(Pocket-lint) - You don't need to do a double take: although the gallery above may look like it contains two different phones, it's actually just the front and rear of the Vivo NEX Dual Display Edition.
Yep, the front is camera-free - there's no notch, no slider mechanism nor hole-punch camera here - hence the almost bezel-less design. The rear hosts the triple camera setup alongside another screen - thus negating the need for a front-facing camera altogether.
We've been using the NEX Dual Display outside of its native China homeland for a full week. Is it twice the fun or double the trouble when it comes to using it?
Dual screen design: A sound idea?
- Main: 6.39in AMOLED display, 2340 x 1080 resolution
- Rear: 5.49in AMOLED display, 1920 x 1080 resolution
- Device: 157 x 75 x 8.1mm; 199g
- Finishes: Blue, Purple
With its 6.39-inch AMOLED main screen, the NEX is on trend when it comes to delivering quality - just as you'll see in other top handsets from Samsung (from where the screen is sourced), Huawei, Xiaomi and more. Indeed, we've found the scale and resolution of this panel to be every bit as pleasing as in its competitors. Its only downside is over-aggressive automatic brightness adjustment, veering towards too dark too much of the time.
The NEX's absence of bezel is impressive, however, especially when compared to the large notch found on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro - which uses the same panel as this NEX - and there's no distorting curves or unnecessary add-ons to be seen here either. That said, it's not the smallest bezel going - even the Honor View 20 has a more trim edging (ignoring its presence of a hole-punch camera, anyway).
Where the NEX really makes a statement is with its second screen to the rear. It's not the first time we've seen a phone adopt a second panel - be that the e-Ink panel of Yota, the small-scale panel of the Meizu 7 Pro, or one of many other examples (which we've explored in the feature below, via the link) - but it's the first time we've seen one to such a significant scale. The Dual Display's second screen really is a full-size second screen.
If someone showed you the rear of the NEX Dual Display two years ago, you'd assume it was the front of a then flagship phone. The panel, a 5.49-inch AMOLED, has no compromise in terms of fidelity or quality. There's all the necessary resolution, the side bezel is tiny, with only grander bezels top and bottom - the former where the triple camera circular emblem and dual flash/illuminating lights lives, slightly protruding from the body.
Interestingly, Vivo isn't just propositioning that second display as solely for camera use. Yes, it means selfies can be taken from the rear while looking at the screen, thus feeling natural, but the second screen can also be used for multi-tasking with multiple apps.
As the ratio on the rear is slightly different to the front panel, however, this can cause some issues with apps compressing themselves with artificial digital borders to their left and right. We've loaded Gmail in the second screen, for example, where it appears elongated and smaller - meaning you won't really want to use the second screen as a main panel. As the second screen is the only place where face detection login functions, this might seem like a mis-match.
There are lots of other logical examples though. We've had South Park: Phone Destroyer launched on the main screen and rather than logging out of the game to check on emails and social media, we've simply flipped the phone over to access the fully operational OS on the other side. No interruptions, no drama. And with so much power on board everything runs just fine. Other logical examples include QR codes for flight check-in, while some games (including PUBG: Mobile) can benefit from Rear Touchpad, where the rear screen can also accept simulteanous inputs from extra fingers.
Flagship specs, as you'd expect
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 octa-core processor, 10GB RAM
- In-screen fingerprint scanner
- 3500mAh battery capacity
- 128GB storage (no microSD)
The idea of running multiple apps might be a problem for some phones, but the NEX Dual Display is a heavyweight on the specifications front. The current top-end Qualcomm chipset is on board, with a mighty 10GB RAM as standard - that's a load for handling the additional pressure that certain dual screen scenarios may bring. Apps run super smooth and we've had no animation hiccups during our week with the phone.
When we first saw the Dual Display in China we didn't get a full impression of the device running Google Play and, therefore, weren't sure how it would function elsewhere. As it's also available for English-language Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore markets that's the handset we've received - it runs Google Play, but thinks of us as a HK rather than UK resident (thus the Home time is always wrong by eight hours and can't be changed).
So how does it run outside of its designated markets? Well, it's two fold: all that power bodes well for apps in their own operation; but the operating system - which is called FunTouch is a hotch potch of clashes, irks and problems.
Google Play runs fine, but there's also Vivo's own app store present which auto-updates and sometimes acts as the de-facto source when it shouldn't. We're also running Gmail rather than the native Vivo Email app, but in Google's version this software makes it impossible to delete messages - and after a week we've had hundreds sat in the inbox, which we've had to purge manually using a desktop setup instead. There's also excessive alerts - as we used to find with Huawei's EMUI setup - when it comes to proclaiming that important apps, such as WhatsApp, are using excess energy (even when, for our use, they're not).
So, sadly, FunTouch is no fun at all. It runs very different to Android too: a corner upward swipe is needed to access shortcuts, including Wi-Fi, screen brightness and so forth, in a very Apple iOS style that doesn't work here. A downward swipe does reveal notifications, but there are limits to how these can be handled depending on the app. As we've said before, it's software that would need to change before it's ready for wider markets.
