The Latin meaning of the word Vivo is “full of life“, and if we take a look at the growth of the smartphone brand bearing this moniker, it’s easy to draw parallels. The manufacturer is still quite young in the smartphone industry, and yet, has an impressive portfolio of smartphones. Vivo is also among the fastest-growing brands in India, thanks to its extensive retail presence and focus on the latest trends like selfies and bezel-free displays. But now the phonemaker is taking its biggest leap in the Indian phone market. Not only is it entering the premium territory, but it’s also bringing a feature that has never made it to commercial products so far – the under-display fingerprint scanner. But is that one feature enough to make the new Vivo X21 stand out from the crowd? That’s what I intend to find out in this review.
Specs at a glance
|Resolution||1080 x 2280 pixels|
|CPU||Quad core, 2.2 GHz + Quad core, 1.84 GHz, Snapdragon 660|
|Internal memory||128 GB|
|External memory||Up to 256 GB|
|Capacity||3200 mAH, Li-ion, Non removable|
|Primary camera||12 MP|
|Secondary camera||12 MP|
|Network support||Dual SIM 4G|
|Other options||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS|
|Operating system||Android 8.1 Oreo|
Design and display: slim and sexy
Dimensions: 154.4 x 74.7 x 7.3 mm
Weight: 156.2 grams
Vivo has been making bezel-less phones for quite a while. The brand first adopted the tall 18:9 display ratio with the V7+ (review), a phone that was launched last year in September. Then the brand upped the ante and launched the notch-toting V9 (review). The new Vivo X21 seems to be pushing the boundaries even further. The X21 sports minimal bezels, a cut-out up top and a chin at the bottom. All that, combined with rounded corners and curved edges makes the X21 among the sexiest smartphones in the market.
While the handset has a thickness of 7.4mm, its edges are tapered and give the impression that it’s slimmer. Tipping the scales at 156.2g, the Vivo X21 is quite lightweight too. All this means that the smartphone not only has the looks, but is ergonomic too. Despite its ultra-wide screen measuring 6.28-inches, it’s not difficult to use the phone with a single hand. If you have large hands, you won’t have any trouble reaching the corners of the display either.
The Vivo X21 has a glass finish at the back, which lends a premium appeal to the smartphone, and thankfully, isn’t as much of a fingerprint magnet as smartphones with glass panels. That said, the back is still susceptible to scratches and nicks. The phone does come bundled with a protective TPU cover. The aluminium frame also provides strength to the smartphone.
The 6.28-inch display on the X21 is a full HD+ affair with a 19:9 aspect ratio. The Super AMOLED panel offers brilliant colours and impressive brightness levels, and is quite legible even outdoors. The screen is sharp and makes for an immersive experience while watching movies, reading e-books and playing games. No, we aren’t ignoring the notch – and our opinion about it hasn’t changed. It’s a distraction, and is noticeable especially while viewing Instagram Stories or WhatsApp Status, since it overlaps with content. The same isn’t apparent while viewing videos as they don’t take up the entire screen. While the phone doesn’t give you the option to disable the notch, it doesn’t try to open apps in full-screen mode by default. However, you’ll still see some apps and content (like stories) opening in full screen and spoiling the experience. Another odd thing is that you can’t stretch YouTube videos to make use of the larger real estate, and there are noticeable black bars on the top and bottom.
Thanks to the AMOLED panel, the Vivo X21 also offers an always-on display, letting you see the date and time, along with the battery status. You can customise the look and type of the clock or even choose a background, though this feature only offers missed notifications for calls, messages and WhatsApp, and not email or from other apps.
The Vivo X21 follows conventional placement for ports and controls, except for the SIM card slot, which strangely enough, has been placed on the base (in fact, it took me a while to figure out where it’s located while trying to pop in my SIM). Another grouse with the handset is the fact that it sticks to the old micro-USB standard for charging and data transfers.
What about the under-display fingerprint scanner?
We’ve been hearing about under-the-screen / invisible fingerprint scanners for quite a while now. From Apple to Samsung, many brands have been rumoured to incorporate this feature in their offerings in order to offer all-screen fronts. However, it looks like Vivo has beaten much bigger rivals in this area. Not only did the brand showcase this technology first with a prototype back in June 2017 at MWC Shanghai, it also became the world’s first manufacturer to launch a commercial smartphone with an under-display fingerprint reader.
