Monday, January 26, 2015

Google & Motorola Bring Us the Nexus 6: Here's the Review


When it originally began, the Nexus program was a Google adventure to help developers get their hands on hardware that was best suited for the latest and greatest version of the Android software. The devices were very cool, elite, and expensive. Expensive mostly because they couldn't be purchased with subsidized contract prices from carriers. As the years pass though, Nexus products reduced in price while remaining high in standards and quality. 

The Nexus series is owned by Google, but Google doesn't make their own hardware. So they would partner up with a manufacturer such as HTC, Samsung or LG. The plan was to take one of their top of the line phones, tweak the hardware a bit, and then match it up with the perfect Android software. The first was the HTC Nexus One which was first released in January 2010. Five more iterations later, and today we have the Motorola Nexus 6. My friends over at AT&T let me borrow one for a few weeks and take it on a test drive. I'm ready to bring you the Nexus goodness in the package. And some unexpected lows as well. Stick with me to learn more.


Codenamed Shamu, Android and Nexus enthusiasts alike first heard about the proposed Nexus 6 in July of 2014. Why "Shamu"? Two reasons: 1) Google codenames their devices after marine life and 2) It has a huge 6 inch display, the largest Nexus phone to date. 5.96" to be exact and it takes up almost 75% of the entire front. To make this sound even more amazing, it has a 2K resolution display, that's right 2560x1440 (or 1440p resolution). To put this into perspective, most televisions are either 720p or 1080p. 1440p televisions have barely hit the market, and here we are with a 1440p display on a smartphone. In fact, in the US, there are only 5 others on the market with a 2K display. And this massive and clear display is protected by Corning(R) Gorilla Glass 3 scratch resistant glass. The massive display of pixels on this device show the colors vibrantly. No noticeable hint of shadows or hues that are "off". You can easily view the display from any angle or direction without loss of quality.

The Hardware
Besides the display, let me take you on a quick hardware tour around the outside of the Nexus 6. Because it's made by Motorola, and Google likes to take a great piece of hardware and tweak it to fit into the software, the Nexus 6 looks like a 2nd Generation Moto X on steroids. The layout is 98% exactly the same. 

Starting with the back you will find a single piece of plastic which serves as the backplate cover. It's tight and intact, there is no removing it or the battery underneath. The backplate has a matte finish and rubber-esque texture which will help grip the phone, but it also shows your fingerprints very well. It's not super easy to wipe off either. If it's going to be a fingerprint magnet, I'd almost wish it to be glossy so those prints would wipe off a lot easier. It is curved to fit the round palm of your hand, this shape also makes it easier to hold on to the phone.

Also on the back you have a 20 MP camera with a ring flash and dual LEDs. Just below that is the Motorola logo gently nestled in a dimple. This dimple though is the return from the 1st Generation Moto X dimple, not a 2nd Generation Moto X crater of a dimple. Just below the dimple is the Nexus logo which is the word "nexus" written vertically and the letters are made of the same metal surrounding the outer edges of the phone. 


So let's talk about the edges of the phone now which are surrounded by metal, aluminum to be more precise. Depending on the color you choose, the metal is either silver or blue-ish. Yes, blue tinted metal. Different yet very enticing. The only voids in the metal along the edges serve the purpose of assisting the antennas. And these voids are filled with a plastic coating which matches the backplate.

The left side is completely flat, void of any buttons, ports, or hidden doors. The right side dons both the power button and the volume rocker. Because of it's massive size, these buttons are closer to the center in order to shorten the stretch of your thumb. The power button sits above the others and has a tactile texture while the volume rocker is flat, This is so that you can easily tell which you are about to press without having to look.

On the bottom you will find a micro USB port meant for charging and data transfer to your computer. Something different is that Google had Motorola turn the port upside down, or flat side up, which is opposite that of the 2014 Moto X. You'll also find the FCC certifications here as well, which looks much better rather than along the bottom of the backside. Its hardly noticeable at all. Along the top is the headphone jack which is in the dead center, and the sim card slot which has to be opened with a SIM tool, so there is also a small pin hole for the release.



