I’m intentionally avoiding the term “review” because there are already plenty of exhaustive analyses of the Nexus 6 out there (for my two favorites, see MKBHD and The Verge). Instead, I’m just going to cover a handful of elements — both good and bad — that really stood out for me as someone who has owned and actively used every single Nexus and iOS device to date.
Size: I don’t really want to rehash the whole size issue, but I will say that I’ve adjusted to the dimensions of the Nexus 6 much faster than I thought I would. I feel like I gave up true one-handed use of a phone the day I started using the Sidekick back in 2004, and then the iPhone three years after that (typing on an iPhone with one hand has never been easy). The Nexus 6 still easily fits in the front pocket of my jeans, and an unexpected advantage of the size is that the headphone jack comes almost to the top of my pocket, so I worry less about the stress I put on the connector when sitting. I also find I’m watching much more video on my phone, and as far as I’m concerned, more use is almost always a good thing. Rather than the Nexus 6 feeling really big, I kind of feel like a lot of other phones have gotten really small.
Screen: The screen is as beautiful as it is big. It’s Quad HD which means it has four times the number of pixels as a (720p) HD screen. It also has a pixel density of 493 pixels per inch — higher than the iPhone 6 Plus. If you’re not into specs, that basically means it looks more like backlit paper than a device display, and no matter how sharp your vision might be, your eyes will never be assaulted by the crassness of an individually identifiable pixel. Pixel density is something that matters a great deal to me, and in fact, I gave up using a MacBook Air because the screen began looking so horrible next to my MacBook Pro’s “retina” display. In fact, I’m actually afraid to buy a new 5k iMac because I’m worried I’ll never want to look at any other computer ever again. But I digress…
Battery. The battery life on the Nexus 6 is surprisingly good. I could probably get pretty close to two days out of it, though I’d never intentionally risk it. Even with heavy use (lots of Bluetooth and video), it easily goes a full day, and with the included turbo charger, you can top it off in just a few minutes while sitting at your desk. I would rate the battery as being about as effective as the battery in the iPhone 6 — high praise indeed for a Nexus device given their traditionally poor battery performance.
Camera: Much better than the Nexus 5 (though that’s not saying all that much). I haven’t taken a ton of pictures yet, but the ones I have taken (in good light) were quite good, and capture was extremely fast. When I want to capture the best pictures I possibly can (with a phone), I still reach for my iPhone 6, but for most of the pictures I use a phone for, I feel like the camera on the Nexus 6 is more than adequate.
Buttons: Although I love MKBHD’s reviews, I don’t always agree with them, and one area where we diverge is in the quality of the Nexus 6’s buttons. They’re better than those on the Nexus 5, but not by much, and not nearly as good as the buttons on any iPhone. They’re way too soft — too easily activated — and because they’re positioned in the middle of the phone, you pretty much always hit one of them when you pick the device up (until you train yourself not too, which shouldn’t be necessary). I ended up putting a TPU sleeve on the phone as much to stiffen up the buttons as for protection, and that helped, but it really shouldn’t take a third-party case to fix what I consider to be a design flaw in such an expensive phone. And the case covers up the dimple we Moto X and N6 fans have inexplicably come to love.
Form factor. I guess the days of phones sitting flush and solidly on your desk are over. The iPhone 6 (and 6 Plus) rock because of the camera protrusion (conveniently removed from profile product photos on Apple’s site), and the Nexus 6 positively sways because of its rounded back. Since phones appear to be optimized for holding rather than setting on flat surfaces, I guess I can’t really criticize the design of either the iPhone 6 or the Nexus 6, but it does affect the perceived quality of the device. When a phone sits solidly on a flat surface, it makes the phone itself feel more solid. When it rocks or sways or wobbles, it evokes the sense of a rickety chair, and doesn’t encourage a satisfying experience. Unlike unnecessarily soft buttons, however, this is much more an issue of personal preference than substandard design.
Headphones. I’ve never understood the Android position on headphones, and I guess at this point, I never will. Specifically, I really can’t figure out why the experience of using headphones with iPhones is so good, and the experience of using headphones with Android has always been so bad. I should be able to plug in either EarPods (what were once known as EarBuds), or any other off-the-shelf headphones with built-in controls, and they should just work. If that’s too much to ask, then a $650 to $700 phone should come with a decent set of headphones with built-in controls. The play/pause button in most headphones semi-works with most Android devices (meaning some of the time, it eventually plays or pauses), but adjusting the volume never works. I use Bluetooth headphones about half the time (usually at the gym), and it’s worth noting that all the controls on them work fine, but Bluetooth headphones are a long way from being perfected, so sometimes I prefer to just plug in. At this point, it’s probably not even worth fixing since new versions of USB will probably replace headphone jacks in a generation or two, but this has always been one of my biggest Android complaints, and something that has always just felt like a gross oversight. With every “premium” Android phone I buy (HTC One M8, Moto X, Nexus 6, etc.), I always expect this problem to be fixed, yet it never is.
