Innovation! The key to success for most of the tech giants that ever existed. Nokia did it first with their swanky and out of the world designs. Apple did it by creating what is arguably the world’s first smartphone and Samsung did it with their superb curved displays. Innovation is what made these brands into household names and the lack of it has seen many a downfall.
It’s a sad fact then that most brands these days expect the customers to buy an expensive new smartphone every year when they cannot be bothered to put in the effort to make something worth the investment.
The point of this rather long rant is to not only jolt the tech giants (you know who you are) out there to get off their backsides and get out of the rut we are currently in, but also highlight the efforts and creativity that relatively smaller brands display in their smartphones with a fraction of the R&D budgets.
Vivo in recent years has flooded the Indian market and now has introduced the X21 right out of the pages of a sci-fi novel.
As is the case with the notch-ing up of most smartphones in 2018, the Vivo X21 is no different in that regard. It’s a design we have gotten familiar with by now (and if you haven’t, you better get with it asap) with the usual notch at the top and a slight chin at the bottom.
The 3D glass back cover looks and feels premium and although incredibly glossy, it takes a very keen eye to see any fingerprints on it. The X21 has a sleek feel to it and fits nicely in one hand but being 6.28in display makes it difficult to access the diagonally opposite corners.
The bottom houses a USB 2.0 charging port (we hoped it would be USB C), along with the speaker grill and SIM/MicroSD card slot, while the headphone jack (yaay) is located at the top. The power and volume rocker is on the right hand side while the left is left (geddit?) empty.
The dual lens camera on the back causes a very minor camera bump and has a vertical orientation with the flash right under it.
Overall it’s a design we are used to and would be difficult to differentiate if placed face up next to the OnePlus 6, or Huawei P20 Pro.
The Super AMOLED display on the X21 dominates the front with a 90.3% screen to body ratio. The display itself is bright, with excellent viewing angles. Watching movies and browsing are a joy with accurate colour reproduction and sharp text thanks to the 2280x1080 FHD+ display. All that real estate makes gaming a pleasure as well once your brain adjusts to the notch. The screen itself is curved along all four edges and the notch making the large screen even more immersive and premium looking. However, if you are used to a notch-less screen, you might be a bit out of luck as the notification bar on notch-less phones show you the icons of apps you have notifications for. The notch pretty much hides all the notification icons and swiping down is the only way to get an idea of the notifications that are pending. Apart from that little flaw, it’s a brilliant bright screen with deep blacks and an impressive colour palette.
For the price, the smartphone cameras from Vivo have been reasonably good, offering quite the bang for your buck and enticing the younger audience. They almost always capture flattering images of people, sometimes at the expense of a slight loss in detail and over-exposed shots.
The cameras on the X21 are a rung above other Vivo cameras we have tested, capturing more detail and with better colour accuracy, but it still tends to overexpose bright areas. It’s important to note that the OnePlus 6 captures loads of more detail and manages light better at a slightly lower starting price. Having said that, the dual rear camera setup manages to click stunning shots in almost all conditions. Performance in well-lit conditions is pretty good but where the X21 shines is in low light situations where the Vivo’s natural affinity to let more light into the sensors is a serious advantage. Going on a photography expedition at night results in stunning shots much brighter and detailed than it really is.
The front camera on the Vivo clicks selfies with one aim in its circuits. The aim being, to make you look good, maybe at the expense of a few things. Normal selfies, without any filters or enhancements tries to get the best out of your mug sometimes at the expense of the background being over exposed in a brightly lit environment. The front camera does well when it comes to clicking selfies and group shots in the dingy underbelly of the city known as nightclubs. Where other cameras have difficulty focusing and correctly exposing the shots in the dim environments (that may or may not include strobing lights), the X21 handles it amicably, delivering pleasing images.
The cameras also have portrait mode (let’s be honest, everyone does these days) that does really quite well, managing edges quite decently but it’s not all that consistent. But then again, we haven’t tested any smartphone camera that gets it right all the time.
We would recommend not using the Beauty Mode unless you wanna end up looking like a victim of a botched up plastic surgery. Trust us, we tried it!
PERFORMANCE & SOFTWARE
Here’s where things tend to get a bit weird. The X21, clearly is not meant for all those stock Android purists out there. Bloatware is rather rampant throughout the system with in-built apps for everything, like weather, mail, browsing, cloud and managing apps.
