First take: Android 5.0 Lollipop breathes new life into the old Nexus 5

Last night I downloaded the official Android 5.0 Lollipop image and flashed it on a Nexus 5 phone. I could have waited for Google to push the software update over the air, but no self-respecting gadget enthusiast actually waits for new software when they can get it earlier on their own. There’s a downside to this process, though: All data and previously installed apps are wiped out.

That actually doesn’t bother me. I use it to my advantage by reinstalling apps as I need them. I do the same with new iPhones, setting them up from scratch instead of restoring backups and such. My photos, data, and contacts are all in the cloud and this lets me cull through the many apps that I accumulate over time. So I ended up with a pure stock Android phone after the installation and immediately saw the Hangouts icon where my old Messenger app was on the home screen.

I personally don’t want to use Hangouts for SMS — it’s just a personal preference — and luckily, I have a choice. I simply installed Messenger from the Play Store on the Nexus 5, which Google updated with the Material Design look earlier this week. Problem solved.

Nexus 5 home screen Android 5

I’ve been adding apps here there since last night. My social apps were among the first as I use them the most. And I have to have my World Series of Poker; I’m addicted! After playing for 30 minutes or so, I realized that I wasn’t seeing the in-game animation lag and frame rate drops on the Nexus 5 that I reported in my Nexus 6 review. Interesting.

WSOP Android 5

In fact, the Nexus 5 is running like a champ with Android 5.0 even on the relatively lesser hardware. It has 2 GB of memory compared to the 3 GB in the Nexus 6. And the older quad-core Snapdragon 800 chip runs at 2.26GHz vs. the faster Snapdragon 805 clocked at 2.7GHz inside the new Nexus. The chips are also pushing fewer pixels as last year’s phone “only” has a 1080p display with 445 pixels per inch.

One hardware constraint I’ve run into is that the Snapdragon 800 in last year’s phone isn’t capable of the “OK Google” always listening function. You actually can enable it in the Google Now settings but it only works when the phone’s display is on. I can live with that as this was the case with Android 4.4 as well.

The native Camera app hasn’t crashed on me once so far on the Nexus 5; something it did several times on the Nexus 6. While I’d never say the Nexus 5 has a great camera, the new HDR+ function in Android 5.0 is actually producing better images from this phone than ever I’ve seen before. Here’s a semi-dreary fall day outside my home office for example.

Fall day outside the office

I’m sure the issues on the 6 will be addressed in a software update — I’ve heard several mentions of one although I haven’t seen it yet — but Android 5.0 seems a bit more stable all around on the Nexus 5. All in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the software update on last year’s Nexus phone, which I think was a steal at $349 to $399 off-contract.

No you don’t get the latest and greatest hardware in a Nexus 5. You do get the benefits of an improved experience if you upgrade the software though. The phone appears to be running through tasks a little quicker too based on my usage. A Google Octane benchmark test today turned in a score of 5192, which much better than the 3907 mark when I tested the phone last October. Some of that Javascript performance is surely the result of improvements in the Chrome browser itself but it’s still nice to see.

It’s too early to comment on battery life because that’s something you’d evaluate over several days. However, I’m curious if the Project Volta improvements in Android 5.0 will add a little more run-time to a phone (and battery) that’s about a year old.

Even if it doesn’t, the Nexus 5 is like the little engine that could now that it has a Lollipop update available. Call me crazy but I might swap the SIM card out of the Nexus 6 and put it in last year’s phone.