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Vivo X21 review: This 'first' of a phone left us wanting more

The X21's most novel feature is a little disappointing.

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Aloysius Low
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Aloysius Low

Senior Editor

Aloysius Low is a Senior Editor at CNET covering mobile and Asia. Based in Singapore, he loves playing Dota 2 when he can spare the time and is also the owner-minion of two adorable cats.

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3 min read

The Vivo X21 may take inspiration from the iPhone X's operating system and screen notch, but it beat Apple's iPhone to one important thing: An underscreen fingerprint sensor.

vivox21-1
7.6

Vivo X21

The Good

The Vivo X21's slim, thin design stands out, while its long battery life will easily last you a whole day. The camera is capable of taking pretty good pictures, too.

The Bad

The iOS-like copycat design is horrible to use, and the phone's underscreen fingerprint sensor takes longer to unlock your phone than a physical sensor.

The Bottom Line

The Vivo X21's cool underscreen fingerprint reader offers a glimpse into what a future phone can be, but it's not compelling enough to buy for the tech alone.

In fact, the Vivo X21 can claim distinction for being the world's first phone to sell with a fingerprint reader baked into the display, though other phones have since used it as well, including devices from Huawei, Xiaomi and another from Vivo itself.

An in-screen (or underscreen) display is cutting-edge technology that's been rumored to come to iPhones and Samsung phones for well over a year. Putting the sensor on the display frees up space on the front and lets you unlock your phone without picking it up to use the reader on the back. Unfortunately, the particular sensor Vivo uses isn't as fast as a physical reader -- so don't buy the X21 just for that.

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The phone's rear dual cameras come in a 12-megapixel and 5-megapixel configuration. The shiny rear is also a fingerprint magnet. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

Fetching a cool S$800 (which converts to about $600, £440 and AU$800), the X21 isn't cheap, but it is a pretty decent phone on its own, as long as you can put up with its copycat iOS skin and its iPhone X-ish looks.

You should get the X21 if you're a fan of clean design, a large display, solid battery life and showy fingerprint tech that will stop your friends in their tracks, but skip it if you're looking for fast performance and tired of the recent slew of iPhone X copycats.

The Vivo X21 isn't officially available in the UK, US or Australia right now, but there appear to be third party retailers that offer the phone for sale online in those markets. Just make sure it'll work with your local GSM bands.

The Vivo X21 is an iPhone X clone with a cool feature

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Vivo X21's underscreen fingerprint reader is slow, but battery life is great

Phone tech hasn't really changed much in recent years, with dual (or triple) rear cameras the last big game changer. Under-display fingerprint scanning has potential to free up more real estate on the phone, but based on my experience, it's a lot slower than the instant unlocking you get with a rear or home button scanner.

That's because when you put your finger over the scanner, which is made by Synaptics, the screen has to light up your finger before it can scan it, and this takes some time. When your finger doesn't quite match up, you have to repeat the whole process, which is frustrating, especially given how instantaneous the "older" solution is. Perhaps Qualcomm's upcoming under-display ultrasonic scanner could be faster, but we'll see. For now, though, being an early adopter won't give you a speed advantage.

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The fingerprint scanner works by lighting up the area where your finger is. It does take a while though, so if you fails to recognise your print, you will have to wait for the scanning to process  again, which can be frustrating. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

Of course, if you really can't wait to unlock and use the X21, then you're better off with the face unlock feature to instantly gain access to the X21; but note that like most face unlock tools on Android, this is convenient but not secure enough for mobile payments.

In dim-lighting conditions, the X21 has an infrared light to scan your face. When you unlock the phone though, you'll get frustrated with the phone's poorly made iOS-inspired Android 8.1 skin called FunTouch. The control panel is now a swipe up from the bottom, but because the home button is in the way, you may accidentally hit that instead.

There's also no search feature on the settings page, which I hated, as it made scrolling through to turn stuff on or off a pain. If you put aside these bugbears, you'll find the rest of the skin pretty usable, especially if you're switching from an Apple phone.

On the camera front, the dual rear 12-megapixel and 5-megapixel cameras take pretty decent shots as seen below, though selfies can feel terribly fake due to an aggressive beauty mode that smooths and whitens your skin (a popular feature in Asia). Portrait mode shots also create terribly unrealistic depth of field, which overly blurs the background, and at times, doesn't quite blur the right area.

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The Vivo's portrait mode overdoes its depth-of-field effects.

Aloysius Low/CNET
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The auto-HDR detection works pretty well, and brings out the details in this scene that would have otherwise been just mostly dark. 

Aloysius Low/CNET
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The camera manages to hold up well here, though some details are lost but the colors manage to come through without overexposing the lights from the posters at the side. 

Aloysius Low/CNET
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My face looks like it's been painted over with a brush. That's how much I dislike the Beauty mode of the selfie camera. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

Battery life was a bright spot, though, lasting 15 hours and 40 minutes in our video loop tests, while performance from its midrange Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 chip held up to most of what I threw at it, including some Asphalt 8 gaming. Check below for the benchmark tests.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Vivo X21 26552Oppo R15 Pro 23,736OnePlus 6 62,952Huawei P20 30,547
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

GeekBench v4.0 single-core

Vivo X21 1,615Oppo R15 Pro 1,611OnePlus 6 2,454Huawei P20 1,896
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

GeekBench v4.0 multi-core

Vivo X21 5,787Oppo R15 Pro 5,712OnePlus 6 6,672Huawei P20 4,114
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Hardware specs comparison


Oppo R15 ProVivo X21OnePlus 6Huawei P20
Display size, resolution 6.28-inch; 1,080x2,280 pixels (AMOLED)6.28-inch; 1,080x2,280 pixels (AMOLED)6.28-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels5.8-inch; 2,244x1,080 pixels (LCD)
Pixel density 401ppi402 ppi402ppi428ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.16 x 2.96 x 0.31 in6.08 x 2.94 x 0.29 in6.13x2.97x0.31 in5.9x2.8x0.3 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 156.5 x 75.2 x 8 mm154.5 x 74.8 x 7.4 mm155.7x75.4x7.75 mm149.1x70.8x7.65mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.35 oz; 180g5.50 oz; 156g6.2 oz; 177 g5.8 oz; 165g
Mobile software
Android 8.1 OreoAndroid 8.1 OreoAndroid 8.1 Oreo
Camera 16-megapixel, 20-megapixel monochromeDual 12-megapixel, 5-megapixel16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto12-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome
Front-facing camera 20-megapixel 12-megapixel16-megapixel24-megapixel camera
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.3GHz octa-core Kirin 9702.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 6602.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 8452.3GHz octa-core Kirin 970
Storage 128GB64GB, 128GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB128GB
RAM 6GB6GB6GB, 8GB4GB
Expandable storage up to 256GBup to 256GBNoneNone
Battery 3,430mAh3,200mAh3,300mAh3,400mAh
Fingerprint sensor BackUnderscreenBack of phoneBelow screen
Connector Micro-USBMicro-USBUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack YesYesYesNo
Special features Super slow-mo video, dual-sim, splash-resistant (IP57)Dual-SIMPortrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash ChargingSuper slow mo video (960fps), splash-resistant (IP57)
Price off-contract (USD) Converts to $515Converts to $600$529 (64GB), $579 (128GB), $629 (256GB)Converts to $839
Price (GBP) Converts to £385Converts to £440£469 (64GB), £519 (128GB), £569 (256GB)£599
Price (AUD) AU$689Converts to AU$800AU$702 (64GB), AU$769 (128GB), AU$835 (256GB)Converts to AU$1,095
vivox21-1
7.6

Vivo X21

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Camera 8Battery 8
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