Finishing off our tour of the exterior of the phone, we have finally made our way around to the front. Since the screen takes up most of that space, I can happily say that there is very little bezel on either side of the screen. Below the screen is one speaker and across the top is a second to make for dual front facing stereo speakers which have a punch. Typically I turn it up to 11 on all my phones but I found that these speakers blasted me out on several occasions. Not only are they loud but they are clear too, with hardly any distortion. I could clearly hear and understand the words spoken on any YouTube video from across the room. Phone call quality is one thing Motorola has always excelled, and it is no different here with the Nexus 6. Callers stated that I sounded crystal clear, even when talking over the speaker phone.

The official dimensions of the phone are 6.27 inches tall, 3.15 inches wide, and 0.39 inches at it's thickest point in the backplate's curve. Here you can see it up against the Apple iPhone 6 Plus. The 6 Plus has a 5.5" screen and as a reminder, the Nexus 6 has a 6" screen. Here you can see that Motorola has fit a much larger screen in a phone that has primarily the same hardware footprint as the iPhone 6 Plus.


That's a pretty good beginning to this story. It showing some promising details so far. But everybody knows that its what's on the inside the really counts. The nicest specification of all here is the processor. It sports a Qualcomm SnapDragon 805 Quad Core processor. Only 3 other phones have this state of the art piece of tech inside; Droid Turbo, Samsung Note 4, and Samsung Note Edge. And with that processor comes the ability to charge the battery faster than ever. Or as Motorola likes to put it "Turbo Charge" it. We'll talk more on battery life in a moment, but let's just say its advertised to provide 6 hours of battery life with a short 15 minute charge.

For storage options, your choices are 32GB or 64GB, of course one will cost more than the other, but only $50 more. Others try to charge you up to $100 more for the extra memory. The Nexus 6 also has 3GB of RAM on the inside. Now, that's not a first but it is the most RAM you can find in a smartphone today. As in all Motorola's recent flagship devices, the Nexus 6 does not support a micro SD card for extra storage. So chose wisely when you are trying to decide if you want to spend the extra $50 for 64GB. I always go for the next size higher than the one I think I need, just to be safe as to never run out of space for more apps or pictures.

A few extra pieces of detail include NFC (Near Field Communication), wireless charging, Bluetooth 4.1 Low Energy, wifi, and GPS. But the one single most amazing piece of it's internal hardware is that it is one device that is built to support all four major US carriers. This is almost unheard of because the carriers and all their different radio frequencies for data and voice calling, that's a long list of frequencies. And most all other phones either support one carrier or the other, or they make two different phone models. The fact that it is all in one device means that you can rightfully buy a Nexus 6 device at full price and jump from carrier to carrier as you see fit based on coverage, pricing, or whatever criteria you choose. But that's part of the beauty, it's your choice. 

Now I have to apologize. I am down playing that fact that Motorola did make a second model which is meant for global carriers, so if you're reading this and you aren't in the great US of A, you can still own a working Nexus 6 device. I'm just so amazed at the accomplishment of a single device though. This means all you Verizon customer's can have a Nexus device again. (FYI: before this, only one other Nexus device worked on Verizon and it was released in December 2011. That's pretty old by now in tech years.)


An item of note. So far only AT&T has customized the version of the Nexus 6 that they sale. They added a good number of AT&T applications, they put an AT&T boot animation, and they put an AT&T globe on the back near the bottom. Although, I think its safe to assume Verizon may do the same thing, but they haven't released a carrier version of this device yet. So we do not know for sure.

The Camera
Motorola has been in the cellphone/smartphone game for a long time. In fact the first cellphone was patented by Martin Cooper while he worked at Motorola. And they "cellphones" well. But cameras on cell/smart phones are their shortcomings. I've said this about each of their phones that I've reviewed and I cannot wait for the day that they prove me wrong. The camera on the Nexus 6 follows suit.

