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Nexus 5X versus iPhone SE: Battle of the upper middle class

The mid-range often is the hardest aspect of the smartphone market to talk about. It's neither the filet nor the stew; it fits comfortably in the middle, attempting to convince its potential buyers that good enough is good enough.

Increasingly, though, the commodification of the components inside popular smartphones have enabled price drops relative to performance that benefit millions of potential customers who don't want the latest and greatest. That is, it's cheaper and easier than ever to cram pretty good spec into a "mid-range" phone, at a price that's easier to swallow.

In the Nexus 5X and iPhone SE, two very different phones from manufacturers that, for these phones approached industrial design from opposite ends of the spectrum, LG and Apple emerge with phones around the same price.

While the Nexus 5X, at $349, is $50 cheaper than the $399 iPhone SE, these are representative of the best and likely purest forms of their respective platforms' middle. While many Android users are unlikely to consider the iPhone SE, it's a good idea to look at what the other team is doing to shine a light on the home team's performance.

Hardware

The Nexus 5X is ostensibly the successor to the popular Nexus 5, which was released shortly after the iPhone 5s in 2013. While 2014's Motorola Nexus 6 was a hulking beast of a phone, the cry for something smaller was heard by Google. And this is what we got in late 2015.

Few would argue that the plastic Nexus 5X feels as premium a phone next to the metal-and-glass finish of the iPhone SE, but it does the job. Like its predecessor, the 5X incorporates a comfortable rubberized plastic on the back and sides, though the seams are quite visible along the outer bezel, where the front and back portions meet.

These two phones are representative of the best and likely purest forms of their respective platforms' middle.

In the hand, the 5.2-inch Nexus 5X feels relatively compact, though taller than some others with the same screen size. The power button is located on the right side, just above the non-delineated volume rocker, a divisive choice among eyes-free purists (like myself).

On the back, just below the 12MP camera sensor with its gently sloping lens, is the fingerprint sensor, primed for users removing the phone from their pockets and unlocking in one fell swoop. The main disadvantage of the back-facing Nexus Imprint sensor, as it is called, is that it can't be activated until the phone is held in the hand — a small consequence for a sensor that excels in every other way. It even activates when the screen is turned off.

Around front, the 1080p display is fine. It's not great, and we've certainly seen better LCD panels from companies like HTC and even LG itself (which makes its own displays), but it does the job. Colors are slightly off, though only noticeable when compared to a higher-fidelity panel, and maximum brightness doesn't come close to that of the Nexus 6P, which is admittedly 50 percent more expensive.

The Nexus 5X is plasticky but never flimsy; LG could have done a better job hiding the seams in the two pieces where they meet on the bezel, but otherwise I have little to complain about.

The iPhone SE, on the other hand, is comparatively compact. While its screen is a tiny 4 inches, its overall form factor is dwarfed by just about every other smartphone on the market, including the Nexus 5X. Indeed, the iPhone SE's design is unchanged from the iPhone 5s, which was a derivative of the iPhone 5 design unveiled in 2012.

For fans of the dual-toned metal look, the iPhone SE, available in four colors, will be a welcome addition to the smartphone canon. At $399, however, it is mainly about what you find in the inside that helps it stand out from the crowd.

The iPhone SE's design is a known quantity at this point: aluminum body with a power button on the top right and delineated volume buttons on the left side. A 12MP rear camera sensor lacks the bump of its iPhone 6 counterparts, owing to a slightly thicker body. Around front, the first-generation Touch ID sensor still sits, as it always had, below the Retina Display, which at this point is inexcusably low quality for a smartphone released in 2016. While the LCD panel's qualities are sound — excellent color reproduction (better than the Nexus 5X's, actually), viewing angles and maximum brightness — the 1136 x 640 pixel resolution doesn't do iOS any favors. At 326 pixels per inch, the iPhone SE's pixel density is still higher than, say, the $180 third-gen Moto G, but is bested by practically every 1080p device on the market.

