VIVO X21 Review: Here’s Something A Little Different

Smartphones these days look pretty much the same, and it doesn’t matter at which price point, there are lots of competitions, especially anything below the “flagship” level. They usually have a large display, a camera on the back and a fingerprint sensor somewhere. These days, smartphone manufacturers are chasing for larger displays and making the most out of the size of the device. A problem that all manufacturers face is the location of the fingerprint reader, and putting it at the back can be annoying, especially when you need to access the device without picking up the device. Vivo is the first to show their concept phone – the X21 at CES earlier this year, which being the first smartphone with an in-display fingerprint reader. It started as a concept phone, but it turned out to be a real item, and now it’s here in Malaysia. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a VIVO device that breaks the RM2000 price point, and with a price tag of RM2299, what does the premium mid-ranger offers apart from it’s game-changing fingerprint reader? Read along to find out.

Specifications
Qualcomm Snapdragon 660, Octa-core processor (4x 2.2GHz, 4x 1.8GHz)
6GB RAM, 128GB internal storage, microSD support up to 256GB
6.28-inch AMOLED FullView display with notch, 19:9 ratio
1080 X 2280 pixels, 401 pixels-per-inch
16-megapixel + 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, LED flash, video recording up to 1080p
12-megapixel f/2.0 front-facing camera
3200mAh non-removable battery, Qualcomm QuickCharge fast charging

Unboxing

VIVO is currently a proud sponsor of the on-going FIFA World Cup, so it’s unsurprising to see the World Cup logo all over the blue box that the X21 comes in. It’s a pretty flat box, and lifting the top cover reveals the phone on the left, as well as the rest of the accessories on the right – including a microUSB cable, a USB wall adapter, a pair of earphones, a tray removal tool and some documentations.

Design

Non-offensive, but a little boring

While it may have crazy technologies packed inside it, the designers have decided to give the X21 an understated look. In lots of ways, it looks pretty much similar to the cheaper V9. It’s design really doesn’t scream out much, but that’s something you’d expect from Vivo. It looks pretty boring next to its rivals.

Unlike the R15 Pro, picking up the device doesn’t wow much as well. Don’t get us wrong, it is one step above the V9, and even though the front and rear consists of premium glass with metal bands on its sides, it’s lighter weight doesn’t make it as premium feeling as the R15 Pro. Looking on the bright side, it’s 156-grams weight makes it easy to hold in hand for a longer period.

Vivo’s FullView Display dominates the front, and measures 6.28-inches. It’s 19:9 display ratio pretty much takes up the entire front panel, and have a screen-to-body ratio of 90.3%. The bezels on all sides are minimal, same goes to the lip at the bottom. The X21 still couldn’t escape the fate of having a having a notch on the top, which houses the 12-megapixel front-facing camera, an earpiece and a few sensors. The fingerprint reader is located at the bottom centre, and it’s naked to the eye.

The volume and power buttons are to the right as usual, and the headphone jack is located on top instead of at the bottom. Pretty surprisingly, Vivo decides to jam everything at the bottom of the device. Apart from the microUSB charging and data transfer port and the bottom-firing mono speaker, the SIM tray is at the bottom as well, which includes a nanoSIM and a hybrid slot. So, you’d have to choose between dual-SIM or memory expansion.

The rear of the device is pretty clean as well. It does have a brush aluminium look protected by a layer of glass. Placed vertically on the top left in its own housing is a pair of 12-megapixel and 5-megapixel camera setup, with a LED flash below it. There’s really nothing much on the back apart from the Vivo branding and some regulatory writings at the below.

While the X21 is offered in multiple colours in other market including a classy Aurora White and a very sweet Ruby Red colours, all we get is the basic-looking Black colour.

Specs and Performance

Solid for what it packs.

When manufacturers introduce a brand new technology and implement it on a device, you’d expect that it’s going to cost a lot. But, in Vivo’s case, their premium midrange line-up is their flagship at the time, so at the end of the day, let’s not forget that the X21 isn’t that expensive. Like the R15 Pro, it is powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 660 processor with AIE technology designed for mid-range smartphones, replacing the dated 625. The higher-powered cores will go up to 2.2GHz, while the rest is at 1.8GHz. Working along with the 660 processor is 6GB of RAM, as well as 128GB of internal storage. While it is perfectly fine on paper, knowing that there are competitions out there that offers better spec at pretty much the same price does put the X21 a bit on the less impressive side.

