(Pocket-lint) - You are looking at a phone with no ports. Not one anywhere on its body. That not only means no 3.5mm headphone jack and no USB-C recharging port, it also means no speaker ports, no earpiece, no fingerprint scanner. Heck, there aren't any physical buttons protruding from its body and even the cameras sit flush on the rear.
This is the Vivo Apex 2019 concept phone. But is this glass unibody, port-free device a glimpse into the future of smartphones, or a concept that's stepping a little too far? We got to see the real phone - which is thought to pave the stepping stones for the next Vivo NEX device - to bring you everything you need to know.
How is port-free and button-free feasible?
- G2 Curved-Surface Waterdrop Glass: Single glass piece covers rear and sides for unibody form
- Touch Sense: Volume up/down and power replaced by capacitive and pressure sensitive areas
- MagPort magnetic clip-on charger for 18W recharge (no wireless charging)
- Finishes: Quartz White, Titan Silver, Meteor Gray
Unibody glass finish
Most phones these days are glass sandwiches: two panels wrapped around a frame to produce a fairly seamless looking design. Not so the Vivo Apex 2019. Instead the Chinese maker was adamant to use a single piece of glass to cover both rear and sides, flat to the rear with subtle curves to the edges. How is that possible? Using hot-bending processing for the curves and CNC carving (computer numerical control) to produce variable thickness at different points on the phone, in an intricate design that's not been seen anywhere before.
However, that single piece of glass brings with it some downsides. First, the variable thickness makes for a thicker design - as you can see from our pictures the transparent edging extends beyond the screen, adding a lip beyond the usual trim bezel. Second - and it's really hard to see in photos - the CNC process leaves the tiniest of textures to the glass, which if you look at around the edges super close-up then you can spot some grain-like imperfections.
Having a glass unibody is certainly impressive and different to anything we've seen before. But it's a stage one result in an evolution that will be really interesting to follow - when it's possible to go slimmer and even more refined.
As the glass is a single piece and curves around the Apex 2018 concept's sides, implementing physical buttons would have been tricky and broken up the unibody design flow. Vivo's solution? Remove the physical buttons entirely in what it's calling Touch Sense.
But this posed a number of problems for the design team. Pressure-sensitive areas behind the glass would prove inaccurate to differentiate between. Capacitive touch buttons would be immediately responsive, but in that position to the side of the phone would lead to too many accidental touches. So, by combining both - three capacitive sensors, intersected by two pressure-sensitive areas - Vivo is able to determine where the phone is being pressed with accuracy and whether a press is intentional or not.
Well, that's the theory. In reality these buttons are the phone's biggest issue. The power area needs to be pressed far too hard for response. The volume up and down areas don't need such firm pressure - at least our sample unit didn't - which makes the product feel less intuitive than something with buttons. We suspect this is entirely resolvable with some tweaks, but it's not quite right at this stage. Furthermore, the software is designed to show a pop-up overlay on the screen to show the position of these 'invisible buttons' - but that's forever popping up during use as the capacitive buttons are pressed and, frankly, we don't think their alignment is precise related to the areas on the phone body itself.
Ultimately, then, button-free is a great concept - certainly one of the most interesting features when we first saw this concept phone revealed - delivered as a work in progress. Maybe one day, just not today.
With no ports, surely wireless charging would be the most obvious design choice for Vivo? Apparently not, as the company has instead chosen to introduce what it's calling the MagPort - a proprietary magnetic connector to deliver charge (which it can do at 18W, thus being faster than wireless charging, but not nearly as quick as fast-charging protocols).
Now, we really don't mind the absence of a USB port. After all, this is a port-free phone, and how often do you genuinely need to plug in to transfer files in the age of the cloud? Wi-Fi does all you need.
However, the MagPort is disruptive to the idea of the unibody finish. Placed on the rear as it is, its metal contact points break up the glass. It doesn't protrude, per se, there's only the slightest of debossing, but it seems backwards to remove all the buttons and then have to cut through the glass to implement a charging mechanism. Really, wireless charging would have sat better in this concept on the whole.
Fingerprint scanning from the future
- Full-Display Fingerprint Scanning: entirety of the screen can be used to unlock
- Dedicated processing chip used for super-fast fingerprint unlock
- Single or dual fingerprint unlock possible for extra security
With no indent for a fingerprint scanner and no front 'home button', Vivo has implemented its latest in-screen fingerprint scanning technology. And it's nothing short of phenomenal - easily the best implementation of this technology that we've seen.
Why's it so special? For a number of reasons. One, fingerprint registration has been significantly optimised. Two, fingerprint scanning works anywhere across the entirety of the screen (hence the Full-Display Fingerprint Scanning name). Three, it's possible to use two fingerprints in tandem for heightened security.
