Vivo is generally not a brand one would associate with premium flagship level phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 or the Google Pixel 2 or the iPhone X. In the Indian market, Vivo and its sibling Oppo have mostly been in involved with mid-range smartphones which are more often than not selfie-centric and quite overzealous when it comes to image post-processing.
Which is why when it was Vivo who came out with the biggest innovation at MWC this year, I was a little taken aback. The APEX smartphone concept was unlike anything anyone had ever seen and more importantly while everyone was boarding the notch-express, Vivo decided to do something new. It has been released officially as the Vivo NEX for the Indian market and it will be selling from 21 July for Rs 44,990 on Amazon.
The phone has a near bezel-less display with a very minute chin at the bottom. No top bezel. Where did the front-facing camera and earpiece go you might wonder? That is where the innovation comes in. A small mechanical slider concealed at the top of the phone pops up to reveal the front-facing camera.
The device has already been announced in the Chinese market in two variants, the NEX S and NEX A. While the NEX S is the powerful Snapdragon 845 version with the in-display fingerprint sensor, the NEX A comes with the newly launched, but slightly underpowered Snapdragon 710 SoC and a fingerprint sensor at the back. In India, Vivo has seen fit to launch only its flagship NEX S at a price of Rs 44,990 making it a direct competitor to the Galaxy S9, Pixel 2, Oppo Find X and also the OnePlus 6.
Does Vivo NEX make for a worthy competition? Not really.
Why? Let’s find out.
Build and Design: 8/10
The Vivo NEX is very premium looking flagship without a doubt. The incredible screen-to-body ratio aside, the phone’s back is made of a curved glass and surprisingly isn’t slippery like, say the OnePlus 6. When viewed at different angles there appears to be a rainbow-like reflection at the back which only adds to the phone’s panache. At the top left side of the phone, we see a dual-camera setup and along with a flash. The finishing on the back has a classy feel to it and for such a shiny surface it surprisingly does not catch fingerprints easily.
The front side of the phone is something of a spectacle. I was greeted by a gigantic screen with next to no bezels save for a very tiny one at the bottom. Also present at the bottom was the type-C port, along with the speaker and dual-SIM card tray. The top is where the real eye-catching feature lies. The front-camera, as mentioned before, is quite cleverly concealed inside the device and you would not notice at all until it pops out from the top. More on that later.
The phone’s top also consists of the 3.5 mm headphone whose positioning I positively hated. But apart from this small anomaly, the phone appears to be as premium as it gets, which is something I have to applaud Vivo for. If you are looking for a device that might get you some Oooh’s in public, then Vivo NEX is definitely the one.
In line with all the premium flagships of this year, the Vivo NEX also offers some of the best hardware possible on a smartphone. We have the Snapdragon 845 SoC along with the Adreno 630 GPU. The variant we were given to review had 8 GB RAM and 128 GB storage. There is no external SD card to upgrade the storage, but you will most probably not require it.
The phone, like the Vivo X21 UD before it, also has the in-display fingerprint sensor in it. Vivo has said that this NEX has an improved version of the sensor than the one which was in the Vivo X21. I have some reservations about this technology, but we shall get into that in some time. On the left-hand side, we see a customised button for launching the Google Assistant. It also doubles up to fire the Google Lens app when you long press it. However, unlike the HTC U12, this button cannot be customised to open anything else.
In the optics department, we see that the phone has a dual-camera setup at the back with a 12 MP primary sensor having a f/1.8 aperture with a 1.4µm size, dual pixel PDAF and 4-axis OIS. The secondary camera has a 5 MP sensor with a f/2.4 aperture and whose only function is for depth-sensing to achieve the bokeh effect. On the front, we have the pop-up selfie camera with an 8 MP sensor. We shall talk about this feature in greater detail in the camera section.
The Vivo NEX has a gigantic 6.6-inch AMOLED display on a body that is more or less the same size as the OnePlus 6. The lack of a top-bezel also means that there is no earpiece, which is why Vivo has made the entire screen as an earpiece using the earlier mentioned “screen sound casting technology,”. Anywhere you put your ear on the screen you will hear the same quality sound as on a regular earpiece. Kudos to Vivo for perfecting this technology, as Xiaomi had failed quite spectacularly with it on the Mi Mix 2 while using this same technique.
As far as connectivity options go, the phone checks all the basic requirements, such as dual-SIM 4G VoLTE capabilities, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot and USB 2.0 type-C port with fast charging. There is no FM or NFC. The entire setup is powered by a 4,000 mAh battery.
