The Vivo X21 offers a preview of where Android smartphones are heading in the coming months.
It has an all-screen design with minimal bezel and a notch at the top to accommodate the front camera. In other words, like an Apple iPhone X.
But the X21 also has a feature to differentiate it from its Android competitors. It is the first smartphone available here to have an in-display fingerprint scanner. But it will not be the last – Huawei’s upcoming Mate RS has a similar scanner and more manufacturers are expected to follow suit.
As its name suggests, this optical-based sensor is under the smartphone’s vibrant Oled screen and replaces the standard physical fingerprint scanner. To unlock the X21, simply place your finger on the circular fingerprint prompt that shows up on the phone display.
This on-screen fingerprint prompt turns itself off after a while, presumably to conserve battery power when the phone is lying idle. This visual cue returns the moment I pick up the handset, so there is no need to guess where to place your finger.
Enabling the X21’s Always On Display feature will result in the fingerprint prompt being visible all the time. The phone display will also show the time, date and battery charge level.
PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 (Quad-core 2.2GHz, quad-core 1.8GHz)
DISPLAY: 6.28-inch, Super Amoled, 2,280 x 1,080 pixels, 402 ppi pixel density
OPERATING SYSTEM: Funtouch OS 4.0 (Android 8.1)
MEMORY: 128GB (microSD expandable up to 256GB), 6GB RAM
REAR CAMERA: 12MP (f/1.8) and 5MP (f/2.4)
FRONT CAMERA: 12MP (f/2.0)
BATTERY: Non-removable 3,200mAh
VALUE FOR MONEY: 2/5
BATTERY LIFE: 5/5
The fingerprint scanner works well enough, though it is slightly slower than a standard fingerprint reader. I also had to press the screen harder than usual. Like conventional fingerprint scanners, the Vivo X21’s scanner does not work if your finger is wet or stained. In short, the optical fingerprint scanner clearly has room for improvement.
The X21 feels light in the hand, which is unsurprising, as it is mostly glass wrapped around a thin aluminium frame. The rear is slightly curved and slippery enough to warrant a case. Unfortunately, it does not support wireless charging, even though this is possible with its glass back. There is also no mention of water resistance.
Unlike some smartphone-makers, Vivo has retained the 3.5mm headphone jack on the X21, which also has a microSD card slot for those who find its built-in 128GB storage insufficient. At the same time, it was jarring to find the X21 sporting a micro-USB port for charging and data instead of the USB Type-C port that is increasingly present in the latest models.
The other thing about the X21 that threw me off is its Funtouch user interface (based on Android 8.1), which is the most overt clone of Apple’s iOS operating system I have seen. Vivo has even tweaked the Android quick settings menu such that you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access it like in iOS, instead of pulling it down like in Android.
Like many Android smartphone-makers, Vivo has created its own suite of apps for basic functions, including a custom browser and an e-mail client. I find these Vivo-made apps unnecessary, though I appreciate some of the extra functions that Vivo has added to stock Android. For instance, there useful motion gestures, like shaking the phone to turn on the flashlight. The X21 can also run two instances of the same app – useful for messaging apps.
The X21 has dual rear cameras that can be used to good effect for taking images with the bokeh effect. The camera focuses quickly and has little shutter lag.
Images taken with the X21 turned out nicely with lively colours and a good amount of detail. Low-light shots understandably have more noise, but they are passable for a mid-range model. The phone camera also did a good job of stabilising the videos I shot despite my deliberate introduction of camera shake.
With 6GB of RAM and an upper mid-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 chip, the X21 feels smooth and responsive while navigating the phone, with apps opening promptly. There is a slight lag while scrolling down a Web page, but overall, I have few complaints about its performance.
Battery life is good with the phone lasting 12 hours and 40 minutes in a video-loop battery test at maximum brightness and volume. During my test, it needed to be charged at the end of the day with the Always On Display feature enabled.
The X21 is a good, mid-range smartphone, but I have some qualms about its price which, at $799, is more expensive than I expected. Perhaps the newfangled fingerprint scanner and its Oled screen bumped up the cost.
• Verdict: The first smartphone here to feature an in-display fingerprint scanner, the Vivo X21 looks good and performs well for a mid-range device. The price, however, is on the high side.