Although Vivo isn't yet a major name in Europe or the US just yet, it's certainly gearing up to show-off future-facing kit that'll outsmart even the most prolific current flagship phones. And the Vivo NEX 3 is a prime example; this top-end device, which is in part based on the 2019 Apex Concept, delivers in droves thanks to stacks of features that you won't see anywhere else.

In the NEX 3 it's the first time we've seen a waterfall display come to market - i.e. one that's curved across both side edges, thus doesn't facilitate normal physical buttons - in huge 6.89-inch format. There's also a triple camera system, including a 64MP main, and a pop-up front-facing camera to keep that display free of any distractions.

In short, the Vivo NEX 3 is the flagship to set the trends before they've even started. But given that a lot of its components come from Samsung's stable, we get the sense that the Samsung Galaxy S11 in 2020 will follow a similar footprint and feature set to this Vivo device. How about that for being ahead of the curve?

Design & Screen

  • 6.89-inch Super AMOLED 'Waterfall FullView Display', FHD+ resolution (2256 x 1080)
  • No physical volume/power buttons - Touch Sense haptic feedback instead
  • Finishes: Liquid Galaxy / Glowing Night
  • Under screen fingerprint scanner
  • Measures: 167.4 x 76.1 x 9.4mm
  • Weight: 218.5g
  • 3.5mm jack

We received a NEX 3 ahead of the company's launch event in Shanghai, China, and before even taking it out of the box were impressed by the packaging alone. But, hey, that's not what we're here to assess. This is all about the handset and that dominant display and that 99.6 per cent screen-to-body ratio.

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Now it's not the first time a manufacturer has gone all-out to deliver a screen-centric design. Roll back the clock to the first Xiaomi Mi Mix and that was streets ahead of anything else at the time. But the Vivo NEX 3's Waterfall FullView Display is leaps ahead of that again; it's massive, at 6.89-inches, with no notch or punch-hole camera, no visible edge bezel (as the screen wraps around both left and right sides beyond where you can see when looking front-on), basically nothing to distract.

To make this possible, Vivo has had to make some pretty bold design decisions. Principally is the absence of a side-positioned power button or volume buttons. Instead the typical position features a pressure-sensitive layer beneath the screen, with haptic feedback so you know when it's being pressed, to act in a similar manner.

Well, we say similar, but it's a lot harder to control. We criticised how difficult it was to grasp in our Apex 2019 preview, and while the NEX 3 has addressed this in some degree by adding a textured notch (that's bordering on being positioned to the rear of the device, given where the screen ends), we just find the separation between these virtual buttons' positions to be too great and the pressing of them far too hit-and-miss - we more often switched the screen to lock instead of turning the volume down. There is a back-up physical off switch to the top of the phone if it's needed in an emergency, but you won't be pressing it at any other time given where it's placed.

Pocket-lintVivo NEX 3 review image 9

Although we're not sold on the no buttons feature, the NEX 3 does embody part of the 2019 Apex Concept's top features: an improved under-screen fingerprint scanner. It's super-fast to respond, making it the best we've used in a to-market handset. Vivo says it's 25 per cent quicker than its last implementation, which feels spot on.

But back to that screen for a moment. Some have criticised the idea of a so-called waterfall display, as the open curved edges to each side mean it's easy to accidentally touch and activate it when you don't want. In the NEX 3 it's undeniably massive, but the software has a built-in algorithm to ignore what it perceives as accidental touches. Without our own apps on the device it's hard to tell for certain, but navigating around the software when photographing the phone it seemed to be doing its job.

The screen itself is sourced from Samsung, so it's an AMOLED panel. That means punchy colours, deep blacks and individual pixels being able to switch on and off - meaning little tricks like edge illumination for certain alerts are possible, rather than the need for a notification light. It can hit up to 800 nits, ticking all the boxes for HDR10 high dynamic range. Perfect for viewing media on at this large scale.

Pocket-lintVivo NEX 3 review image 8

Perhaps more eye-catching than the screen, however, is the rear finish of the NEX 3. In the guise before your eyes it's called Liquid Galaxy - perhaps yet another nod to the Samsung S11 of the future, eh? - which is a reflective, almost shimmering finish that catches the light somewhere between blue and pearl, with rainbow refractions and lots to keep you interested. It looks great, save for being a fingerprint magnet - far more so than the simpler Glowing Night (we'll call that 'black', then) version.

Hardware

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor
  • Vapor Chamber cooling system
  • Qualcomm X50 modem for 5G
  • 8/12GB RAM configurations
  • 4500mAh battery capacity
  • 44W Super FlashCharge
  • No wireless charging
  • Funtouch OS 9.1

Vivo has stacked in the hardware, too, with Qualcomm's SD855 Plus processor at the core, paired with 8GB or 12GB RAM depending on the configuration. That processor can get hot - especially in its 5G format - so there's also Vapor Chamber cooling to keep things ticking along whatever you happen to throw at it.