In the software department, the phone runs on the latest Android 8.1 Oreo with Vivo’s Funtouch OS 4.0 overlaying it.
The phone offers an unprecedented screen-to-body ratio of 91.24 percent which was only recently bested by the Oppo Find X. That being said, even though the tiny bezels fit the display in the footprint of OnePlus 6, the phone is a nightmare for one-handed use. There is no way on earth my finger would reach the top to pull down the notifications until I used by second hand. This, I think, is the biggest limitation of a gigantic display such as the one in the NEX.
However, the too-tall-for-one-hand anomaly aside, the NEX has a beautiful FHD+ display which is colourful, punchy and vibrant. At its price point, I would’ve preferred a 2K display on the phone, but it would seem that Vivo’s implementation of Samsung’s OLED panel is impressive enough to not warrant extra resolution.
Reading on the phone is an absolute joy due to its enormous size. The screen gets sufficiently bright in any kind of lighting condition and also very dim in the night time. While comparing the device’s display to the OnePlus 6, I found that there is no visible difference in the colour, white balance or saturation. However, both the Pixel 2 and S9 screens looked to be a shade better due to their 2K display.
The Vivo NEX offers a very unique 19.3:9 aspect ratio display which had made it hard to optimise the display for all apps. Before the FunTouch 1.4.14 update, there was a strange white bar that appeared below while viewing videos on YouTube, Netflix or Prime Video. The new update has resolved this and stretches the display to the very ends of the screen and with thankfully no notch in the way, the NEX gives a very cinematic viewing experience. That being said expect the video to be slightly cut from all sides to fit it fully in the 19.3:9 aspect ratio.
The in-display fingerprint conundrum
At first, I was quite fascinated by the idea of an in-display fingerprint reader. But as soon as I used it, I realised that the technology was far from being perfect. Coming off from using a OnePlus 6, I expected that the NEX fingerprint sensor would also be quite fast and responsive. I was, to put it lightly, quite unimpressed.
The first problem is registering the fingerprint. My initial attempt took me close to 15 minutes for getting my print registered. After that, I was met with several more restrictions. In bright sunlight, I had to literally squint and search for the fingerprint symbol on the screen. Even when I found it, the sensor took 3-4 attempts for authentication.
The problem is that you have to place your finger at the exact spot which is highlighted. Slight deviation means that the phone will not recognise your fingerprint. Since there are no physical grooves for guiding your finger, you have to guesstimate where the fingerprint sensor is.
Non-plussed by this unexpected behaviour of the sensor, I deleted my registered fingerprint and again went through with the arduous process of registering. The problem still persisted.
However, as I’m writing the review, the new FunTouch 1.4.14 update has made improvements to the technology making it somewhat easier to register fingerprints and also improving the fingerprint recognition. But in my opinion, it still needs fine-tuning. In any case, I hope that in the future Vivo will introduce updates to increase the accuracy of the sensor or make a device with a very wide area to recognise fingerprints. On the upside, the animation while the phone unlocks is quite cool, so points to Vivo for that.
I’m not a fan of custom UI skins on top of Android OS. I didn’t like it with Samsung Experience nor with HTC Sense and certainly not with Xiaomi’s MIUI. Vivo’s custom UI FunTouch is no different. Though the phone runs on the latest Android 8.1 Oreo it feels more like the phone has a cheap remake of iOS on it.
For a phone which remained adamant not to copy the iPhone X notch, the similarities between iOS and Funtouch are quite remarkable. No app drawer. Swipe left for seeing all your apps. Swipe from the bottom for quick settings. Swipe from the top to see notifications. Horizontally aligned recent apps. All very reminiscent of iOS.
There are on-screen navigation buttons which can be swapped for a gesture-based navigation. Again here we see the intense similarity between the iPhone X gestures and the Vivo NEX. Swipe up from right to see quick settings, from the center to go back home, from the left to go to the previous screen and hold the swipe up from the center to enter recent apps. However, I have to say that the gesture navigation on the NEX is much more responsive and refined than the OnePlus 6 and after a time I became quite accustomed to the swipe gestures.
However, OnePlus’ Oxygen OS is closest to stock Android which, in my book, gives OnePlus the upper hand over Vivo. Also, as it so happens Android P beta has revealed improved gesture-based navigation in its third beta and that should more or less give the Vivo NEX like gesture interface on all Android smartphones with Android P.
