Big • beautiful • notch-less screen • Lots of innovation • Great rear camera
Fingerprint sensor often doesn’t work • Selfie camera is so-so
The Vivo NEX is undoubtedly a cool device, but you should probably wait for a (less buggy) successor.
It finally exists: a smartphone that’s (almost) nothing but a big, gorgeous screen on the front. It’s called the Vivo NEX, and it’s actually available for purchase.
To achieve this notch-less look, Vivo made several bold choices: It placed the selfie camera into a pop-up mechanism on top of the phone, and it put the fingerprint scanner under the display, which also doubles as a speaker.
I spent about a week with the NEX, and I can tell you that none of these choices is outright bad, but they come with enough drawbacks that you can’t help but wonder whether it’s all worth it.
The NEX comes in a few different configurations for RAM and storage; I tested the most powerful, black-colored variant called the Vivo NEX S. It’s the most beautiful Vivo phone I’ve held, largely due to its simplicity.
The back is glass, with a dotted, dark grey surface visible beneath and a vertically positioned dual camera. It’s far from flashy, but it’s not bad, either. On the front, there’s that big (6.59-inch!) screen, with the only bezel worth mentioning on the bottom — and even that one I measured to be only 5mm (0.2 inch) thick.
And what a screen! It’s a Super AMOLED with 2,316 x 1,080-pixel resolution, and it’s positively gargantuan compared to say, an iPhone X, or even the Huawei P20 Pro. Despite the slim bezels, the NEX S is definitely in phablet territory (if that’s still a word) and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but on the flip side, it’s the sort of phone that makes you want to sell your tablet as you probably won’t be needing it any more.
Like most OLEDs nowadays, the screen is bright with deep, dark blacks, and even though it’s not as good as the screen on the iPhone X, it’s not too far off.
However, despite all the tech it’s packing, the NEX S looks just sort of… normal. There’s no notch, so there’s nothing to stand out. That is, if you forget the fact that phones didn’t have bezels this thin up until now. But if you were expecting some sort of wow factor from whipping the NEX S out in public, it probably won’t happen.
While it feels odd to discuss sound when talking about the screen, in this case the speaker is the screen. I’ve seen this technology in action before and all I can say is that it works pretty much flawlessly: The audio coming from the speaker — pardon, screen — is crisp, with the added benefit that it’s equally loud no matter which part of the screen you press you ear into.
There’s an additional speaker at the bottom of the phone, but the two speakers unfortunately don’t work together that well, and the resulting sound isn’t very impactful. Compared to the iPhone X, the NEX S is quieter and less bassy. On the good side, at least it’s not awfully tinny at max volume like so many smartphone speakers.
That camera tho
You will get surprised looks when you turn on the selfie camera. Every time you do that, a pop-up mechanism pushes the camera up from the top of the phone. As soon as you close the camera or switch to the rear camera, the selfie camera retracts back down and disappears.
This is actually less of a nuisance than it might seem. It takes a little under a second for the selfie camera to fully “emerge” or collapse back down, which is slower than turning on the selfie camera on a “regular” phone, but far from horrible.
I don’t take selfies that often, and even when I do, time is rarely of the essence, so I didn’t mind this at all. But if you enjoy taking selfies with celebrities, where every millisecond counts, you might find the NEX S’s selfie camera too slow.
My NEX S unit came with an original case that leaves the top and bottom sides of the phone mostly open, but still protects the corners. Using a “standard” case that fully encases the phone from all sides is obviously out of the question, but unless you absolutely must have a case like that, the NEX S and its semi-open case shouldn’t be a big deal.
The protruding selfie camera has several interesting consequences. For example, now people around you can see whether you’re taking a selfie or if you’re taking a photo of something else. It’s a very minor thing, but it might matter to some users.
It also makes a sound when it pops out; by default, this sound is something akin to a lightsaber, but you can change it or turn it off completely. Again, it’s a small detail, but it makes the phone a little bit cooler.
The question I got most during my time with the NEX S was: Will this camera break? I don’t know the answer to that one. It didn’t break or stutter during the time I spent with the phone, and I used it hundreds of times. But given the additional parts and complexity, this camera is definitely more likely to fail than a “regular” selfie camera. This could turn out to be a big deal or no problem at all; we won’t know until this phone is selling en masse. Generally, though, it just feels like a solution that introduces more problems than it solves, and I highly doubt we’ll see it on very many phones in the future.
OK, but are the photos any good?
Oddly, the cameras are a weak link on the phone’s spec list: The selfie camera is an 8-megapixel shooter, and on the back there’s a 12- and 5-megapixel combo, so nothing to write home about. Despite the puny resolution (for Vivo’s standards), the rear cameras actually have nice features: both have optical and electronic image stabilization, large 1.4-micrometer pixel sensors, and a f/1.8 aperture.
