The latest entry in the Nexus line of reference devices comes with a steep, $650 price tag. Along with its Apple-like pricing, the Nexus 6 sports outstanding specs, the latest version of Android and touchless controls – but does the ginormous phablet size and premium price warrant a purchase?
Compared to similar smartphones in the $650+ range, the Nexus 6 comes with advantages and disadvantages. The iPhone 6 Plus (our review) offers similar specs, but without touchless controls. In hardware performance, the 64-bit A8 series Apple-designed processor leads all rivals. In comparison, the $550 Motorola Moto X (2014) falls behind in all categories, although its cheaper price and pocket-friendly 5.2-inch form factor may justify its existence. Against Samsung’s Galaxy Note, the Nexus 6 falls short in battery life – and in many other domains – but comes out ahead in software features.
Aesthetics and First Impressions
Unlike the Nexus 9 (our Nexus 9 review) no visible deformities or production flaws mar the Nexus 6. It comes in two colors: navy blue and white. It employs metal volume-rocker and power buttons, along a metal bezel, which doubles as an antenna for both Bluetooth and WiFi.
The power button is designed with ridged potato chip-like texture, allowing users to differentiate between power and volume buttons, just by feel. Although I prefer the black ceramic buttons used on the Nexus 5 (our Nexus 5 review), the Nexus 6 comes out ahead in overall design. It also uses a hard plastic shell that’s become standard among Motorola’s recent phones.
While the plastic shell feels nicer to the touch, the soft matte-plastic used in the Nexus 5 and 9 offer a better grip.
- Chipset: Snapdragon 805 with quad 2.7 GHz Krait 450 CPU cores and Adreno 420 GPU
- RAM: 3 GB RAM
- Storage: 32 or 64GB SanDisk eMMC module (spec unknown)
- Wireless: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC
- Data: All carriers, including LTE on bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 19, 20, 28 and 41
- Display: 5.96″ AMOLED screen at 2560 x 1440 pixels; 493 PPI
- Cameras: 13MP with OIS (optical image stabilization) rear-facing camera and 2MP front-facing camera
- Dimensions: 159.3 x 83 x 10.1 mm
- Weight: 184 grams
- Additional features: Gorilla Glass 3 and water resistance
- Battery: 3,220 mAh Li-Po with wireless Qi charging and Turbo Charge technology
By all accounts, including iFixit’s glorious teardown, the parts within the Nexus 6 range from good to great– but it’s by no means the fastest Android device on the market and it fails to offer the best per-dollar value.
The Snapdragon 805 chipset – while not on the razor edge of development – offers solid performance. The AMOLED screen (what’s an AMOLED screen?) compares with the best on the market, although falls behind that of the Samsung. Its single sore-point: The 32GB (or 64GB) SanDisk eMMC module I believe uses last year’s eMMC 4.5 standard, rather than the cutting edge iNAND currently in production from SanDisk. This is unfortunate, as the 805 chipset supports the latest standard in eMMC.
Making Use of the Nexus 6
I used the Nexus 6 daily for over a week with a Karma wireless hotspot (our Karma review). Unlike the Nexus 5, the Nexus 6 includes touchless controls, most of which fall into a veritable maze of complex legal agreements from Qualcomm and Motorola’s patent portfolios. This complexity likely led to the removal of tap-to-wake.
When it comes down to details, the Nexus 6 only adds a larger, more impressive screen than what’s available on the Moto X 2014 edition. While the size makes the Motorola a tight fit in skinny jeans, its handling properties don’t damage its utilitarian value. Making calls won’t require any extra effort. The phone doesn’t weigh much more than a smaller sized mobile.
I have average sized hands – and a nearly six-inch phablet (a portmanteau for phone-tablet) fits comfortably between my fingers. The outer shell feels slick and it screams out for a case – otherwise, it’s a great smartphone without any serious shortcomings. For mobile browsing, gaming and email, it feels extremely snappy.
Unfortunately, Android 5.0 broke Miracast wireless display compatibility with my Netgear PTV3000 wireless display adapter.
Of the Nexus 6’s most distinguishing features, touchless controls stand out. Two primary forms of touchless control allow for a more ergonomic, fluid interface with the Android operating system: Ambient Display and screen-off Google Now.
Ambient Display (which is equivalent to the Moto X’s Active display) allows users to switch their screen on, just by nudging the phone. Like in the Moto X series, the phone’s accelerometers stay active when idle. When the phone’s sensors perceive abrupt movement – such as when the device is removed from a pocket – the screen turns on. It’s a similar gimmick to Android Wear – screen activation through particular kinds of movement – and it’s amazing. On the downside, Ambient Display’s implementation on the Nexus 6 is inferior to the Moto X’s version. It’s unreliable and triggers frequently, with very little contact.
