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Vivo X21 Review: On-Screen Fingerprint Scanner, But What Else?

Months ago, we saw the announcement of the Vivo APEX concept phone, the world’s first truly bezel-less smartphone (all screen, all the way to the edges). Barely enough time has passed for us to catch our breath, and Vivo has unveiled the Vivo X21, the world’s first market-ready smartphone that features an on-screen fingerprint scanner. This piece of technology is vital to achieving the holy grail of an all-screen smartphone – the one we dreamt up in sci-fi fantasies in our younger years. While we wait with bated breath for its next iteration that would eliminate the notch that has got me a record five “is it an iPhone X” queries in the three days I’ve had it, VR Zone takes you through our first impressions of this incredibly futuristic device.

Vivo gave us at VR Zone a look of the Vivo X21. Along with India, Singapore is the second market in the world, and the first in Southeast Asia get the device after Vivo’s home base of China. The relentless competition in the smartphone market in China in the three-cornered fight between giants Huawei, Xiaomi and Vivo have brought to us some of the greatest innovations yet. Vivo’s landmark announcement of their APEX concept phone had two main strategies to eliminate all vestiges of bezel oppression: a motorized unit housing the front-facing camera, and an on-screen fingerprint scanner.

Vivo X21: First Impressions

The unit came in a Vivo branded box, proudly announcing their sponsorship of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. I’m no soccer fan, but I know that’s a pretty big event. Good on you, Vivo, good on you. Within the box, we find the device itself in a beautiful black hue. Also included are the charging cable and power brick. I immediately noted the lack of Qualcomm Quick Charge branding and the fact that the cable terminated in micro USB. No big deal, we had used those for years with little issue. We also found the manuals and papers and an included TPU case.

I love it when they include cases.

Sleek and light, the Vivo X21 feels great in the hand. Image: Ian Ling

In black, the device itself is a marvel to behold. A deep dark hue throughout, it is only interrupted by a discrete Vivo logo in silver, and a vertical camera array flush to the right of the device (when you are holding it with its screen to you). Much like the iPhone X, I hear? I guess.

I didn’t care much for the faint “vivo 1726 / Designed by vivo” glimmering at the base of the back of the device, but that remained mostly out of the way.

Vivo X21: Form Factor

There are three physical buttons: the volume rocker resides on the top right side of the device, with the wake button to the bottom of it – all operated with my thumb as a right-hander, which required some muscle memory since they are all indistinguishable. At the bottom, we find the speaker grille to the right of the micro USB port. The port itself is oriented the opposite way most of us would be used to. To the left of the port, we find the SIM tray. It is a usual dual SIM/ SIM and MicroSD deal.

On the top, we find the sacred 3.5mm port, rumoured to be a portal to an older era.

Powering on the device, the notch is striking but only as much as the iPhone X’s. it seems about as thick, but slightly narrower. On it, we find the speaker grille for calls, the 12MP front-facing camera to its right, and the IR emitter/sensor array well camouflaged to its left (I only noticed its with its emitted flashes as I took a video of the phone while attempting to unlock with my face).

Though barely noticeable, the Vivo X21’s bottom bezel is slightly thicker than its other edges.

At 156.2g, the phone also has noticeably less heft than several other options like the iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy S9+.

The Vivo X21 with its camera set to maximise screen space. Image: Ian Ling

Extending all the way to its bezels apart from a small notch, the X21’s screen was reminiscent to that on the iPhone X’s. Sporting a screen with a 19:9 aspect ratio, real estate was in high supply on the device. However, this odd aspect ratio meant that many games and videos did not fully maximise its display all the way to the edges. This left black bars on either side when in landscape mode in many usage cases, like when I watched videos on YouTube, or played games like PUBG. Unlike other Android phones I’ve tested, I was unable to ‘expand’ the video to maximise the viewing experience by swiping fingers apart.

The Vivo X21 playing a video on YouTube. Downside: you don’t get to maximise screen space. Upside: you don’t have to get irritated by the notch. Image: Ian Ling

Vivo X21: Fingerprint Sensor and AI Face Access

I immediately leapt into the settings to set up the fingerprint sensor. As expected, I was prompted to set up a PIN code for unlock, and the phone prompted me to press and hold my fingers on the glowing fingerprint glyph near the bottom of the screen. It did, however, remind me that I would achieve better success with a “slightly deeper press”. After about ten presses, it instructed me to adjust my grip in order to finish the process. It took about eight more scans to successfully register. Not the fastest set-up ever, but manageable. As per instructions, deeper presses (think iOS Force Touch) are generally more successful.

The position of the sensor means that the savviest option would be scanning your thumbs for ambidextrous hand-held access, and index fingers for tabletop laziness. As an optical sensor, some security concerns have surfaced. However, unscanned fingertips and attempts by friends to unlock the phone were all futile.