But luckily, the X21 performs pretty flawlessly during our review period. The Snapdragon 660 is a well-designed processor, and it has the power to deal with not only the lighter tasks, but also some heavy tasks. We’d expect the heavy user interface skin to behave weirdly, but it holds up really well. Some third party apps might introduce a bit of trouble especially on the loading time, but it’s not a big deal at all. Of course, the AIE version of the 660 processor learns your usage, and makes sure that what you need is always ready, and using less power. Under load, the construction of the processor allows the X21 to stay pretty cool, and battery drain is not severe. The 6GB of RAM also allows lots of room to breathe, and boosted by the AIE technology.

Looking at numbers, the results obtained from Geekbench are quite impressive. You’ll get around 1583 for single-core score, while multi-core score sets around 5794.

The version of the X21 that we get there in Malaysia comes with 128GB of internal storage, and like on the R15 Pro, it offers good amount of storage, and a fair speed too. You can expect around 300MB/s for sequential read, as well as close to 200MB/s for sequential write. If you think that’s not enough, you can extend it with a microSD card with sizes up to 256GB.

Connectivity wise, there’s always an elephant in the room with these devices. On one hand you’ll have the latest and greatest – including a dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, with Hotspot and Direct functionality. There’s even Bluetooth 5.0 which is first seen on Vivo devices, and you can enjoy greater speed and more bandwidth on this one too. On the other hand though, it does lack NFC chip or any IR blaster, and worst of all, all the data transfers and charging are still handled by a microUSB 2.0 port at the bottom.

And now we’re finally talking about the X21’s party trick – the in-display fingerprint reader. It is co-developed with Synaptics, and is located at the center, but towards the bottom of the display. It is pretty invisible for most of the time, unless it’s under bright sunlight. It’s only at a spot rather than an entire area, but it’s conveniently located. It will let you know the location of the spot at all times when the device is locked by showing a little fingerprint icon, and like all other fingerprint readers, all you need to do is to put your finger down, and it’ll show a little animation which can be changed while it’s doing its work. AMOLED display works really well here as it will light up the area of the sensor so that it can read it.

Being the first device to feature this new technology, I must say that it’s pretty impressive. Compared to a regular fingerprint reader, no doubt it’s slower and less accurate, especially when your finger is greasy or wet. But it’s no slower than the earlier version of regular fingerprint readers. There’s a lag between it starts scanning and it actually unlocks, and will take us some time to get used to it, especially after coming from devices with super quick unlock. At times it will not even recognize the fingerprint, but luckily, that doesn’t happen frequently.

If the fingerprint-unlock fails, there’s still face unlock. Setting up and using the face unlock is easy, and it’s quick too. It’s able to scan your 3D facial features, and make sure it’s a real face instead of an image in a very short time. It works really well in well-lit conditions, and at times it can be quicker than using fingerprint unlock. In darker conditions, the X21 does have a built-in infrared light to aid the face unlock, so that it’s not completely useless.

Display

Close, but not close to FullView enough.

Luckily, the display is where the X21 will earn some credit, well, kind of. It measures 6.28-inches, and you had to credit its 19:9 display ratio for being able to fit without making it a bulky phone. At the time that this device is being released, they still had to figure out spot for the front camera, earpiece and sensors, hence the notch the top. But, we’re happy to see that the lip at the bottom is still quite small. With a resolution of 1080 X 2280, it’s definitely not the sharpest out there, but it’s 402 pixels-per-inch density is sufficient to make the display crisp and sharp for everyday use.

The display is also backed by an AMOLED panel – something we’re really looking for. In this case, it’s pretty much necessary in order for the in-display fingerprint sensor to work. But, like the R15 Pro, the AMOLED panel used in the X21 isn’t as good as something you’d expect from Samsung or OnePlus. Yes, it still works as usual, where the pixels don’t light up on parts that are black, thus causing the colours to pop. The colours are still vibrant and accuracy is pretty spot on. It’s just that it feels more of a top-of-the-line IPS panel rather than an AMOLED. The auto function also turns the brightness a little lower than it should, causing it to look dark and dull. Also, it goes just bright enough to be able to use it under the sun. Still, viewing angles are spot on.

Speakers

They’re alright for what they are!

In the past, we’ve criticized the speaker on previous Oppo/Vivo devices, but this time, we’re happy to see some improvements. It’s still only a mono speaker, but this time, it’s a good one. There’s good amount of clarity, and bass level is nice as well. While it doesn’t distort at max volumes, it doesn’t really have the loudness to do so.

Camera performance

They’ve put some work on this, I suppose!

In store for the Vivo X21 is a 12-megapixel camera with f/1.8 aperture, and is assisted by a 5-megapixel camera, and both are placed on top of each other in their own housing. Vivo claims that the 12-megapixel sensor is a dual-pixel sensor, where images should turn out to be sharper and more light.

