Ever since we first saw them, screen notches have been a contentious issue in smartphone design. What cannot be denied is that the notch is a compromise - conceived in order to make the narrow-bordered smartphones of today a reality. The front camera, earpiece and sensors have to go somewhere, and notches have so far been the solution.
In order to get rid of the notch, Vivo has made some bold and risky design choices. The fingerprint scanner has found its way beneath the display, and the front camera is housed in a pop-up mechanism. The earpiece has also been replaced with a motor that vibrates the front glass, and the ambient light sensor lives below the display.
The Nex is undoubtedly Vivo's most ambitious smartphone to date. It has been priced at Rs. 44,990 in India and is definitely one of the most unique smartphones available right now. Can it compete with flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 (Review), OnePlus 6 (Review), and Asus's recently launched ZenFone 5Z (Review)? Let's find out in our full review.
Let's cut to the chase - the Vivo Nex is the most beautiful smartphone that Vivo has ever released. As with all 2018 flagships, you get a premium blend of glass and metal. The glass back has a grey speckled pattern and strikes the right compromise between bling and subtlety. There are no other colour options. The build quality is top-notch, and this phone feels incredibly solid in the hand.
With no notch on the display, the front fascia has a seamless look. There is a slim chin at the bottom, and a faint border around other sides of the display, but it still looks impressive.
Weighing in at 199g with dimensions of 162x77x7.98mm, the Vivo Nex is quite a hefty phone, bordering on phablet territory. It's far too wide and tall to be used comfortably with one hand. In fact, we found it slightly cumbersome to use even with both hands.
The rear is extremely slippery and we ended up dropping the Nex more than a couple of times during our testing period. It's also a major fingerprint magnet.
The USP of the Vivo Nex is the pop-up module for the 8-megapixel front camera. It takes one second to rise, and is accompanied by a slightly cheesy sci-fi sound, which thankfully can be turned off. It is a novelty to play around with at first.
Given the additional moving parts, the question of long-term durability comes in. While the mechanism feels quite solid and does not wobble in the slightest, we cannot know for sure how well it will stand up to regular use and abuse until the phone starts selling and people get to use it for extended periods. We are also worried about how badly this phone could get damaged if it falls with the camera module extended.
As stated above, the fingerprint sensor is integrated into the display glass, and it works well enough but is not in the same league as the physical ones we have become used to. The CMOS sensor is located a little above the on-screen home button, and the display shows an icon to guide you where to place your finger. The placement is convenient and we got used to touching the fingerprint icon on the screen very easily. The learning curve is not as steep as expected and touching the screen to unlock the phone became a part of our normal routine in no time.
It's quicker than the in-display sensor on the Vivo X21 (Review), which was the first smartphone in the world with this feature, but accuracy is still spotty. It works well 8 out of 10 times on average, and when it doesn't, the novelty turns into an irritant. The setup process is also slow and cumbersome. It takes multiple tries at times for your fingerprint to be recognised, and the angle has to be just right.
Vivo has also done away with a normal earpiece and has instead replaced it with a motor that vibrates the display glass itself. Vivo calls this technology Screen SoundCasting, and it works much the same as bone conduction. The technology is definitely impressive but it needs a lot of work to be a viable solution. We found it hard to hear callers, with their voices coming across as muffled and indistinct. This really impacts day-to-day use and is a major irritant.
The power and volume buttons on the right edge are ergonomically placed. On the left is an 'AI' button, which can be be pressed once to invoke Google Lens, or long-pressed to call on Google Assistant. We would have liked it to be re-mappable to perform any other function.
The USB Type-C port at the bottom is flanked by a loudspeaker and the SIM tray, which has separate slots for two Nano-SIM cards. There is no microSD slot. The single loudspeaker gets reasonably loud but is very shrill and tinny. At a time when most flagships feature capable stereo speakers, such lacklustre sound just does not cut it.
In what is surely a direct result of the pop-up front-facing camera, the Vivo Nex is neither waterproof nor dustproof, so potential buyers should be careful with this smartphone. Vivo includes a high-quality case with a rubber finish on the top, which feels good in the hand. The box also contains a fast charger, a USB Type-C cable, and a pair of earphones that sound surprisingly good.
The dual-SIM Vivo Nex is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, coupled with 8GB of RAM. The 128GB of internal storage should be more than enough for most buyers, but it is sadly not expandable. The Vivo Nex features a 4,000mAh battery that supports Vivo's proprietary fast charging protocol. There's a 6.59-inch full-HD+ (1080x2316 pixels) Super AMOLED display with a 19.3:9 aspect ratio. This phone also runs FuntouchOS 4.0 on top of Android 8.1 Oreo. There is no official news regarding an Android P update yet.
The smartphone has connectivity options including dual 4G VoLTE, dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 ac, Bluetooth 5, GPS/ A-GPS, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This phone supports dual SIMs (Nano) and both can simultaneously latch onto 4G networks.
The 6.59-inch Super AMOLED display is the star of the show here. With a screen-to-body ratio of 93 percent, it dominates the front of the smartphone and looks striking. The viewing angles are superb, colours are vivid, and blacks are inky and deep. The maximum brightness is impressive, and the display also gets dim enough for comfortable use in a dark room. There is a nifty night mode that that can be triggered at set times. A Quad-HD display would have been the icing on the cake, but the lack of pixels is only really noticeable on extremely text-heavy screens.
Vivo has moved the ambient light sensor to below the display and it works well enough. We had no problems with it during our review period.
