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Vivo X21 Review: A cool new in-display fingerprint scanner, but at a price

Does the X21 manage to live up to the hype, does the in-display fingerprint scanner signal at the evolution of fingerprint scanners? Let’s find out in the comprehensive review of the Vivo X21. Chinese smartphone manufacturer Vivo has taken the market by storm by cracking the under-display fingerprint scanner technology. In doing so, the company has managed to edge out Apple and Samsung as well. Vivo was in the limelight earlier this year when it showcased the Vivo Apex, a concept smartphone where a motorized camera module would pop on the top to achieve that true bezel-less display. Vivo finally launched the X21 in the Indian market, priced at Rs 35,990. Regardless of its price, the device has managed to create considerable hype with its in-display fingerprint technology. Here’s my review.
Vivo X21 Review: A cool new in-display fingerprint scanner, but at a price
Familiar design The exterior of the X21 isn’t particularly fancy, as is similar to Vivo’s previous offering, the V9. A few minor tweaks are visible such as the 3.5 mm headphone jack moved to the top of the device, while the fingerprint scanner at the back of the device is now inside the display. Beyond that, the device is identical to the V9. It still continues with microUSB instead of the much expected USB Type-C. The speaker grille and front-facing camera are present in the notch at the top of the display. The microUSB port, SIM tray, microphone and speaker grill are located at the bottom of the device, while the 3.5 mm headphone jack and microphone sit at the top of the device.
The dual camera setup and the LED flash are located on the top left corner on the back of the device. Similar to the V9, the camera setup and the LED flash on the X21 are fixed in a vertical line to match the iPhone X look. The volume rocker and the power button are situated on the right side of the device.
Good display
The Vivo X21 comes with a 6.28-inch FHD+ display with Super AMOLED panel, 2280×1080 resolution, and 402 PPI display density. The size and 19:9 aspect ratio of the display does make it a bit difficult to use using only one hand. It is also extremely difficult to reach to the top edge of the diagonally opposite side of the display using thumbs but it is not a deal breaker and quite normal with most smartphones sporting tall display. Vivo X21 comes with a notch on the top and if you are still not a fan of the notch then you will simply have to get habitual to its presence. The display of the device is protected by third generation Corning Gorilla Glass. The display produces bright and vivid colors with deep blacks. The brightness levels do take a hit if we change the viewing angles, but it won’t really affect real-world usage.
Vivo has added an ‘Eye Protection’ in the software to mimic the night mode along with the ability to change font styles a third-party app display ratios to fit the 19:9 aspect ratio. The display managed well under direct sunlight but I still found myself looking for shade because of reflective screen.
Operating system and performance X21 comes with Android 8.1 Oreo-based Funtouch OS 4 with March 2018 Android security patch level. Funtouch OS 4 is a custom skin by Vivo which wanted to mimic iOS as close to it is possible without any trouble from Apple. This iOS inspiration range from the pre-installed system apps (camera UI, clock, music,calendar, app icons, lack of app drawer by default, style of Android notifications, swiping up from the bottom to access quick settings, the settings app and the way all the settings of apps are bundled at the bottom in the settings app. X21 comes with Project Treble but it does not support seamless system updates and the device does come with plenty of bloatware in the form of reinstalled third-party apps including Facebook, WhatsApp, WPS Office, UC Browser, Amazon Store, NewsPoint, PhonePe and other apps by Vivo including vivo.com, Email, vivoCloud, i Manager, i Theme, Bowser and V-Appstore. The company has also added Google apps along with all the bloatware.
Some of the apps were not optimised to the 19:9 aspect ratio in the V9 but it looks like the company has fixed its in-house apps to support the taller aspect ratio. Considering that Funtouch OS 4.0 is a skinned version of Android, the OS does provide a number a vast number of options for its users giving them the option to hide notification previews, show network speed in the status bar, support navigation gestures that are similar to iOS, pack a ‘Game mode’, along with the ‘Do no disturb’ mode, and even settings to manage the always-on display according to the battery level of the device. These things are not present in the stock version of Android and users would end up installing separate apps for all these functions. The OS also offers nifty features such as Wi-Fi Display which I could not test, Smart Split, One-handed mode, App Clone, Smart motion, and Smart click. Smart motion allows users to control the device by interacting with the device according to the orientation of the device, Wi-Fi Display allows users to stream or mirror the device to a Wi-Fi-enabled display, Smart Split allows them to use two apps at the same time and users can manage the screen-split ratio, Picture-in-picture more, One-handed mode allows users to control the device using just one hand including the option to turn on ‘One-handed keyboard’ and ‘mini screen’. App clone allows users to duplicate an app to turn two profiles of the program including two WhatsApp accounts on the same device.