As in real life, the X21 performed within expectations. As always, the sensor is at it’s best when it has sufficient lighting. It does a good job at rendering details, and luckily it doesn’t suffer from any oversharpening issue. The colours are pretty vibrant too, with good contrast level and pretty vivid yet accurate colours. Vivo has also added in A.I.-assisted HDR, which works surprisingly well at balancing out different lightings of a picture, which is the reason why you should leave it in auto at all times.

You’d expect it to be a hit and a miss when as the lighting gets darker. But, the X21 actually performed quite well. It all goes out to its dual pixel camera, which instead of blindly increasing the ISO or shutter time, it takes multiple photos and combine them to produce brighter samples with less noise. On the X21 though, credit where credit’s due, the images does have less noise, and the colours doesn’t wander off too much, which is common for low-light images. The details are alright as well, but the images can be a little too dark at times.

Along with the 12-megapixel shooter, there’s also a 5-megapixel sensor, which is mainly for collecting depth information for simulated depth effects. The X21 takes pretty good portraits, and most of the time it gets its shapes right. They could still use some work on the effect, as it looks a little too artificial. But overall, it gets its job done pretty well if you need it.

As for video, the X21 will actually shoot in 4K, along with 1080p and 720p. All of them are locked at 30 frames-per-second though, so there’s no 1080p 60 fps which we much preferred. In 4K the details are alright, we’ve definitely seen sharper videos for 4K, but it’s still a usable resolution. Stepping down to 1080p doesn’t hurt much either. There’s not much choppy frames at both resolutions. It also looks like there is Electronic Image Stabilization on both resolutions, but it’s more apparent on 1080p.

Flipping around reveals the 12-megapixel front-facing camera, with f/2.0 aperture. Vivo and Oppo are known to offer devices which attracts selfie shooters, and the X21 is no exception. Vivo’s AI-assistance extends to its face beautification feature, where it will map hundreds of points and apply artificial beautification accordingly. Sticking it in “AI” settings is probably the best you’d get, even though it will still look a little too artificial. Overall, there’s good image quality too, with nice details and fairly even colours. The portrait mode will also blur the background of a person, and without assistance from a secondary camera, it is a bit of a hit and miss.

As always, Vivo’s camera app can feel quite familiar for those coming from and iOS device, as the general interface is pretty much similar. The shortcut buttons live on the left side, which includes a setting button (unlike OPPO’s which makes you go all the way to Settings app). There are a few additions apart from the usual photo and video modes. Vivo has also incorporated AR stickers which involves face tracking. There’s also a professional mode, with lots of settings to play around – including the usual ISO, exposure value, shutter speed, white balance and focus.

Software

Not too bad, but can be unpolished.

Like all other Vivo devices, the X21 comes with Vivo’s Funtouch OS 4.0, their own customization on top of Android 8.1. Like previous versions, they look and feel different from regular vanilla Android systems. There’s not even an app drawer for the home screen, but instead you’ll have the apps scattered around on the home screen, mixing together with the widgets. Again, if you’re coming from an iOS device, it’s easy to see that Vivo taken a lot of inspiration from there. The interface performs alright, and no part of the software will slow it down, but still, we’d prefer a more vanilla interface. It also comes with less bloatwares, and overall the interface isn’t bad, just that it can be frustrating to use at times.

Battery life

Average capacity calls for average battery life.

With the built-in 3200mAh battery which is average for devices like these, the X21’s performance on battery is average too, and it comes alright with our medium-to-heavy use, returning around 20% after 12 hours away from the charger. It will last us slightly more than a day, before requiring you to fetch its charger.

Luckily, the X21 also supports fast charging technology, although they didn’t specify which standard it might be. Thankfully, it’s not a proprietary quick charging system, as it picks up fine with a regular charger with Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0. From a flat battery to 50% takes 30 minutes, and it will slow down as the charge gets higher.

Our Verdict

To be fair, we’re happy to see that manufacturers are starting to implement new technologies into devices that won’t cause a huge hole in our pockets, but then again, the X21 is Vivo’s flagship at the time, until the NEX joins in. In our market, it’s similar to OPPO’s R15 Pro since they are related, with the R15 Pro offers more premium experience. Then, we have devices such as OnePlus 6 which offers better specification on paper at pretty much the same price. The X21 isn’t bad either, it gets the performance right, looks good and performs well for most of the time. It can be overshadowed by its rivals, but it’s still a phone to be considered if you’re shopping for a device at this price.

Things we like:
• Lightweight design
• Standard quick charging system
• In-display fingerprint reader looks well embedded and not visible for most of the time
• Nice AMOLED display
• Camera performance

Things we’re not sure of:
• Average battery size and life
• Notch on the top
• Pretty unpolished user interface
• Specs unappealing
• Delay on the fingerprint reading process.

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