The iPhone SE's design is a known quantity at this point

For some buyers, the dearth of pixels means fewer for the iPhone SE's A9 system-on-a-chip to push and better performance; for others, it's an inexcusably low resolution. Where you fit will depend on how steadfastly you subscribe to the "specs as a feature" narrative. Apple thinks 326 pixels per inch is sufficient for most people; most Android OEMs have used that stubbornness to their advantage.

Specs

CategoryLG Nexus 5XApple iPhone SE
Operating SystemAndroid 6.0.1 MarshmallowiOS 9.3
Display5.2 inches
FHD (1920x1080) LCD at 423 ppi
4 inches
1136x640 LCD at 326 ppi
ProcessorsQualcomm Snapdragon 808 Processor, 1.8GHz hexa-core 64-bit
Adreno 418 GPU
Apple A9 SoC, 1.85GHz dual-core 64-bit
Rear Camera12.3MP
1.55 μm pixels, f/2.0 aperture
4K video capture @ 30fps
120 fps slow motion video capture
Broad-spectrum CRI-90 dual flash
12MP
1.22μm pixels, f/2.2 aperture
4K video capture @ 30fps
240fps slow motion video capture
Live Photos support
Front Camera5MP
f/2.2 aperture
1.2MP
f/2.4 aperture
Memory & StorageRAM: 2GB LPDDR3
Internal storage: 16GB or 32GB
RAM: 2GB
Internal storage: 16GB or 64GB
Dimensions147.0 x 72.6 x 7.9 mm123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm
Weight136g113g
Battery2,700 mAh1,624 mAh

As for specs, the iPhone SE and Nexus 5X differ in their approaches. The former takes a few parts of the larger and more expensive iPhone 6s — the processor, the RAM, the rear camera — and maintains almost everything else from the iPhone 5s. The Nexus 5X is both an aesthetic successor to the Nexus 5 and a conscious step down from the imposing metal-and-glass Nexus 6P. Not only is the 5X a less intimidating device, but it feels less precious than anything made of metal; toss it around, scratch it, and use it until it dies. It feels like the quintessential phone-as-utility.

That compromise extends to the spec sheet as well. With a 5.2-inch 1080p display, a Snapdragon 808 chip, 2GB of RAM, a base storage size of 16GB, and a 2,700mAh battery, it's clear where LG cut some corners to bring the price down to $349. Only the 12.3MP rear camera is shared with its Huawei-made sibling, but even there the 6P, with its more capable Snapdragon 810, manages more video options and a better front-facing camera.

It will be important for Google to address broader Nexus 5X performance issues in upcoming Android updates

For the most part, the Nexus 5X's spec sheet is respectable; it shares many similarities to LG's 2015 flagship, the G4. But many users, including our Android Central editorial team, decried the 5X's poor performance. Andrew Martonik, AC's West Coat editor, noted that "whether it was opening apps, scrolling heavy webpages or switching between different areas of the phone, everything seems to take a little longer than it should." While it's possible Google could fix these issues with a software update, they've had seven months to do so and haven't solved the 5X's performance issues. In my tests, the 5X felt speedy enough, capable of doing most things without significant slowdown, but it will be important for Google to address broader performance issues in upcoming Android updates, especially since the 5X comes with only 2GB of RAM, which in the past has been a bottleneck for many mid-range Android devices.

Turning to the iPhone SE, it benefits from having Apple's latest A9 system-on-a-chip, which has been praised for its excellent single-core CPU performance and incredible graphics prowess. Indeed, the A9 is likely overkill for the iPhone SE's needs at this point, but Apple likely wants to keep the phone in its lineup for up to three years, so aging well will be important. Similarly, the inclusion of 2GB of RAM is important to maintain the iPhone SE's longevity. (Two gigabytes of RAM on Android is a very different story than on the less background task-intensive iOS. This isn't a subjective thing, either, so don't email me about it.)

