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Opinion: The Nexus 5X is excellent, but performance is its one inexcusable flaw


I’ve been feeling up the Nexus 5X for about a week now, and I’m undoubtedly impressed. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Nexus phone in this size range, and — as someone who used the Nexus 6 as his daily driver for a year — it’s really refreshing to once again have a handset to match my hands. That was the first thing I noticed about the Nexus 5X. I have little-to-no tolerance for third-party bloatware, skins, and gimmicks, and stock vanilla Android is almost a non-negotiable for me. And in this one area, the 5X — the 6P, as well — delivers, and that alone puts it in a league of its own in my eyes. That alone makes this phone, for me, one the cream of the Android crop.

But there’s one thing that has been a recurring theme in my first week with the 5X: performance. It’s just simply not good enough, and in 2015, OS stutters, frame rate drops, and lag while switching apps is quite simply inexcusable, (but especially in any phone that costs more than $100). It’s not that the 5X is a crippled experience — no, I’m sometimes in buttery smooth Android heaven. But in those times that my phone just slows to a crawl in the middle of my day, whatever the reason may be, I can’t help but want to throw the 5X at a wall…

I’m a college student, and that means that — like pretty much anyone else who works outside of home — I’m constantly on the move. My day of writing means that I’m picking up my laptop and going to class, relocating to the student union to write an article, heading the library to grab a book, and booking it home to grab lunch. Just like everyone else, I use this precious time walking between destinations to get things done on my phone. I check my email, check the HipChat room, post some tweets, look up movie times, plan dinner, and send text messages. This time is precious.

Story time. The other day, I was walking home and using my phone as normal. I was using the app switcher, swiping over to my Google Now cards, swiping away some notifications, and switching between tabs in Chrome. Suddenly, my brand-new Nexus 5X slowed to a crawl. Tapping the app switcher took 5 solid seconds before my apps showed up, swiping down to look at my notifications simply wasn’t working at all, and tapping the home button was simply unresponsive. After 5-10 minutes of hoping this was just a freak occurrence and that my phone would get its head together and pick up where it left off, I had to shut the thing off completely. I rebooted, and everything was back to normal.

I hoped that the Nexus 5X would put everything I loved about the Nexus 6 into a smaller package, but it just doesn’t hit the mark in performance.

There are a lot of different explanations for something like this. Perhaps I was using a buggy app. Perhaps the phone just doesn’t have enough RAM. Perhaps there’s just a bug in the current build of Marshmallow that’s causing this. Perhaps my demo unit is flawed (although I doubt this one). Perhaps I’m just impatient and have expectations that are way too high. Whatever the case my be, I think that this kind of behavior from a freshly set-up, just shipped, brand new Nexus device is simply unacceptable. In 2015, when we have access to this much processing power, I don’t think it’s okay for any phone — a Nexus phone, an iPhone, a Samsung phone, or a OnePlus phone — to be having these problems, especially two days out of the box. All I want is an experience that’s reliable and smooth, and I think the closest I’ve had to that was probably an early-generation iPhone.

Before this article starts to sound like it’s written by an Apple fanboy (too late?), I’d like to remind you that I’ve been using and enjoying a Nexus 6 — and almost solely a Nexus 6 — for just about 12 months now as my daily driver. That phone had its share of performance hiccups occasionally, but they were never enough to write about. And considering that the Nexus 6 has a Snapdragon 805, and the Nexus 5X has a Snapdragon 808, I was expecting performance to be about on par with its predecessor. So far I’ve only been disappointed with the 5X in comparison to what I now feel is a very-reliable Nexus 6.

And my experience with the phone randomly slowing to a halt was not an isolated incident. It happened a couple times over the course of the week, and one of those times was when I was trying to show the phone to a friend. It skipped a few frames when sliding over to the Google Now page, and it took just a little longer than one would hope to open the app switcher. It was just enough for him to notice it and mention it, and I had to sit there and reboot the phone to prove that it wasn’t a permanent issue.

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I hoped that the Nexus 5X would put everything I loved about the Nexus 6 into a smaller package, but it just doesn’t hit the mark in performance. In every other area, however, the 5X is pretty much up to par (at the very least). The Nexus 5X camera is one of the best you can get on a smartphone, the battery life — while definitely not amazing thanks to the phone’s smaller form factor — is good enough for a day’s use, and the build quality is more than good enough. The fingerprint sensor is the most reliable I’ve used on a phone yet (especially using the quick tip I detailed last week), it’s great to have USB Type-C (although it’s still a couple years out from being ubiquitous), and having access to Project Fi is an invaluable blessing.

So no matter how harsh this rant about its performance may sound, I absolutely love the 5X. I haven’t switched back to my Nexus 6 yet, and I’m still using this thing on the daily. All things considered it’s still one of the best Android phones ever, and I would recommend it to just about anything that cares even a little bit about getting the pure Android experience. Better than the Moto X Pure Edition? I can’t say, but I think the Pure Edition is too big for my hands anyway. Better than the Nexus 5? Certainly. Better than the OnePlus Two? Yes, if you want NFC and to have Marshmallow before next year. Better than the Galaxy S6? Yes, if you would go to any length to avoid TouchWiz (I would). I could go on, but the point is that the Nexus 5X is simply a great option for the Android purists out there.

For me, the Nexus 5X is my ideal Android phone. The only thing I would put in its place would be the Nexus 6P and some larger hands. I absolutely love this phone when it’s not slowing to a crawl, and having the pure Nexus experience, with reliable updates, in the smaller size, is exactly what I’ve been waiting for all year long. You should buy a Nexus 5X.

I hope, though, that this is just a software problem. I hope that my unit is just a fluke. I hope that it’s just one of the apps I’m using (although I definitely don’t use any obscure apps; I mostly just switch between Fenix, Inbox for Gmail, Spotify, Chrome, and Facebook all day). If that’s the case, and I can resolve those once-every-couple-days performance issues, I will be content. If this is just how things are going to be with the Nexus 5X, though, then I might consider switching away in the next month or so. No matter how much I don’t want to, I might end up going with the larger 6P at the end of the day. But that would be a shame considering the anticipation that so many had — myself included — for the second coming of Jesus the Nexus 5.

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Avatar for Stephen Hall Stephen Hall

Stephen is Growth Director at 9to5. If you want to get in touch, follow me on Twitter. Or, email at stephen (at) 9to5mac (dot) com, or an encrypted email at hallstephenj (at) protonmail (dot) com.