Back at Mobile World Congress 2018 we saw a concept phone that Vivo (a major Chinese manufacturer that's little known in Europe) was working on. The Apex, as it was called then, seemed like a far-flung concept phone from the future.
Yet just four months later the company unveiled the Vivo NEX S, a top-end device that embodies much of the technology first shown in the Apex - an under-the-screen fingerprint scanner and pop-up front-facing camera to allow for near bezel-free design - in fully fledged launch format.
So is the Vivo NEX S a glimpse at the future of smartphones? We've been living with one since the launch event to get a taste of what it offers, both good and bad, and how that's likely to affect the competition in the not-too-distant future.
- Near bezel-free design, over 91% screen-to-body ratio
- Black and Red colour options
- 162 × 77 × 7.98mm; 199g
- 3.5mm headphone jack
The most striking thing about the Vivo NEX is its almost ridiculous absence of bezel. At launch we had never seen a phone with greater screen-to-body ratio than this device, with the manufacturer claiming that 91.24 per cent of the phone's front is all screen, screen, screen. You only need to look at our pictures to know that's not far-fetched at all. It's a fast moving world in tech, though, as Oppo unveiled its Find X in late June 2018, showing off an even more bezel-free design.
We have the black NEX S model in hand, but there's also a red option if you're looking for something with a bit more pizzazz; and if you can get hold of one, as this limited edition 'lucky' colour won't be found easily.
The NEX follows the cues of many current flagships in terms of design, with a glass rear. So far so normal. But the phone uses holographic laser etching technology to give the surface an additional quality, rainbow-colour refractions catching in certain light. At the launch event with specific directional lighting this was very apparent; in the real-world, however, the phone reflects sunlight like any other standard glass-backed phone, which is altogether less exciting. Despite being glass, however, there's no wireless charging on offer.
What you will find atop the NEX S that's absent in so many other flagships of the moment is a 3.5mm headphones jack, so plugging in cans is no issue. You'll likely want to, too, as the limited bezel means a single down-firing speaker to the bottom, with limited quality.
- Under-the-screen fingerprint scanner
One of the NEX S's most stand-out features is its incorporation of an under-the-screen fingerprint scanner. Much like that found in the Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS, the Vivo's scanner impresses on principle. It's like that phone feature you didn't know you'd ever get so soon. It's also a significant factor in the phone's minimal bottom edge bezel.
That said, however, the functionality of this fingerprint scanner isn't as good as optical ones found elsewhere. Yes, this is Vivo's third-generation implementation of the technology, making it an upgrade from the company's X21 device, but implementing a physical scanner on the rear of the phone would likely have been more practical. It certainly won't fail to impress your mates, but we're more interested in the future of how this technology will evolve.
Fortunately the Vivo implementation of the scanner operates with more functions than that found in the Huawei Mate RS. The Vivo's under-screen scanner can be used to open banking apps, for example, which doesn't work at all with the Huawei (and requires use of the rear scanner). That said, it doesn't always work: opening the Nationwide banking app on the NEX S, for example, prioritises the touchscreen and thus bypasses the fingerprint scanner for manual input instead (which is understandable, given the app isn't designed to incorporate such tech). But that's a signifier of where we're at: this tech is ahead of its time and applications can't always utilise it successfully.
A nod to the future, yes, but one that's not 100 per cent on form. Right now it's ok; it's fine, it works, but it's not the greatest implementation of a scanner (even if the unlock animation is very cool).
- 19:9 aspect ratio 'Ultra FullView' 6.59-inch Full HD+
- Super AMOLED display (2160 x 1080 pixels), P3 colour gamut
As there's so little bezel, the NEX can afford to offer a huge screen too. The 6.59-inch 'Ultra FullView' panel may sound like an unweildy behemoth, but it's no wider than a Google Pixel XL 2 and barely any taller. That means it's no problem for holding one-handed at all.
The screen itself is an AMOLED panel, so that means rich blacks. However, while the brightness and colour pops more than the Google Pixel XL 2, which we side-by-sided the phone with for comparison, the Vivo can't match the Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS's OLED screen.
Crucially there's no notch to be seen here. Many manufacturers have chosen to ape Apple's iPhone X design, with a blacked-out 'dip' to the centre top of the phone, not so Vivo. It makes you realise how out of date the notch idea will look by 2019.
In terms of resolution, Vivo has been savvy in not over-doing the pixel count, with a Full HD+ panel. Any more and we suspect the battery would suffer (just as the Mate RS does). Besides, even at this larger-than-6in scale, there's ample detail on screen to our eyes for most applications - although some seem to source low quality, such as backgrounds, which don't have the critical sharpness they should.
