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Vivo V21 5G review: turbocharged camera

From typical teens to hip grandparents, Instagram influencers to Hollywood stars, selfies aren’t going anywhere – and Chinese brand Vivo is capitalising on that fact with its selfie smartphone, the V21 5G.

Don’t get it twisted – if you haven’t heard of Vivo, this isn’t some bandwagon brand that’s just pumped out a selfie phone with no credentials. Vivo’s been around for years has recently launched some great gimbal-stabilized camera phones and has even partnered with Zeiss to add some ooh-la-la heritage to its 2021 camera phone launches.

Back to the Vivo V21 5G, and three things give its selfie camera an edge: First, there’s that 44MP, high-resolution camera. Next, optical image stabilisation (OIS), which helps combat handshake. Finally, it’s helped along by a pair of front-flashing LED lights.

At £399, the V21 5G’s plastic build and mid-range specs don’t exactly sing when stacked up alongside phones like the much cheaper Redmi Note 10 Pro and OnePlus Nord. But can a killer selfie camera save Vivo’s latest midranger from mediocrity?

Design: A slim plastic sandwich

The Vivo V21 5G sports a glass screen and a plastic back that sandwich its plastic frame. At its price, you can start to find some very fancy looking glass and metal phones, like the OPPO Reno 4 Pro, making Vivo’s phone instantly feel a tad lacklustre.

Thankfully, as far as plastic phones go, the V21 5G’s a good looking one, and it’s super skinny too at just 7.3mm – versus the 7.7mm iPhone 13 and 7.9mm Samsung Galaxy S21. It’s available in Dusk Blue and Sunset Dazzle, and in certain lights, you’d easily mistake the back for frosted glass which helps add a bit of class.

Buttons and ports are as predictable as they come – power and volume buttons are on the right side; the bottom plays host to the USB-C port, which is bookended by a sole mono-speaker and a SIM tray, and there’s no headphone jack.

While the speaker is a big letdown – it’s far too easy to cover up when the phone’s held sideways, the SIM tray is a highlight. It takes either two SIM cards, or one SIM card and a microSD card, making supplementing the storage easy and inexpensive.

While there’s no IP water or dust resistance rating, the phone does ship with a case in the box, and a pre-fitted screen protector, so there’s a degree of protection from keys.

Screen: 2019 wants its notch back

There aren’t many Android phones over £350 with notches now. Most midrange and premium Androids pack punch-hole selfie cameras. The fact the Vivo V21 5G missed the memo makes its first impression feel a bit more entry-level than its price suggests. We understand fancy selfie cameras take up more room – but the screen’s look is nevertheless a touch dated from the offset.

Once we got past the notch though, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the V21 5G’s display. Measuring 6.44-inches, its 90Hz AMOLED screen is smooth, and a comfortable size to swipe and tap on.

With a resolution of 1080×2400 resolution, it’s around as sharp as the OnePlus 9 and not far behind the iPhone 12 Pro. Its 90Hz refresh rate makes menus glide, and web pages flow – helping the whole experience feel that bit snappier.

Add HDR10+ support to the mix, and the screen becomes a highlight, creating an awesome streaming experience on Vivo’s selfie phone – provided you bypass the tinny speaker with some headphones.

Cameras: Selfie-confident

The Vivo V21 5G’s 44MP selfie camera enjoys a wide-open f/2 aperture lens, autofocus and OIS, which means its selfies should be best-in-class. The camera also sports not one, but two front LEDs, so can evenly flood a face with light and fill out any unwanted shadows. There’s a lot more than just fancy hardware going on here though.

The Vivo V21 5G’s camera software features no less than 10 live filters, loads of portrait lighting effects and a disturbing amount of face-tweaking options. Launch the selfie camera in portrait mode and you can change the size of your forehead, increase the distance between your eyes, or even reduce the space between your nose and upper lip.

While we didn’t love the idea of having a full-blown digital Face-Off experience, we were glad to see the front camera can take a really impressive photo in plain auto mode, or portrait mode with no filters or face tuning applied.

