Is the Google Nexus 5X and 6P Right for RTW and Long-Term Travelers?

If you are looking for a review of Google’s new Nexus 5x and 6p for normal, western world use, there are a ton to choose from:

Tech Radar

CNET

Engadget

The Verge

Though I will be going touching on certain in depth technical details, if you really want to go deep on battery life or differences in screen construction or CPU power usage, you are better off with the above.

What I’ll be focusing on is the challenges a long term traveler is likely to face and how the Nexus 5x has measured up over these last few months of travel.

If you'd prefer to watch less detailed video version of this review, check that out here.

What are the unique challenges of a long term traveler?

·       Battery life and charging- Travelers are much more likely to experience a longer gap between charges.

·       Wifi- Data coverage can be minimal in less developed area. The ability to connect to older and generally crappier wifi is important.

·       Security- With constant movement and changing circumstances, travelers face a higher likelihood of having their phone stolen or lost.

·       Camera- Though we all increasingly demand high quality cameras on our phones, this is perhaps an even higher priority for a traveler like me who is not carrying anything else to take pictures with.

·       Memory and Storage- Traveler’s have a more limited ability to empty out their phones and a higher likelihood to want everything they need on it at the same time.

·       Service options- Having an unlocked phone is a must for any long term traveler. What service providers can the phone be used with outside the US?

Over the last few months I’ve used the phone for hundreds of hours. I’ve used it for photos and video, for reading, maps, phone calls on cellular and wifi networks, texting and video chatting. I’ve used wifi and cellular data on airplanes, boats and buses, in public malls, private homes and in the middle of nowhere.

Let’s take a look...

Size and Design

The Nexus 5X comes in three colors: white, black and dirty pool water.

The Nexus 5X comes in three colors: white, black and dirty pool water.

The Nexus 5x is the smaller and cheaper of Google’s 2 new Nexus phones. The screen is a 5.2 inch LCD with 1920X1080 resolution. So about 432 pixels per inch. There are phones with more density in pixels but they sacrifice battery life to create that greater depth. I think the screen’s color, detail and brightness are all excellent for everyday use.

The phone is the perfect mix of size and usability. Its small enough to be used one handed and fit in a pocket but large enough to allow the typing of longer emails home and the easy watching of youtube videos while I sit in the airport.

My previous phone was a Samsung Note 4 (a phone with a close to identical size to the Nexus 6p) and I’ve come around to the smaller screen size, especially as it relates to safety and convenience while traveling.

The smaller screen means that I can comfortably sit in a bus or at a restaurant table and keep the phone in my pocket. Not having to put my phone out on the table or in a bag can be a comfort when I’m in areas I don’t know as well.

I also think the smaller phone makes me a less attractive target for crime than I might be with a flashier larger phone.

Both new Nexus phones feature a rear fingerprint reader whose location feel much more intuitive and easy to use than my wife’s front mounted home button fingerprint reader on her iPhone 5S. The reader is easy to set up and can be keyed to several prints which helps a lot since my wife often grabs my phone to check maps or take a photo. It unlocks almost instantly and I haven’t yet missed a photo opp because my phone is locked.

The 5X has a primarily plastic body which makes the phone lighter than similarly sized metal body phones. Though I do think the 6P is a more attractive phone overall, as a long term traveler the idea of not keeping my phone in a case is ludicrous. It really doesn’t matter so much to me what the phone looks like. It’s always wrapped up in a bright orange rubber case anyway.

It is worth noting that one disadvantage of either Nexus phone is their overall smaller footprint in the market. As a result, accessories including cases from better known manufacturers are not available. This is the first phone I’ve ever had that I am unable to buy an Otterbox case for.

Hardware

Thanks to Wired for this neat little breakdown of the 5X and 6P specs.

Thanks to Wired for this neat little breakdown of the 5X and 6P specs.

The 5X features a Snapdragon 808 64 bit hexa-core CPU. For those of you who actually know what this means, that’s a 1.44GHz quad-core chip and 1.82GHz dual core chip. The phone also features an Adreno 418 GPU in the processor.

It features just about every kind of cellular receptor and radio band you could need for any carrier worldwide. This fits with Google’s philosophy of making buying choices free from any carrier interference.

The future proofing foresight of the USB-C connector is missing in the phone’s memory and storage: just 2GB of RAM and a 16GB or 32GB storage capacity with no slot for expandable memory.

The limited RAM means that I frequently experience sluggish performance on the phone if I have too many apps running, particularly when trying to use the camera.

That is less impactful limiting factor than the 32GB limitation on storage space. We are constantly encountering new and interesting things as we travel and that means we take a lot of pictures. The limited access to wifi (and the extremely limited amount of time that that wifi is truly high speed) means that moving photos to the cloud as I would in the states is much more difficult. The phone’s reliance on USB-C connectors makes moving them over cable’s difficult too.

We also spend a lot of time on buses and planes and in areas with poor to no absent data coverage. In the states I would stream music or pull up things to read on demand. Traveling the way we do means needing music and other content pre-loaded.