So how does it work? Developed by Synaptics, the sensor captures the reflection of the fingerprint between and through the OLED panels to authenticate the user.
But the real question is – is it a big deal? Well, from the design perspective, it certainly is. A few things that normally stop phonemakers from offering a full-screen fascia include the front camera, the proximity and ambient sensors and the front fingerprint scanner. Of course, manufacturers can choose to place the biometric reader at the back, but that placement isn’t that useful. They can opt for the face unlock as well, a technology that has evolved over time to become really handy and fast as well. However, the flip side is that face unlock isn’t as secure, and doesn’t work in all situations either. Therefore, the Vivo X21’s in-screen fingerprint scanner, comes across as an interesting option, and one that can possibly make way for more phones with all-screen fronts.
Having said that, the under-display fingerprint reader has ways to go. First up, it requires up to a minute to set up a fingerprint, as compared to conventional fingerprint sensors, which can be set up within 10 to 15 seconds. Secondly, while the under-display fingerprint scanner on the X21 is accurate, it isn’t as fast as regular fingerprint readers. You’ll need to press hard on the designated area to unlock the smartphone – akin to iPhone’s 3D Touch – and even then, it might not work. Even after a week with the smartphone, I never figured out the ideal level of pressure to be applied with my thumb to unlock the phone. However, I must say that the animation while unlocking the phone is quite cool and you can customise it too. The scanner can work in different conditions as well, including under direct sunlight. It’s also triggered automatically when you have to use apps that require fingerprint authentication, while using payment apps or while transacting on the Google Play Store for example.
If you don’t like unlocking the X21 in this manner, then you can enable the face unlock feature, which is incredibly fast. It’s secure too and doesn’t work when one’s eyes are closed. In fact, I was quite surprised by its speed and the fact that it can even work in dim settings. It recognised me even when I was wearing sunglasses, though it struggles under harsh lighting.
Cameras: a double act
Primary camera: 12 MP
Flash: LED Flash
Secondary camera: 12 MP
The Vivo X21 features a dual-camera setup with a 12-megapixel f/1.8 primary snapper and a 5MP depth sensor. Interestingly enough, that seems to be a downgrade from the V9 (review), which offers 16-meg primary shooter. The camera on the X21 comes with features such as phase detection autofocus and dual-pixel autofocus technology for locking focus quickly and better low-light capabilities. For selfies, Vivo has offered a 12-meg shooter on the front of its latest smartphone. The camera interface is filled to the brim with modes and options. In the portrait orientation, you’ll find the shutter button, effects, the ability to switch to the front camera and the option to preview captured images. Above that, you’ll find different modes such as photo, video, AR stickers, pro, and panorama, among others. Up top, there are toggles for the flash and the HDR mode, along with options to enable the portrait mode, live photo, as well as access to settings.
The Vivo X21 is a capable shooter that should serve your purposes in various situations. Images taken in ample light show a high level of detail and natural colour reproduction. The HDR mode is quite effective too and makes the shot all the more pleasing. The Portrait mode is impressive, with edges being detected well and separated well from the background, and you even get an option to customise the level of blur by tweaking the aperture. You can get some depth-of-field effects with the primary snapper as well. Images taken in poor lighting are also quite impressive in terms of detail, though noise is visible when the images are viewed in full resolution. Of course, the captured selfies are quite detailed and offer vibrant colours, although the beautify mode seem to be quite aggressive. You can get a software-based bokeh mode with the front camera too, and while it’s artificial, the X21 tries to do a good job in ensuring that the subject stands out from the rest of the background.
Take a look at the camera samples of the Vivo X21 (click here to view full-size images):
Overall, the X21’s camera prowess won’t disappoint, but falls short of the competition such as the OnePlus 6 (camera review) and Honor 10.
Software: heavy skin, useful features
Operating System: Android
OS Version: 8.1, Oreo
The Vivo X21 comes with the heavily-skinned FunTouch OS, which is based on Android 8.1 Oreo. The custom interface comes with a lot of bloatware such as Facebook, WPS Office and Amazon Shopping, though the good thing is that you can uninstall the apps you don’t need. The interface is different from Android in more ways than one. For instance, swiping from the top only brings the notification bar, and the control centre (quick toggles) pop up by swiping from the bottom. Similarly, the split-screen option isn’t present in the multitasking bar, and you can access it by using a three-finger swipe on the app or going to the control centre and selecting ‘Multiple tasks’.