Now, please give me a chance to clarify. Don't get me wrong, it isn't a horrible camera. Not by a long shot. But when you compare it to clarity and quality of other smartphone competitors, its definately not the best camera. With a 13MP rear camera, it will best the HTC One M8, but it's subpar to LG G3, Galaxy S5, and Note 4. Under the best conditions possible and you are sure to get a fine shot that will look great framed as an 5x7 or smaller. When you start to blow it up larger (computer desktop wallpaper size) things start to get grainy and pixelated. Under low light conditions, you will definitely need to use the dual LED ring flash. Without the flash, objects are too obscure to recognize and surroundings fade into the background. 


There is OIS or Optical Image Stabilization, but it wasn't apparently obvious when needed the most. Supposedly it would reduce the blur on moving objects. However, in the samples below, there is plenty of blur to go around. HDR+ mode helps a lot. It takes a few more seconds to render the image, so you won't be taking pics quickly and succinctly (unless you long press the center of the screen for burst mode). You can record some pretty good video in three different resolutions: 4K, 1080p, or 720p. All at 30 frames per second. That's not fast enough for slow motion, but it does keep it clear and large. 4K large. Sample video of my boy below being crazy. There are, however, 3 other cool features: panorama, photopshere, and lens blur. Panorama, is just as you know it, an elongated photo. Photosphere will sew pictures together in a 360 degree "globe" or "sphere" of your surroundings. And Lens Blur setting will present a foreground as clear as possible with a blurred background. Lastly, the front facing 2MP camera. Don't hold your breath. Just like the Moto X and the Droid Turbo, the front facing camera is dismal at best.

Special note: As you can tell by some of the pictures below, I used the Nexus 6 to photograph my boys birthday. I was taking a lot of photos and video, and jumping back and forth between gallery and camera. The phone locked up and rebooted twice, the battery dropped significantly, and the phone became very warm to the touch. The one picture below where the bottom quarter is missing was one of the instance where the phone locked up and rebooted itself. 






video
Recorded in 4K resolution. Playback quality is dependent on your monitor's resolution.

The Battery
The Nexus 6 comes packed with a 3220 mAh battery which is rated for 24 hours of up time. It's completely sealed and non-removable, so we're going to have faith that it will make it through the day. There are two things going hard against the battery on this phone. One is the fact that it powers a significantly large screen and it also doesn't help that the screen is such a high resolution. More pixels to power up per square inch. On the other hand, the Nexus 6 does support Motorola's Turbo Charger which is rated to provided 6 additional hours of battery life in just a short 15 minute charge.

Let's challenge that statement for a moment. I ran the Nexus 6 down to 1%, plugged it up to the Turbo Charger and timed exactly 15 minutes later, it was at 21%. So that would mean that 20% of battery would provide me 6 hours of use (they probably mean with the screen off, but hey, they should have specified.)

After 10 days of using and testing the Nexus 6, I was able to get an average of 16 hours per day, while using the phone (screen on and active) for an average of 2 and a half hours. Lastly, each day I was left with an average of 7% power remaining. Using those numbers and doing some quick math, I calculate that each percent gave me 10.3 minutes. Therefore, that 20% that the Turbo Charger provided in 15 minutes would only get me another 3 and half hours. Shucks! I always wonder what manufacturers do with their phones to make their battery tests and ratings last so long, but my average daily use only gets me about half of the advertised battery life.


The Software
This section is going to need an in depth review all of its own because it is the first device running Google's brand new version of Android which is 5.0 Lollipop. So this isn't the same ole OS you're going to find on any other device. Sure eventually other manufacturers will "improve" upon it, tweak it, make it their own, but hardly any other will leave the OS untouched in its raw state, like you are sure to find on any Nexus device. Also, if you're lucky and have one of the most recently released flagships, you might get their tweaked version updated to your phone. That could take months though. Sure some are faster than others, but the rodeo usually lasts 90+ days before the big bull comes out to play. So let me do a quick rundown of what Lollipop has to offer that your device probably doesn't.