Even downloading Google Maps offline can eat up significant amounts of storage space.

The end result is a phone that is constantly overfull and slow as a result. I don’t think it would be a problem if I returned home each day to a high speed wifi network that would let me offload my photos to Google Photos or if I had access to the kind of consistent high speed data that let me stream music and download books and access blogs on demand. However, in the limited connectivity of the less developed world, the limited storage and RAM on the Nexus 5X requires more management than I would like.

OS

Every copy of Android's new operating system comes with three free marshmallows.

Every copy of Android's new operating system comes with three free marshmallows.

One of the most significant advantages of purchasing a Nexus is getting the most recent version of Android absent any of the 3rd party bloatware you might find on your Samsung or LG phone. The Nexus ships with Android Marshmallow and nothing else. 

Having used Samsung phones for the last few years, I did find some of the menus and setups difficult to navigate at first but like any phone you can quickly adjust. Overall, I would say the setup is more intuitive and easier overall to use than menus on the LG and Samsung phones I’ve owned.

There are a few features that I really like with Marshmallow. For example, the main menu pull down give easy access to common functions that required significantly more work to find on older phones. Flashlight, hotspot and Chromecast are all just a swipe and a touch away.

Having 'Cast', 'Flashlight' and 'Hotspot' easily available is a nice design feature.

Having 'Cast', 'Flashlight' and 'Hotspot' easily available is a nice design feature.

The “Do Not Disturb” function is also much simpler to use and matches more precisely with the way you use your phone in real life. You can specify total silence, just alarms or priority alerts and instead of having to remember to turn volume back on later, it defaults to a timer that automatically restores your phone to regular volume after a defined period.

Designing 'Do Not Disturb' to naturally expire after a certain period is a great intuitive feature.

Designing 'Do Not Disturb' to naturally expire after a certain period is a great intuitive feature.

One feature I strongly miss from my Samsung was a “Close All” button when managing open apps.

My only real complaint with the OS is my inability so far to connect to my brand new Macbook Pro. Neither cables or Bluetooth have allowed me to connect my phone to my laptop. This is a particularly frustrating problem because of the phone's insufficient internal memory for the data isolation that traveling often carries with it. My phone is always overfull and the only way to clean it out is over wifi which is rarely as fast as it would be in the states. If I want to load a Lonely Planet guide book that is several hundred megabytes or export a 4K video it means setting it up to do so and then leaving overnight. I will put more time in the next few weeks and see if I can solve the problem. I will update this post if I fix it. 

It’s also worth noting that the Nexus is easy to put in a debug mode which makes remote support from Project Fi or development easy.  

Camera

You can see the camera bulge and fingerprint scanner placement here.

You can see the camera bulge and fingerprint scanner placement here.

There is no way I could have brought this phone along on our trip without knowing it took great photos. We are not photographers and were strongly opposed to spending the money and space in our bags on a DSLR that would cost a lot and that we wouldn’t really know how to use.

The Nexus 5X and 6P both have 12.3 MP rear and 5MP front facing cameras. The rear camera can take 4K video and has a 1.55 micron pixel receptor that is designed to allow for low light photos.

Both the 5X and the 6P have a very slight camera bulge on the back. I understand that this might be a turnoff for people who love the iPhone’s totally flat profile. Because we are traveling in uncertain environments, my phone is always in a case and the bulge is a non-issue.

In practice the phone has taken exceptional photos and video. On several occasions readers have asked for photography advice or the brand of our camera. They are always surprised to find that we are only using cell phones.

I also should mention that I do post photo processing with Adobe Lightroom for most of the photos that we post on the blog. However, I still would not be able to turn out such excellent results without high quality photos to start with.

Overall, I have a lower opinion of the Google camera app that comes with Marshmallow than some others. It’s easier and more intuitive to use for basic functions than the Samsung app I used before but it lacks some greater depth of control for exposure and focus.

I also have not had consistent results with Google’s tiltshift feature (Lens Blur) or photosphere/panorama. Sometimes it works, sometimes you do it three times and then just give up.

My primary issue with the camera (really my only one) has less to do with the camera itself than with the hardware supporting it. Probably 10% of the time when I open the camera app it fails to open with an error message or hangs up on the camera app screen without ever feeding the preview from the lens. In most of these cases, I have to back out, close all the apps and sometimes even restart before the camera runs fluidly. The 5X offers only 2GB RAM compared to the 6P's 3GB. I prefer the lighter body and smaller form factor and I’m disappointed that Google chose to put less RAM in the 5X than the camera actually needs to operate well.

Battery Life and Charging

The Nexus 5X has a 2700mAh battery, which is 400mAh more than Nexus 5. It’s bottom port is a USB-C and it includes fast charger adaptor.

The charge only works with USB-C. Which means you'll probably not be able to swap in and out of more versatile chargers you already own. 