As you can see in our video, above, the speed at which a fingerprint is read and verified is lightning quick irrelevant of where a finger presses onto the screen. When a finger touches the locked display, the pixels around that placement light up to ensure a clear fingerprint image can be read. It comes with an accompanying animation around that area, too, which looks great.
But let's go back to the start. When registering a fingerprint, Vivo has managed to reduce the time this takes. Literally two touches of a finger during the registration process is all it needs. When we quizzed how this was possible, the company told us it's down to software enhancements and a dedicated chip that's used entirely for fingerprint scanning and nothing else. We assumed such a light sign-up process would affect the accuracy - but it really doesn't, and we've tried by registering multiple fingers and trying to trick the system (unsuccessfully, we might add).
The other great feature of having the whole screen available as a fingerprint reader is that you can use two registered prints at once to sign in (they have to be different prints to any existing single print on the system, however). Once digits are registered it's possible to press, say, with one finger up top and one at the bottom, or both fingers side-by-side - the choice is entirely yours. At present this only operates to sign-in, but we can see huge potential in different/multiple print combinations being used to quick-launch specific apps, or open, for example, a second space sign-in.
In short: the full screen fingerprint scanning technology in the Vivo Apex 2019 is astonishingly impressive. Better still, this is the main feature we anticipate finding in the next NEX phone, sometime in 2019, which will pave the way for others to follow.
What about sound? How calls and speakers work
- Earpiece: Using micro vibrations on the screen surface to create localised audio
- Speakers: Two sound conduction units vibrate, utilising rear glass to emit sound
With no ports taken to the extreme (ignoring the MagPort blip) the Apex 2019 also does away with speaker ports and the earpiece. You can't spot any openings or sensors on the front - so how does sound work?
Vivo has been clever here, using the screen's surface and rear glass body to act as the earpiece and speaker, respectively, using micro vibrations to output audio. After all, at its most basic, a speaker is just a vibration chamber - and this concept phone is doing much the same without separate speaker units inside.
The earpiece doesn't use bone conduction technology like we had originally assumed, but still works very well. We attempted to make a call (not possible without a SIM, of course, which took us to an automated message) and sound is clearly audible in close proximity only. Seeing as some other trim-bezel phones, like the Honor View 20, have very poor speakers, Vivo's execution in the Apex 2019 is a success.
The speaker also works well, clearly emitting audio from the rear using two sound conduction units attached to the back glass cover, thus vibrating the phone's body - Vivo calls it Body SoundCasting Technology. It's a similar idea to the way some Sony TVs use the full screen to emit audio, but was hard to get right, Vivo says, requiring many tweaks and dampening to get the sound right. It's not as loud and proud and some phones - the Razer Phone 2 is one of the best-sounding devices you'll hear today - but given how weedy a lot of mono speaker phones are these days, the Apex 2019 does a grand job.
Paving the way for next NEX phone
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor
- 12GB RAM, 512GB storage
Sure, the Apex 2019 is a concept phone - the naming of the device makes that clear. But as we saw with the Apex 2018 device (featuring the first pop-up camera), Vivo works fast - as that phone transformed, more or less, into the NEX S just three months after being first shown. Therefore, we expect some of the Apex 2019's features appear in the next NEX phone inside this year.
The specs reflect that in some regards too. Beneath the glass unibody design is the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, paired with a massive 12GB RAM, alongside 512GB storage (after all, there's no port to put a microSD card - even SIM will need to be embedded eSIM). It's a powerful device, therefore, although we've not really been able to test it in full - plus the Funtouch OS is a barrier to non-Chinese users, in our opinion.
Since its announcement we've been chomping at the bit to get hold of the Vivo Apex 2019 concept phone. After all, with no other manufacturer even dabbling with such wild design ideas - even Meizu back-tracked that its Zero, which failed crowd-funding, was just "the marketing team messing about" (that's direct from the company's CEO) - this phone truly is a unique glimpse of our could-be smartphone future.
Well, in part. For the Vivo Apex 2019 isn't a success in every regard. The unibody design is disrupted by the MagPort charger (which doesn't make much sense to us, as wireless charging could have been implemented), while Touch Sense 'invisible buttons' need tweaking before they're a true replacement for physical ones.
But what the Apex 2019 does get right, it gets really right. The trim bezel display looks great. The unibody glass design process is something we'll see enhanced over coming years to feature in other phone designs. Lopping off the conventional earpiece and speakers hasn't caused any issues - indeed, hearing calls is better than some current ill-conceived devices on the market that we've tested. Above all else, though, it's the Full-Display Fingerprint Scanning technology that's astonishingly good - using anywhere across the screen to sign-in with a fingerprint is, no doubt, going to be the flagship norm in the not-too-distant future.
So we might not be quite ready for port-free in its entirety just yet. But some of the ideas and technologies that the Vivo Apex 2019 lay out aren't as bonkers and far-fetched as they may first seem. You just wait a handful of months and we suspect there will be a brand new NEX device to embody the fingerprint technology and some other design features of this concept.