Smartphone survival test: LG Nexus 5X's sale price makes it a bargain

Yes, a budget Android handset can replace your iPhone 6S.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Image: ZDNet

After a month, our Smartphone Survival Test is over. And it has been quite a learning experience.

I've learned that despite a lot of my previous misgivings about the operating system and some of the questionable hardware I've dealt with in years past, things have improved considerably in Android land.

I'm going to come right out and say it up front. I like Android. I like it a lot, and it's going to resume its place in my overall technology portfolio.

Finding out whether I liked Android again was not the primary reason for this exercise, though. Instead, my goal was to determine whether a low-cost Android phone can replace a more expensive iOS device, my iPhone 6S.

The answer is yes, but the devil is in the details, and you need to do your homework and understand your application workload.

The consistent theme across this test was understanding Bill of Materials (BOM) for a particular phone, and how performance characteristics of Android and its applications express themselves on particular hardware.

Moreover, the amount of RAM installed in a given device will make a significant impact on the overall user experience. CPU clock, RAM speed and the type of flash storage technology used can offset some of that impact, but if you are going to make a feature decision that overrides all others, it should be a RAM-first one.

This should be a mantra for Android OEMs: Don't make a device with less than 3GB of RAM, ever.

And as a consumer don't buy a device with less than 3GB of RAM, unless you really understand the performance characteristics of the apps you rely on.

As always, there are trade-offs: If cost is at the top of your list and you can get a device for a very good price with other compelling features to offset its RAM deficiency, you might be able to make an exception.

That's another thing to be learned from this experiment: With Android, you can price shop and compare devices. There's ample competition. And sometimes, you can get some very deep discounts.

You can't do that with an iOS devices. With Apple's products, the price is pretty much the price, whether you get it from them directly or via the reseller channel.

A good example of a device that is being heavily discounted right now is the Google LG Nexus 5X.


Normally, this phone costs between $349-$399 depending on whether you get it in a 16GB or 32GB storage configuration. And you'd be foolish to spend that kind of money on it, given the fact that it only has 2GB of RAM.

However, if you are willing to test out Google's Project Fi -- you can get the phone for $150 off.

That means you can get the 16GB version for $199 and the 32GB version for $249, through May 8.

So you have about a week left to take advantage of this.

If you buy this phone and intend to discontinue service right after activating Project Fi in order to take advantage of the discount, I recommend that you create a throwaway GMail account for the purposes of ordering the phone.

There's a lot to like about the Nexus 5X, starting with the fact that it has the broadest frequency support and fastest wireless technology of any device I've seen at the price point it is being offered at.

It's designed to work natively on Cat 6 LTE 300/50 networks, which is the fastest technology implementation of the standard currently usable in the United States.

It supports all the major radio bands on all the US and international carriers and also uses both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz 802.11ac high-speed Wi-Fi standards -- which is a requirement for inclusion on Google's Project Fi service.

It sports a powerful hex-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor, and has a sharp 423ppi 1080p 5.2" display. The camera is one of the best I have used at this price point. with 12MP, dual flash and laser autofocus.

The selfie cam is fairly standard at 5MP, and the battery (which is not removable) is a decent 2700 mAh, so it should last you most of the day without a recharge -- and if you do need to juice up in the middle of the day, it uses fast-charge technology (over USB-C interface) so you will be up and going again fairly quickly, especially if you get a compatible adapter for your car or office.

And be sure to pick up a few extra certified USB-C cables.

So what doesn't it have?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, it's only got 2GB of RAM. After using slower CPU-clocked devices over the last few weeks with 3GB of RAM, the difference in performance is definitely noticeable.

This is not as bad as what I observed on the Huawei Honor 5X, but if you have enough apps running in the background -- and it doesn't take many for the effects of this to show -- things can slow down quite a bit.

The faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 SoC, faster flash storage technology, as well as the more efficient Android Runtime in the Marshmallow 6.0 OS (which gets frequent patch updates due to the device being a Google Nexus) compensates for this somewhat.

But if this phone sold for $200 or $250 with 3GB of RAM it would be damned-near perfect.

And that is what I have truly learned over the last month -- there is no "perfect" $200 or $250 Android phone yet. To get that just right confluence of components on a BOM you might need to spend $350 or $400 on a phone.

Which puts you right into iPhone SE territory, although at $350 or $400 you can get a lot of Android phone for the money, if you shop smart.

Here's the thing though -- we've only just started to observe the effects of large-scale commoditization with Android smartphones. And the reason is that the big Chinese companies have not landed their offensive in a major way in the US market yet.

LG and Samsung, the two largest Korean manufacturers, do not have the economies of scale that companies like Huawei, Xiaomi and ZTE do. They can't leverage China as a massive integrated supply chain, period.

And while Apple does routinely use China as a giant factory, it will not sacrifice its margins.

Over the long haul we're going to see more Chinese-designed and branded devices with all-Chinese components with highly vertically integrated designs.

If you want to see a glimpse of that future, have a look at Huawei's P9, which uses domestically produced components, including its SoC, the HiSilicon Kirin 955.

Right now, phones like the P9 are high-end technology demonstrators for companies like Huawei.

But eventually those components will form the foundation for that "perfect" $200 device that hits all of the important high-notes that fits all of the use case scenarios for the average consumer.

When will that happen? It could be five years from now. It could be two years. It could be six months. But there is no doubt it is definitely coming.

Until then, sharpen your smartphone survival skills.

Are you "Surviving" with a low-cost Android smartphone today? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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