Nexus 6 review: Big and bold, but similar to Motorola’s other flagship phones

Google’s Nexus 6 is in a strange situation. Not only is this is the first Nexus phone to be sold by five major U.S. carriers but it’s actually a close variant of a readily available line of devices from Motorola; perhaps unsurprising since Google chose Motorola to build the phone. So it’s actually competing in retail stores with similar non-Nexus phones such as the Moto X and Droid Turbo.

Nexus 6 side

The phone doesn’t have what you’d consider a typical relatively lower-cost Nexus price either. Last year’s model 32 GB was recently priced at $399 but this year Google is selling a 32 GB Nexus 6 unlocked for $649 with a 64 GB model for $699 while carriers are setting their own pricing options.

I’ll come back to all of these points later as they’re very relevant to the question of whether or not you should buy a [company]Google[/company] Nexus 6. Part of the decision making process has to do with the phone itself as well and I’ve spent the last 10 days using the Nexus 6. Here’s what I found.

Big yet familiar on the outside

As I noted in my first impressions, this is a big phone; bigger even than the iPhone 6 Plus that is tricky to carry in some pockets, although not by much. Thanks mainly to the 5.96-inch screen, the Nexus 6 measures 82.98mm x 159.26mm x 10.06mm. Like most recent Motorola phones, that last measurement is for the thickest part of the handset, which has a rounded back. The edges taper off nicely and are thinner than the middle of the phone.

With that overall size and weight of 184 grams, it took me a few days to get used to carrying and using the Nexus 6. But I did. Now my [company]Apple[/company] iPhone 6 feels much smaller than it used to and don’t get me started on even smaller phones; they feel like toys in my hand. The point is: Don’t dismiss a 6-inch phone out of hand (ahem!) but instead try one for a few days; only then will you really know if it’s too big or just right.

Nexus 6 buttons

The front of the Nexus 6 is nearly all screen, save for the forward-facing 2 megapixel camera and — new to Nexus phones — a pair of stereo speakers above and below the screen. The right side has a nicely textured power/wake button and smooth volume rocker. Motorola smartly put these controls roughly in the middle of the phone, making them easy to reach. A nanoSIM card slot and 3.5 millimeter headphone jack are on the top edge of the phone while a microUSB port is on the bottom. The smooth back has a big Nexus logo, small Motorola dimple and 13 megapixel (f/2.0) camera sensor with dual-LED ring flash. All in all, this is like a super-sized Moto X with a few design tweaks.

Nexus 6 camera

About that large screen: It’s a beautiful 16:9 AMOLED panel with 2560 x 1440 and covered with Gorilla Glass 3. With 493 pixels per inch, everything is clear and sharp from nearly any angle. Unlike older AMOLED displays, I don’t find the colors to be too overly saturated. I watched Gravity on Google Play and was extremely impressed in the video quality and the experience was greatly aided by the stereo speakers. They’re not the loudest I’ve heard although they work well for movies, music and hands-free calls.

Nexus 6 gravity

Bold and powerful on the inside

Unlike the recently reviewed new Nexus 9 tablet, which has a 64-bit chip, the Nexus 6 sticks with a 32-bit version. It’s the same 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 you’ll find in other recent flagship phones these days. Even though Android 5.0 is 64-bit compatible, few will notice or know that the phone uses a 32-bit chip. There are 3 GB of memory and a choice of either 32 or 64 GB internal storage models. And in typical Nexus fashion (save for the original Nexus One), there’s no microSD card slot; this is unsurprisingly meant to be a cloud-centric device.

Just about every sensor and option you could want inside is here. That’s new too because prior Nexus devices typically had some missing component or feature as compared to competing flagships. The Nexus 6 has two channel 802.11ac Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, Qi wireless charging, GPS, an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, ambient light sensor and barometer. Google Fit is pre-installed and can track your daily steps and movement thanks to the phone’s sensors.

Nexus 6 Google Fit

I suppose you could nitpick because there’s no infrared blaster but that’s about all I can see that’s missing. It’s also not likely a deal breaker for most. The Nexus 6 also has a 3220 mAh non-replaceable battery rated for between 9.5 and 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing. In my testing call quality and signal strength was acceptable as compared to other phones I use in southeastern Pennsylvania.

A quick primer on Android 5.0, which ships on the Nexus 6

Once you get past the size, what’s it like to use with Android 5.0?

