Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

By Eric Limer on at

The Nexus 6 is fucking huge. It's also the best big phone I've ever used. Hell, it's one of the best phones I've ever touched. I never want to give it up. It's that good.

What Is It?

A massive Nexus phone made by Motorola, with a giant 5.96-inch 2560 x 1440 493ppi AMOLED screen. The flagship device for the beautiful new Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system. Google's first no-compromise flagship, with a speedy Snapdragon 805 brain, dual front-facing speakers, a 13MP camera with optical image stabilisation, and a price to match: £499 unlocked for the 32GB version, or from £28 a month on contract. A phone that comes in one flavour that works on all networks (unlike the Nexus 5, which was an O2 exclusive at launch). The biggest Nexus. The best Nexus.

Why Does It Matter?

Nexus phones are the purest Android phones, so that's reason enough. But the Nexus 6 poses a tough question for Android fans: am I ready for a six-inch phone? Google is betting big that you're ready to take the plunge.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Design

The Nexus 6 looks and feels like a dream. Sure, it's basically just this year's Moto X scaled up to six inches, but I wouldn't have it any other way. The Nexus 6 screams "quality" from the moment your fingers first brush against its frame. Like the Moto X, it's packing it in all the right places: the same delightfully rounded edges on its Gorilla Glass screen and the same gently curved and hand-friendly back. Also, the same subtle ridges on the power button, like the rim of a shiny new quarter, so you can find it by feel. It's like the Moto X just took a bite from the cake labelled "Eat Me" and grew nearly an inch while retaining all its charm.

In fact, a couple of pockmarks which dotted the Moto X's face are now gone: the Nexus 6 doesn't have the same motion detectors that give the Moto X its "wave your hand to see your notifications" feature, which – let's be honest – was a bit of a gimmick. On the back, the Nexus 6 opts for a Moto X 2013-style divot instead of a Moto X 2014-style medallion and it makes holding the phone way easier. It's a perfect finger-rest that orients the phone's considerable heft in your hand. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say it's the phone's most important feature.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

See, if you hold the Nexus 6 with your little finger placed on the bottom for support, the top of the screen is unreachable except by a stretch worthy of Mr. Fantastic. Also, you run a pretty real risk of dropping the thing.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

And if you hold the Nexus 6 with your fingers creeping around the far side for support, the grip is better, but the thumb range is even worse.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

But if you place your index finger in the Nexus 6's welcoming back-divot and just cradle the phone in your fingers instead of holding on for dear life, suddenly things fall into place. You'll have to change your grip from time to time, but the whole wide world of screen is yours.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

The divot is important, but it also helps that the Nexus 6's weight is impeccably balanced. I was scared at first, but two weeks after I started using this grip, I haven't dropped it once. Even though the Nexus 6 opts for a slightly slicker plastic than the grippy soft touch on the Nexus 5 and black Nexus 9 – the white N9 has the same finish – there's still plenty of purchase.

The Nexus 6's 5.96, 2560x1440 493ppi AMOLED display is great, especially indoors. The AMOLED screen's extra contrast really helps Android Lollipop's delightful colours stand out. It doesn't pop quite as much as the Note 4's absurd 518ppi AMOLED display, but it's definitely better than any previous Nexus. In the bright light of the outdoors, however, the Nexus 6 suffers from a bit of glare and can't put out quite as much light as I want. On my way to work, I'll sometimes struggle to see my email, go to turn up the brightness and find it's already maxed out.

It bears repeating that the Nexus 6 is huge. With a 5.96-inch screen, it out-sizes pretty much everything else out there. The mammoth Galaxy Note 4 only has a 5.7-inch screen. Apple's iPhablet clocks in at 5.5 inches. Of course, screen size is not phone size, and thanks to thin-ass bezels, the Nexus 6 is actually not that much bigger than its plus-sized compatriots. It's ever so slightly wider, and a teensy bit heavier: the 184g Nexus 6 is eight grams heavier than the Note 4 and 12 grams heavier than the iPhone 6 Plus, and you'll notice. But it's a rock-solid handset with no flex, no creak whatsoever, dense and strong. You're signing up for a tank of a phone.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Using It

For me, using the Nexus 6 was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. At first I liked it. Then, for a day or two, I really resented its girth. Then around day three, I swung back around and fell madly in love. There are brief moments when its gargantuan size is a legitimate pain, but those moments are few and far between. I get mad at my Nexus 6 for being too bulky on a crowded train the way I get mad at my cat for crawling into bed and sniffing my face at five in the morning: intensely, but only for a few minutes.

