You could call Google’s Nexus devices trojan horses to show off the latest version of Android, but if they are, they’re pretty darn obvious ones: even Google would be happy to admit the Nexus 6 is mostly here to let Android 5.0 Lollipop strut its stuff.
Google doesn’t actually make the thing, either. Motorola does, and you’ll see plenty of Motorola DNA flowing through the phone’s little circuit board veins.
However, the most important thing to note about the Nexus 6 is that it’s big. Really big. And while it offers a pretty good demo of what to expect from top 2015 phones, the size and high price mean it’s not quite the star the Nexus 5 was last year.
Prepare your palms: while the Nexus 6 is one of the best phones of the moment, it’s a clear argument against the idea that bigger is better, for some people at least.
A 6in screen makes the Nexus 6 a fair bit larger than most of its S$1000-odd rivals, and it’s something that does show through when you use the phone. And it’s actually made worse by the phone’s use of totally vanilla Android 5.0 L — which is the whole point of the device. Allow us to explain…
READ MORE: Google Nexus 5 review
Using the Nexus 6 in one hand is a stretch, with the back button placed just out of reach of your thumb as if Google has done so deliberately. It’s like the thing is a cookie jar you’re not meant to be able to reach.
We’re starting with what seems like a pretty trivial point, but when something trivial crops up about 576 times a day, it starts becoming important. Make sure you’re prepared for this issue, as it can get annoying — especially as it could have been solved by moving the soft keys about a bit.
The Nexus 6 looks and feels a bit like a two-hander version of the Motorola Moto X (2014) we loved so much recently. Aside from the whole thumb gymnastics involved, that’s a good thing.
Its back is plastic and fixed in place, but feels as though it’s part of a very rigid shell rather than the slightly flimsy back covers you get in Samsung phones such as the Galaxy Note 4. The sides of the phone are aluminium, with a smooth anodised band working its way around the Nexus 6, punctuated by little plastic accents that also act as signal outlets for the antennas.
The look isn’t quite catwalk-ready — there’s a bit of variance in the seam between the plastic and aluminium rear parts, the Nexus logo on the rear is pretty huge and the ring-style flash is a bit ‘loud’ compared with the demure Nexus 5 — but then the Nexus team has never been all about style.
Still, as long as you don’t mind the sheer size of the Nexus 6 we’re pretty confident most of you will like the design well enough. The curvy back offers a comfy in-hand grip and front-on it seems almost all-screen, which is quite an achievement given it also packs-in stereo speakers on the front.
The hardcore crowd won’t appreciate that, as with the other Nexus phones and tablets, the Nexus 6 doesn’t let you add to the memory. You get a decent 32GB (64GB available, but not as widely) built-in, but the only slot on the phone is for the nano SIM. There’s no memory card slot.
This is naturally going to limit how many movies you can fit on the Nexus 6, but it’ll still store a bunch, and the other elements — those stereo speakers and the giant OLED screen — make up for it.
Having two separate speakers is no guarantee of good sound quality, but the Nexus 6 is pretty solid. Top volume is unusually loud, and there’s the hint of extra warmth and mid-range body that’s still a luxury in the mobile phone world. We still prefer the HTC One (M8) sound, but the Nexus goes louder. Of course, sticking to headphones is still the best way to get good sound.
Even more important, of course, is the screen. The Nexus 6 has a massive 5.96in display even larger than those of mobile giants such as the Galaxy Note 4 and iPhone 6 Plus. There is a reason why this phone is so huge.
While its specs will look pretty normal in just a few months, for now they’re dead impressive. The Nexus 6 has a 2560 x 1440 pixel AMOLED screen, using the same resolution as the LG G3 but with tech a bit closer to the Galaxy S5’s.
It comes with great benefits, and one unfortunate trip-up.
READ MORE: HTC One (M8) review
First, the good bits: the Nexus 6 screen offers terrific contrast and black levels, getting the sort of image vividness that’d make 99 per cent of S$4000 odd TVs whimper with jealousy. We've spent a good while watching Netflix on the phone, and it’s a great experience. Such a large screen matched with OLED image skills is a great combo.
We also welcome the extra resolution. It’s not just about screen size either. OLEDs such as the Nexus 6’s tend to look less sharp than direct LCD alternatives because of the way their pixels are laid out, but here there are easily enough to go around to make everything appear super-sharp.
QHD resolution may not make your 1080p movies look even better, but for things such as games and the Nexus 6 interface, it’s great.