In some ways, the iPhone SE doesn't go far enough to address the need for an inexpensive iPhone in the market. Sure, it has the latest processor and camera, but it also maintains the same first-generation Touch ID sensor and vibration module of the 5s. It has the same 800:1 contrast screen, wherein its successors have almost doubled that stat. Its mono speaker is soft and muddy (though so is the 5X's) and it retains the now-poor front-facing camera of the iPhone 5s.

Ultimately, there are sacrifices and compromises in both the iPhone SE and Nexus 5X. They may not be going head to head in terms of demographics, but they're important representatives of what nearly the same amount of money gets in the iPhone and Android ecosystem today, removed from carrier subsidies and bloatware.

Speaking of bloatware ...

Software

Both the Nexus 5X and iPhone SE run "pure" versions of their respective platforms. That the case has always been true of every iPhone isn't really relevant; what you need to know here is that both devices are updated as quickly as possible directly from the companies responsible for their oversight.

On the Nexus 5X, this means always having the latest version of Android, unadorned with carrier changes or skins. It also means not having to wait for carriers to go through their often-arduous quality assurance (QA) testing, which often adds weeks or months to the upgrade cycle.

As for the software itself, it's no longer possible to generalize (nor was it ever productive) the basic underpinnings of either Android or iOS. For too long, people said that Android was for tweakers and "power users" and iOS for those wanting something simpler and more minimal. While I'll leave the pontificating for another time, suffice it to say you won't be wanting for power, simplicity or minimalism with either platform; both are incredibly versatile, with powerful first-party apps and deep, diverse app stores.

What's potentially interesting is where the two operating systems will soon diverge. We know that as of Android N, the Nexus 5X will gain split screen multitasking through an official API which, despite the smallish screen, will make for a considerably more interesting (and, as we've learned from Samsung and LG, potentially messy) user experience. It's extremely unlikely that Apple will follow suit on the phone side of things; it added dual-app multitasking on the iPad with iOS 9.

Cameras

Both the Nexus 5X and iPhone SE sport 12-megapixel camera sensors, with sharp lenses and super-simple first-party camera apps.

When it was released, the Nexus 5X received accolades for its camera prowess, capturing sharp, color-accurate photos with little struggle from the user. I tend to agree with this assessment, finding most of the phone's photos not just usable, but beautiful. Its 1/2.3-inch sensor and 1.55um pixels ensure superior low-light performance to nearly every smartphone on the market, even without the presence of optical image stabilization.

The iPhone SE, on the other hand, inherits the iPhone 6s's 12MP camera, which turns out to be a very capable little camera. At 1/3" and 1.22um pixels, the iPhone SE doesn't hold up to the Nexus 5X in low-light scenarios, but the A9's image signal processor tends to resolve colors more accurately than the 5X.

In reality, these two phones show extremely similar profiles, with the Nexus 5X exposing daylight scenes slightly darker than the iPhone. Photo after photo revealed subtle details, with little distortion and vibrant hues. And the 5X's 5MP front-facing camera destroys the iPhone's 1.2MP sensor in almost every condition.

Nexus 5X (left) / iPhone SE (right); click images to view larger

The iPhone SE does have a few feature advantages over the Nexus 5X. Apple saw fit to include Live Photos support — moving-picture previews — which some see as a gimmick, but I really enjoy. The iPhone SE also supports 240fps slow motion video at 720p, which is considerably more balanced and less jumpy than the Nexus 5X's 120fps equivalent. To that end, the iPhone is overall a far superior video machine, both from a capture and editing perspective. While the 5X takes 4K video at 30fps, it doesn't do so with panache.

The bottom line

As I said at the beginning, this comparison isn't likely to sway an Android user to iPhone or vice versa; instead, it is meant to show what you get for around $350 to $400 these days from the companies that have a hand in both hardware and software.

The Nexus 5X, at $349, is an underrated choice for many people, despite its lingering performance issues. It's fast, with a great camera and excellent battery life. What it lacks in beauty it makes up for in utility; this is a plastic phone that can take a beating.