Apart from a few software niggles that we'll get to in a moment, performance was pretty much top-notch. With the Snapdragon 845 under the hood, the Vivo Nex handled everything from simple day-to-day tasks to intensive workloads with ease. With 8GB of RAM, our review unit kept most apps running in the background, even those left unused for a full day.
Gaming on the phone is also quite a pleasurable experience. Games like Asphalt 8 look gorgeous on the 19.3:9 screen and run flawlessly, with minimal load times and no lag or stutter to speak of. As always, we put the Vivo Nex through benchmark tests and found that it scored 262,553 in AnTuTu 7; just shy of the OnePlus 6's score of 268,385. It also scored 33fps in GFXBench Car Chase, 55fps in GFXBench Manhattan 3.1, and 2,457 and 9,119 in Geekbench 4's single-core and multi-core tests respectively.
Vivo's Funtouch OS has taken a lot of inspiration from iOS. There is no app drawer, and there is even a Control Center which houses all the quick toggles that are usually found in the notifications shade. The OS is reasonably fluid and snappy, and is loaded with features.
There's a lot going on in terms of gestures and shortcuts, and many of them are inspired by the iPhone X (Review). The navigation gestures are a bit of a mixed bag. While most of them are smooth and easy to use, the gesture to invoke recent apps, which requires holding the screen and then sliding up, is choppy and very slow.
Then there are other gestures such as turning on the flashlight by shaking the phone, launching apps by tracing alphabets on the screen when it is off, and answering calls by lifting the phone to your ear. The sheer number of these gestures and customisation options will be appreciated by some, but many users could just get overwhelmed.
We experienced multiple app crashes throughout our review period, and some applications refused to play well with the Vivo Nex's 19.3:9 screen aspect ratio. The user interface is also in need of simplification. For example, there are 35 submenus in the Settings app and there's no search function. The amount of bloat is also disappointing, especially for a flagship smartphone. Newspoint, UC Browser, Amazon, WPS Office, Amazon Prime Video, PhonePe and Facebook are preinstalled. Thankfully, all of them can be removed.
The Vivo Nex does not offer face recognition. The Oppo Find X, which has many similarities to the Vivo Nex, does have this feature despite its sliding camera mechanism. With the fingerprint scanner acting up at times, we missed face recognition as a quick way to unlock our phone.
Battery life is quite fantastic, and we never had any anxiety about running out of power. We got through a 12-hour day with about 40 percent left at the end, which is quite impressive. Our usage involved around two hours of navigation using Google Maps, frequent use of social media applications including WhatsApp and Twitter, games such as Asphalt 8, and taking a dozen or so selfies and photos.
Our HD video loop test ran for a solid 16 hours and 23 minutes, which is one of the best scores we have seen in this segment. The huge fast charger that Vivo includes in the box takes the phone from zero to about 50 percent in 40-45 minutes, which is handy, but slower than OnePlus's Dash Charge system.
On the imaging front, Vivo's flagship smartphone has a dual rear camera setup with a 12-megapixel IMX363 primary sensor and four-axis OIS, along with a 5-megapixel secondary sensor. The front camera has an 8-megapixel resolution. As stated above, its mechanism takes about a second to pop up. We were not really bothered by this, but selfie enthusiasts who love capturing spontaneous moments might find this a bit frustrating.
We were quite impressed with the quality of photos taken with the rear camera. The level of detail was impressive, colours were rich and vibrant, and the autofocus was precise and accurate. There was also little to no shutter lag, and the dynamic range was good. Thanks to the four-axis OIS, images taken at night also came out sharp and detailed.
As with most flagships these days, the rear camera can recognise objects or scenes being shot and optimise its settings accordingly. Some people might find the colours to be overexaggerated, and might prefer more neutral tones. The portrait mode is also slightly iffy, with sub-standard edge detection around objects.
The selfie camera is a disappointment. Not only is it laggy, but it also has a tendency to overexpose shots. It captures a decent amount of detail in well-lit situations but struggles in low-light. Images taken at night look very soft and have a fair bit of noise. There is a beautify mode in the camera app which works pretty much as you would expect.
AR stickers are implemented well and are a good way to impress friends. They can be used with both the front and the rear camera. There is a fully featured professional mode in the camera application as well which allows you to alter the ISO, exposure, shutter speed and white balance.
Video recording maxes out at 1080p for the front camera, while the rear one is capable of 4K video recording. Videos shot with the rear cameras are detailed and quite stable, thanks to the four axis optical image stabilisation. Slow-motion video is capped at 1080p. The resultant videos are quite good but we did experience flickering in unfavourable light.
The Vivo Nex is a smartphone from the future which is gorgeous, immensely powerful, and loaded with impressive technologies. The OLED screen is superb, the rear camera is competent, and battery life is impressive. However, the software has niggles, the fingerprint scanner is unreliable, calls are hard to hear, and many flagship features such as waterproofing and wireless charging are conspicuous by their absence. In fact, these issues overshadow the phone's powerful processor.
Even though the Nex has a lot going for it, we would advise buyers to hold off until all the technology matures and the day-to-day annoyances are sorted out. Flagship offerings from the likes of Apple, OnePlus, and Samsung are more polished and easier to live with.
As of now, the Vivo Nex is best looked upon as a technology showcase, rather than owned as a daily driver. However, if you can live with the compromises, it does deliver a certain excitement. The Vivo Nex is far from perfect, and using it can get quite frustrating at times, but it is undeniably desirable.
Are Vivo Nex and Oppo Find X revolutionary phones or overpriced prototypes? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.