It looks deceptively pedestrian, but it sure did feel surreal being able to unlock the phone by pressing your finger against the screen. Image: Ian Ling

Face unlocking performed satisfactorily and reliably, though I found it had slight trouble recognising me when I styled my hair away from my forehead. The device was able to unlock even when I had different expressions on.

Vivo X21: Camera

I’m a photographer, so I naturally have very strong opinions about cameras on my devices. I had my doubts about the camera initially, thinking this was a gimmicky phone targetted at suckers (like myself) who really just want to get their hands on the coolest tech available. The Vivo X21 well and thoroughly impressed me in the photography department.

HDR on the Vivo X21. The device features AI HDR that intelligently detects ambient light intensity. I think it performed pretty fine in this situation. The front of the temple was quite a bit darker than the overcast (but still bright) midday sky. Image: Ian Ling

Colours are vibrant and saturated. Most users would find this pleasing, though I would personally scale back slightly.

Apples. Colour reproduction is accurate, vibrant and saturated enough to make your photos convincing and compelling. Image: Ian Ling.

Food photography does benefit from these traits too. Even in challenging lighting conditions, larger pixels and dual-pixel technology helps with the retention of image quality.

Chirashi don makes quite the colourful subject to test a camera, doesn’t it? Even in low artificial (fluorescent) lighting, food appears fresh, glistening and exactly how one would perceive it. Image: Ian Ling

The device also sports portrait mode on both dual rear shooters and front-facing cameras. Personally, I think it’s hit-and-miss, but I’d let you judge yourself. This image was taken on the first try.

I didn’t mean to pull a face, but reviewing can be tiring. Image: Ian Ling

Vivo X21: Usage

The Vivo X21 sports a proprietary interface, Funtouch OS 4.0. I can’t say I like it, nor that it grew on me. Nonetheless, it was completely tolerable. It’s Android, and you can build a custom interface on a launcher of your choice, so I wouldn’t sweat it at all.

Funtouch OS 4.0 on the Vivo X21. Image: Ian Ling

The performance was great despite a less-than-flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 660AIE chip. The included 6GB RAM and 128GB ROM is more than ample for a device of this pedigree. Games like PUBG and Vainglory ran smoothly, though there was the occasional frame drop. As a photographer, I utilise image editing suites pretty often. Accurate colour representation and quick processing are essential when I travel light and do simple edits while mobile to keep the Instagram feed real. Lightroom CC and Snapseed ran without a hitch and rendered filters and brushes quickly.

We ran the AnTuTu mobile benchmarking application, which measures the performance of different aspects of the device. CPU performance scored the best relatively, defeating 77% of all competitors. GPU and Memory performance, however, only defeated 26% and 16% respectively. Overall, it ranked 51st amongst all devices tested on the application.

Geekbench 4 rated single-core CPU performance at 1609, which came in below 2016’s Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy Note 7 which scored 1806 and 1786 respectively. Multi-core performance at 5649 did beat out both these phones which scored 5228 and 5213 respectively. You can find the full details of the benchmark here.

As a music lover, retaining the 3.5mm port meant so much more with Vivo’s implementation of the AK4376A audio chip.

I had also noted that the Vivo X21 is not compatible with Google Pay – a significant detail for me personally since I’ve grown accustomed to ditching my wallet and paying with my phone. My guess would be that optical fingerprint sensors aren’t secure enough, or that Color OS is not supported, but my guess is as good as the next person’s. Bank applications and other options should function just fine since they don’t rely on biometric data.

So, who is the Vivo X21 for?

At SGD799, the Vivo X21 is a great leap in the right direction (take note, literally every other phone manufacturer). We loved the implementation of its on-screen fingerprint scanner, though we didn’t care much for its iPhone X-esque styling. If this is what it takes to give me the all-screen-no-bezel phone of my childhood dreams, I’ll gladly accept it. We were also blown away by its camera performance, one of the most convincing consumer-angled picture quality we’ve seen on an Android phone. Images were clear, though more saturated, contrasty and vibrant than what you would see with bare eyes. With dual-pixel technology and bigger individual sensor pixels, low light performance was decent as far as phone camera sensors come in 2018. Sound quality was good, though LG’s audiophile pedigree V and G series phones still hold the fort in that arena (almost every other phone has since ditched the 3.5mm port).

However, it lacks in raw performance, choosing instead to optimise a lighter-duty chipset with AI and other workarounds. On the outside, the lack of weather-proofing certification means this phone is unfortunately not the best option for individuals who work rough jobs or in the outdoors. Media consumption isn’t optimised, and it sports a single speaker unit, but with a very convincing AMOLED screen and great-sounding DAC, I wouldn’t rule this phone out except for the most demanding of users.

Pricing and Availability of the Vivo X21

The Vivo X21 is available at an MSRP of SGD799 (USD595) from major retailers and telcos.

Ian Ling
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

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