The iPhone SE, at $399, is a far more confounding product in many ways. It bears resemblance to its larger, more substantial counterparts in some ways, but doesn't go far enough in many others. Even if someone is after a small phone, they're left asking why Apple decided to keep so many outdated aspects of the three year-old iPhone 5s.

On both the Android and iOS side, we're in a good place right now. There is plenty of choice, and nearly every option offers an exceptional experience. Just beware of what you're giving up by keeping the price down.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

150 Comments
  • A Zenfone 2 with 64 Gigs of storage and 4 gigs memory will blow both of these phones away for less money.
  • Good luck getting Android N on it in 2017.
  • or any update period.
  • ok done: http://forum.xda-developers.com/zenfone2/development
  • No. That does not count. It's still a ****** investment if you have you rely on a hackjob from XDA to get Marshmallow. I could through in my Galaxy Nexus as 'well' supported in that case.
  • Yep Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • or any update period.
  • It would bloat me away for sure...
  • Bloat is not an issue with 64 gigs plus a card slot. Factually though, a few of Asus's tweaks are pretty good.
  • It's less of an issue. There's still the principal of the thing. Posted via the Android Central App
  • It's an issue because it's there. Be Together Not The Same
  • Or the OnePlus 2 for that matter... ↓↓↓ Please place hate here ↓↓↓
  • I hate the OnePlus 2..... ....What? You told us to place hate underneath your comment, so I did. :P
  • Yeah, no. Lack of nfc means it's crap and an absolute write off for me. My family uses NFC liberally... This Galaxy Note 3 with the AC App is On Fleek.
  • I've never used NFC myself on any phones so far.... but I know that if I buy the One Plus 2.. .i'll immediately find a need for it.
  • Moto x pure edition Posted via the Android Central App
  • I have one. Its great, but 5.7 inch,.One hand use? Forget it .
  • What the hell are all you guys doing that you need to use your phone one handed? Never understood this. Nevermind Posted via Nexus 6 running on any data plan I want
  • Exactly. I don't have an issue texting one handed with my Nexus 6. Be Together Not The Same
  • The X Pure seems small after using a Nexus 6 for awhile Posted via the Android Central App
  • With less the updates too.
  • Geekbench would care to differ with your opinion. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Have fun with your out of the box bloated experience not to mention the design of the phone itself. If anything, buy a Xiaomi Mi5 or an Idol 4.
  • But still its not a future proof phone nexus 5 x receives updates from the google directly on the other hand i phone SE runs IO.S 9.3 which gives very high performance Also the camera on i phone SE(being less megapixel) gives a better resolution photos than even nexus 5 X also)
  • Source?
  • Lol, the SE will smoke the Zenfone in speed not to mention updates on it are an unknown at this point.
  • Good luck with the updates. They've promised Marshmallow, but when? This is why I got rid of the Zenfone 2 and went with the older Nexus 6
  • Battle of the 2 most blah phones
  • +100 VZW Moto X DE/N7
  • I would hand my money to the Nexus 5X and not because im a nexus Die-hard but going back to a smaller screen is crazy.
  • Guys, you do great written reviews, and the photography is really good. But you have to start doing more videos. Is it no one that does the reviews wants to be in front of the camera? Is that what Michael Fisher is for? Is it just lack of production equipment or editing skills? I have 10 minutes before a meeting, and a 7-8 minute quick hit video to compliment your article would be great. Sorry, but it's 2016, video rules as it has for some time. If I want more in depth I will read an article. Again, not knocking this post, but video, especially in a comparison, is so useful.
  • They have a YouTube channel with over two thousand videos. Just an FYI.
  • Sorry, but it is time vs reward. They will do videos for articles that are likely to get a lot of views, justifying the production of the video. Some articles just aren't worth the time and resources that would be needed to produce a video. You are absolutely allowed start your own YouTube channel and make as many videos as you want, but websites have to think about more than what NickA wants.
  • Definitely two different devices for two different people
