Google Nexus Devices

Nexus 6 deep-dive review: A supersized smartphone that shines

nexus 6
Credit: Motorola

Been avoiding big phones? Google's Nexus 6 packs pure Android Lollipop software into a plus-sized package that's actually pleasant to use.

The line between smartphones and tablets is officially gone.

It's been blurring for a while now, but with the size of phone screens pushing up to 6 in. and tablet displays dipping as low as 7 in., I think it's safe to say that the way we categorize a device has become more or less arbitrary. They're all Internet-connected, and they can all even make phone calls; the only real difference is that some of them need the Internet connection to make and receive calls, while others do not.

That certainly seems to be the mindset behind Google's new supersized Nexus 6. The Motorola-made Nexus 6 -- on sale now from Google for $649 (32GB) or $699 (64GB) and coming soon to all major U.S. carriers starting at $199 on contract -- is basically a small tablet that you carry around and occasionally use to make and receive calls. Along with the Nexus 9 tablet, it's one of Google's two flagship devices for the new Android 5.0 Lollipop platform.

I've tested plenty of plus-sized phones before. Despite their inherent benefits, I've never been fully sold on the concept; they're usually just too bulky, too awkward and too compromise-filled for my liking. The Nexus 6, however, is different. After living with it for more than a week, it's the first plus-sized phone I could actually see myself using.

Big -- but not burdensome

Part of what makes the Nexus 6 different from other plus-sized phones is its form: The device is basically a scaled-up version of Motorola's 2014 Moto X, which is one of the most ergonomic smartphones on the market today.

The Nexus 6 is quite a bit bigger than the Moto X, as you'd expect: 6.3 x 3.3 x 0.4 in. compared to the Moto X's 5.5 x 2.9 x 0.39-in. frame. But it maintains the Moto X's gently curved back and soft-touch plastic material (though only in two color choices and without the options for leather or wood). Even with the Nexus 6's ample footprint, those factors make it surprisingly comfortable to hold; it feels like it fits my hand and seems far less hefty than it actually is.

What's interesting is that the device is actually slightly larger than Samsung's plus-sized Galaxy Note 4 -- by about a third of an inch in length and a little less than that in width -- but its shape makes it significantly less awkward and more natural to hold than the Note's flat and boxy form. Design makes a major difference in usability -- and relative to the plus-sized class, the Nexus 6 is about as ergonomic as it gets.

moto x nexus 6 note 4 JR Raphael

Size counts: (from left to right) Moto X (2014), Nexus 6, Galaxy Note 4

Still, big is big -- and the Nexus 6 isn't the type of phone you're going to be able to use single-handedly. Carrying it is no cakewalk, either: Even in roomy men's pants, I'm always acutely aware of its presence in my pocket. I often have to be extra careful when sitting down and standing up, too, as it's large enough that it sometimes pokes out of the top of my pocket and can slide out if I'm not careful.

The Nexus 6 is visually attractive, with an aluminum frame around its perimeter almost identical to the one on the Moto X. On its back is a smooth and subtle dimple you can rest your finger on while holding the phone -- similar in appearance to the understated dimple on last year's Moto X phone -- along with a silver textured Nexus logo. All in all, it's simple yet elegant. My only gripe is that the finish on the phone's casing is a magnet for oily fingerprint smudges, so you'll be doing a fair amount of shirt-wiping if you want to keep it looking clean.

The real reason to get a device of this size, of course, is for its screen -- and the Nexus 6 definitely doesn't disappoint in that department. The phone's 5.96-in. Quad HD AMOLED display is absolutely stunning, with strikingly rich and true-to-life colors and razor-sharp detail. Its whites are a little more yellowy than the Note 4's similarly equipped (though 5% smaller) screen, but that aside, it's tough to tell much difference between the two -- even when studying them closely side by side.

The new Nexus also excels when it comes to audio. The phone has dual front-facing speakers, a step up from the single front-facing speaker on the Moto X. Music played from the phone is loud, clear and full. It's pretty similar to the Moto X in both volume and quality, though the addition of stereo sound obviously provides some extra punch.

Problem-free performance

Performance isn't something you'll ever have to worry about with the Nexus 6. With a 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM, the system is fast as can be. Web browsing is speedy, system animations are jitter-free and app-switching is satisfyingly snappy. There's really nothing to complain about -- which is a relief after the performance-related issues I encountered while evaluating the device's Nexus 9 sibling.

Battery life is commendable, too: Even with moderate to heavy use, I've never come close to running out of power within a single day. In fact, with as much as three to four hours of screen-on time, I've consistently made it from morning to night with at least 20% to 30% of the battery still remaining -- and often even more. That's a notch above than what I experienced with the also-impressive Note 4; aside from a stamina-focused phone like the Nexus's Droid Turbo cousin, you aren't going to get much better than this.

The new Nexus also ships with Motorola's Turbo Charger, which promises to boost battery life by as much as six hours with just 15 minutes of being plugged in. The phone supports wireless charging, too, so you can top it off with any Qi-compatible pad if you want.

As for storage, the Nexus 6 includes either 32GB or 64GB of internal space, depending on which model you buy. On my 32GB review unit, about 26GB of space was actually available for use out of the box. Like most Nexus devices, the Nexus 6 does not have an SD card slot for external storage expansion.

Call quality on the phone has been fine for me, though I have noticed one strange quirk: When I'm talking on the handset, the screen periodically flickers on -- despite the phone being held against my face. It seems to be a result of the width of the phone and the placement of the proximity sensor, which is toward the top-left corner of the device's front. Since I hold the phone up to my left ear to talk, the sensor often ends up falling behind my ear and thus not detecting the fact that it's actually against my face. It's more of a mild annoyance than any sort of deal-breaker, but it warrants a mention.

Data speeds, meanwhile, have been A-OK; the review unit I'm using is connected to T-Mobile's network, but the same model is capable of working on any major U.S. carrier (and I mean any -- the single unit evidently supports both GSM and CDMA).

An exceptional camera

For all of its Moto X similarities, the Nexus 6 is a whole new beast when it comes to the realm of imaging. Both phones have 13-megapixel shooters, but the Nexus uses a new Sony-made sensor and includes optical image stabilization.

The result is a camera that's easily among the best you can find on a smartphone today. On the whole, the Nexus 6's photos tend to be crisp and clear with vibrant and realistic colors. The Google Camera app's HDR+ mode also works remarkably well, delivering vivid images with strong contrast and fine detail. The phone even performs admirably in low-light conditions.

nexus 6 camera sample JR Raphael

 

A sample photo taken with the Nexus 6 (no HDR or other effects used).

 

That being said, it's still a smartphone camera -- and it isn't perfect. Some shots I took, particularly in bright natural light, ended up looking overexposed in parts. But by and large, the Nexus 6 doesn't disappoint. For perspective, in a side-by-side shootout, I found it to be close in quality but a noticeable step ahead of the Galaxy Note 4 in most scenarios.

The Nexus is quick to snap pictures, too -- not the fastest I've seen, but perfectly speedy; I had no cause for complaint. It's pretty much neck-and-neck with the Note 4 in terms of capture time.

Google's Camera app is reasonably easy to use, though not quite as user-friendly as Motorola's (and no, the Nexus 6 doesn't have the Moto X-like "double twist" gesture to launch the camera on demand). It includes a couple of genuinely useful effects, like the aforementioned HDR+ mode as well as a Lens Blur mode that emulates the background-blurring "bokeh" effect used in professional photography.

The Nexus 6 is capable of capturing video at 1080p or 4K resolution. Its front-facing 2-megapixel camera, meanwhile, can take video as high as 1080p in quality.

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