Pocket-lintVivo NEX 3 review image 5

But here's the thing: Vivo doesn't make phones for the whole world just yet, so its Funtouch OS 9.1 operating system is a bit of an oddity for any non-Asia market. There's no pre-installed Google, of course, while the combination of unusual swipe-up controls - the settings panel is an upward swipe from the bottom left, for example, like a more complicated iPhone setup - to act as back and return home controls continues to feel alien to us. It'll be a hurdle that needs some attention as and when Vivo brings its phones to Europe and the USA - something it says it's already "in talks" to deliver upon.

Anyway, the NEX 3 doesn't stop there when it comes to top-end specs. The Qualcomm X50 brings 5G to the fore, but Vivo has pushed for additional antennas to ensure the best possible connectivity. There are no fewer than six, all of which can be seen - two top, two bottom, two upper left/right - as little grey cut-out strips to the edges, which slightly breaks up that striking design, but should make for perfect connectivity irrelevant of which fingers are touching where on the device.

Pocket-lintVivo NEX 3 review image 6

With 5G being a bit of a battery eater, the NEX 3 also embodies a 4,500mAh battery. Not the most capacious we've ever seen in a phone, but it's about the right balance to allow for a number of things: there's 44W fast-charging, for example, which wouldn't be deliverable with a more capacious single-cell due to swelling and heat issues; it also avoids the phone being too huge, as the NEX isn't nearly as chunky as the 2019 Apex Concept. All positives in that regard, although there's no wireless charging.

Cameras

  • Triple cameras in round panel to rear
    • 64MP 1/1.7in size sensor, f/1.8, 26mm equivalent focal length
    • 13MP wide-angle camera, f/2.2, 120-degree field of view
    • 13MP 2x zoom, f/2.4, 52mm equivalent focal length
  • Pop-up front-facing camera, 16MP, f/2.09

The other big-hitter feature that Vivo embodies in the NEX 3 is its camera system. With the iPhone 11 Pro showing-off its not-so-pretty tri-camera system, Vivo manages to one-up the Cupertino-based maker in a number of ways: firstly, the circular rear design - which is akin to Nokia's latest implementation - is a lot neater than Apple's approach; secondly, this is the first time we've been able to handle a 64-megapixel main camera (ok, so it's not the first, Realme managed that with the XT in August 2019).

Pocket-lintVivo NEX 3 review image 2

The three lenses are: a 26mm equivalent wide-angle, which is the 64MP unit; a 13MP ultra-wide with 120-degree field of view (0.6x); and a 2x zoom of 56mm equivalent. More-or-less what you'll find in the iPhone 11 Pro then, except higher resolution at every step.

The exciting part is the 64MP unit (like the screen this also sourced from Samsung). This sensor is what's called 1/1.7in sized, thus much larger than the usual scale found in phone cameras. That makes for bigger diodes on the sensor itself, for a cleaner signal, which is entirely necessary when so much resolution is being handled. It's also testament to how that Qualcomm processor can whirr through huge resolution files.

But that 64MP resolution isn't just there to out huge images. Like the current spate of 48MP offerings - such as in the Moto One Vision - the Vivo can use a '4-in-1' system to take the best bits from four pixels as if they were one. That's useful to cherry-pick the least image noise out of the four, while providing a broader sample base to create sharper and more detailed looking shots as a result. They'll be 16MP images, which is more in the ballpark of what we'd call "normal".

Pocket-lintVivo NEX 3 review image 10

There's also blurred background portrait mode, a 2.5cm macro mode, and other features, including the love/hate beautification mode, and a hyper HDR mode with up to 7.65EV levels.

We'll be getting a take-away NEX 3 from the launch event and will be able to explore the idea of a 64MP camera in greater detail over the coming weeks, so we'll be diving deeper into quality at a later stage.

The other less obvious camera is the one to the front. This pop-up is a lot larger than Vivo's previous pop-up in the NEX S, which the company puts down to a new mechanism to speed the camera into position in a faster time (0.6s rather than 1.0s). That it's larger doesn't really matter, we suppose, as most of the time this camera unit is hidden in the body and you can forget it's even there.

Pocket-lintVivo NEX 3 review image 12

When the front-facing camera is commanded to pop-up it does so with an accompanying sound effect, with three to choose from. This is an entertaining novelty, also there to cover up the mechanical sound that you otherwise hear when ditching those sound options altogether (which is possible within settings).

First Impressions

The Vivo NEX 3 might not be available in Europe or the US at launch, but given its feature set it ought to catch phone geeks' attention for all the goodies it has on offer.

The huge waterfall display - a term that we're sure will catch on, as it's likely to be a 2019-20 feature for incoming flagships - and high-resolution, well-designed triple camera system are two high points. Not to mention the stacked innards for heaps of power and 5G connectivity.

Sure, the software is a grind, and the absence of physical buttons to the side as a result of that display is weird - but, in the case of the latter, talk about futuristic, eh?

That's really what the NEX 3 says to us: this is a handset that's a next-gen nod to the future; a handset that showcases features you won't find anywhere else right now; a handset that, in many ways, outshines the current roster of predictable flagships. Which is food for thought, because Vivo will be expanding and, who knows, in a year or two this kind of out-there flagship could be the Android handset to find itself in your pocket.

This article was first published 16 September 2019.