Review: Vivo X21 is the future, but it came too soon
First widely available phone with an under-the-display fingerprint sensor • Good camera performance
Fingerprint sensor takes getting used to • Pricier than direct competitors
The Vivo X21 is the first of its kind, and most of the time its bleeding edge tech works well. However, it’s pricy for what it offers, especially once the wow factor wears off.
China’s Vivo is quickly becoming one of the most exciting smartphone makers in the world. The company keeps experimenting with new features and approaches to common issues, with several world’s-firsts under its belt.
The Vivo X21 is one of those: It’s the first widely available smartphone with an under-the-display fingerprint sensor. I’ve had about a week to test it out, and while it’s not flawless, it definitely felt like a smartphone from the future.
Yes, Vivo had several concept phones with this feature in the past, including the amazing Apex. But the Vivo X21 is the first phone to bring this technology to the mass market, debuting in China, which will be followed by Singapore, India, and other markets.
Fingerprint scanners on smartphones have reached a point where everything is incredibly smooth: You set up in less than a minute, and your fingerprint is recognized in a fraction of a second.
Unfortunately, with the X21 I ran into problems right away. The setup process is similar to what you’ll see on any fingerprint scanner — you keep touching the sensor until the full fingerprint is recorded. However, it took a total of seven tries to register my right thumb. For each try, I pressed my thumb in approximately 10-15 times, after which I was told to try again. The software tells you to press harder than you usually would, and it’s not kidding: I had to press much harder than, say, the pressure required for the iPhone’s 3D Touch. I also had to keep my thumb still on the sensor area for a couple of seconds after each press for the fingerprint to finally register.
Interestingly, registering my left index finger’s print was much easier — it worked on the second try. At first I thought this was due to me already having experience from registering my thumb, but it’s not. More on this later.
All in all, the setup process was considerably more painful than on any other smartphone, and while it’s not a deal-breaker, you do get the feeling this technology isn’t quite ready for prime time.
Living with it
When it works, the Vivo X21’s fingerprint sensor is slower than the typical fingerprint scanners you’ll see on other phones. Don’t get me wrong: It still unlocks the phone in under a second (see example below), but the difference in speed between the X21 and, say, a modern Huawei phone, is palpable.
Also, the fact that you have to actually push your digit into the display makes the experience worse. To be able to do that, you need to hold the phone firmly, so forget about just casually pulling it out of your pocket and lightly touching the sensor to unlock it. Finally, the sensor has no physical boundaries — it’s just a spot on the screen that gets marked when you tap the screen or press the power button. It’s not like it’s hard to find, but, again, you can’t just navigate your finger blindly; you’ll have to look at the phone to use it.
All of the above issues are bearable. The bigger problem was that in everyday usage, the sensor just wouldn’t work about 20% of the time. When I focused, oriented my thumb upwards and press hard, it would work, but in real life you won’t be able to do that every time. And to be fair, sometimes the sensor worked as smoothly as a “standard” fingerprint sensor, with ten successful unlocks in a row. But sometimes it just wouldn’t unlock no matter what I did.
Again, unlocking the phone with the index finger worked better. But with the sensor positioned in the bottom half of the screen, in most scenarios it made more sense to unlock the phone with my thumb, which would often turn into a frustrating series of errors.
This does not make the Vivo X21 a bad phone. In fact, it has pretty reliable face-unlocking technology, which would typically work before I had time to press the fingerprint sensor. But the under-the-display fingerprint scanning, at least the way it’s implemented here, needs more work, and I can see why Apple and Samsung chose not to use it in their devices (yet).
The rest of the phone
Outside its fingerprint scanner, the Vivo X21 is just your average edge-to-edge Android. It’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor, has 6GB of RAM, 64/128GB of storage (I had the version with more storage), and a 3,200mAh battery.
It all adds up to a sweet package, often used by Chinese phone makers. The midrange Snapdragon is powerful enough for most tasks — you might notice the difference between the X21 and a Samsung S9 in a game of PUBG, but not while browsing the net. Combine that with 6GB of RAM and you get a phone that’s just as fast, in most scenarios, as a more powerful flagship, benchmarks be damned.
The phone’s screen is a 6.28-inch Super AMOLED with an iPhone X-style notch on the top and a 2,280 x 1,080 pixel resolution. I liked the form factor; the phone felt just perfect in my hand despite the phablet-sized screen. In terms of brightness and contrast, it’s not as nice as the iPhone X’s screen, but it’s on par with, say, an LG V30. It fumbles on details, though: Its rounded corners do not perfectly match the curvature of the screen. And status icons, positioned to the left and the right of the notch, appear too close to the corners, resulting in an untidy look.
The experience of using the screen is uneven. For example, when using the camera, you have the option to extend the image across the entire surface off the screen, wrapping around the notch. But when viewing a YouTube video in horizontal mode, you can’t do that — you’re stuck with thick black bars on both sides of the screen. No Android phone gets this completely right yet, but the experience should improve with the upcoming Android P, which should have better support for “notched” phones.
The Vivo X21 uses the latest version of Android, 8.1 Oreo, with Vivo’s Funtouch OS 4.0 slapped on top. I’ve been saying this for a while: All major Android manufacturers now make solid Android skins, and unless you’re a diehard fanatic for a specific brand, you won’t have trouble getting used to any of them.
The same goes for the Vivo, whose software takes many cues from iOS. Once you get rid of the crapware (thankfully, there’s not too much of it), you’ll soon forget that you’re using a Vivo and not some other Android brand.
The phone’s case is a combination of dark grey and black, and its monolithic look complements the under-the-display fingerprint sensor nicely. Tapping on its screen and seeing the sensor’s marking appear is pretty cool. Other than that detail, though, it’s a fairly common design, and you’ll have a hard time telling this phone apart from other recent Vivo models.
The phone has a dual 12/5-megapixel camera on the back and a dual 12-megapixel selfie camera. This might sound impressive until you remember that the recently launched Vivo V9 has a 24-megapixel selfie camera and a 16/5-megapixel rear camera. You still get a very solid camera with the X21, but know that there are other Vivo phones in the same price range that offer more.
As with all Vivo phones, the selfies are great… if you don’t mind aggressive post-processing and if you stay away from the fake-looking bokeh.
And daylight photos with the rear camera are pretty solid as well, though I’d tone the sharpening down one or two notches if I could.
However, I must commend Vivo on significantly improving the camera performance in low-light scenarios. I’ve taken the X21 for a spin on a clear night, and the photos were pretty good. They weren’t as bright as the photos taken with the iPhone X but they were often sharper and had more true-to-life colors. This alone makes this phone’s camera far better than the nominally more powerful camera of the Vivo V9. Check out the comparison, below.
A few more observations. The phone, thankfully, has a headphone jack. The charging port, however, is micro-USB and not USB-C, which is very odd for a phone that’s supposed to be a showcase for new technology. Finally, the X21 is not water resistant, which in today’s market is quite a big omission.
Is it worth it?
If you must have bleeding-edge technology in your phone, the Vivo X21 fits the bill: It’s the only widely available phone with this type of fingerprint sensor. But in real-life usage, you’ll likely rely more on the far more common face-scanning feature, and the under-the-display fingerprint sensor won’t elevate above a cool gimmick to show to your friends.
Other than that, the Vivo X21 is a solid phone that’s better than Vivo’s top offerings with some regards, but worse with others. The price is a hefty 480-500 euros ($567-$590), depending on the market, which is considerably more expensive than the price of Vivo V9, which costs about 300 euros ($354). That, I guess, is the price you pay for having a phone that gives you a taste of the future.
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