The latest Nexus smartphones from Google have plenty of new features to recommend them. But Android M may be the real star of the show.
With the latest version of Android, code-named Marshmallow, Google has added a number of productivity-boosting features that really come to life on either the Nexus 5X (starting at $379) and Nexus 6P (starting at $499). I was particularly taken with the design of the Nexus 6P, which features a fairly narrow bezel that allows the screen to go right up to the edge of the phone. The Nexus 6P may have a 5.7-inch screen, but it felt like a more compact phone in my hand, making it much easier to hold than some other phablets that I've struggled to fit into my palm.
Both the 6P and 5X feature USB Type-C ports, which Google says will lead to faster charging. Our tests will see whether that claim bears out, but the days of struggling to remember which way to plug in your charging cable are over. As someone who had to repeatedly charge nine Galaxy S5 smartphones as part of our recent wireless carrier testing and probably plugged the cable in wrong every time, that's welcome news to me.
Like Samsung and Apple, Google has added a fingerprint sensor to its Nexus phones. The Google Imprint sensor is on the back of the phone, which feels a bit unnatural to me when compared to the front-facing sensors on the latest iPhones and Galaxy devices.
The 6P's starting price is for a 32GB configuration, about the minimum amount of storage you should expect from a phone in this era of 4K content. (Both the 5X and 6P can shoot 4K video.) Unfortunately, the base 5X configuration offers only 16GB. That's a concession Google probably had to make to offer a sub-$400 smartphone with flagship-style specs, but in an era where we carry more apps, photos and other data on our phones, there's less room than ever for a 16GB device.
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Android M: A Huge Leap
As impressive as the Nexus 6P looks and feels, it's Marshmallow that impressed me the most.
Take the home screen displaying all your apps. There's now an A-to-Z index that appears as you scroll your finger down your phone's screen. Giant letters pop up, making it easier to jump directly to the app your looking for. Marshmallow also learns your app usage patterns, so that the apps you're most likely to use at a given time of day float to the top of the screen. Apple's newly released iOS 9 introduces a similar feature with its new Proactive Assistant, but the Android implementation feels a bit more polished.
I'm also a fan of Google's Now On Tap feature, which was first shown off at Google I/O earlier this year but really polished up since then. Say you get a text message from a friend in one app inviting you to dinner. Through Now On Tap, you can not only call up information like the restaurant rating, how far it is from you and a phone number, but links to apps let you do things like make a reservation via Open Table or read reviews in Yelp. Both Microsoft and Apple are putting a lot of effort into beefing up their personal assistants, but Now On Tap shows that Google is keeping its lead in this particular battle.
I didn't get a chance to test one of the most promising Marshmallow additions during my time with the new Nexus phones -- improved battery life -- but it's one I hope that Google delivers on. Marshmallow adds a Doze mode in which the OS detects when your phone is unattended and goes into a sleep mode. It still receives calls and notifications, but other background processes scale back considerably. Google estimates this software tweak alone will increase battery life by 30 percent over the Nexus 5 and 6 -- welcome news for those of us who've ever forgotten to plug in our phones to charge overnight.
Android Marshmallow will ship on the Nexus 5X and 6P, while rolling out to other Nexus devices next week. Look for it to appear on other Android phones in the weeks ahead.