The other feature – screen-off Google Now – hits that sweet spot between fluid productivity and technology simplification. As the name suggests, users can access Google Now, even when the phone is turned off. I find this feature highly useful for both productivity and convenience. It also helps being able to navigate and send text messages while driving. The voice detection trounces the Nexus 9, although it still falls short compared to the Moto X.
The overwhelming utility of touchless controls is efficiency: repetitive actions – such as hitting a power button – waste time. Over the lifespan of the phone, button presses add up. Touchless controls eliminate wasted time spent flipping through menus or fumbling with buttons. No other competing phone possesses anything like the features available in Motorola’s flagship devices. However, the implementation of touchless controls on the Moto X series feels snappier and more reliable than on the Nexus 6. The Moto X series employs more sensors and microphones, making it far better suited as a touchless platform.
The second outstanding feature of the Nexus 6: Its enormous pixel-per-inch (PPI) resolution on an AMOLED screen. In theory high PPI screens look great. In reality, enormous pixel densities provide a marginal upgrade over 1080p screens and come with major trade-offs. The greater a phone’s PPI, the more power it sucks up while active. Also, screen burn-in has been more frequently reported on some of the higher PPI AMOLED screens, such as the 2014 Moto X. In my experience, 1080p represents the sweet-spot between battery life and image quality.
Unfortunately, reports emerged that the screen used in both the Moto X, 2014, and the Nexus 6 suffer from burn-in. Burn-in is when an AMOLED screen retains a frequently displayed image — in the case of Android, the buttons at the bottom of the screen. Erica Griffin, of XDA-Developers, posted a video showing the defect on a Nexus 6 (on a device only a few days old):
Along with Bluetooth 4.1 and 2×2 MU-MIMO 802.11ac wireless, the Nexus 6 also handles all the major wireless bands – that means it works with T-Mobile, US Cellular, Sprint, Verizon and AT&T. It’s the first all-carrier Nexus model with LTE support. Technically both the Nexus 4 and 5 could jump networks, but experienced difficulties on CDMA networks. The Nexus 4 offered LTE, but it required root access (how to enable LTE on the Nexus 4).
Unlike the iPhone, which many carriers used duplicitous means to lock into their networks, the Nexus 6 does permit users to hop across carriers. But telecoms never give up: once onto another network, the carriers then force bloatware onto the Nexus. You can uninstall many of these apps, fortunately.
The most modern component in the Nexus 6 is its Broadcom BCM4356 wireless-AC (and Bluetooth 4.1) module, unique to the Nexus 6. The chip purportedly improves energy efficiency and performance degradation from background wireless transmissions. I tested the module by attaching three simultaneous Bluetooth device (a keyboard, mouse and smartwatch) and noticed no performance loss.
The Nexus 6 front-facing camera won’t impress anyone. Motorola went with an optically stabilized 13MP Sony IMX214 camera module – the same used in the One Plus One. Motorola surrounds the camera lens with a dual-LED ring-flash, also used on the Moto X. The Snapdragon 805 claims to provide better image processing than competitors. In reality, all modern smartphone cameras perform about the same: great in broad daylight, and awful in low-light conditions.
For those who want the minutiae: the Nexus 6 beats the Nexus 5’s camera in low-light conditions – and it can shoot in RAW format (or DNG), meaning users can apply superior post-processing effects. But if you demand image quality from a smartphone camera, take a harder look at the iPhone 6, which (for the same price) offers marginally better mobile photography in low-light conditions. I should note that Lollipop’s camera can shoot better low-light photos than the KitKat camera. This is due to software and not hardware.
The worst feature is the 2MP front-facing camera: a firmware bug seems to render the front-facing camera completely unusable at times. In a room with low-light, the camera records almost complete darkness.
With “always listening” enabled, the Nexus 6 battery life comes out as average among high-end smartphones. While its idle-state battery performance ranks among the best I’ve seen, its screen-on time (the raison d’être of battery life metrics) fails to beat the competition in the high-end market. this is partially due to the high-density AMOLED screen’s propensity to consume larger amount of power than lower resolution screens.
