Vivo Apex 2019 full review

The Vivo Apex 2019 isn’t a real smartphone. It’s a concept piece, a vision of what Vivo thinks is the future of smartphones. More concretely, it’s probably a pretty good indication to expect from the next Vivo Nex device, likely due later this year.

What’s striking about the new Apex concept isn’t the features it has though (though the full-display fingerprint scanner is fairly nifty): it’s the stuff that it doesn’t. There’s no headphone jack. No USB-C port. No speaker grille. No holes - or buttons - of any kind. There’s not even a selfie camera.

Are people really willing to give up on that many features just for the sake of a phone that’s a seamless block of glass and metal? Probably not - but they might be willing to give up on some of them, and Vivo is no doubt trying to figure out exactly which smartphone staple is really disposable.

Price and availability

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to get your hands on the Apex 2. Last year’s Apex never went on sale, but its most exciting feature - the pop-up camera - made its way into July’s Vivo Nex.

So don’t expect to ever buy the Apex 2019, but keep an eye out for news of the next Nex.

Apex: Legend?

The concept behind the Apex line is, well, that they’re concepts: it’s a chance for Vivo to show off technical innovations that aren’t quite ready for the mainstream yet, but in theory will be soon.

First time around it was the pop-up camera - which caught on enough that it’s rumoured to feature in this year’s OnePlus 7. This year Vivo is attempting something that’s arguably more radical: removing every hole or interruption from the phone’s body.

Rival Chinese brand Meizu attempted the same thing with the Meizu Zero - a Kickstarter flop that the company now says it never really meant to make - so even before the launch Vivo is on the back foot, facing the unenviable task of explaining to consumers that they should literally pay more for less with their next phone.

The biggest thing you don’t get is, uh, buttons. Instead the phone’s frame itself is touch- and pressure-sensitive, so you can get all your favourite button functionality without any of those pesky moving parts.

Instead a combination of three capacitive and two pressure sensors packed in together replace the usual volume and power controls. You have to squeeze a little harder than you might think to trigger the effect, though there some haptic feedback to make the whole thing feel more button-y, and they’re even served by an independent current so that they should still (in theory) work even if the phone crashes.

You’ll also have to get good at remembering where the ‘buttons’ are too, of course. Vivo’s trying to get around that with on-screen prompts, but since these hover over the whole UI near constantly, they’re more of an irritation than anything else. It’s not clear what the right answer is here - though this ain’t it - but there’s enough potential here to suggest that binning buttons isn’t entirely a pipe dream.

Dropping the USB-C port seems easier to work around - it just means you’re limited to wireless charging. Except Vivo still hasn’t adopted true wireless charging, so instead you have to use a custom magnetic charging port. Vivo says that’s because wireless data transfer isn’t mature enough yet, even if wireless charging is, but that’s a hard sell for the average user, who probably hasn’t physically connected their phone to a computer in years.

It’d be one thing to drop USB-C for Qi charging - which is at least growing in ubiquity. But dropping a universal standard for a clunky proprietary system is almost unthinkable - it feels a bit like if Apple had dropped the headphone jack without including support for Bluetooth audio in its place.

Fingerprintin’ good

Still, it’d be unfair to suggest that everything in the Apex is about stripping features back. For one, there’s 5G support - par for the course for a 2019 flagship, and fundamentally meaningless in a concept device anyway. But still, there’s a Snapdragon X50 modem in there somewhere, not that I could test it.

More important is the “full-screen” fingerprint scanner, which takes the under-display optical fingerprint tech and expands it out of a specific zone and across (almost) the whole of the phone’s display.

There’s a border 1cm or so thick around the edge of the display that doesn’t pack the tech, but beyond that you can touch anywhere on the screen to unlock the phone. Better still, it’s pretty much immediate, it’s reliable, and it works even when the screen is off - thanks in part to tech that lights up the pixels around your finger when you touch it, to help get a better read of your print.

There’s a minor convenience here that slightly undersells the tech at work, but more importantly it’s already manifesting in UI changes. Tapping on a notification from the lock screen will simultaneously unlock the phone and open the app in question - a process that’s theoretically even more seamless than facial recognition.

You even get the option to enroll two fingerprints, requiring both be used simultaneously for extra security. Enrolling a new print only takes two or three presses, making it quicker and easier than most rear-mounted fingerprint scanners, let alone in-display ones.

Flagship of the future

Get beyond the fancy headline features, and the rest of the Apex 2019 is no less impressive really. Take the internal specs: they’re basically the, uh, apex, of this year’s flagship expectations: a Snapdragon 855 processor, 512GB of storage, and a frankly silly 12GB RAM.

Cameras are a little odder. We don’t have specific specs, though the rear boasts two lenses: one standard and one wide-angle, though the later suffers from some serious fish-eye. More strangely, there’s no selfie camera at all - no notch, no pinhole, no slider, no pop-up, no silly Nex Dual Display-esque rear screen - something Vivo admitted was down to the concept status, and so unlikely to make it through to any final release.

The all-glass body comes in Quartz White, Titan Silver, and Meteor Grey, and the simple, stripped-back colour options do a great job of showing off the wrap-around glass body, which lets the light through to occasionally stunning effect.

The camera lenses sit entirely flush with the glass, which is only interrupted by two things: an almost imperceptible microphone below the display, and that pesky magport, which breaks the glass finish distractingly - yet another reason it would make more sense to ditch the magnetics and stick with Qi.

Verdict

It’s hard to try and review a phone that’s never really intended to be used, so it’s better in a way to look at the Apex’s key features on their own merits. On that basis, the full-screen fingerprint scanner is the clear winner: a massive quality-of-life boosts that just works, and works well - expect to see this in every phone out there once sensor prices drop enough.

The other innovations are on shakier ground. Ditching the USB-C port might make sense if it was paving way for Qi, but Vivo’s magport implementation is unforgivably daft. Meanwhile there’s a surprisingly good case made here that physical buttons have nearly had their day, as outdated as a BlackBerry keypad, but the tech isn’t quite there yet.

It’s hard to imagine all of this tech making it into the next Nex - and sadly the best of the bunch, the fingerprint display, is probably still too pricey for this year’s models - but expect to see some of this in a phone later this year, and probably spreading to other manufacturers not too long after.

Specs

Vivo Apex 2019: Specs

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor
  • 12GB RAM
  • 512GB storage
  • 5G
  • Unibody design
  • Magport charger
  • Full-screen in-display fingerprint sensor

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