Nexus 6P Review: The best Nexus is far from perfect

Earlier this year, I purchased a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. It was zippy, had a vibrant screen, a mediocre battery life I could live with thanks to fast / wireless charging, a sublime camera, and an unobtrusive customization of Android (called Touchwiz). It was the most perfect phone I've ever owned up until that point and was the first time I could, with true confidence, tell my iPhone 6-holding friends that we were equal.

Over the past week, I've been using the Nexus 6P as my main device after writing a scathing article about the phone's visor-like design. I've been reading review after review about how this is the best Android device ever made. 

I have to disagree - but the allure of stock Android and my recent love affair with larger phones will help look past the 6P's shortcomings (especially compared to the S6) as I continue to use it as my daily driver.

Credit: TechRadar

Credit: TechRadar

Design and Hardware

When I unboxed the 6P and held it in my hands for the first time, I was immediately impressed with its surprisingly thin aluminum body, light weight, and premium feel. The bezels were thin. The size was manageable. The sides were boxy enough to deliver great grip. I was a happy camper. Built by Huawei, the 6P feels and looks every bit its price. It reminded me of the way I felt when I opened up my HTC One M8 a year and a half ago. 

The similarities to the M8 don't end there. They both have excellent front facing speakers and, whereas the M8 had an annoying black bar on the front bottom, the 6P has an unsightly black bar on the back top.

Credit: Google

Credit: Google

Let's talk about that black bar now that I've had more time with the phone. I'm not over this black bar. I still hate it. I hate it so much. It's an unfortunate, unbalanced design element that doesn't earn its place through obvious function. Sticking out from the back (though less so than it appeared to in press images), the bulge hides a camera bump... in a much larger camera bump. I understand that aluminum phones and antennas don't mix well, but other phones (cough iPhone 6 cough) have proven that a bar like this isn't necessary. I refuse to forgive the black bar on both the basis of reception, camera bulge, or even distinctive design. 

One part of the back of the phone that I've come to love, however, is the fingerprint scanner. Located on the middle back of the device instead of on the front, the fingerprint scanner is quick, placed perfectly, and has changed the way I interact with my phone. By the time I pull my phone out of my pocket, it's unlocked and ready to go.

That sounds super great! But there's a problem. The fingerprint begs you to unlock the phone as you pull it out of your pocket, but it's at odds with the headphone jack located at the top of the device. When I'm on the go, there's a high chance I'm listening to a podcast while I send texts, reply to incoming emails, or browse the news. The problem is that now you have quite the cumbersome process to get back to your phone when you've got headphones plugged in. It sounds minor, but it's one of those little things Android is notorious for overlooking. (Supposedly some people put their phones in their back pocket, making a headphone jack on top make sense, but it's still at odds with the way the fingerprint scanner asks you to use your phone.)

What wasn't overlooked was the screen. The screen on this device is an AMOLED 2k screen with a pixel density of 518ppi. It's. Ab. Solutely. Gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, it's bright, it's accurate when dim, and the screen is very close to the surface of the device. I have a huge bias towards AMOLED over LCD - and I'm thrilled that Google decided to go with an AMOLED screen to save on battery life and deliver deeper colors. The screen rocks like it should on a device this size.

Credit: Google

Credit: Google

Other things to note include the use of a USB C charging port, great power / volume buttons in the right spot, and a big Nexus logo on the back with a little bit of Huawei branding. 

And that's sort of the story with the Nexus 6P's design: brilliant in most ways, annoyingly bad in others. Google still can't do great decision (debatable whether Huawei or Google truly designed the phone, but Nexuses are the "Google Phone"), but this is their best attempt yet. Overall, it all comes together in a device I enjoy holding every day - but am annoyed with occasionally. 

Camera

I've heard some outlets call this camera the best camera on any Android phone. They call it snappy, sharp, and accurate. I disagree.My experience with this camera has been good for the most part, but is marred with far too many hangups to say that this Android's best camera ever. For a flagship, its many issues are unforgivable. 

This is the Lens Blur effect in action.

This is the Lens Blur effect in action.

Sometimes the camera will open to just a black screen and need to be relaunched. Other times the image will squish itself into just half of the screen before correcting itself several seconds later. HDR+, when turned on, slows down your camera significantly and the images process slowly. Burst mode takes many seconds to process (which created a very sad situation at work when it was decided we'd "just use an iPhone" - and its burst shots processed instantly). Metering is super aggressive in shots with bright and dark spots, so expect too washed out or way too dark images way too often. One of the sparse app's features, lens blur, is garbage (sorry).

The iPhone and Galaxy phones have trained us to count on our cameras when we need them and to not tolerate any slowdown. Missing shots because of bad software is the worst. The Nexus 6P doesn't deliver the performance you'd expect. Almost every time you open the camera, you can expect a stutter. Less frequently (20 - 30% of the time) you'll run into a major issue - and that's way too often for a camera in late 2015. 