So, what’s wrong? Well, as with so many OLED phones the colours are rather over the top. Reds are a bit too red, greens aren’t all that subtle. It’s the red you’ll notice the most — especially if you’re coming from a phone with very good colour accuracy - the Nexus 5 or an iPhone, for example.
Whether this matters or not is a personal thing. Unlike the rival Galaxy Note 4 there’s no way to tone down the colours, so you have to get used to it. We found that when watching movies, the amazing contrast makes up for the candy-coated colours, but it was initially distracting.
Operating System: Android 5.0 Lollipop
Screen: 5.96in AMOLED with 2560x1440 (493ppi)
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 @ 2.7GHz
Storage: 32GB or 64GB (not expandable)
Camera: 13MP rear with OIS and dual-LED ring flash, 2MP front
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, 3G/4G, NFC, Bluetooth 4.1
Dimensions: 159 x 83 x 10.1mm
What’s Android 5.0 all about, anyway?
As standard, the interface makes the issue pretty obvious, though. The Nexus 6 is the first phone to be released with Android 5.0 L, and it’s pretty bold and colourful itself.
Google has tried to strip out as much ugly signposting of features as it can, pushing it a bit closer to the non-geeky style of iOS. One of the most obvious spots to see this in action is the soft key area.
Gone are the buttons that are meant to actually represent functions visually, replaced with a triangle, circle and square. Those completely new to Android may have to fiddle with the Nexus 6 a bit to understand it, but Android looks more minimalist than ever, and we like it a lot.
There are some extra features too. Perhaps the best is home screen notifications. You can see your new emails, texts and so on without even turning the Nexus 6 on properly. It can save you quite a lot of time, although those worried about security can turn these off.
Android 5.0 L also feels a bit different. The layout, the way it works, these bits are exactly the same. However, the way everything moves has been tweaked. There’s more swooshy inertia, with a clear attempt to make it feel a bit more physical or tangible. The cold, clinical and efficient style of previous Android versions has been swapped for something a bit more… human. Yes, that sounds ridiculous but start flicking around Android 5.0 and you’ll understand.
You’ll get used to it in about five minutes, but it does actually make the Nexus 6 feel a tiny bit less peppy than a Nexus 5 running Android 4.4.4. We didn’t experience much lag, but Android seems to be moving away from an obsession with performance, caring that bit more about ‘feel’. Android has gone all touchy-feely on us.
READ MORE: Android 5.0 Lollipop review
There’s another little issue, too. There’s a bit of controversy around the Nexus 6 because it’s one of the first Android devices to ship with full encryption. All your data is encoded for security, meaning that if you use a passcode there’s no way to get access to it without that code — it can’t be pulled off the storage directly by digital CSI types. This was always an option within Android, but it seemed to us that just about no-one used it.
Encryption apparently slows down performance a bit, and you’ll be able to find nerdy benchmarks online showing you exactly how much. However, we didn’t notice any of the sort of annoying slow-down we saw in the Nexus 9 tablet. The Nexus 6 is still quick.
It has the specs to match the top phones of the moment, so that’s no more than we’d expect. The Nexus 6 uses the Snapdragon 805 CPU, the same Qualcomm chipset used in the Galaxy Note 4. It’s a quad-core 2.7GHz processor, and here it has 3GB of RAM to exploit. This hardware earned the Nexus 6 a great score of 3283 points in our Geekbench 3 test, which is — reassuringly enough — pretty similar to the Note 4.
All this power doesn’t feel like overkill either, as running games at the native QHD resolution requires an awful lot of juice. At least, if you’re rendering fancy 3D graphics rather than match-three sprites of sweeties.
We’re slightly disappointed with the Nexus 6’s battery life, though. A big, expensive phone feels these days like it should offer tip-top stamina, and we’ve been spoilt recently by the Note 4, which does just that. Here the stamina is just OK, rather than great.
We’ve been using the Nexus 6 for a while now, and each day we seem to be skirting around the 15 percent mark by bed time. And that’s without any long game-playing sessions.
Use the phone a lot and it’s not hard to drain it down completely in the space of a day.
As we were concerned that the great big OLED display may have just led to us watching video and browsing a lot more than it might usually — and sure enough this is one of the big draws of the Nexus 6 — we put it to a more objective test. When left to play a looped 720p MP4 video without doing any other stuff in the background, the battery lasts for almost dead on 10 hours.
That’s fine, but notably a good few hours off what phones such as the Sony Xperia Z3 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4 are capable of. They’ll get into the early teens.
So, why does the Nexus 6 lag behind a bit? It doesn’t offset its larger screen with a larger battery, its 3220mAh being the same size as the Note 4’s, and vanilla Android doesn’t seem to put as much emphasis on saving battery as other custom skins, although there is a now native battery saver mode, which can help you eek out those last drops of juice.