  1. Ambient screen: this is very similar to Motorola's Moto Display. If you have untouched notifications, Ambient Display will very subtly pulse it on the screen hoping to grab your attention, but without being too demanding. 
  2. Trusted Devices and Locations: When activated and setup, this Smart Lock option will recognize a bluetooth device, an NFC device, or a known location and automatically unlock your device AND keep it unlocked so long as the trusted object is connected or in the same trusted area.
  3. Material Design: Described as "fluid, and purposeful motion", Android's entire color pallet and user commands/interactions have been revamped to bring a look that is more flat yet layered. Animations remain fluid and developed to provide an ease of understanding for new users.
  4. Notification Priorities: At times we just don't want to be bothered by constant phone calls or text messages. Setting notification priorities allow you to set which ones come through and which ones are temporarily ignored.
  5. Device sharing: Let your kids use your tablet or phone without worry that they will make a call or send a text message accidentally. Easily create a separate account for the kids, your wife, or even a guest account for a random friend or stranger who wants to make a call. This in addition to Screen Pinning keep users out of your stuff and only allowed to use the app you predetermine.
  6. ART: Were getting very technical here, but ART is a new Android Runtime which "improves application performance and responsiveness". Without going into a whole lot of technical details, this basically helps speed up apps when loading and future proofs the operating system to get it ready for the next level of computing; 64-bit.
As you can tell, Lollipop was a huge jump for Android. And because it's a brand new version, its going to get some immediate bug fixes and tweaks. It already received 5.0.1 and 5.0.2 just in the past 2 months. I just barely scratched the surface with these details though. Stay tuned and I'll update this review with a link to my Lollipop overview.

Availability
The Nexus 6 is available from several different venues, and its expected to be available from several more in the future. My friends at AT&T are the ones who let me borrow this one, you can also get it from Google or Motorola directly. It's also available from Best Buy T-Mobile, US Cellular and Sprint. You'll notice Verizon is not listed yet. However, it's been proven that you can buy one from Google Pay Store and activate it if you already own a Verizon line and SIM card. Supposedly they are not ready yet to open new lines using this device. It's proving to be very difficult to find in stock though. There are two colors, Midnight Blue and Cloud White. As mentioned before you can choose 32GB or 64GB of storage. The pricing is $649 and $699 respectively.


Final Thoughts
Everyone who knows me  will tell you that I get giddy and excited about Nexus devices and new Android updates. Either one of those two things represent new, fresh ideas, for an already wonderful operating system. When I think Nexus I think cool features, new software, usable hardware, and open and ready to customize and make it my own. Reviewing a Nexus device means it had better live up to the hype built up in my mind. While the Motorola Nexus 6 does bring a lot of cool feature and nice hardware to the table, I have to say that I do not think that it has lived up to its Nexus reputation which was built by its predecessors.

Here is my list of those who will love the Nexus 6, and it's specific, and short. Someone who loves big screen Note size devices, but are tired of Samsung software. Someone who just wants to share pictures but not print large ones to frame. Someone who has big pockets and not skinny jeans. Someone who needs a nice solid device to build their next really cool app and test it on the latest and greatest software. I told you the list was short.

The Nexus 6 is not for everybody. Although Google and Motorola are attempting to make it mainstream by selling it at multiple venues and even bringing it out of the Google Play Store and into carrier stores, I don't expect it to fly off the shelves. If they buy it the battery life will probably disappoint them. The camera too. The screen is beautiful though. None other compares simply due to its size. The Note 4 or Note Edge come very close, but the fact that the Nexus 6 has .3 more inches and screen real estate, it's more beauty to bask in.

I won't be buying myself a Nexus 6. I can't honestly recommend it to convert any of my Note lover friends. But I do honestly want to know how you feel about this phone. Did you buy one? What sold you on it? Sound off in the comments and let me know.






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