The Nexus 6 is the first phone to ship with Android 5.0, aka: Lollipop. The software update is akin to when Apple radically changed its platform with the flat design of iOS 7. Google’s VP of Design, Matias Duarte introduced the new “material design” style in June and will be speaking more about design concepts at our Gigaom Roadmap event next week. Icons are indeed flatter and have a different color palette but Lollipop has many 3-D like interactions as elements can react in the x, y and z-space. It’s a far more elegant look than prior Android versions and the Nexus 6 handles the animations easily. The left-most home screen is dedicated to Google Now, which is handy and helpful.

Nexus 6 settings

While much of Android 5.0 will look familiar, there are new features and improvements. Notifications are much better on both the lock screen of the Nexus 6 and in-apps where you can easily take action or dismiss them. Pull notifications down further for the Android settings.  You can now pin or lock an app to the phone and your handset is much more secure than ever: Google added full device encryption at the first boot and requires Security Enhanced Linux Enforcing mode for all applications. Lollipop also brings a new default runtime called ART, which replaces Dalvik for apps, making them run even faster. And the old application switcher is replaced by a carousel of cards to show all of your open apps, which works very well. There’s more to Android 5.0 — far more than I can cover here so stay tuned for a follow up on the software.

Obviously, the Nexus 6 is meant to showcase Android 5.0 and it does a fair job at doing so. For the most part, apps and tasks run fast while browing and scrolling is also quick. For the most part.

A few issues for what was otherwise a great experience

I’m not sure if my Nexus 6 review unit itself is a little buggy but I ran into some issues using it with Android 5.0. For starters, the native camera app crashed about a half-dozen times while using it over the last 10 days. Typically it happened when using the new HDR+ mode, which creates stunning photos but takes time to process them. You’ll be waiting a second or so between shots if you use this mode.

I also saw in-game animations slow down at times and not even on particularly taxing games. I put the World Series of Poker app routinely on all of my devices and after playing a few hands on the Nexus 6, card dealing and chip movement started lagging with dropped frames. I thought it was because I had too many open apps but Android is pretty good at memory management these days. Closing apps and rebooting helped for a while but eventually the in-game lag returned. Perhaps it has to do with the new ART runtime used for apps.

Nexus 6 ambient display

Another strange situation occurred with the Ambient display notifications. These are disabled by default but when turned on, the Nexus 6 lock screen can show incoming notifications like the Moto X without using much power thanks to the AMOLED display; it only lights the pixels that need to be lit. I enabled them and it worked for a day or so but never worked after that. I’ve even factory reset the device to no avail. It’s worth noting that you can also enable an “always listening” function to use the “OK Google” hotword at any time — even when the phone’s display is off — and that worked without fail.

Those nits aside, the Nexus 6 performed well for most tasks. And it does so for a long time. Most people should still have some battery life left on a Nexus 6 at the end of the day; power users might drain it completely. Included with the phone is a Turbo Charger that can add 6 hours of juice in just 15 minutes. It’s well worth carrying the charger for heavy duty days when you have a little bit of downtime to plug in. Google says this is the best camera in a Nexus phone yet and I agree. Images look great in most situations and the ring flash is effective in low-light situations. The Nexus 6 can also capture 4k video.

Here’s an image I captured of a new UHD monitor showing off a 4k video (not taken by me) of the sun with various bright and low light sections, plus an obligatory lazy cat picture:

Nexus 6 camera sample


Nexus 6 lazy cat

Back to the question: Should you buy a Nexus 6?

Ultimately, the Nexus 6 is a solid piece of hardware with brand new software. And if you want a 6-inch Android phone, then I’d say go for it. Yes, I did experience a few glitches but I expect they’re either specific to my unit or will be fixed with a software update. What if you don’t want a 6-inch Android phone though?

Here’s the thing: Once Android 5.0 is rolled out from handset makers, you’d get much of the same experience in a comparable but smaller phone in either the Moto X or the Motorola Droid Turbo. The Moto X is available for all major U.S. carriers while the Turbo is on Verizon only. But both have high resolution screens, fast processors, and battery life that’s comparable or better.

Moto X and Nexus 6
Moto X (2014) and Nexus 6

I might feel otherwise if the Nexus 6 was priced like the Nexus 5, but it’s not. It’s competing against other phones priced the same or less that offer many of the same features. And we know that Motorola will be providing Android 5.0 to its other handsets so there shouldn’t be any fear of missing out on Lollipop.

Like I said: The Nexus 6 is in a strange situation. Luckily for us, it exists as a viable big-screened option that’s not too radically different from its smaller siblings: We can choose which Android 5.0 experience fits us best.