Even so, the FunTouch 1.4.14 update has polished the software experience of the phone with better and more responsive UI. It is by no means perfect, but as far UIs go FunTouch is bearable enough to live with. The choice, of course, comes down to the user’s preference.
No surprises that the Vivo NEX aced all the performance charts with the utmost ease. As a matter of fact, if we take Geekbench and AnTuTu benchmarks into consideration we see that the NEX muscles past the current fastest Android smartphone, OnePlus 6. The Snapdragon 845 SoC and 8 GB of RAM certainly make the phone a breeze to use.
I rifled through apps with zero lag while switching. Graphics-intensive games such as PUBG and Asphalt 8 ran buttery smooth at the highest graphics. Not once in my usage of the phone did it lag anywhere or heated up or slowed down, which is not what I can say for the OnePlus 6. We haven’t tested the Oppo Find X, but in my opinion, the current tag for the fastest Android device falls in the NEX’s lap.
In any case, the phone still lags behind the ridiculously powerful iPhone 8, 8 Plus and iPhone X. But the difference is only so slight for the extremely big price gap between the two phones that the Vivo NEX seems to be a better deal performance wise.
On the downside, I absolutely hate that the headphone jack is placed on the top of the phone. The wire keeps on falling in front of the screen and even while I place the wire behind, it would seem that the device has an unusual protrusion on the top. It just does not feel aesthetically right for me. It is also not ideal to place the phone in the pocket while the headphones are still attached as when you pull the phone out of your pocket it is awkwardly positioned in your hand.
The phone does not have dual-speakers but the single speaker at the bottom was perhaps the loudest I’ve heard in recent times. It was also quite crisp and did not distort at higher volumes. Again this is something I can’t say about the OnePlus 6. While gaming you will, however, tend to block the sound as you will block the speaker at the base. While NEX bundled in earphones inside the box, they were not impressive by any means, but at least it has bothered with providing them.
Talking first about the rear-cameras I was admittedly not quite impressed at first. As expected, the images clicked had that Vivo-esque post processing wherein the image is oversharpened to a very high extent, taking away its natural colours and vividness. The white balance was not properly adjusted as I could see a slight yellowish tinge to images with a white background. However, after the latest FunTouch upgrade I’m happy to see a noticeable improvement in the phone’s image taking capabilities.
The primary camera has a 12 MP resolution with a 1.4µm sensor, has reasonably okay exposure compensation depending on the lighting situation. In low light, the photos appeared slightly grainy but it was a big improvement from before the update. But edge sharpness was an issue in low light. The secondary sensor has little use except for taking bokeh photos. Speaking of which, the phone does not take good portrait photos. The background blur seems to be quite hastily done and in many places quite botched up. Although I didn’t see this in every photo, it cropped up every now and then.
In broad daylight, I would have to say the phone took decently attractive shots, which is what something you will definitely expect on a phone costing nearly 50 grand. While comparing shots with the OnePlus 6, I spotted that the Vivo NEX’s colour accuracy was on point. A red wall looked like a red wall and not maroonish as was the case with the OnePlus 6.
The latest update still didn’t resolve the excessive oversharpening of images, but it seemed to have toned down a bit. In terms of video, the OIS on the primary sensor enabled good still video shots which can be taken at 4K, 1080p and 720p. There is also a slow-mo feature that did not impress me greatly.
Overall, I won’t say that the NEX has the best rear camera, as comparisons with the S9 showed some differences. For instance, the S9 still has a better dynamic range and colour accuracy. The NEX also has a tendency to overexpose an image slightly. With that being said, the NEX does manage to take some beautiful photos which might satisfy many users who do not have such a keen eye for noticing slight flaws in image processing.
The pop-up camera
The pop-up camera is something new to this country and indeed to the world. Vivo has clearly taken a very huge step with this feature and it has its merits and demerits. Merits will obviously include the large display that can be accommodated without using a display notch. The demerits have to be the fact that a moving mechanical part on a phone will have a short life-expectancy.
As such a teardown has revealed the delicate mechanism which operates the pop-up camera. Any dust particles or any kind of physical damage will render the front camera useless. That being said, Vivo has engineered the camera to come up in nearly 0.5 seconds which is quite fast. It makes a kind of sci-fi noise while opening and shutting which can be changed or removed completely. When I close the front camera the protruding periscope-like lens goes down instantly. You cannot push it down physically to close it.