The charge only works with USB-C. Which means you'll probably not be able to swap in and out of more versatile chargers you already own. 

Battery usage as a long term traveler is a bit schizophrenic. You’ll go from no data or limited data for most of a day and then suddenly be streaming video for an hour and a half straight once you get to a place with reliable data access. The long periods without data don’t demand much of the battery. The 5X can last 3-4 days when my access to data is limited (as it usually is).

When you do suddenly drain 30% of your battery in a single Netflix binge on a hostal dorm bed, the fast charger can be a life saver. People more patient and meticulous than me have noted the 5X can typically recharge from 0-70% in a hour and to 100% in just under 2 hours.

So functionally, the battery and charger both work well for the demands of long term travel. However, I have some definite frustration with the included charging hardware and the choice to make the cable and connecting port USB-C.

USB-C makes sense for the future. It's a pain in the ass now.

USB-C makes sense for the future. It's a pain in the ass now.

USB-C is no doubt the future standard for cell phone connectors as we transition from micro USB and the various manufacturer specific choices of the last decade. USB-C is actually what allows the faster charging speeds offered by the adaptor and that its reversible design means a longer life for the ports and cables we use. It makes sense that Google would want to future-proof their new phones as much as possible and there is, of course, always frustration as we transition between cable types, storage mediums, etc. Indeed, the Nexus 6P ships with a USB-C to USB-A cable indicating that Google is well aware that the world is not entirely ready for solely USB-C connections.

However, as a person who literally has to pack and carry everything he owns once every few days or weeks, the USB-C charger is a pain in the ass. I would gladly trade a reduction in the charging speed for the ability to charge and connect my phone with my computer and the other power adaptor’s we carry as part of our tech bundle.

The Nexus 5X ships with its fast charger (which is USB-C only) and a USB-C to USB-C cable. What this means functionally is that I carry a charger and a cable that are only used for one device. Something that is decidedly not the case for every other charger and cable we have with us on the trip.

Moreover, the majority of the rest of our peripherals (my Nexus 7 tablet, our UE Mini-Boom Bluetooth speaker, our Steri-pen) are still micro-USB charged.

Many people have pointed out that I have the option to purchase a USB-C to USB-A cable and ditch the fast charger or buy USB-C to Micro-USB adaptors. This is true. But its’ irritating to me to choose between actually carrying two cables that can only be used for one device or losing my phone’s fast charging ability. It should also be noted that charging a USB-C device with an adaptor or a USB-A cable doesn’t reduce the fast charging to normal speed, it reduces it almost to a stand-still.

As it stands now, if I’m going to work in a coffee shop for the day and worry I might need to charge my phone and export photos from it, charge my computer and a peripheral, I can end up carrying three chargers and four separate cables. That’s twice than the number of t-shirts I currently own.

Anyway…the phone’s battery life and charging perform well but are not ideal for a person who packs their entire life into a carry-on bag once every few days.

Support and Warranty

As per my experience with most paid Google products, their technical support and customer service has been top notch. Having originally bought the phone through my Google Play account, it accidentally shipped to an old address. Though I was able to recover it from the new resident, the customer service rep I was dealing with to track the package told me that they would be willing to replace the phone if I was unable to recover it. This is in a situation where I was the one who fucked up. Indeed, part of the reason we couldn't correct the mailing address shortly after ordering the phone was because of how quickly they processed my order and got it shipped. 

Here's my original unboxing and evaluation of the 5X from back in Fall of 2015.

Google is offering an Applecare clone called Nexus Protect. There's a good breakdown on it here. Essentially for $69/$89 you can get two years of accidental damage protection with next day phone replacement for your 5X or 6P. Under normal circumstances, you get two replacements in that two year period. Each replacement phone requires a $79 deductible payment. It also extends the one year manufacturers defect warranty to two years. I have not yet damaged my phone or needed replacement but reviews I've read from others who have indicate they have a similarly high caliber of customer service with Nexus Protect.

Conclusion

Having used the phone extensively while traveling for the last few months, I’m very happy with my Nexus 5X and its integration with Project Fi. (For more info on Project Fi, check out my post on using it abroad here) As a long term traveler, I’m much more reliant on my phone for maps, pictures and everyday communication than I would be in a home environment where I had reliable internet access or a readily accessible desktop for everyday use. Most of my complaints about the phone are issues that would be solved with the technical specs of the Nexus 6P which ships with 3GB RAM and up to 64GB of internal storage as well as a USB-C to USB-A cable. This criticism is, to some degree, self contradicting since the large form factor of the 6P (which I didn’t want) is probably what allows it to fit the extra RAM and storage (which I do want).

That said, I would certainly purchase the 5X again and recommend it strongly to those looking for a good phone for long term travel.

The Good:

·      Camera and picture quality

·      Battery Life and charging speed

·      Price

·      OS

·      Support and customer service

·      Fingerprint reader

The Bad

·      USB-C cabling and charger

·      Insufficient RAM

·      Insufficient Storage