Those major bothers aside, the Dual Display otherwise runs well and for a decent innings per charge. Sandwiched between those two screens is a 3500mAh battery which initially depletes fairly quickly, but then holds out well in the middle ground. With full-on days, including a little gaming and use of both screens, we've been making it to bed with 30 per cent battery remaining after the critical 15 hours of daytime use. The software may well help to manage this longevity too.
Elsewhere the NEX Dual Display brings Vivo's fifth-gen optical in-screen fingerprint scanner. We found the one in the earlier NEX S to be quite reasonable, but not perfect, so an updated version in this model is good to see. Vivo says it's been working with Qualcomm to optimise at chip level, bringing a super-fast 0.29s login time that's largely effective - but not as reliable as we've found with the Huawei Mate 20 Pro (irrelevant of whether the chips used are one and the same).
As we've pointed out above, the facial recognition is only available on the second screen, not the main one. So it's fingerprint one side, facial recognition the other, which feels like a mix and match that doesn't make sense at any level.
The king of cameras?
- Triple rear cameras: 12MP f/1.79, 2MP f/1.8 and Time of Flight (TOF) f/1.3
- Rear flash and Selfie Spotlight in Lunar Ring Display
- Super Night Mode, Night Video Camera
The cameras are core to the NEX Dual Display Edition. In a sense it's the position of these triplet of optics that define the handset: as they're all on the rear that's what enables the almost bezel-free design to the front.
Does flipping the whole phone around to take a selfie feel weird? At first, yes, but it's really not difficult to do. The dual screens can be used in other ways too: with both active, in mirror mode, you can see yourself to strike a pose while someone is using the phone to take a photo of you. Plus the addition of what Vivo calls the Lunar Ring introduces two lights for softer illumination - these are separate to the flash and can be used as you wish, including glowing colours to alert on notifications.
However, as other makers race to add more megapixels and wide-angle or zoom lenses, Vivo is keeping its setup fairly simple: the main sensor is 12 megapixels; the second sensor, at 2MP, is used for special modes and depth data; while the third is Time of Flight (TOF), used to capture data points - as used for facial recognition login. This TOF feature is important though - it creates a 10,000 point map of your face, which it can recognise from up to 3m away, for rapid login and Face Pay (the latter in China only, of course).
Looking in some respects to take on the Google Pixel's Night Sight mode, Vivo has both Super Night Mode and Night Video Camera mode, which uses some clever processing to largely remove image noise and brighten scenes. This is achieved using the 2MP camera (its low resolution means large pixels, better for low-light capture). It does a good job of clearning up image noise in shadow areas where it would otherwise be abundantly present.
So what of image quality? The Dual Display's rear camera does a solid job of snapping images in a variety of conditions. The wide aperture helps shooting in low-light conditions, and while results suffer from some smoothing through processing, the overall balance of detail and exposure is pleasing. Brighter conditions fare better - and while detail is very clear when viewing shots on the phone's screen, look at them at full-scale on a monitor and there's some noticeable artefacts, but nothing too bad at all.
There are a variety of modes on offer too, from AI Beauty (which smoothes the face), to Portrait mode which uses those additional cameras to blur the background and add software-derived bokeh - it works better than many single- or double-camera solutions that we've used too.
As for the selfie camera, well, it's the main camera. So its results are every bit as solid, making for a better selfie solution than many competitors can offer. And as that's half the point of this phone's whole design, that's a job well done.
So is dual screen a fad or the future? The Vivo NEX Dual Display makes a strong impression as a flagship device for its decent screen, in-screen fingerprint scanner, powerful innards that beat many a flagship, and a pretty good camera setup.
But there's the sense of over-engineering too: it's fingerprint on the front, face recognition on the rear, which feels like a mix-and-match gone wrong; only one side has Gorilla glass protection rather than both; you can throw the idea of a case out of the window; and the second screen can be accidentally launched from time to time. That said, it's one impressive bit of over-engineering that gives our inner geek a warm glow.
The biggest issue with the phone is that it's not really available for a full world market - which is why we've not assigned a star rating, it doesn't make sense to be overly critical in this regard - and thus the FunTouch software confounds and presents various issues and glitches that make it somewhat problematic to use.
Overall, the NEX Dual Display is the quirkiest phone solution that we've used for years. So let's celebrate its experimentalism and forward-thinking ideas - even if, right now, used in the context of the UK, it's not all there.
The Vivo NEX Dual Display Edition went on sale in China on 29 December 2018, priced 4,998RMB (which equates to £575/€640/$725). It's due for release in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore in 2019, but there are no plans for a wider launch.
Honor View 20
Ok, so it doesn't have two screens. It does, however, have a trim bezel and hole-punch camera, usable software and it's available in the UK for a OnePlus 6T-matching price.