The entire process is quite smooth and natural. Also as the phone does not employ face unlock, the pop-up camera will only be used for selfies, and unless you are a die-hard selfie enthusiast, you don’t need to worry about the longevity of the pop-up mechanism.
However, that is where the problem arises. The selfies. They are quite bad. At least not at the level I expect from a device that costs so much. The photos from the 8 MP sensor in the pop-up camera are passable, to say the least, which is quite surprising since Vivo has made its name by making devices that have great front cameras.
Exposure calibration is a joke. I mean even in good lighting conditions the phone brings too much light in the photos. In dark conditions, I couldn't spot my face. The phone took ages to click the photo, which combined with the small amount of time it takes to pop-out, really put me off. I wanted to say one nice thing about the selfie camera, but to my surprise, I really couldn't find any.
Then there are the various portrait lighting modes ie. Natural light, Studio light, Stereo light and Monochrome background, which are a very poor imitation of Apple's portrait lighting. All the modes either botch up the photo or are exposed beyond recognition. This is not something I expect from a flagship-grade smartphone. Also, the front-facing portrait mode is a mockery.
Bottomline: If you are a selfie enthusiast, stay away from the NEX.
The Vivo NEX has a massive 4,000 mAh battery which will easily last you the entire day. The phone also supports Dual-Engine Quick charge technology which is nearly as fast as OnePlus’ Dash Charging technology. In a comparison between the two, it turned out that the NEX charged up faster, even though it had a bigger battery. I had some concerns about how much battery a mechanical part might consume, but since I did not use the selfie camera a lot I wasn’t able to make a judgment. Rest assured, however, the NEX has a battery that will give you nearly 8-10 hours of video playback time if you are not using mobile data.
A Work 2.0 Battery Test on PCMark gave the phone a rating of 10 hours and 41 minutes. I feel that real-world usage showed me that the phone can last me a lot longer.
In my time with the phone, I watched multiple YouTube videos, clicked a lot of photos and more importantly played PUBG like a maniac. At the end of the day, there was still some juice left in the phone. On days I didn't play PUBG, the phone lasted for more than one and a half days. Quite a few times, I left the phone overnight without charging and saw that the phone had depleted by only 2 percent in the morning. Vivo has done a commendable job in the NEX’s battery life.
Verdict and Price in India
Yes, the Vivo NEX is a beautiful device and it justifies the flagship tag. There are some flaws in the phone, but almost all phones have one flaw or the other. There is no such thing as the perfect phone. But it would seem that Vivo has brought to life something that might set off a revolution. The pop-up camera is a big leap towards realising a phone with no bezels and all screen.
I love the fact that Vivo has done something so innovative with its smartphone. If someone had asked me earlier which company will be the one to bring on a new smartphone revolution, I most certainly wouldn’t have picked Vivo. Had the selfie camera delivered though, it would have been an icing on the proverbial cake. But that wasn't to be.
With that being said, I still would be more inclined towards buying the OnePlus 6 or the recently launched Asus ZenFone 5Z. Though I agree that the NEX has a gorgeous display, which gives a truly cinematic experience while viewing any kind of video, the OnePlus 6 display is not tiny itself while the Galaxy S9 definitely has a better quality display overall.
Performance wise all three phones (Vivo NEX, OnePlus 6, Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus) are more or less the same. The Vivo NEX does take the cake with its humungous battery and super fast charging capabilities. In terms of camera, the NEX takes better photos from its rear camera than the OnePlus 6, but the difference is only so slight. The front-facing camera, as mentioned before is quite bad on the Vivo NEX and is also the biggest downfall for the smartphone. For all its glory and its bezel-less design and its premium build quality, the price of the device is not set accordingly. The NEX is still a Vivo phone and asking nearly Rs 45,000 for a Vivo phone may not sit right with many Indian buyers.
If you are into big displays, hate the notch, view a lot of video content and don't take a lot of selfies, then the Vivo NEX is definitely for you. That's a lot of conditions to justify buying the camera.
Obviously, there is still the pop-out camera that might get damaged or stop functioning due to its mechanical nature. If so, what kind of warranty will Vivo provide? How can you make the phone waterproof with a pop-out camera? There are still some questions that need to be answered before making this feature mass-marketable. In due time we are sure to get the answers.
Yes, buying this smartphone is taking a bet in many ways.
The Vivo NEX will go on sale exclusively on Amazon from 21 July onwards.
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