GSMArena.com ranks the Nexus 6 as offering midrange battery performance in web browsing, video playback and talk time. PhoneArena.com also ranks the Nexus 6 as falling right in the middle. Most flagship phones with AMOLED screens scored in a similar fashion. In truth, the battery life of the Nexus 6 is average for a flagship phone, despite its large battery. Carat reports the Nexus 6’s battery life as 62 – a score placing it right in the middle of the pack.
Battery Mode, introduced in Lollipop (what’s Lollipop?) can extend battery life at the expense of performance. Unlike the Nexus 9, the Nexus 6 takes a big performance hit when battery mode is enabled. The Motorola uses a steep CPU underclock, from 2.7 GHz to 1.5GHz, crushing gaming framerate.
I should note that the idle battery performance of the 805 chipset is excellent. In general, its reception in usually low-reception regions compares favorably with Samsung’s Exynos chipsets. This contributes to longer battery life as the phone needs to spend less time scanning for a signal. Additionally, the 805 chipset uses a fifth core, which deploys only when the phone idles. The fifth core operates at a lower frequency and handles background tasks, such as voice recognition.
When the Nexus does require charging, it can use a feature known as Turbo Charge which restores roughly 8 hours of battery life in 15 minutes. I tested the turbo charge feature: At 7:13 PM I began charging with 15% battery remaining. 15 minutes later I had around 35% battery life. That’s about 20% every 15 minutes. Keep in mind that charge speed always slows down as a battery reaches its maximum capacity. Actually charging from near-zero to full took just short of two hours.
The performance-on-paper of the Snapdragon 805 is good, but not the best in the 800 series. It employs four Qualcomm Krait 450 CPU cores, an evolution on an older but still high-performing architecture. Several phones by Samsung already made the leap to newer architectures (such as the Cortex A57 on one variant of the Galaxy Note 4).
The gaming performance is good. The Snapdragon 805 includes the cutting-edge Adreno 420 GPU, which ranks among the better GPUs with 4K resolutions. You will notice little or no stutter while playing the most modern mobile games. However, compared to the HTC Nexus 9 tablet, apps launch more slowly, perhaps owing to the botched roll-out of disk encryption (see subsection “Encryption” for details).
AnTuTu rates the Nexus 6 as scoring among the highest of today’s phones (keep in mind that AnTuTu scores are merely ball-park measurements):
The Nexus 6 comes with out-the-box encryption (and it probably shouldn’t have). This proved a poor decision on Google’s part, as full-disk encryption requires that all data, before being written to disk, be encrypted. This hits disk performance like a sledgehammer. Unlike the latest Apple devices, the Nexus 6 lacks effective hardware accelerated encryption. I should note that Qualcomm does include cryptographic support in its hardware, but either Motorola omitted this feature or it’s simply ineffective.
Without hardware acceleration, the encryption overhead offloads onto the CPU, rather than through a custom, on-chip solution. As it stands, the Nexus 6’s disk speeds experience significant performance loss. According to Anandtech, the disk-write speeds fall short of the Nexus 5.
It is possible that Google may update the Nexus 6 to improve its disk performance, but the probability remains low. In the long-run, users will notice slower performance for many disk-intensive activities, compared to the Nexus 5.
Like all Nexus devices, the 6 carries with it ultimate hackability. Despite Motorola’s (likely a legal reason) decision to remove tap-to-wake, rooted Nexus 6’s can receive a mod which re-enables and improves the feature – you can even set it so that a single tap wakes the phone.
Already the Nexus 6 has been unlocked and rooted. The mod community has created several custom ROMs., but keep in mind that unlocking the bootloader will disable future firmware updates from Google.
Previous iterations of the Nexus series introduced bleeding-edge features and/or low price-tags. The reduced barrier to entry combined with novel hardware allowed developers an efficient development platform. The sixth iteration of the Nexus program performs no such feat. It instead packages some of the best features of the Android ecosystem into a single device. With the Nexus 6, we get touchless controls, a high PPI AMOLED screen, wireless Qi charging, Turbo Charging and a great deal more. But the trade-off is pricing.
The $650 price-tag kills the Nexus 6 for budget-oriented consumers. Its premium price targets those would otherwise purchase a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (and don’t mind its TouchWiz skin) or an iPhone 6 Plus. Its primary advantage over the competition is a wider range of hardware features and touchless controls, but sadly its overall performance falls short of the iPhone 6 and the Galaxy Note 4 due to a shoddy implementation of full disk encryption.
For most consumers, the LG Nexus 5 or even the One Plus One offer better overall value over the Motorola Nexus 6. For those desperate to have touchless controls, the original Moto X sells for around $300 and I just got a 2nd edition Moto X for $360.
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