That’s not to say that the skin doesn’t come with any useful options. Along with apps like iManager, it also comes with a Game Mode, which blocks all notifications and even gives you an option to route calls to the speaker to let you play distraction-free. The good thing is that you can add apps like Netflix in this mode too to ensure that you can catch up on your favourite movie or TV show without any distractions. Another useful option is to open messaging apps in the split-screen by default, in case you get a notification. The app shows up as a floating icon and clicking on it opens in the split screen.
If you want to enjoy the full screen experience, then you can enable gestures instead of using the on-screen navigation bar. These are not much different than the gestures on Android P – swipe from the bottom to return to the homescreen, swipe from the bottom and pause to access recent apps, and so on and so forth. However, considering that the smartphone’s control centre is initiated by swiping from the bottom, it becomes quite confusing when you enable navigation gestures. In this case, the control center can be brought up by swiping from the left, which takes some getting used to.
Hardware: packed with power
CPU: Quad core, 2.2 GHz + Quad cor…
GPU: Adreno 512
RAM: 6 GB
Memory: 128 GB + Up to 256 GB
SIM Slots: Dual SIM , GSM+GSM
Battery: 3200 mAH
Powering the show on the Vivo X21 is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 660 SoC, which comes with a 2.2GHz octa-core processor and Adreno 512 graphics. While the SD660 SoC hasn’t been utilised by many phonemakers, it’s one of the most powerful chips in the upper mid-range, and that shows in the performance of the smartphone. The phone flies through any task thrown at it, be it navigation or running heavy apps or games. Coupled with 6 gigs of RAM, the hardware can handle multiple tasks with ease. Howver, the phone doesn’t seem to keep the last state of apps in its memory for long periods of time, and if you open one from the multitasking menu, the app will restart.
Playing Asphalt 8: Airborne or the popular PUBG game on the Vivo X21 is a delight, and the phone runs them smoothly. There are no frame drops and the graphics are rendered smoothly as well. The handset also manages to keep thermals under check, and doesn’t heat up even after playing games for 30 to 40 minutes continuously. However, the performance isn’t all smooth and there’s some trace of lag here and there, though I’d blame the heavy FunTouch OS for that.
The X21 comes with 128GB of in-built memory, which can be topped up by another 256GB via a microSD card. However, you’ll need to compromise on the dual-SIM functionality to extend the storage.
The smartphone comes fuelled by a 3,200mAh battery, which might not seem much, but ensures that the phone doesn’t give up on you in the middle of the day. Even with heavy usage of streaming podcasts, watching videos, and using GPS, apart for calls and messages, the Vivo X21 can easily continue to the next working day on a single charge. In the 91mobiles test, the smartphone was able to run a 720p video on loop for about 14 hours, with both the brightness and volume levels set at 50 percent and only cellular network enabled. However, my only gripe is that the phone doesn’t support fast charging and takes more than two and a half hours to charge fully with the bundled adapter.
There’s no doubt that the Vivo X21 helps put the Chinese brand on the global map. In an era where it’s hard to differentiate between smartphones basis their specs, the smartphone brings a meaningful differentiation to the table. But with the price tag of Rs 35,990, that’s not enough to make it stand apart from the competition, especially when its rivals include affordable flagships such as the Honor 10 (review) and OnePlus 6 (review). The X21 boasts a gorgeous design with a full-screen display, capable cameras and a long-lasting battery, but it can’t take on the OP6, which comes with the all-powerful Snapdragon 845 chipset. The Honor 10 is also a solid flagship with a compact design. Add to it the fact that the X21 doesn’t seem to be much different from the Vivo V9, which also comes with a notch display, but doesn’t sport as powerful internals and (of course), misses out on the under-display fingerprint scanner.
While the brand makes the futuristic under-the-screen fingerprint scanner a reality, the feature is still first gen, and needs refinement before becoming mainstream. All said and done, the Vivo X21 is certainly an exciting smartphone and even though it may or may not set the cash registers ringing for the brand, it suggests that the Chinese brand can innovate well (as the retractable camera-toting Apex concept would suggest).
Editor’s rating: 3.5 / 5
- Sleek build
- Superb display with an under-screen fingerprint scanner
- Great cameras
- Solid battery life
- Performance can’t match the competition
- Micro-USB charging port, no fast charging
- Steeply priced
Photos by Raj Rout