The Nexus Experience

Hands on: 8 things you might not know about the Nexus 5X and 6P

Some interesting surprises about Google's new Nexus phones. Who knew?!

Nexus 5X, 6P Interesting Things
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Nexus phones aren't your average Android devices. They're made by a variety of different manufacturers, with close involvement from Google -- and they're created specifically to show off the latest Android software. Between those factors and Google's ever-evolving nature, you really never know what interesting surprises are gonna pop up from one year to the next.

That's never been more evident than with this year's Nexus phones -- the one-two punch of the LG-made Nexus 5X and the Huawei-made Nexus 6P. I'm in the midst of getting to know both devices as we speak and will be taking my time on a full review, but I wanted to take a few minutes now to share some interesting tidbits I've discovered while exploring this year's Google Android flagships.

Think of it as early "bonus footage" for my review -- you know, the metaphorical DVD edition. Ready?

1. Both the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P have notification LEDs -- but you have to go out of your way to activate them.

Google is focusing on its Motorola-inspired Ambient Display feature for keeping you apprised of notifications on this year's Nexus devices, but if you prefer having a good old-fashioned light to let you know about new activity, you've also got that option.

All you've gotta do is go into the "Sound & notification" section of the system settings, flip a toggle, and ta-da: You'll see a friendly little light flashing on the front of your phone anytime something needs your attention.

On the Nexus 5X, the light is a prominent square in the center of the speaker grille at the bottom of the phone's face:

Nexus 5X Notification Light

On the 6P, it's a teensy circle in the phone's top-left corner:

Nexus 6P Notification Light

And yes, you can opt to use both the notification LED and Ambient Display, if you really want to get crazy. (Also, yes: You can customize how and when the LED works with a third-party app like Light Flow. Go wild.)

2. The new Nexus phones offer a native Wi-Fi calling function.

Remember Project Fi, Google's unusual wireless service that automatically switches you between different mobile data and Wi-Fi networks in order to get the best coverage wherever you are? Both new Nexus phones are compatible with it -- but they also both include a feature that can give you a small taste of its power on any traditional carrier.

It's called Wi-Fi calling, and it exists as an option right within the phones' settings (found by tapping "More" under the main settings menu, provided you aren't connected to the Fi network). As the toggle-on screen explains it:

Nexus 5X, 6 Wi-Fi Calling

There is the "Big Bad Carriers Might Object" disclaimer, but remember: These Nexus phones are being sold directly from Google this year. Carriers don't have the option to modify the software or remove parts they don't like. (Though we'll have to see if any of them finds a way to block features they don't like, as some have done over the years with things like tethering.)

In any case, it's an interesting option if you aren't going all in with Fi but want to try a teensy piece of its technology.

[UPDATE: Based on reader feedback, it appears this feature may in fact be dependent on the SIM card in your device. Some early adopters have informed me they're not seeing the option with their carrier's card in the phone -- so it may be something that shows up only if supported.]

3. The Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P have a new shortcut for quick camera access -- and other Android devices could soon use it, too.

From Motorola's double-twist gesture to Samsung's double-press-Home command, getting to your camera quickly has become a compelling part of many Android devices. Now Google has its own answer in the form of a new shortcut that lets you double-tap either phone's power button to open its camera on demand.

It works whether the display is on or off, and it works quickly and consistently well. What's particularly interesting is that this feature isn't any special magic being limited to these two phones: Google has confirmed to me that it's part of the Android Open Source Project and can be used by any manufacturer moving forward.

Of course, as we've seen with other such features in the past, manufacturers may not opt to use it -- choosing instead to stick with their own custom solutions or no camera shortcuts at all. Such is life with an open source operating system. But the option is there for the taking -- and that's what counts.

4. This year's Nexus devices almost had a second camera shortcut, but it got cut at the last minute.

You may have heard something about this, and it's true: Google has confirmed to me that both its new Nexus phones originally had two options for quick camera access, one of which was the Motorola-style double-twisting gesture. Though no one's saying exactly why, the company decided to drop the double-twist option in the week leading up to the launch and go with just the power button shortcut instead.

