that’ll probably annoy some people: there’s no microSD card slot and the battery isn’t removable. Those things don’t bother me, particularly since it gets great battery life and you can buy this phone with up to 64GB of built-in storage.
What does bother me is the size: it’s already hard enough to use a 5 inch phone with one hand. A 6 inch phone is really more of a two-handed device. I find myself treating the Nexus 6 like a cross between a phone and a tablet. The big, bright, high-resolution display is amazing for reading, watching, or playing… but I find it hard to navigate web pages, RSS feeds, or other content while I’m sitting down to read the news with my phone in one hand a coffee cup in the other.
So I’m not going to give up my Nexus 5 anytime soon. But if you don’t mind (or better yet, if you want) a big screen and a phone that’s generally better than last year’s model in every way… and one which will likely be supported by Google for at least a year longer than the Nexus 5, the new Nexus 6 is a pretty great device.
Even if you have no intention of buying the Nexus 6, it could have an impact on the next phone you do buy. It’s a showcase for Google’s Android 5.0 software and includes stereo front-facing speakers, support for Ambient Display and always-on OK Google features. The Nexus 6 shows what an Android phone can be in late 2014, and it’s likely other smartphone makers will take notice.