When the camera does work, it takes good looking shots. It's a 12.3MP, 2.0 aperture Sony sensor in the back with an 8MP, 2.4 aperture Sony sensor in the front. (read: the camera's issues are because of Google's camera software, not the sensors). The rear camera's 1.55 µm pixels really do capture good lowlight shots and I can get up close and personal to my subjects with some nice, quick focusing thanks to laser autofocus.

Videos, however, really are shaky with the exclusion of optical image stabilization - especially when compared to the S6. It's a strange omission, especially when you consider the phone's giant black bar on the back which absolutely had enough space to house it. It's not like the Nexus line is priced uber competitively anymore either, which makes OIS an even stranger omission. 

How's the flash? I have no idea. I haven't used a flash in years.

Like the overall design of the phone, the camera works mostly, but has glaring issues that hold it back. Of all the things I remain surprised about in other reviews, their praise for the camera is the most surprising. Is it the best Nexus camera ever? Yes. But that isn't saying much. The iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6 have great cameras. The Nexus 6P has a good camera. Google still has a lot of work to do if it really wants to be in the same league as its competition.

Android 6.0 and Performance

But maybe the Nexus doesn't need the best camera to appeal to Android users. The very best part of owning a Nexus phone has always been the stock version of the latest version of Android. The 6P is no exception and Android 6.0 Marshmallow is, hands down, the best Android yet. In everywhere but the camera, the 6P has no problem, no slowdowns, and doesn't even feel like it's working hard. Navigation is incredibly smooth. Gaming is great. I have zero fear that jumping between apps will result in an app crashing or my phone stopping to think. 

Android 6.0 introduces app permissions when needed (a la iOS) and other minor refinements (like a vertically scrolling app drawer), but the biggest new feature is Google Now On Tap. This makes Android 6.0 Marshmallow feel a lot like Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (which brought the introduction of Google Now). Google Now On Tap is built straight into Android. With a long press of the home button, Google will read the text on your phone's screen and conduct a search based on the key words it reads. 

It's incredible. It's the future of mobile search. It's new and imperfect. 

On Tap removes one more step from you finding the information you need - and that's a big deal. We love our phones so much because they give us the info we need quickly. I can see On Tap improving quickly to detect and answer questions, read images, and provide more contextual results based on your behavior. It's not totally useful right now (just like Siri wasn't when she was born.... and still isn't), but the future for this product excites me. For now, it's a cool party trick. 

Battery Life

I use my phones heavily. Like. A lot. (working at a mobile photo editing app will drain your battery like crazy) I'm not someone who expects to be able to go to work and then go to happy hour with enough battery to get a Lyft home. I almost always have a charger with me and my phones always charge at work.

The Nexus 6P is the first phone (and it is my first big phone) that I feel confident taking to happy hour and then calling a Lyft with. My phone will last from about 8:15am until 11pm every day with 4ish hours of screen on time - location, wireless, bluetooth turned on and battery saver turned off. When you pick up the phone from a resting position, the screen will show you the time and any notifications you have in grayscale. It's a nice little addition that saves you from wasting battery life with brief phone checks. I've found myself using it all the time. 

Android 6.0 brings a much needed doze feature to the phone which helps it barely sip battery as it rests on your desk. If you have an iPhone or iPad and have put it down only to see it has 80% battery after a few days, Android's doze feature should feel very familiar. 

Fast charging is great (a full charge from 0% takes almost exactly 90min), but no wireless charging makes me a little sad. I really enjoyed placing my S6 on the wireless charger while working, but oh well. 

In closing...

The Nexus 6P is solid. It performs excellently, but struggles to be the camera you should expect in 2015. It feels great in the hand, but has annoying design decisions that distract from its promise of being "premium". Even with my gripes,  Google has taken a huge leap forward with its Nexus program this year, creating the first Nexus phone I've been compelled to buy since the Galaxy Nexus. The thing is, I refuse to judge this Nexus solely in comparison to other Nexus devices. It needs to be compared to the market - and it has too many things going against it to be considered the best phone you can buy.

However, Android 6.0 is a huge selling point, as is the phone's premium build. If you're okay with a camera that needs some tweaking and the black bar doesn't bother you, this phone won't disappoint you.  Even though I struggle with certain parts of this phone, I'm left enjoying using it most of the time. I can't overstate how great it feels to hold and how nice stock Android 6.0 is to use. I wonder how much longer it will before I go back to my Galaxy S6, but I bet it's going to be after I take some less-than-stallar photos at a critical moment.

Let's go ahead and give the Nexus 6P an 8.5 out of 10.