5. The fingerprint sensors on the Nexus 5X and 6P rely on encrypted local storage for their data.

With fingerprint sensors coming into focus in Android 6.0 and serving as prominent features of both new Nexus phones, there are bound to be questions about security and whether there's cause for concern.

The short answer: There's really no need to fret. Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke provided the following insight during a recent AMA session on Reddit:

Fingerprint features are securely encrypted on the device and processed in the secure Trustzone protected area of memory. The Android 6.0 fingerprint APIs do not provide any access to the fingerprint material to apps. Fingerprint features never leave the device and are not shared with Google (so, for example, if you setup a new phone, you need to re-enroll your fingers). If your phone is ever lost or stolen you can easily find, lock, and erase your phone using Android Device Manager.

Good peace of mind, right?

6. Neither new Nexus device supports Qualcomm's Quick Charge standard -- but they do charge quickly.

All this fast charging stuff is getting confusing, isn't it? Here's the low-down, though, as confirmed both via my own hands-on testing and via conversations with Google:

The Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P use USB Type-C for charging. It's a new standard that'll eventually be making its way across all of Android (and other platforms!), and it has plenty of benefits.

One of them is charging speed: Both new Nexii charge super-fast, with 10 minutes on the outlet giving you about four hours of battery life on the 5X and seven hours of extra use on the 6P. (The actual power transfer capacity is 15W, if you care about that sort of thing.)

But the specific Quick Charge technology we've seen in other recent Android phones -- licensed by Qualcomm and sometimes also called Fast Charge or Turbo Charge -- is a whole other thing, and it isn't compatible. If you get an adapter and plug a Quick Charge charger into the Nexus 5X or 6P (and yes, you'll need an adapter, as USB Type-C is a different shape from the micro-USB standard we've seen on phones up til now), you will be able to charge the phone -- but only at normal (non-fast) charging speeds.

If you want to take advantage of fast charging with either device, you'll need to use the USB Type-C-specific charger that comes in the box. Google is selling extra chargers, but they're out of stock at the moment -- and this standard is new enough that third-party versions are pretty tough to find right now. That'll almost certainly change as time moves on, but it'll be an inevitable pain in the short-term.

7. The new Nexus phones can charge other USB Type-C devices.

One neat feature of USB Type-C is that devices like the Nexus 5X and 6P can be used to power other devices. Let's all summon our inner Keanu for a second: Whoaaaa. Crazy, eh?

We actually got our first taste of this with the 2015 Chromebook Pixel, but the same effect works with these two phones: You can plug one into the other, using the same universal cable that connects to the wall charger, and opt to transfer power in either direction:

Nexus 5X, 6P USB Type-C Charging

Now, this probably isn't going to be too useful in this specific scenario -- especially given how slowly power trickles from one phone to the other when you try it -- but it's the concept behind it that's exciting. Think about being able to easily recharge your phone from your laptop or top off your phone from your tablet when an outlet isn't handy. As USB Type-C makes its way to more and more places, this has the potential to become an incredibly powerful (get it?!) capability.

8. Neither new Nexus phone supports wireless charging -- but there's a reason.

A lot of us were surprised when we learned that this year's Nexii lacked wireless charging support, especially considering that's something Google's been backing for several years with its Nexus products.

In the Reddit AMA I mentioned a minute ago, Nexus 5X Product Manager Krishna Kumar offered an explanation -- in short, that USB Type-C is fast and easy to use, and adding wireless charging into the equation would have required design compromises the team didn't want to make:

We wanted the design of the phone to be approachable, easy to hold, and easy to use. Overall thickness and feel in hand were important factors in our design decisions. ... Therefore, we doubled down on USB C rather than wireless charging.

You win some, you lose some. On the plus side, that wireless charging pad on your coffee table will make a lovely coaster.

And that's all for now, folks. I've got my hands full this week; that's for sure. Many more thoughts and comparisons in the days ahead.

[See "The Nexus Experience," below, for updates and additional analysis.]

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