READ MORE: Sony Xperia Z3 review
Camera on trial
The Nexus 6 camera isn’t quite up there with the very best either. It offers pretty great hardware but is let down by less-than-perfect software.
The phone has a 13MP main camera with optical image stabilisation and an attention-grabbing dual-LED ‘ring’ style flash. Resolution is lower than the Note 4 or Sony Xperia Z3 at 13MP, but having OIS could easily make up for this.
Sure enough, with a bit of know-how, patience and steady hands you can get some cracking shots out of the phone, but in our book the experience you get doesn’t quite sit right in a S$1000-plus phone.
It’s a little slow, both to focus and to take shots. And the HDR mode’s processing seems to take quite a while too by current standards. Just a few too many times it had us shouting “stay still, just two more seconds” at our subject, where the iPhone 6 Plus and Note 4 would have already let us move on with a few more shots in the memory bank.
We've also found that the Nexus 6’s metering isn’t too great either. This is the system that judges how bright a photo needs to be to deal with lighting conditions. And too often the spot metering — where the phone uses your focus point as the main guide — leads to areas seriously under or overexposed. This means you often need to apply some know-how in order to get the shot you want.
While we’re all for people getting a bit more savvy about how to use a camera, in the Nexus 6 it’s a result of the phone’s own brains just not being smart enough.
Google also needs to spruce-up its camera app. While it offers the features we’re after, including HDR and Panorama, it just doesn’t feel as though it has really been optimised enough for people who are going to use it each and every day. It makes us understand why Motorola swaps it out in phones such as the Moto X.
Fingers crossed the Nexus 6 will, just like the Nexus 5 before it, get an update that tightens-up camera performance. But it’s not all bad. Learn to work with its quirks and you can get some top-notch shots from the phone, with noise levels keeping fairly reasonable even in low-light conditions, thanks in part to OIS.
It doesn’t dramatically brighten-up low-light scenes, though, showing a slight lack of intelligence in the processing once again compared to some rivals. For all its hardware features, this is not a great low-light camera. Can the iPhone 6 Plus and Note 4 do better? Yes.
We’re yet to be convinced by the ‘ring’ flash on the back too. In pro photography land, a ring flash gets rid of shadows by providing multiple light sources that attack an object from different angles. But as they’re about an inch apart here, they’re not going to make much difference unless your subject is about 15cm away. And in that case, they’ll probably blow it out anyway.
For the video fans out there, the Nexus 6 captures up to 4K video from the rear camera, and 1080p footage from the front 2MP one. Just as the main camera can’t really keep up with the other big boys, the phone’s selfies don’t lead the pack either. The bog-standard 2MP sensor gets quite noisy with indoors lighting, although it does at least make your shots nice and bright.
Any sides with that?
Things like the just-ok battery life and camera performance may make you pause before buying a Nexus 6. But is there anything else to worry about?
There are a few little missing extras you might want to keep in mind. While it has 4G and NFC, there’s no IR blaster on the Nexus 6. That means no universal remote-style action, and both the LG G3 and Note 4 offer this little extra.
Aside from the points mentioned earlier — no SD card, no access to the insides — that’s about it, though. The Nexus 6 is even water resistant, making those bathtime Netflix sessions a little less nerve-racking than before - although we’ll admit to having been too afraid to give it a proper dunking yet.
Google Nexus 6 verdict
The Nexus 6 is a bit of a curious upgrade to the Nexus 5 in that it doesn’t replicate many of the core values that made last year’s Nexus such a hit in our book. It doesn’t dramatically undercut the competition on cost, and its hand-stretching size will be simply too much for some, especially when Android 5.0 doesn’t do anything in particular to really make use of such a large display.
Unless we missed a memo about super-size phones being on every child’s Christmas list, it just doesn’t seem like the everyman device the Nexus 5 was.
However, in most other respects it’s a winner. The super-sharp display may value vividness over realism, but it’s a cracking canvas for media, which is only bolstered by the good front speakers. Android 5.0 Lollipop isn’t too shabby either, especially if you hate the overloaded style of so many non-Nexus Androids.
So overall it’s not the must-buy its predecessor once was, but that doesn’t mean its not the smartphone for you. Just make sure you’re aware of its foibles before taking the plunge.
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UPDATED 02/03/15: The 32GB Nexus 6 has landed on Singapore shores, costing S$998. You can now pick it up from any of Motorola's retail stores, and also have a choice between two colours - Midnight Blue and Cloud White. Go ahead and have your pick.