The Google Nexus 5X is one of the best budget smartphones we’ve seen this year. Not only does it give you a slick performance with its 5in Full HD screen, it also has the latest Android features found on its flagship counterpart, the Nexus 6P – and at half the price.
The 6P was a disappointment, with poor picture and sound quality that felt at odds with its price, left trailing behind flagship rivals from Apple, LG and Samsung. The Nexus 5X turns this around with a better smartphone experience than its sibling.
It may not be chasing the top specification, but its performance across video and audio is more balanced and mature – which makes it all the more admirable for this price.
There are two variations of the Nexus 5X: a 16GB model for £300, and a 32GB model for £330. With such a small difference in pricing, we’d recommend choosing the 32GB model to ensure you have enough space for your apps, pictures and music.
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Design and build
The design and construction of the Nexus 5X has been handed over to LG, which built the original Nexus 5 in 2013.
Unlike the all-metal unibody design of the flagship 6P (which was built by Chinese smartphone brand Huawei), this is a plastic-backed smartphone. But it doesn’t feel cheap.
The phone is lightweight, while the soft-touch finish (in carbon, quartz or ice) keeps it looking smart. It’s nice to hold, too, even if it’s not as sleek as rivals such as the iPhone SE or HTC A9.
The side-buttons could be more substantial, feeling shallow and a little flimsy to press. And we wish the power button was ridged as on smartphones such as HTC A9 and Motorola Moto X Style to distinguish it easily from the volume rocker.
On the plus side, the 5X has a pretty sturdy build that doesn’t feel in immediate danger of getting scratched or knocked about in a bag or pocket.
And where the 6P has a slightly awkward bulge at the top, the 5X protrudes only around the rear camera, which makes it more comfortable to hold.
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There are three main reasons to buy a Nexus phone: it’s cheap, it gives you the purest Android experience, and you get the latest Android update. The 5X comes loaded with the latest Marshmallow OS, although Android fans can already download the beta version of Android N.
Marshmallow is barely a year old, though - and considerably faster, more intuitive and pared down than previous Android OS versions.
Highlights include the battery-saving Doze feature, Android Pay, a fingerprint sensor, and a quick on-screen search feature called Now on Tap (activate it by long-pressing the home key). And the new vertically scrolling app drawer feels much more natural to use.
The fingerprint sensor works perfectly – it’s just as fast as the one on the 6P. Scanning your fingerprint takes less time than Apple’s Touch ID method, while using it to turn on the screen takes a split second. It quickly becomes second nature.
One issue with the fingerprint sensor being on the back is that you have to pick up the smartphone every time you want to check notifications. It may sound minor, but LG and HTC users will tell you how useful the double-tap feature is to wake the screen.
The Nexus’s ambient display feature tries to address this by showing notifications that you tap to open, but it’s not the same.
Since this is a Google device, there’s no bloatware as you often find on other manufacturers’ Android phones. The Nexus 5X is speedy and stutter-free in use, with everything from opening apps, typing messages and playing games taking place without a hitch.
The 6P certainly has the buttery-smooth feel of a flagship smartphone and more impressive specs, but the 5X doesn’t feel too far behind with the same features. And it’s better value.
Android’s Doze feature helps prolong the 5X’s battery life by going into a deep standby mode, turning off any background activity, app syncing and notifications when the phone isn’t in use.
We get a good working day’s use out of the Nexus 5X before reaching for the charger. Our usual battery rundown test (a 720p video on loop at 50 per cent brightness) has the 2700mAh battery lasting for more than eight hours.
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Doze kicks in only when your phone is completely still for about 30 minutes, so it isn’t activated when in your pocket or in your bag when commuting.
We find it makes a noticeable difference, with the phone staying on the same percentage when we haven’t used it for a few hours – which is pretty amazing.
