MANILA -- Vivo tries to be both innovative and trendy with the X21, beating the competition with an in-display fingerprint sensor but sporting a notch on the screen which makes it look like an oversized iPhone X.
The sensor is fast and requires little pressure to activate. It also allowed the Chinese phone maker to make the top and bottom bezels as small as possible, save for the notch, which rivals like Huawei, LG, OnePlus and Oppo have also put on their phones.
The notch, however, does not diminish the brightness and sharpness of the 6.28-inch AMOLED screen, which is great for browsing content when the X21 is held vertically.
Sorely missing from our test unit was the ability to zoom YouTube videos to occupy the entire screen, leaving black bars on the left and right sides. This spoiled what would have been a more immersive viewing experience as on the OnePlus 6, which has a similarly sized display.
The phone feels light for its size. The glass back is easier to grip compared to other phones of similar build, thanks to its finish that looks almost like plastic. The retail package comes with a clear case.
The microUSB port is a letdown when the industry is shifting to the USB-C standard. The phone does not charge wirelessly.
The 12 + 5 megapixel dual cameras on the back were surprisingly good for its price point. Images were bright and colors were vivid even in low light.
Shadows, however, tend to lose detail in bright shots.
Vivo has long targeted selfie shooters and the X21 has a 12-megapixel front-facing camera that is enhanced by artificial intelligence. As with most China-made phones, the AI smoothens out lines and blemishes to the point that it's almost unreal.
PERFORMANCE AND SOFTWARE
Powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 660 and with 6 gigabytes of RAM, the X21 was fast and fluid. The 3,200 mAh battery, by some optimization wizardry, was half-drained at the end of a routine workday.
Only the OnePlus 6 has that much endurance with a similar-sized battery and screen.
The X21 can handily beat the Samsung Galaxy S9+ in terms of endurance, but falls short of the Huawei P20 Pro, which has a 4,000 mAh cell powering a 6-inch screen.
What brings the X21 down is Vivo's FunTouch skin over Android 8.1 Oreo.
Aesthetics are a matter of taste, but by trying to mimic the feel of iOS on the iPhone 8 series, the X21's usability suffers.
Those used to Samsung, LG and Pixel devices will feel lost at first. A swipe down from the top will call up the notifications. A swipe up from the bottom of the screen brings out quick settings like in the iPhone 8, but is marred by quick app shortcuts.
This function makes navigating the X21 using gestures confusing. A swipe up from the bottom also enables the user to exit from an app, similar to that on the iPhone X.
When gesture-based navigation is disabled, we found that the back key was too far from the home button, making it difficult to reach.
The X21 is Vivo's most expensive phone to date. At P29,990, it's P12,000 more expensive than the V9 that was launched a few months back.
It's roughly half the price of the iPhone X and the Galaxy S9+ but is near the territory of very capable options like the Huawei P20 and the OnePlus 6.
The X21 offers the convenience of unlocking the phone by just touching the screen, something Apple and Samsung have failed to bring to the mass market.
It also has a bright screen, very capable cameras and a battery that can last for more than a day.
But the innovation and bang-for-buck features are buried in clumsy software.