The Software (Lollipop)
Again, there are plenty of comprehensive Lollipop reviews out there, so I’m going to stick to the new features that stood out for me, and that really affect the way I use the Nexus 6.
General impressions. Material design is fantastic. From the perspective of both visual design and user experience, Google has finally and definitively grown up. Lollipop feels modern, refined, smart, and extremely thoughtful. Everything is easy and intuitive to find, and other than a few tips and tricks, I don’t feel like anyone needs any sort of training to get the most out of Android 5.0. I know Apple has always gotten all the credit for being approachable and easy to use, but I feel like the combination of their focus on initial simplicity combined with the need to constantly layer on new features and capabilities can lead to annoying interactions and non-intuitive behavior (I really dislike double-clicking the home button for app switching, for instance, and I never know where to find an application’s configuration options — in the app itself, or in iOS settings?). At this point, I think Lollipop beats iOS with respect to information architecture, and in striking the right balance between power and intuitiveness. That said, my perspective might be skewed by being such a phone geek that my idea of a stimulating Friday night is to curl up with the 62-page Android 5.0 Quick Start Manual to make sure I know and have tried every last new feature. If I were to hand my N6 to my mom, for instance, I honestly don’t know if she would have such high praise for it.
Setup. One of my biggest complaints about Android has always been the amount of work that goes into the initial setup. I’ve always opted to have my settings and data backed up by Google (never by my carrier), and every time I set up a new Android phone, I always wondered why everything wasn’t magically restored from my previous Android device (something I’ve been enjoying on iOS for a very long time). Lollipop finally brings this very basic concept to Android (which, granted, was probably extremely difficult to implement — especially considering carrier bastardization customization). The Nexus 6 was the easiest Android setup process I’ve ever experienced since most of the apps and settings from my Moto X were properly restored. You can apparently also go from an old Android phone to a new one by tapping the two phones together and initiating an NFC connection, though I haven’t tried that yet. Next time, for sure.
Smart lock. This is definitely one of my favorite new features. Enabling your phone to unlock based on location and/or the pairing of one or more Bluetooth devices is just brilliant, and has really made using my phone more efficient and enjoyable. I like Apple’s Touch ID, but even on the iPhone 6, I find it annoying slow, and although it’s gotten better over the course of a few updates, it still fails far too much (especially after just washing your hands, or applying lotion which is critical during very dry Washington D.C. winters). That said, the ability for other apps to leverage Touch ID makes me wish Android had similar support (I love that I can log into the Capital One Wallet app without copying and pasting from my password manager application, for instance), and there certainly are security compromises to take into consideration with Smart Lock (are you really OK with your phone being accessible to anyone in a specific geographic location?), but for the first time, I feel like I have the features and flexibility I need to strike the right balance between security and convenience.
Sound profiles. Lollipop’s new approach to sound profiles is a big improvement, and starts to fix a problem I’ve been complaining about for years. Specifically, I felt like the sound options on both iOS and Android were much too coarse-grained in that there were basically three settings: “quiet,” “loud,” or “buzzy” (Apple also added a much-needed “Do Not Disturb” mode to iOS 6 which turns everything off but alarms). Lollipop options (accessible by pressing the volume rocker rather than holding down the power button) now have nothing to do with the way you get notified (sound or vibration); rather, they allow you to select a notification threshold with sound or vibration being an independently selectable option. The three sound profiles are “None,” “Priority,” or “All,” and the priority setting supports some critical additional configuration. Not only can you individually toggle reminders, calls, and messages, but you can also select whose calls and messages get through. Unfortunately, to simplify the UI, you can only toggle on or off your entire set of starred contacts whereas I’d rather be able to select a new group of contacts (the people who I contact most often are not necessarily the people who I always want to be able to contact me), but it’s a very strong start. A less useful feature, in my opinion, is “Downtime,” which enables you to apply a schedule (days and intervals of time) to your priority setting — a nice concept, but I can’t imagine anyone’s life unfolding according to this level of regularity and predictability (though maybe my life is unusually chaotic). Finally, I also really like that timers can easily be applied to both “None” and “Priority” settings so you can silence your phone for a movie or a commute and not have to remember to turn notifications back on. Expect to see this come to future versions of iOS once Apple ditches the physical silence switch in order to allow more nuanced flexibility.