The Nexus 6, more than I think any other phone I've used, has forced me to use it on its terms. This has been a little annoying, but every time I've trudged to meet it halfway, grumbling all the while, I've been happy I did. The primary example was figuring out how to hold it. I've been aboard the Nexus train since the Nexus 4, and using my little finger as a shelf has become my grip of choice. Well, here, it doesn't work. For a while, I thought the phone's design was vastly inferior to the Galaxy Note 4 with its nice ridged bezels. But once I discovered that divot and readjusted my grip, things got much easier.

The other big issue with the Nexus 6 was figuring out where to put the damn thing, especially in transit. Pulling a five-inch phone out of your pocket on a crowded train is hard, and a six-inch is harder still. Plus, the Nexus 6 loves to just slide out of the front pocket of one of my favourite pairs of jeans when I'm in a particularly mean slouch. (I am always in a particularly mean slouch.) Eventually I gave up and just started putting it in my shirt pocket instead.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

But when the Nexus 6 is not forcing you to change the way you use and think about a phone, it's fantastic.

The Nexus 6 is great for web-browsing; its high-contrast screen just big enough to never feel cramped. I did a lot of reading on the Nexus 6 by chucking articles over to Pocket and then reading them in white-text-on-black mode to get the most battery out of that crisp OLED screen; it's a decent Kindle replacement. It's also great for banging out a few emails or commenting on Kinja blogs or whatever it is that you do with words; the Nexus 6 is just wide enough to make portrait typing with two thumbs a breeze, but small enough to make swipe typing with one hand feasible, too.

Want to watch films or TV? You'd be hard-pressed to find a better phone for the task. The six-inch screen is as about as big and pretty of a screen as I've ever put in my pocket, and the dual front-facing speakers are ridiculous. The bass is a little lacking, sure, but they sound amazing for a phone. And God are they loud. I was in the bedroom playing Duet with its (wonderful) soundtrack cranked all the way up, and my fiancee yelled at me from the living room to turn it down. At least, that's what she told me afterwards: I couldn't hear her over the phone. I used to use Bluetooth speakers to listen to podcasts. Not anymore.

Games? Thanks to the 805 Snapdragon processor inside, performance on the Nexus 6 is pleasantly and consistently brisk. It's the fantastic showcase for Android Lollipop that the Nexus 9 should have been. Animations run wonderfully smooth and apps spring to life with a snap. Weirdly, Dead Trigger 2 – my go-to graphical stress tester – is not available on the Nexus 6 yet, but the phone was able to tackle everything else I tried (Duet, Temple Run 2, Angry Birds of various flavours, emulators from SNES through N64) with ease.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Battery life is also surprisingly great. I've had the Nexus 6 for about two weeks, and never once has it died on me before bedtime. I pull it off the charger at 7:30 in the morning, and it breezes on into the night with at least 30 per cent battery power around midnight, even days where I've used it heavily. Last weekend, I tried not to charge at all, and after some pretty hefty Saturday use (an hour or two of Twitter and Facebook, an hour or two of reading, five to six hours of podcasts in the background, and some other assorted usage in between) and a charge-less night, I had 20 per cent left at 10am the next morning.

And thanks to Qualcomm's quick-charging tech – an advertised six hours of charge after 15 minutes on the plug – I was able to dump 10 per cent more power into that battery during a 10-minute shower and make it all the way to 6pm before plugging in again, with the help of Lollipop's built-in battery saver mode.

Since I got the Nexus 6, I've abandoned my computer for pretty much anything short of work that requires the typing of 100+ words. The Nexus 6 has managed to be a huge but still great phone, as well as an absolutely fantastic little tablet, with the battery and horsepower to do both jobs in any given day without requiring an extra charge. It's like having my beloved Nexus 7 again. Except this time I won't ultimately abandon it because it's always way over there on the coffee table instead of right here in my pocket.