If however, you are open minded about heavy skins and don’t mind a bit (bit might not be the correct word but, oh well it fits) of bloatware, FunTouch OS makes for a pretty polished software experience.
The OS is clearly “inspired” by Apple’s iOS and has some incredibly convenient features. Swiping from the bottom brings up the Control Centre where one can access recently used apps, adjust the brightness and volume of the device, and toggle from an array of frequently used functions like Wi-Fi, mobile data, Bluetooth, flashlight rotation lock, etc. Being a big device, it’s highly convenient to have access to these functions with a swipe up from the bottom rather than having to get your thumb all the way to the top. Swiping downward from anywhere on the home screen brings up the global search function which lets you weed out any setting, app, contact, file, message, song, email etc. on the device. If the search term is not present on the device it will also give you Google results for the same. To be honest, that’s a highly useful feature to have, saving you from the trouble of going on an exploring rampage the likes of which we haven’t seen since the dawn of computing.
The Settings and Notifications are laid out in a very iOS fashion, but thankfully notifications from the same app are stacked in together. Incidentally, that feature was announced by Apple for iOS devices at their recent WWDC keynote. It’s kinda like a student surpassing the master.
Overall, in terms of software, the X21 gives you the best of both worlds. The worlds being, the subtle and convenient features of iOS and the highly customisable and vast world of Android.
The software is handled brilliantly by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor and 6GB of RAM. It is of course a bummer to get a mid-range processor at a price close to flagships and the OnePlus 6 gets you a Snapdragon 845 at slightly lower cost. The slightly slower processor however results in more frugal power consumption, increasing battery life.
Although, it’s a mid-range processor, it is by no means a slouch. The Snapdragon 660 is the most powerful 6 series processor out there, keeping things brisk and smooth. Apps open and perform really fast and heavy games run smoothly without any lag whatsoever.
At 128GB, there is ample usable storage that shouldn’t max out anytime soon. The battery life is pretty impressive too, with the 3200 mAh non-removable battery lasting more than a day with reasonably heavy use.
IN-DISPLAY FINGERPRINT SENSOR
And now, finally we get to the in-display fingerprint sensor. The reason you are reading this review and stuck with us for so long. The reason for the long rant at the start and of course the reason we love the tech world. The in-display fingerprint sensor on the X21 is a revolutionary concept that could evolve into a new and better way of interacting with your phone. As of now, it’s the coolest feature to have on a smartphone, judging from the reactions of people whom we showed it to.
Let’s make things clear. The in-display fingerprint sensor works as well as any dedicated fingerprint sensor. It is a bit slower than traditional sensors because it needs to light up the portion of screen before it can read the fingerprint, but it is by no means slow enough to be frustrating. We need to understand that the current crop of dedicated fingerprint sensors have gotten so good and so quick that the in-display kind on the Vivo seems slow in comparison. In a stand alone test, without other devices to compare with, the Vivo registers the finger and logs you in and it would be difficult to realise it was slightly slower.
Although it might be a bit slow, it must be understood that this is the first phone in the world to have this figured out. They beat Apple and Samsung to the punch with relatively smaller R&D budgets and at a sensible price point.
The Vivo X21 with this feature alone shows that some manufacturers still care about innovation and getting ahead of the competition with substantial improvements and breakthroughs in technology.
Other security features on the Vivo include face recognition which is blazing quick but works in a weird way. Weird in the sense that it's quite inconsistent with unlocking the device with eyes shut and spectacles on. That might be a bit unsafe considering anyone could get into your device while sleeping by just pointing it towards your mug. Happily however it does not seem to work with images but we would suggest you stick to using the fingerprint if you are a sucker for security, at least until Vivo fixes it with a future update.
Clearly, the Vivo X21 is quite a nifty smartphone. But is it worth the price? After all, smartphones with similar specs are almost ₹10K cheaper. At that price, you can get the OnePlus 6 which offers much more for the price and should last you much much longer before you need to upgrade. Having a Snapdragon 660 processor is probably the biggest deterrent for anyone buying the X21, which does not make the processor or phone bad in any way but just makes it too expensive. After all the Nokia 7 Plus with the same processor is much cheaper.
What would make you buy this device though is the ground-breaking technology and the bragging rights of having the first ever smartphone with an in-display fingerprint sensor. The price and value of the device comes down to this one feature, and as people who love tech and innovation, we would have no problem coughing up for the Vivo X21!