Multi-user support. This is a huge new feature that probably won’t get a tremendous amount of recognition, but it’s the kind of functionality that will find a devout following with a certain demographic. Android now supports multiple profiles which means you can entirely separate your work and personal lives, allow family members to share a single phone, hand a devices to a kid during a long car ride with confidence, or even lend your phone to someone using guest mode. Again, the majority of Android users probably won’t have any use for this, but I think the idea of stretching a single device securely and conveniently across multiple users is extremely powerful — especially on the 64GB version of the N6 where there’s enough storage space for two people’s apps and data.
Bugs. Let’s just get this out of the way: You will find bugs in Lollipop. I finally had to turn Cloud Print off because it crashed constantly, producing incredibly annoying alerts (dozens a day). The NPR One app also constantly crashes. Additionally, when apps were initially installed on the home screen, several of them got the default Android icon, and I had to remove them, then re-add them from the app drawer. And finally, the phone has mysteriously shut down once, and restarted at least twice (that I’m aware of). I’m not overly impressed by the robustness of Lollipop, but at the same time, I love the look and the features enough that I’m more forgiving than I might otherwise be. In my opinion, Lollipop is the most powerful mobile OS, but it is not yet the most robust. I’m very much looking forward to future updates.
Enterprise support. I was incredibly excited about the prospect of Gmail now supporting multiple account types — including Exchange — because I thought enterprise support was always one of Android’s biggest weaknesses. Specifically, I never liked having to use two very different apps (Gmail and Email), and I always felt the Email app was underpowered, buggy, and frankly, ugly. While adding Exchange support to Gmail is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s still several steps short since it basically feels like the code for the old Email app was just copied and pasted into the source code for Gmail. Yes, you can use a single application for all your email, but the only real advantage I see is that now you switch between accounts rather than switching between apps. That’s pretty much it. There is still no unified in box view, and worst of all, still no support for conversations or threads when using Exchange which means the same app behaves very different depending on which account is selected. For people who don’t have the luxury of using Gmail all the time, the lack of a conversation view is a massive downside, and comes pretty close to making corporate email useless on Android devices. I get a lot of people asking me whether their next phones should be iOS or Android, and one of the questions I always ask to help them make the decision is how much they depend on Exchange. If they are heavy mobile Exchange users, I always recommend iOS, and unfortunately, I will have to continue to do so.
Task switching. I can’t decide how I feel about the new approach to task switching. It looks awesome — no doubt about that — but the new 3D card view is more visually cluttered than the old 2D card view. The much bigger issue, however, is that by default, browser tabs are now part of your application history rather than being handled through separate UI in Chrome (fortunately, you can turn this off in Chrome’s options if it doesn’t work for you). In other words, imagine your browser tabs being treated as separate applications on your desktop rather than having their own navigation paradigm inside your browser. I totally understand why Google made this decision, and I might come around eventually, but so far, I mostly just find it more difficult to find my old browser tabs. The problem is that I still conceptualize browser instances as “tabs” rather than separate application processes, so I keep going back to Chrome and looking for a tab I knew I had open to finish reading an article, or to check the next step of a recipe. Maybe once I get used to it, I’ll like it better, but as of now, I’m leaning toward turning this off and going back to the old functionality. (Thank you, Google, for giving us the option.)
I bought the 32GB Nexus 6 for two reasons. The first was that I’d already been waiting a month to get my hands on one, and holding out for the 64GB version would have meant waiting at least one more month if not significantly longer. And the second reason was that I really didn’t think I’d stick with it, so I figured I should just save myself the additional $50. I have a 64GB iPhone 6 which I really like, and I figured the Nexus 6 would be used primarily as a small tablet I reached for whenever I wanted to kick back and watch videos, or have more space to read. Although I’m glad I didn’t wait for the 64GB version (when it comes to gadgets, patience is a virtue I was not blessed with), I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up upgrading eventually. I’ve been using the Nexus 6 as my primary phone since I got it, and unless I have cause to start wearing much tighter pants — or unless I feel I need to get the absolute best pictures out of my phone’s camera — I’m now thinking I’ll probably stick with it for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, I am an Exchange user, so until enterprise email on Android stops sucking, I’ll continue to be somewhat disgruntled (and when I travel for work, I’ll probably have to bring my iPhone instead), but since I’m usually never far from my laptop, I can get by.
Whether you should invest in a Nexus 6 comes down to a handful of things. If you’re heavily invested in iOS, I wouldn’t even consider switching to Android or trying the N6. iOS devices are great, and if you’ve already put a lot of money into apps and media, you probably won’t find moving to Android worth the hassle. But if your investment in Apple’s ecosystem is minimal, and if you have big enough pockets (or the ability to carry a separate bag around with you), the Nexus 6 is definitely one of the best phones in the world right now, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.