- Funtouch OS 4.0 (Based on Android 8.1)
- No EU/US launch date set (so no Google Play)
Before we touch upon the phone's innards, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: as a China-only device for now, there's no Google Play available on the NEX S. We backdoor installed the app by downloading Gmail from Vivo's store (which then forces Play Store to download), then used Clone It to copy apps from another device via WLAN. Thereafter it's been possible to download Google apps semi normally. It's not possible to have a Vivo account without a Chinese phone number, which can present further issues.
If and when the Vivo NEX S comes to the UK/EU/US it'll certainly have Google Play services. Its bigger problem, however, will be its Funtouch OS 4.0, which, despite being based on Android 8.1, is rife with problems. Of course we have done a bit of 'square peg, round hole' by installing software on the device that's not supposed to be there, so some of these issues may be ironed out in the future for different regions.
Funtouch OS is an interesting viewpoint into the different way a device can operate and how foreign markets are comfortable with points of difference. For example: at the bottom of the screen there are designated left and right swipe-up commands, used to open the settings shade and 'go back' respectively. A swipe up in the middle shows current open apps. The typical trio of Android softkeys lacks by default, but can be activated from deep within the settings (and their respective positions and symbols adjusted, too).
Settings cannot be accessed with a swipe down from the top of the screen, however, rather an iPhone-like swipe up from the bottom, which is downright infuriating in an Android phone.
Notifications can be accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen, just as you would with any Android phone, which is a good job. However, notifications are almost apologetic, with the option to 'block' appearing alongside every one. Block this important email notification? No, of course not! Activating notifications in the first instance is also tricky, as they're off per app by default, and requires some deep menu digging to ensure their action. Even then, however, some apps won't notify on this phone - a result of clashing software skin with Android OS, we suspect.
Stability is another issue. Twitter notifications, for example, result in the app timing out half the time after clicking through. We cannot get SwiftKey to give access to its vibration feedback controls, thus we won't be using that keyboard. And the English language font looks wrong: bold isn't bold enough in Mail, for example, while every apostrophe has a massive space between it and its neighbouring letter.
It's also worth touching upon Vivo's own voice-assistant, Jovi. While the name makes us think of a certain rock superstar (Livin' On A Prayer is going around in loops right now), it hits more bum notes than we'd like because, well, we don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese and the assistant doesn't understand our "Hello Jovi" tones. Oh well. For a Chinese audience its complex contextual understanding ought to make it a capable assistant, though. There's even a dedicated Jovi 'AI' button to the side of the handset, much like Samsung's Bixby button on the S9.
In short: Funtouch OS is no fun at all. Sure, it's not really designed with an English language market in mind just yet, but when Vivo comes to launch the software outside of China (and India) we do sincerely hope there are more stock Android-like modifications to make its use more familiar, functional and ultimately better.
Hardware and battery life
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 8GB RAM
- 256GB storage as standard, no microSD
- 4000mAh battery, USB-C fast charging
In terms of hardware the Vivo NEX comes out all guns blazing. It combines a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor with 8GB RAM for the equal most powerful solution on the market right now. Add in 256GB of storage as standard and you'll never be short of space for files and goodies either. There's no microSD card slot, however, so if you are really that storage happy then hard luck.
The way that power functions can be a little hit and miss, however, again on account of the software implementation. Some apps are a little hesitant when opening for no apparent reason. South Park: Phone Destroyer, for example, opens around a second faster on the Google Pixel XL 2, which is a less powerful device than the NEX S. Even WhatsApp is a microsecond behind.
When apps do open, however, they run perfectly smoothly. We've had no issues with gaming in terms of smoothness; it's only with certain apps' stability, as mentioned above, that can cause problems.
When it comes to longevity, the NEX has a 4,000mAh cell under the hood, which is a high capacity. And with its sensible screen resolution, the NEX S lasts rather well. With a mixture of work and play, including dabbling in some gaming, we've been getting around 16 hours per charge. In similar fashion to the iPhone, however, the NEX suggests it has almost never-ending battery power at its upper percentages (i.e. from full), which begins to dwindle towards the lower end of the range. We'd get 12 hours use from full down to 40 per cent, for example, with the bottom end of the battery seeming to deplete a little quicker.
In addition to 'normal' battery mode, the NEX S offers a Low Power Mode to throttle CPU/GPU, and a Super Power-Saving Mode which only enables contacts, phone, messages and clock (i.e. you can barely do a thing, but it'll last for days).
