vivo X21 Review: A taste of the future

vivo X21 Review: A taste of the future

vivo’s new phone is an odd mix of the new and the old

Imagine a phone that’s able to scan your fingerprints through a display. Sounds like science fiction, right? Well, for vivo, fiction becomes reality with their X21 smartphone. The X21 is the first production smartphone to have a fingerprint sensor embedded under the display, beating out more famous rivals like Samsung, LG, Sony and their ilk.

What is it?

The X21 is the first phone that vivo is selling internationally that has an integrated fingerprint sensor embedded under the display. They did offer a limited edition version of the X20 with the same tech (dubbed the X20UD) but this is the first time that a phone with this particular feature has been offered for sale in a retail (not limited edition) capacity.

What’s it feel like?

Very good. The phone feels pretty freaking’ premium, though it’s not on the same level as the flagship phones of Samsung and Huawei, obviously. The curved back feels lovely in our hands, and the rear tapers nicely into an aluminum frame. It’s only 7.5mm at its thickest point so it’s not going to give your pocket a bulge when you put it away.

So why go with an embedded fingerprint sensor? Well, it allows manufacturers a place to put a fingerprint scanner without breaking up the aesthetics of their device with a cutout for one, either at the back (ala the OnePlus 6) or the front (ala the Huawei Mate 10 Pro). Because of the tech, Vivo’s able to use a continuous glass back for the X21 that’s only broken up by the dual cameras, and a very small chin at the front. This kind of design aesthetic wouldn’t have been possible without the under-display fingerprint scanner.

The rear looks very clean, and as a bonus doesn’t attract as much fingerprints or dirt as other glass-backed phones. One thing that had us scratching our heads with the phone was vivo’s decision to use a regular micro USB port on the bottom as opposed to a more fitting USB Type-C connector that most other mid-range phones have.

Is the display notched?

Yes, just like most Android phones nowadays, vivo’s X21 has a notched display. Until under-display front-facing cameras become a thing (or vivo starts putting pop-up selfie cameras on mid-range models) we all just have to get used to the #notchlife. The good news is that the notch gives the phone a relatively good screen-to-body ratio. The display is around 6.28-inches with a resolution of 1080 pixels by 2280.

The display itself is bright and vibrant, thanks to the OLED screen tech that’s required to make that under display fingerprint scanner work. Colors are very vibrant, with blacks being deep which is typical of what you’d expect from a display like this.

The bad news here is that you can’t put black bars on either side of the notch to make it disappear. Some apps also don’t take that notch in consideration when displaying stuff on the screen: watching a YouTube video with the phone in portrait mode and you’ll see the notch take up much of the action. The issue isn’t present when you’re watching in landscape mode, but it’s still an annoying thing to be sure.

How does that under display fingerprint scanner perform?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes it works pretty well, sometimes it takes a few tries before the phone unlocks completely when we press down on it. We can’t rag on it too much as it’s clearly first generation tech and as such it’s normal to encounter teething problems. When the scanner does work it takes a touch longer than a regular fingerprint scanner to unlock the phone.

Surprisingly enough the X21 also includes an infrared sensor for facial recognition which works pretty well. It’s gotten to the point that we’ve actually relied on it more than the fingerprint scanner, as the former is way faster at unlocking the phone compared to the latter.

Is the phone fast?

It is! Packed with a Qualcomm, Snapdragon 660 processor, 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM, it’s equivalent to most other mid-range offerings of other brands. We have yet to encounter a Snapdragon 660-equipped phone that didn’t feel quick and responsive, and the X21 isn’t about to break that hot streak.

The phone ships with Android 8.1 layered with FunTouch OS 4 on top. It’s the typical app drawer-less UI that’s prevalent on phones nowadays which provides a few added features that’s not implemented on Android Oreo. If you’ve used a phone from vivo, OPPO, Xiaomi or even Huawei, you know what to expect.

What is different is the fact that you have to swipe up from the bottom to gain access to your quick settings like display brightness, orientation lock and the like. It’s a little annoying considering that most other manufacturers do it the other way around, and we never really got used to doing it for the X21.

How’s the rest of the phone?

vivo’s tagline is Camera and Music, so it’s no surprise that the X21 comes with a HiFi dac for better audio. The effects of enhanced sound can be heard clearly when using headphones, as the speaker doesn’t have enough oomph to really benefit from the hardware.

We’ve already mentioned the phone’s micro USB port, but it bears repeating again. That kind of aging tech has no place in such a forward-thinking phone, and we hope that this is the last we see of the aging standard, at least for phones like the X21. We also wish that vivo finds a way to put black bars on either side of the notch via software update, or failing that simply code the notch in popular apps like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and the like.

Are the cameras any good?

Sometimes. The phone’s rear camera setup uses a primary 12-megapixel f/1.8 aperture lens paired with 5-megapixel f/2.0 snapper. The phone has PDAF as well as support for portrait shots taken with the rear and front cameras, though the effect is only applied via software for selfies.

While photos taken with the X21’s rear cameras looked okay enough, none of them really were good enough to really blow us away. Don’t get us wrong, most of our shots were perfectly acceptable in social media (which is where the majority of photos taken end up anyway) BUT if you start really analyzing shots, you’ll see muddied detail especially in low-light conditions.

How’s the battery life?

Typical for a smartphone in its class. The X21 has a 3300mAh battery which, in our use, equates to around a day’s worth of juice before charging. It’s not stellar but it’s not the worst either. If you manage your use you’ll probably be able to stretch your use from morning till late evening, but by then the phone will probably be starved for juice.

Should you buy it?

That’s a tough question to answer, simply because the X21 is one of those phones that tries to do something new. There is no doubt that there will be more under-display fingerprint capable phones released in the near future as the tech becomes cheaper and more accessible. The X21 is on the cutting edge, though at this point in time the tech isn’t perfect yet.

If you’re the sort that wants to be on the bleeding edge, then we say go for it. The X21 isn’t a bad phone per se, despite the gimmicky nature of the under-display fingerprint tech. You will be paying a bit more for the privilege of being a first adopter, though that’s the price of getting tomorrow’s tech today.




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