Review: Google Nexus 6

Pick up the new Nexus 6, and its screen comes to life in anticipation. The phone—a joint effort from Motorola and Google—senses that you’re handling it, and its display lights up. Staying in a dim and monochrome ambient mode, it shows your most important notifications in a clean stack, with the most urgent stuff on top. Tap one of those notifications, and everything suddenly turns colorful. A little ripple rolls out, just for a fraction of a second, from the spot on the screen where you placed your finger, and the notification expands to stand out from the others in the group. It’s both very pretty, and very useful.

This is the newest embodiment of Google’s mobile operating system, Android 5.0 (aka Lollipop). It’s not just about presenting something gorgeous. It’s also been redesigned to be more helpful. The phone anticipates your needs and gets out in front of them, surfacing information before you request it. Not only has the skin of the operating system been juiced for this purpose, but the individual apps too. Calendar and Gmail have been updated, along with many of the key apps, to help you manage the constant flow of information that’s always piping into your device.

But the greatest thing about this phone is the way it handles notifications. They are organized well from the get go, and also delightfully customizable. Imagine you see a Gmail notification that says “11 New Messages.” Drag your finger down a bit on the card, and it expands to show you the subject line of each message. Or if there’s only one message, you can drag down to see the first few sentences, and then opt to delete and move on, or reply, which opens up the app. Or instead, if you hold the notification card down when it appears because it annoys you, you’ll see an an option to click and get info—where you can block notifications from the app entirely, or (conversely) set them as priority notifications.

This special attention being paid to notifications is a current trend in mobile OS interaction design, and Google is a leader here. Increasingly, the notifications screen on our handset is becoming the interface—a primary way of consuming information and talking to the apps on the phone. But Lollipop recognizes that you want different levels of interaction with these notifications at different times, so it offers three modes: all, priority, and none.

All and none are exactly what they sound like, but priority notifications are fantastic. You can, for example, set them so that only calendar reminders and texts or phone calls from your starred contacts break through. Or, you can add Twitter and Facebook notifications to the mix. (Which sounds terrible, but whatever.) The point is you can set up priority notifications mode to be as strict or loose of a gatekeeper as you want.

Material Design is visually stunning. Little animations, like the ripple effect when you touch something on screen or the way info cards expand outward, not only delight, but also give you cues about the actions you are taking.

The phone is self-organizing too. It tries to determine which things you care about most, and raise those to the top. Incoming emails appear above a notification telling you about new stories in The New York Times, for example. The operating system is riddled with these kind of features, designed to get you in and out, so you don’t spend all day staring into your phone.

Yet if you are one of those people who willingly spends a lot of time staring at your phone screen, this one will reward you. Not only has every corner of Android been gussied up to reflect the higher visual standard of Google’s new Material Design principles, but the display on the handset itself is gorgeous. This is where Nexus devices—each generation of which is designed to showcase the new Android version running on it—truly shine. Overall, Material Design is visually stunning. Little animations, like the ripple effect when you touch something on screen or the way info cards expand outward, not only delight, but also give you cues about the actions you are taking. It’s just great to look at.

Photos and video look wonderful. I was genuinely surprised at the level of difference between the Nexus 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, which also has an amazing display but looked a little overbright and washed out by comparison. The Nexus 6 just invites you to dive in and live in its rich hues.

Similarly, the dual front side speakers are boss. I don’t generally condone playing audio right from your phone’s speakers–it’s annoying for you and more so for everyone else–but this actually makes a passable little outdoor sound system. Don’t get me wrong, it still has a certain Motel 6 clock radio quality to it, but it’s completely listenable.

If you are privacy-minded, there are some nice features for you too. You can set certain notifications to keep their details secret when the phone is locked–SMS messages, for example. You can pin an app to the screen so that someone can use that app (say, Netflix) and nothing else without knowing your unlock code. (I used this pretty effectively as child-proofing.) You can set it to remain unlocked in the presence of certain devices like a smart watch, a headset, or even your car. A multi-user mode lets you set up a guest account to give someone else access to your device and even operating system, but not your data. All of these are thoughtful and useful, and I enjoyed all of them.

I took the Nexus 6 with me on Halloween (just like last year with the Nexus 5) where I shot dozens of photos first in daylight, and then into the night. It’s got a 13-megapixel camera and an f/2 lens—a huge improvement over last year’s model. The camera software is better too. It’s significantly more responsive. I was eager to see how it compared.

Photography conditions are difficult on Halloween. And even in those well-lit doorways, there are often lots of people moving around that can make focusing difficult. You’re moving into and out of well-lit doorways and into darkness. The costumes are colorful and filled with small details. It’s a great testing environment. Unlike last year, I came away from the night (and all the time I’ve carried the device) mostly happy with color accuracy, with exposure, and with its ability to focus in most situations. Low light shots taken without a flash were usually good-bordering-on-great, even in those difficult conditions. But the dual-LED backside flash was a nuisance. It’s far too slow to focus and fire, which cost me lots of shots. When it (finally) did fire, everything looked washed out. Turn it off and leave it off.

This device stole a lot of tricks from the Moto X, and I wish it had taken more cues from its fast-firing camera.

What bothered me more than the flash was the speed, though. The camera app takes several seconds to launch and focus, for example, and there’s no built-in burst mode for capturing action. HDR mode is painfully glacial. This device stole a lot of tricks from the Moto X, and I wish it had taken more cues from its fast-firing camera. Although the camera did fine overall on Halloween, afterwards I wished I’d had the iPhone 6 Plus with me. Those pictures are brighter and more detailed. Flash photography looks better, and the camera launches faster—by more than a second if the app is starting cold.

The elephant in the room when discussing the Nexus 6 is its size. 2014 is the year Big Phones broke through. There’s an arms race towards bigness, and the Nexus 6 is the new winner, or maybe loser. While it’s not much bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus on paper—looking at the dimensions, it’s only 3.2 cubic inches larger and weighs just 12 grams more—but you feel that heft. It’s meatier than the Galaxy Note 4, too. I will say that the curved backside makes the Nexus 6 easier to hold than flat-backed big phones. But overall, the extra weight makes it more difficult to use one-handed, especially because it doesn’t have software tricks like the 6 Plus or the Note 4 do for shrinking its screen down for single-hand use.

Battery life is very good. I typically saw about 13 hours or more of normal use—email, social media, web browsing, streaming audio and video, photography, and games—before I would have to charge it. Given its comparative heft, however, I was expecting the battery to be even better.

And here’s something: it’s far more prone to falling out of my pockets than any other phone I’ve ever used. It’s heavier and bulkier, and juts out of back pockets by an inch or more. It’s also relatively easy, when seated, to have its center of gravity tilt out of a front pants pocket. I’ve dropped it a lot. Every day. (I’m hard on phones.) On the upside, other than some very slight dimpling in the aluminum in one of the corners, it isn’t any worse for having been dropped on hardwood floors, masonry, and concrete a dozen or so times.

In every sense of the word, the Nexus 6 is solid. It’s got a truly wonderful operating system, by far the best I’ve ever used. But if Lollipop is a triumph (and it is) the Nexus 6 is basically just a nice win. It’s got great hardware, but not the best of the year in its size category. Mostly, it’s made me very excited about Lollipop—and running it on another device.

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