When the phone does run low on charge then there's fast-charging via USB-C. Its 'Dual-engine quick charge' can pump an extra 40 per cent to the battery in around 20 minutes, making it quick... just not Oppo Find X ultra-quick.
- 8MP f/2.0 'Elevating Front Camera'
- 12MP f/1.8 & 5MP f/2.4 dual rear cameras
- 4-axis optical image stabilisation (OIS)
- Dual Pixel Sensor for enhanced light gathering quality
Here's a feature that'll get everyone talking: as there's no space for a front-facing camera due to the tiny bezel, the NEX has a mechanical pop-up camera which engages the moment you click the selfie camera within the Camera app. The only other camera with a similar solution is the Oppo Find X, but this moves the full width of the phone, which makes protective cases implausible. The NEX solution is more elegant. It also avoids the absurd solution of a bottom-edge camera, as found on the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, for example, which is ripe for enhancing unwanted double chins.
We could watch that camera move in and out of its enclosure oh so many times, as it's a very fun feature indeed. There's even an accompanying sound as it pops up, which you can change (Sci-Fi, Machine, Rhythm) or mute. Only in very quiet areas will you hear the actual mechanical sound. Our only disappointment is that you can't add your own sound selections.
The NEX's rear combines a 12- and 5-megapixel dual camera setup, which is increasingly typical for phones. The lower-resolution sensor's information can be used for depth data, which means it can produce blurred background effects (bokeh) for its Face Beauty mode (read 'Portrait'), which has become a fan favourite the world over after Apple's popularisation of the mode.
In the NEX, the functionality of Face Beauty mode is a little different to other manufacturers, but there are some similarities to the Huawei P20 Pro. The Vivo offers an f/0.95 maximum software-based aperture, which is selected and adjusted by an on-screen slider. Automatic facial recognition ensures focus in the right place, while the background and foreground blurs away to dramatic effect.
It's got just as many bugs with adept edge detection as any other manufacturer's implementation of this feature, as none have got it right just yet, but it's what the people want and it's fun to have on board. In addition the Face Beauty level (chose from 0-6, for nothing to maximum) will detect a face to smear out blemishes in an almost cartoon-like way.
As for the main sensor, its 12MP is brought direct from Sony, meaning a larger-than-average pixel size for better light-gathering properties. Autofocus is adept, too, while artificial intelligence handles automatic scene recognition (out of 17 available modes) for the best possible picture each and every time - similar to, say, the Honor 10.
Just how does the Vivo NEX S compare? It's a good camera, but it's not the best you'll find. Results lack detail in certain areas, while other areas are over-sharpened (such as telephone lines) which can lead to a halo effect around subject edges. The app could also be a bit more user friendly and quicker to offer adjustment between modes.
Low-light images do resolve image noise - those colourful 'flecks' that so often appear in poor shots - rather well, however, for relatively clean shots in the dark of night. However, the AI also isn't clever enough to detect movement and up the shutter speed, which can pose issues for night-time shots and blur. There is a manual mode, though, which goes some way to help counter.
The Vivo NEX S is a mobile phone with some innovative glimpses into the future technologies that we're likely to see appear into flagship handsets in the coming months and years. That the Chinese company turned around its Apex prototype to fully fledged launch product in such a short period of time is testament to its drive.
No, the NEX isn't going to be available outside of China at launch, and its Funtouch OS is far too restrictive for a western audience at this moment in time. As such it would be disingenuous to slap a score on this phone given its context.
In summary: in the world of notch-free, near bezel-free phones, the Vivo NEX S has some stunning credentials with little to compare. Ported over from its Chinese home to ol' Blighty, however, and its software and glitches suggest it's not quite ready for foreign lands... yet. But when Vivo does enter the wider world (as a World Cup 2018 sponsor we suspect such a world stage advertisement is indicative of its intention to expand) it's got the groundwork laid to create interesting, disruptive and forward-thinking devices that can challenge the current crop of favourites.
The Vivo NEX S is available for 4498¥ in China (which roughly translates as £525 / €595 / $825).
Oppo Find X
The most obvious pop-up camera competitor has a lot of similarities with the Vivo, including tricky software and a near bezel-free design. They're like long lost cousins.
Read the full article: Oppo Find X review
Huawei P20 Pro
Probably our favourite phone of 2018, the P20 Pro is legacy to Huawei's ongoing commitment to tweak its software into a form that can operate successfully in wider markets. Not to mention its best-in-class camera, fantastic design and all-round power and longevity. It does have a notch, though, if that bothers you.
Read the full article: Huawei P20 Pro review