  • 4-inches is too small for me, but in terms of raw performance, the SE takes the cake, especially in terms of graphics performance along with IPC performance. In the real-world, you won't say these are slow, but the 5X has had a few performance hiccups, but seems to be mostly resolved by now. Personally, although I adore the sheer power of the SE, it's the 5X. Like I said, 4-inches is too small for me. That's why the 6s is more suited for me. Well, the Plus variant.
  • So good to see Daniel Bader as the author for this article, great one sir, hope to see some more from you.
  • As long as he doesn't write more sentences like "Few would argue that the plastic Nexus 5X feels as premium a phone next to the metal-and-glass finish of the iPhone SE..." The entire article needs another run through the Editor, the grammar is clumsy.
  • That's actually a really good grammatically-correct sentence. It may be difficult to understand if you're reading at a 5th grade level, though.
  • They aren't even comparable. The 5X is a 5.2" screen in a very large chassis. The SE is only a 4" screen. The processor in the iPhone is also a top of the line processor vs a very mid range processor in the 5x. It's like a mid range phablet vs a small flagship phone almost.
  • This The only thing that's "midrange" about the SE is the display, front camera and price-tag. Everything else is basically flagship-grade. In simpler terms, it's an iPhone 6s w/o 3D Touch stuffed into the body of an iPhone 5s while keeping its display and front camera plus FPS.
  • Well, if we're talking hardware, when I see a dual core CPU and 2GB of ram I don't exactly think "top tier". I'm sure it performs very nicely, but flagship specs they ain't. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Um, I think you might wanna look deeper into the A9 chip. It may only have 2 cores, but the performance per core is pretty darn good. Multicore-wise, it's more powerful than the Snapdragon 810 in some cases, and only a little-bit behind the Exynos 7420. Even today, the IPC performance is still one of the highest of any mobile CPU, with the SD820 coming just behind it. Yeah, 2GB of RAM is a little low, but at least it's LPDDR4 and because it's iOS, it isn't small or anything.
  • Yes, the A9 is an impressive chip. And what is most impressive is how little power it consumes. How little power Iphones consume versus Android is one HUGE feature than even hard core Android fanboys have to concede.
  • The A9 is an excellent chipset, one of the very best mobile chipsets of 2015 and is still very competitive in 2016 in terms of IPC performance. I have the iPad Pro 12.9, which has the beefier A9X, and it's pretty darn good.
  • Ya, the A9 doesn't consume much lower at all, but it's looking like the exynos 8890 might be even more conservative with battery usage. Especially with a 3600 mAh battery. With the 8890 I think Samsung may have produced the best mobile SoC on the market, GPU aside. They've highy optimized touchwiz to run on their own custom architecture and its impressive. It's a shame the exynos variant isn't sold in the US Posted via the Android Central App
  • Specs are irrelevant when comparing the iPhone with anything.
  • Exactly.
  • Yes, the SE is way more closer to a flagship device than the 5X. The display is more than adequate. Any more pixels than this merely eats more battery. I hope that future Android flagship phones will stop increasing pixels, as its more of a marketing game than enhancing user experience. And the Apple processor blows away any snapdragon as far as performance/power use ratio. The fact that my Droid Turbo 2 stutters is a shame considering the processor and memory it contains.
  • Tbh I would get a SE over a 5X Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • I wouldn't get either, honestly. The 5X seems rather gimped to me and the SE is just too small for me.
  • Well if I HAD to choose between the two. Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • Easy just don't be in that position lol sent from my silver gs7 edge
  • At $199 the 5X is a good deal.....
  • The 808 definitely doesn't qualify as your standard midrange SoC. It's definitely a couple notches above that. Seeing as how on many CPU benchmarks it easily out does the 805 ( which is an absolute beast, and I'd argue performs more consistently than the 808 in real world usage, not only the GPU) I wouldn't call either of those midrange chipsets. No way. And if they really are, then it's really become irrelevant whether a mobile SoC is top of the line or a couple notches below that when it comes to real world usage. They offer identical user experiences Posted via the Android Central App
  • The 808 isn't what the problem is with 5X Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3