Software

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Android Lollipop is just tops. It was probably the best part of the Nexus 9 tablet (which is unfortunate) but it really shines on the Nexus 6 phone. The animations – from opening the app drawer, to swiping down on the notifications panel, to opening the camera from the lock screen, simply tapping on notifications cards – are all fun and cheery and fluid. Here are a few of my favourites:

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

The bright colours match Android Lollipop's newfound pep; there's hardly a lick of black to be found anywhere, and it's a far cry from the dank, dark days of Gingerbread that we'd all rather forget. Google's new Material Design paradigm is to thank. Never has a little yellow ball made me want to use an app more than the "new message" button on Google's new Messenger app, the simple texting application that sits a little weirdly (but prettily) alongside Google Hangouts on stock Lollipop smartphones.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

I just want to tap on it, over and over and over.

Android Lollipop also does a lot to make a big-screen phone more manageable. Unlike iOS or Samsung's TouchWiz UI, Android doesn't have any sort of "reachability" feature or a one-handed mode. Instead, it relies on clever, subtle solutions that work beautifully most of the time. Take lockscreen notifications for instance. Double-tapping on the notifications on your lockscreen takes you right to the applicable app. Swiping down on them will unlock the screen and bring down the notification shade in one fell swoop.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Both are ways to get you where you want to go without forcing your thumb into the phone's northern hemisphere or engaging some sort of ham-fisted "squeeze the whole phone down into half the screen" solution like the iPhone 6 Plus.

But that doesn't forgive Android's lack of more robust built-in solutions for those of us with small paws. The lack of some sort of smaller-UI mode means that occasionally you just have to use a second hand. For instance, if you ever want to press the back button and happen to be right-handed. It's maybe the most important navigation button in Android, but at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, it's in the hardest possible place for a righty to reach.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Lollipop isn't just a coat of make-up, though. The fantastic new Smart Lockscreen feature has enabled me to protect my phone with a PIN, but also never have to enter it, since I can now set my phone to unlock automatically whenever it's near a trusted Bluetooth device like a smartwatch or one of the many speakers I have littered around my apartment. I type in a PIN maybe twice a day, tops.

Then there's the built-in battery-saver mode, which I already told you saved my bacon when I forgot to charge my phone one night. Yes, it really rips the heart and soul out of Android Lollipop by removing most of the animations, and the performance takes a serious nosedive, too, but now I no longer worry about getting stranded without the ability to call people.

Google's renovated apps are great, useful and beautiful at the same time. The new Calendar app auto-generates events from your email (theoretically; I have yet to see this happen), or lets you enter events in the form of a sentence, and then pulls in data for you. With the Nexus 6, I'm entering personal events into a calendar for the first time I can remember.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Overall, Android Lollipop is prettier, more functional and more consistent than Android's ever been. It's the most attractive operating system I've seen on a phone, bar none. And though Lollipop is already making it out to other handsets, it's a wonderfully designed software complement to the Nexus 6's impeccably designed hardware. It makes everything just click together in a way that's so seamless you never have to think about it, but that's endlessly impressive when you start to inspect it closer. The only weird quirk I've discovered is how Lollipop hides the Chrome browser's tabs by default, but you can turn that off in a settings menu.

Camera

The Nexus line is infamous for terrible cameras, but fortunately the Nexus 6 breaks the mould. Unfortunately, it's still nothing to write home about. In daylight, the image quality is nice, if nothing special. Adequate in the grand scheme of phone cameras today, but a big step up from the shitty Nexus cameras of yore. Colour and contrast can get washed out a little bit and some pretty heavy-handed noise reduction can smudge up your detail. Low-light shots make it all worse, too, and you get a whole bunch of smudgy noise. This isn't a photographer's phone camera by any means, but it's a step up by the pretty poor standards of the Nexus line and not at all unusable.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

The good news is that Android Lollipop also exposes the Camera API for the first time, which means this all could get better. Camera app developers now have access to RAW image formats, as well as settings like exposure time and ISO sensitivity. Google's stock camera app has always been… not great, so really there's only room for it to get better, but it's nothing you can really bet on or predict. You're still not going to buy a Nexus phone for its camera.

