Google Nexus Devices

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

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

Google Nexus Devices

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Standout software

Even if its hardware weren't impressive, the Nexus 6 would still be noteworthy for its software alone: The phone is the first to run Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system -- and unlike the majority of Android devices, it runs a "pure" version of the software, just the way Google designed it and without any manufacturer meddling. It also comes with the guarantee of fast and frequent future OS upgrades directly from Google, which is a valuable assurance to have.

I'll have a separate in-depth review of Lollipop to share with you soon, so I won't get into too much detail about the nuances of the software here. In short, though, Lollipop represents a completely fresh start for Android. Almost every area of the user interface has been reimagined with a modern, colorful design and slick new animations. The platform feels more polished and mature than ever -- and using it in its pure and unmodified form is truly a treat.

nexus 6 lollipop ui JR Raphael

Android 5 (Lollipop) comes loaded on the Nexus 6.

Design aside, a few of Lollipop's new features have particularly significant effects on what the Nexus 6 is like to use. First, the software allows you to wake the phone and give it commands by saying "Okay, Google" anytime -- even when its display is off.

That concept takes its inspiration from the Moto Voice system pioneered on Motorola's Moto X -- and in fact, Google tells me it borrowed some of Motorola's technology in order to make it work. Specifically, the system is able to learn the sound of your voice and then respond to you and only you (or someone who sounds very much like you).

Unlike with Moto Voice, however, you can't set your own custom launch phrase here; the only thing that'll work is "Okay, Google." That means if you have a Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 nearby and you've enabled voice activation on both, they'll both light up and start listening every time you say the phrase -- which is kind of silly. Same if you have an Android Wear device, which also uses "Okay, Google" as its wake-up phrase. But that aside, the system works consistently well and is an incredibly useful addition to have.

Another Moto X-like feature that's made its way into Lollipop and the Nexus 6 is Ambient Display, which is Google's take on Motorola's Moto Display system. Whenever you pick up the phone, its screen lights up with the current time and any pending notifications.

While the concept is similar to Moto Display, however, it works a bit differently: For one, anytime there's a pending notification, the Moto X "pulses" and flashes a small circle on the screen every few seconds so you'll see it. The Nexus 6 lights up when a notification first arrives but doesn't continue to flash the information frequently thereafter, which makes it harder to know at a glance -- without touching the phone -- when something needs your attention.

The Nexus's system also seems to be less sensitive than the Moto X's in general: While the Moto X lights up without fail every time I pick up or even nudge the phone, the Nexus doesn't do it a fair amount of the time. And the Nexus lacks the sensors present on the Moto X's face that give you the ability to activate the feature simply by reaching for the phone or waving your hand over it.

Finally, while the Moto X shows you notifications as icons in small circles, which you can then touch to view in detail or dismiss, the Nexus 6 shows you stacked notification bars -- just like you'd see in the phone's main notification panel, only in a scaled-down and black-and-white view. It's more info-dense than Motorola's implementation, which has its advantages but can also make the data less easy to digest at a glance.

If you're worried about privacy or security, by the way, Lollipop's settings allow you to prevent the system from showing notifications whenever the phone is locked. You can also disable the feature altogether, if you'd prefer.

There is a software-related asterisk I'd be remiss to omit: One new Lollipop-level feature, multiuser support for phones, was rather glitchy on my Nexus 6 review unit; I was able to use it, but the phone often acted erratically when I did. This is clearly the result of a bug and something I have to imagine will be fixed prior to the consumer release -- Google is aware of the issue and has confirmed that the phone will be receiving a software update of some sort within the coming days -- but as of this review, the feature appeared to be unfinished and rough around the edges.

I'll explore that and the rest of Lollipop in detail in my upcoming Android 5.0 review, which will be online very soon.

[Android 5.0 deep-dive review: Exploring Lollipop's many layers]

Bottom line

Assuming Google manages to address the multiuser glitch before the device ships, it's hard to find much negative to say about the Nexus 6. The phone is beautifully designed and ergonomic. It has a gorgeous and generously sized display, excellent front-facing stereo speakers, impeccable performance, outstanding stamina, support for both wireless charging and turbo charging, a great camera and the best user interface you'll find on any Android device today -- not to mention the guarantee of timely ongoing upgrades directly from Google in the future.

The only meaningful downside to the device is its size -- which isn't so much of a downside as it is a tradeoff you'll have to consider.

The Nexus 6 definitely pushes the limits of acceptable dimensions for a pocketable gadget, but such is the trend with mobile tech these days. If you don't mind lugging a device this large around with you all day, you'll gain a spacious screen and enjoy one of the best smartphones money can buy.

[Nexus 6 vs. Galaxy Note 4: Which one's right for you?]

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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