Like the flagship 6P, the Nexus 5X comes with a latest generation USB-C port and cable. It’s reversible, and has faster charging and transfer rates than the current standard, and so it’s only a matter of time before all smartphones and laptops switch over to using USB-C.
But there’s no USB to USB-C lead included with the 5X, so no way of connecting it to your laptop’s USB-A port to transfer files or charge up. You either have to use the bundled mains charger or spend a few quid to get the appropriate lead - a somewhat perplexing way of punishing early adopters.
One thing we love about the Nexus 5X’s 5in screen size is that we can use it with one hand. Bigger screens such as on the 6P are a two-handed operation, but the 5in screen is easier to live with when you’re multitasking.
The 5in display packs a Full HD resolution, which is crisp and detailed enough for any 1080p video played on screen. We like how natural and balanced the Nexus’s colour palette is – unlike the 6P’s yellow-tinged display.
It doesn’t go for cheap thrills with oversaturated hues - this screen is easy and comfortable on the eyes.
We would like the screen to go brighter, though. And deeper in the blacks. The Nexus 5X’s picture is perfectly fine for short YouTube clips, but we’d like a stronger contrast and better shadow detail to fully enjoy movies.
The LCD screen’s contrast isn’t as strong as the ones in its AMOLED based rivals, Samsung and LG. These phones have deeper, inkier blacks and better detail when watching shows such as Peaky Blinders and Daredevil.
Also, Apple’s iPhones display a much cleaner, brighter white, leaving the Nexus 5X looking a bit dull – and that’s across websites as well as videos.
The same can be said for the 5X’s camera performance: a nicely balanced colour balance, but lacking the depth and accuracy that marks out Apple’s snaps, for example.
The Nexus features 12.3MP rear and 5MP front cameras, with the main camera able to take HDR photos as well as 4K videos.
It’s a slightly odd inclusion: not only is the 5X ‘just’ a Full HD screen, but also neither the 16GB or 32GB model can store more than a handful of short, memory-hogging 4K videos.
But it’s the camera app that disappoints us more. It’s a simple point-and-tap camera with scope to adjust the focus – but not the brightness. Nor does it have optical image stabilisation.
The 6P’s camera features feel pretty basic for a flagship smartphone - and the 5X feels a further step down.
Compared with the fun features (slow-motion, hyperlapse and more) found on the HTC A9 and iPhone SE, the Nexus 5X is pretty dull to use.
This is a smartphone camera for casual snaps to social media, but you’ll need to go elsewhere for filters and editing.
At first glance, it may look as if the Nexus 5X has front-facing stereo speakers - but the top speaker grille is for incoming calls only.
The bottom speaker isn’t great, sounding wispy and thin, with barely any solidity to round off a tinny character.
We would stay away from using it when playing games or watching videos, even if it’s just background music.
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Plug in a good pair of headphones, such as the AKG Y50s, into the 3.5mm port, however, and the performance is more encouraging.
There’s a decent amount of detail, with rounded edges to notes, no sharpness and an overall smooth character making it an easy listen.
It lacks the dynamics and rhythmic precision we’re accustomed to with flagship smartphones such as the LG G5 and Apple iPhone 6S.
To be a genuine dedicated music player, the 5X needs a more articulate and energetic delivery to do justice to our Spotify and Tidal playlists.
It’s not perfect, but the Nexus 5X’s top features and hitch-free performance make it so easy to live with and great to use.
It’s also more affordable than the other ‘budget’ smartphone, the Apple iPhone SE, whose 16GB model is yours for £360, while the 64GB is £430.
But that decision is more a case of whether you prefer an Android or Apple device, so the bigger rival for the 5X is the flagship 6P. And we prefer the budget 5X far more – which should be enough of a recommendation.
If you want the best multimedia experience, we’d have to point you towards the LG G5, Apple iPhone 6S and the Samsung S7.
However, for those who don’t want to pay a premium price but want a smartphone that has all the cutting-edge features, the Nexus 5X is definitely worth considering.
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