Vivo Nex smartphone review: a Mandarin-speaking assistant, no bezels and no notch
Handset has a pop-up selfie camera, and fingerprint hardware beneath the screen. It has plenty of processing and battery power, although its Mandarin-speaking assistant limits its use outside China
At one point, 2018 was shaping up to be the year of the smartphone notch, but last month Shenzhen brands Vivo and Oppo threw a wrench into the plans with the separate launch of two “true” all-screen – meaning no notch – handsets a week apart. While we’ve yet to get our hands on Oppo’s Find X, we have been testing Vivo’s Nex, and it’s a collection of futuristic concepts tucked into a refined package.
Design and hardware
Ever since Xiaomi got the ball rolling with the Mi Mix in autumn 2016, the smartphone industry has been on a mission to eliminate bezels as much as possible. While the Mi Mix achieved its almost no-bezel look by eliminating the proximity sensor and relocating the selfie camera, Apple decided the approach was too radical and settled for the compromise of the notch, and everyone else agreed that was the way to go.
The Vivo Nex is the first phone to avoid making the Sophie’s choice of either sacrificing sensors or settling for a notch. It has done so by using cutting-edge tech that shoved everything underneath the display.
The proximity sensor, fingerprint reader, and 8-megapixel selfie camera module are all housed inside the handset, with the first two embedded directly behind the OLED display panel and the camera module as a pop-up component at the top of the phone. There is no traditional earpiece; instead the Nex uses bone conducting tech to vibrate sound through the screen to your ears.
If all these sounds gimmicky, rest assured that most are not. The in-display fingerprint scanning tech has, for example, improved since Vivo’s last release, and is now much more reliable on the Nex. The proximity sensor does its job and the bone-conduction method of transmitting sound worked like a charm during several test calls.
The only part I’m sceptical about is the pop-up camera module. It’s been working fine through my five days of testing, but ultimately it is still a motorised moving part, and those have a much higher rate of failure. I also wonder what would happen if I dropped the phone, or if the camera app froze or crashed, while the module was popped out.
Everything else about the phone is top notch but predictable, save for an extra hardware button. The Nex has the same glass-on-glass design, and though Vivo embedded tiny geometric patterns into the back glass that creates refractions of rainbows when viewed from angles, the look and feel are nothing new.
The OLED panel is sourced from Samsung so it’s excellent to look at, but I suspect it’s an older generation panel because it doesn’t get as bright as the Samsung Galaxy S9’s screen.
Powering everything is a Snapdragon 845 chip set with 8GB of RAM. This is the most powerful combination of processing power and memory in Android, and it’s matched only by the OnePlus 6 and Xiaomi’s Mi 8 and Mi Mix 2S.
Software and features
The Nex runs the company’s heavily altered Android skin named FunTouch, and it is not software I’m fond of. FunTouch is heavily influenced by iOS, which means it behaves drastically differently from real Android.
For example, short-cut toggles in FunTouch are located inside the “control centre” that requires a swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This swipe up action is already an important part of Android (it’s used to bring up the app tray), and will play a more crucial role in the next Android update (9.0) as Google introduces swipe navigation. So anyone jumping over to a Vivo device from another Android will have to retrain their muscle memory entirely.
As mentioned earlier, there’s an extra hardware button on the left side of the Nex, and it’s used to trigger Vivo’s voice assistant, named Jovi. Unfortunately, Jovi can only understand Mandarin, which means the assistant is of no use for most people.
During my testing, I found Jovi to be reasonably intelligent at image recognition and understanding basic questions, but still, there is almost no chance Jovi can be as smart or useful as Google’s own Assistant, so anyone using the phone outside China should just ignore Jovi and use what’s already built inside Android.
Performance and battery life
The Nex runs smoothly for the most part, but I’ve experienced a couple of crashes with apps such as Instagram, and the phone just isn’t as lightning fast as the OnePlus 6. This is why Android geeks prefer stock Android (or something close to it like OnePlus’ OxygenOS) – Android skins ultimately add an unnecessary additional layer of software that increases the chance of bugs.
Battery life is excellent, thanks to the 4,000 mAh battery – the Vivo Nex is tied with the Huawei P20 Pro for the largest cell in a flagship handset. There’s definitely enough juice to get through an entire day for even the most heavy of users, because I am one.
As for camera performance, the Nex’s main camera set-up on the back is almost identical to that on the X21: a 12-megapixel Sony IMX sensor paired with a secondary 5-megapixel lens that’s used purely for depth detection.
I found the camera to be very good, but shots aren’t as perfectly balanced and colours aren’t as accurate as those from the iPhone XT, or as bold and eyeball-grabbing as the Huawei P20 Pro’s heavily processed images. In low light, the Nex’s large 1.4-micron pixel size does wonders, topping even the OnePlus 6 and iPhone X for generating light in dark spots, but is still no match for the Samsung Galaxy S9 or Huawei P20 Pro.
Vivo has implemented AI scene detection in its camera software, and it can recognise animals and scenery, just like Huawei’s NPU-powered phones, albeit at a much slower pace.
The pop-up selfie camera works fine, but again – I’m concerned about its durability.
The idea of the Vivo Nex was first teased at this year’s Mobile World Congress in the form of a “concept device” named the Apex. That demo device caught a lot of media attention, with the consensus being that it was a cool idea that wouldn’t work in the real world.
That Vivo has turned a concept into a real working phone in just four months is a testament to the company’s engineers.
Still, the biggest reason for the Nex’s existence is to introduce a notch-free phone, but after using the Nex alongside a notched OnePlus 6 for a few days, I can hardly tell the difference between the two in terms of screen immersion. The notch may be the butt of many jokes, but it really doesn’t get in the way of most daily tasks.
Factoring in the Nex’s higher-than-usual starting price of 4,488 yuan (HK$5,336) and the durability concerns of a moving camera module, this makes the Nex a phone best suited for tech enthusiasts and collectors. For the average consumer, a safer purchase would be the much cheaper Vivo V9 or another notched Android handset.
Dimensions: 162mm x 77mm x 7.9mm
Display: 6.6-inch 1,080 x 2,280 OLED panel
Battery: 4,000 mAh
OS version reviewed: FunTouch 4.0 over Android 8.1
Processor: Snapdragon 845
Cameras: 12MP f/1.8 sensor with a 5MP secondary depth sensor; 8MP front-facing pop-up camera
Memory: 8GB of RAM; 128GB/256GB ROM
Colours: black, red
Price: 4,488 yuan (US$678) 8GB RAM, 128GB ROM; 4,998 yuan (8GB RAM, 256GB ROM)