The rear cameras produce great photos, akin to the similarly spec’d cameras on the Vivo X21. They’re good in daylight and great in poorly lit conditions, though Vivo’s post-processing software is a bit overzealous on sharpening. I compared the NEX S against the iPhone X and I consistently got better photos from the NEX S. In the photo below, taken in a pretty dark shed, the NEX produced a brighter, sharper photo with more accurate colors.
And in the example below, taken in broad daylight, it was actually the iPhone X that went crazy with sharpening and saturation, producing a photo that looks more attractive from afar but worse when you zoom in.
When using the cameras, I preferred using the full screen, 19.3:9 format — with it, the viewfinder covers the entire screen, which is pretty impressive given its sheer size and lack of notch. Also, like all smartphones these days, Vivo’s camera is AI-enhanced and it can recognize various objects, translate text and the like.
The selfie camera, however, was a disappointment. It was a bit laggy, and it had trouble adjusting the exposure in very bright conditions. Also, the beautifying effects were too much, and the bokeh effect — the NEX’s equivalent of Portrait mode — looked fake. Hopefully, a future iteration of the pop-up camera concept will result in a camera that’s better than the one you typically get on a smartphone, not worse.
An unreliable fingerprint sensor
The NEX S is not the first Vivo phone with an in-display fingerprint sensor. I recently reviewed the Vivo X21, and on that phone the setup process was a pain and actual usage was hit and miss. On the NEX S, things have improved somewhat. Here, the setup process was a lot faster (possibly because of my previous experience with such sensors), and I was able to register three different fingers without problems in just a few minutes.
In real life, however, the NEX S’s fingerprint sensor didn’t always work well. I was able to unlock the phone using my index fingers on both hands (most of the time — see video below). But getting the sensor to register my thumb — the preferred method of unlocking the phone for me — was often a pain. The first time I registered my right thumb, it didn’t work at all. I deleted that entry and registered it again, and it worked much better, but it still wasn’t perfect.
This is is made worse by the fact that the NEX S doesn’t offer an alternative besides typing in your PIN or password every time you want to unlock the phone. Unlike on the Oppo Find X, which also has a pop-up camera, you can’t set up face recognition on the NEX S. Yes, a few years ago we were all happily typing in our PINs for each smartphone unlock, but now that the fingerprint sensors are fast, reliable and ubiquitous, not having a reliable biometric solution for unlocking your phone feels like a huge step backwards.
Battery life, performance, and UI
The NEX S has top-notch specs: a Snapdragon 845 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and a 4,000 mAh battery (there are configurations with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage as well). However, I couldn’t test the phone with my usual apps, as I received a unit tailored for the Chinese market. In fact, I couldn’t even install the Google Play app store. This made it hard to test battery life accurately — the battery lasted for days, but that’s probably because I used the phone’s cameras and little else.
It’s worth noting that the NEX S’s UI is more or less a total clone of the iPhone X — most notably the swipe-to-go-home gesture — which was interesting to see on an Android phone. Instead of classic Android buttons you get three lines at the bottom of the screen, which give different functionality when you swipe up from them.
Coming from the iPhone X as my daily phone, at first I didn’t even notice I was switching to something else — that’s how similar the two interfaces are. If you’re coming from an Android phone, this will take some time to get used to, but after a while, swiping up to close an app or to go back will become second nature. And if you don’t like it, you can revert to the classic Android buttons in the phone’s Settings, but this will eat up a slightly larger portion of the screen.
On the software side, the Nex S is running Android 8.1 and Vivo’s FunTouch OS on top. Since everything on my unit was designed for China, I can’t give a full assessment of how it works, but I did notice some annoying glitches.
For example, watching a YouTube video in the NEX S’s built-in browser was a very painful experience, with parts of the screen twitching in certain scenarios and parts of the UI obstructing other parts of the UI at times. Hopefully, the international version will have these kinks ironed out at time of launch.
It’s only good if you can’t stand the notch
The Vivo NEX S is an interesting phone, but its novelty wears off pretty fast when you realize the fingerprint sensor works poorly and the selfie camera is nothing special.
The big, beautiful screen is great and so are its nearly nonexistent bezels. The rear camera is excellent. And the entire device is such a bold statement that you have to applaud Vivo for launching a phone with so many innovative solutions. Ultimately, however, the trade-offs are too big for the NEX to be a real contender.
The NEX S is currently only available in China and priced at CNY 4,998 ($751) for the 256GB version and CNY4,498 ($676) for the 128GB version. It’s slated to launch in Russia, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan in July.
Will it be followed by a whole bunch of selfie-camera-popping full-screen imitators? I kinda doubt it, but the Vivo NEX is a worthy experiment in phone design. But it should probably stay an experiment, at least for now.