Moving on the performance of the X21, the device performs well overall without no hiccups. The device is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 SoC with an octa-core CPU clocked at 2.2 GHz along with Adreno 512 GPU, 6GB RAM and 128GB internal storage. For users who need more storage, the device comes with a second hybrid SIM slot that can also be used to add a microSD card to expand the storage up to 256GB. The experience of the device was smooth without any lag. I did not face any problems while running heavy games such as Modern Combat 5, Gear.Club or Dead Trigger 2 on the device. X21 did not heat as much during extended gaming sessions and the small amount of heat that was there was evenly spread across the back of the device. So the device performs well despite not packing a Snapdragon 835 or 845 SoC.
That fingerprint scanner The in-display fingerprint scanner is the key highlight of the device and to be honest, the inclusion of this technology in a consumer front device is pretty cool. Though, regardless of how new this technology is, it is still slower than the dedicated fingerprint scanners. The experience of unlocking the device is hit or a miss where the phone may require a second attempt to unlock the device. Another thing is that the in-display fingerprint scanner is located in a particular area in the middle towards the bottom half of the display.
This means that one needs to be precise as to where they keep their finger to unlock the device. Vivo has added an always-on fingerprint symbol to guide the users about where to keep the finger. But making that spot a muscle memory requires some effort. However, regardless of the aid to indicate where the fingerprint scanner is located, the scanner sometimes fails to register the finger. This does indicate that the company needs to work on the technology to make it as flawless as dedicated fingerprint scanners to match the coolness of this new technology with robust performance.
Camera department It comes with a dual camera setup on the back of the device with a 12-megapixel with f/1.8 aperture and a 5-megapixel sensor with f/2.4 aperture. The back camera setup comes with phase detection autofocus technology, and an LED flash while Vivo has opted for a 12-megapixel sensor with f/2.0 aperture for the front of the camera. Both the front as well as the back camera on the smartphone are capable of shooting video in 4K resolution. The back camera took good images in decent lighting conditions while surprising me with its HDR mode. The HDR mode managed to handle complex scenes with extremely bring and dark areas managing to balance the entire scene. There was some noise and the X21 is no Galaxy S9 or Google Pixel 2 when it comes to capturing textures, but it was overall good.
The images shot in low light conditions were not as good and lacked details and texture. The images turned out to be full of noise and muddiness with colors washed out from the scenes. The camera software does manage to give a range of options to control the camera, watermark the images. Both the front as well as the back camera support portrait mode and HDR modes. Users can also shoot ‘Live’ images using the ‘Live Photo’ mode. The device uses AI to separate the background from the subject in the foreground in the portrait mode. The edge detection may not be perfect but it is still pretty good.
Battery life The device is powered by a 3,200 mAh non-removable lithium-ion battery and the battery managed to give a decent backup lasting me about 8-9 hours on heavy usage and 10-11 hours on moderate usage. Heavy usage would include four email accounts on sync, constant emails, gaming for about an hour, WhatsApp messages, 20-25 photos and listening to music for about one and a half hour or so. The battery software also comes with a ‘Low power mode’ that limited the CPU and GPU frequency to conserve power while the automatically limited brightness of the device while disabling Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, touch feedback, Always on Display and enabling portrait screen to unlock. It also comes with ‘Super Power-Saving Mode’ where the user can only access Contacts, Phone, Messages, and the Clock. The system also gives users access to see which apps use more power in the background along with a list of power consumption.
Verdict: Should you buy Vivo X21?
Vivo X21 is an all-rounder with good performance, decent camera performance and a snazzy new in-display fingerprint scanning technology at the heart of the device. The device is a testament to what dedicated Research and Development teams can achieve to beat tech titan like Apple and Samsung. However, regardless of how cool the technology is, I can’t help but notice the Rs 35,990 price tag of the device. Considering that the company is aiming audience in a price conscious market such as India, it is difficult to justify its pricing, considering market heavy-weights such as the recently launched OnePlus 6. The sheer performance, specifications, camera performance and design of the OnePlus 6 manages to surpass the X21. If you are a Vivo loyalist or someone who wants to tout that in-display fingerprint scanner before family and friends months before others, then by all means, go ahead and buy this device. However, in case you’re looking at more options, there’s the Samsung Galaxy S8 or the Moto Z2 Force, but they lack the joy of unlocking themselves without a visible fingerprint scanner.
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