The fact the selfie camera has autofocus means eyes are generally sharp, which is important for a portrait. Detail is also great in bright scenes, and when the lights go down, a steady hand and fill flash help selfies from the V21 5G edge ahead of the competition. The addition of 4K video is also a boon for selfie video fans and vloggers, with the results impressing in all but dimly lit environments.

As for the Vivo V21 5G’s main camera, it’s a triple camera system. There’s a primary 64MP camera with OIS, an 8MP ultra-wide camera, and a 2MP macro camera. Both the ultra-wide and wide cameras are mediocre at best, and only usable in bright scenes, however, the main 64MP camera shows promise. Its photo detail is ample, it pulls up a pleasingly shallow depth of field when taking macro shots with it, and colours have a natural, yet warm balance to them.

Performance: Meows while others roar

While you can get loads of gaming power at £399 – the OnePlus Nord 2 does a decent job with most games, while the mighty Poco F3 can handle pretty much anything on the market despite costing just £329, Vivo dials back the power for its V21 5G.

With a MediaTek Dimensity 800U 5G chipset paired with 8GB RAM, while you will be able to game on it, advanced 3D games like Genshin Impact play back with low graphics quality.

If you’re not a gamer, however, you might not even notice the lack of grunt. Running Android 12 with Vivo’s FunTouch OS 12, Vivo has Google’s latest version of its mobile OS onboard, and its interface is nice and light for Western markets. Matched with a 90Hz screen, and the whole experience feels smooth, masking the comparatively humble internals.

The phone also supports both an in-display fingerprint scanner and face recognition, so you can get into it quickly and relatively securely (the face detection won’t be anywhere near as secure as Apple’s Face ID).  When it comes to storage, an ample 128GB combines with microSD card support, so you should have plenty of room for games, photos and videos.

Battery: Small but fast charging

Most mid-range and entry-level phones these days, like the Poco M4 Pro and Redmi Note 10 Pro enjoy capacious 5000mAh batteries for comfortable better-than-day-long battery life. With just a 4000mAh battery in its slender shell, the Vivo V21 5G can’t stack up on the numbers front.

While its power saving is helped along by its modest processor with humble power needs, it’s also hampered by the fact it’s a 5G smartphone – 5G is a major battery drain, especially when tethering. So, despite the fact you’ll likely get a full day out of the Vivo V21 5G most of the week, even with a fair bit of messaging and photo-taking, if you’re anything like us, you might struggle on heavy 5G days.

When you do need a quick top-up though, the phone powers up at 33W, which is pretty quick given its price. Unlike iPhones and Galaxys, the Vivo V21 5G ships with a charger in the box, so you can power it up by 50% in as little as 25 minutes.

Verdict

The Vivo V21 is a unique phone. On the one hand, it checks a lot of boxes – the selfie camera is best in class, its screen and in-display fingerprint scanner are great, and there are plenty of storage options. It also delivers a decent day-in-day-out user experience.

Gamers will want more power – check out the Poco F3, while traditional photographers will want a better rear camera set up – as found in the cheaper Redmi Note 10 Pro. Anyone who doesn’t like selfies should also look elsewhere – the OnePlus Nord 2 is a great all-rounder at £369.

If your gallery is bursting with mediocre selfies you wish were better though, and you love the idea of turning your face to within an inch of being recognisably you, or you just want some extra fill light when snapping pictures of you and your loved ones, then the Vivo V21 5G is a very fun phone that gets a lot right.

Stuff Says…

Score: 4/5

A decent midrange phone with a turbo-charged selfie camera

Good Stuff

Best-in-class selfies

Impressive screen

Plenty of storage options

Bad Stuff

Poor mono speaker

Mediocre secondary cameras

Battery life could be better

Tech specs

Screen6.44in 1080×2400 AMOLED, 90Hz refresh rate, 20:9 aspect ratio
ProcessorMediaTek Dimensity 800U 5G
Memory8GB
Camera64MP, f/1.8 (OIS), 40MP, f/1.8 monochrome, 2MP macro, f/2.4, 8MP, ultra-wide, f/2.2
Storage128GB + microSD card support
SoftwareAndroid 12
Battery4000mAh, 33W fast charging
Dimensions159.7 x 73.9 x 7.3 mm, 176g