Like

Having a big screen can be really great. Like the iPhone 6 Plus, it can feel (fantastically) like using a tablet. Typing in portrait is a dream and there's plenty of screen space to browse the web or cruise through your emails. Those booming speakers make watching films on this phone a total pleasure, too. Yes, I would opt to watch films on this phone.

The Nexus 6's big chassis is a minor hassle after a while. That little divot on the back and the Nexus 6's thin bezels make using it as an actual phone totally feasible, too. It really is the best of both worlds.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

I can't say enough nice things about Android Lollipop. It looks beautiful and it adds a whole bunch of excellent features as well. Lockscreen notifications, Smart Lockscreen functionality and automatic battery saver mode are all very convenient. This is the best Android has ever been, easy.

Battery life is great. For a phone with such a giant screen, and 3220 mAh battery (not especially large for a handset this size), the Nexus 6 lasts consistently through the day and well into the night, even with pretty heavy use.

No Like

Nexus devices are supposed to help show off how great stock Android is all on its own, but much like the Nexus 9 highlighted some of Android's tablet failings, the Nexus 6 highlights some of its phablet failings. The back button is probably the most important nav button, but the bottom left corner where it lives is literally the hardest place for anyone right-handed to touch with one paw. The Nexus 6 needs a one-handed mode less than other less cleverly designed phones, but its absence is still glaring occasionally.

The Nexus 6 is big and it is heavy. When I was on the go, this was infrequently annoying, but extremely annoying on the rare occasion it really bothered me. The Nexus 6 has a bad habit of sliding out of trouser pockets when I sit. A few times– at restaurants and on the train mostly – I had some real where the fuck do I put this thing?!?! moments. Little pings of white-hot frustration. Internal 30-second temper tantrums. Two weeks in I still get one every few days. I have this nagging fear that it might get worse, but I can't really say.

Nexus 6 Review: It's Time To Go Big

Nexus 5 and Nexus 6

Some practice makes the Nexus 6 pretty easy to use one-handed (for a phone its size), but using it one-handed with your non-dominant hand is basically asking for disaster.

The screen just doesn't quite get bright enough. It can be hard – but not impossible – to see in bright sunlight, even with the brightness pushed up all the way.

It's extremely strange that Motorola's flagship smartphone doesn't have Moto Voice or Moto Assist. That means you can't issue voice commands when the phone is locked or set it to silence your phone automatically in meetings, unlike the Moto X. Google says it's because this phone "features Google experiences, as opposed to Moto ones". That's a shame.

Should You Buy It?

Yes. The Nexus 6 is absolutely gigantic, but it's wonderful and I bet you a quid it can win you over to big phones. More practically, just about every flagship phone these days is going to stretch your hand beyond your 2012 comfort zone. The Nexus 6 not only gives you the most for your stretching effort by maximising the amount of screen you get, it also makes that size more manageable than I'd dared to hope.

But there are two caveats. First, I have largish hands – not gigantic hands, but somewhat long-fingered six-foot-tall-man hands. For me, it works great. But one of my colleagues, while being impressed by the phone, has smaller hands that crave something a little more manageable.

Second, if you already have a tablet you love, the Nexus 6's more tablet-y superpowers might not be as attractive. Yes, you can get that all in one device now – which is probably better than you would expect – but if you are already married to, say, an iPad Air 2, the Nexus 6's occasionally obnoxious size might not be worth dealing with.

Compared to other big phones, the Nexus 6 is great, but not the undisputed champ. Its clever, one-handable (is that a word?) design makes it leaps and bounds more usable than the iPhone 6 Plus, but the gigantic Samsung Galaxy Note 4 still has some perks worth considering.

With its multitasking and stylus, plus removable battery and SD expansion slot, the Note 4 is more phone-plus-computer. The Nexus 6, with its simple, beautiful stock Android, slightly bigger screen and fantastic speakers, is more phone-plus-tablet. And the iPhone 6 Plus is still the best game in town if you want to take pictures with a phablet.

Big is beautiful now. The Nexus 6 shows that big can be smart, too.