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Vivo Nex Dual Display Edition review: two screens, one phone

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How much do you hate the notch?

The Vivo Nex Dual Display Edition makes people say “wow.”

Whether it was the Walmart employee I handed it to while buying a SIM card on a recent trip to Canada or the tourists I asked to take a photo of our group at the CN Tower, people have been consistently intrigued and enthralled by this phone during my time with it. That’s no small thing, given how saturated and mature the smartphone market has become.

As with the previous Nex phone, Vivo has applied creative thinking and engineering to the solution of how to achieve the highest possible screen-to-body ratio. The headline feature this time around is a large second screen on the back of the phone, meaning you can use it as a selfie viewfinder for the regular rear-facing camera. It’s the most elaborate method yet to get rid of the notch, and it mostly works.

Mostly.

7.5 Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Great, notchless display
  • Class-leading “selfie camera”
  • Fun light-up ring

Bad Stuff

  • Infuriating screen-switching UX
  • Extremely fragile
  • Second screen is useless beyond selfies

From the front, the Vivo Nex Dual Display Edition has a restrained design. Sure, it’s still unusual to see a full-screen phone without a notch, but it doesn’t have curved glass like the Oppo Find X. It’s actually kind of boxy, despite the slim profile and rounded metallic corners. The 6.4-inch OLED screen looks great, but there isn’t much else to make the phone stand out if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Until you turn it around, that is. It’s not just that the Nex Dual Display has a second screen; it’s that Vivo has implemented it in a truly weird and cool way. Because the 5.5-inch rear display has an until recently conventional 16:9 aspect ratio, there’s a large bezel above it with room to house the cameras. The cameras are located right above the screen, and there’s also a large light-up ring that starts at the top of the phone and cuts into the display.

This “Lunar Ring” uses separate LEDs for the half that’s inside the bezel and the OLED screen itself for the other half. These lights surround a raised glass disc, meaning that part of the rear screen looks like a lens has been left on top of it. It’s very strange and hard to describe. I’ve really never seen anything like it, particularly when the ring lights up.

The ring is largely used as a glorified notification LED, lighting up when you receive alerts or plug the phone in. It also shines in different colors for various different portrait lighting effects when you’re taking a selfie, although the lights aren’t bright enough to actually be visible in the photos. The ring does, however, house two bright white LEDs that can be used for fill lighting or flash.

It’s like having one of those dedicated Casio selfie cameras built into your phone, and it helps that the image quality is bananas good. The vast majority of phones use lower-quality sensors for their selfie cameras, so it’s no surprise that being able to use the rear-facing camera hardware leads to dramatically better results. Selfies taken with the Nex Dual Display are extremely detailed, with vastly better dynamic range than any other phone I’ve ever used.

As a regular rear-facing camera, the Nex Dual Display performs pretty well — not category-leading, but not disappointing. As a selfie camera, though, it’s phenomenal, particularly when compared to the pokey 5-megapixel unit that Vivo managed to cram into the pop-up mechanism in last year’s Nex.

There is one other legitimately great camera-related use for the second screen: from the camera app, you can press a button to activate both screens at once, which is perfect for when you hand the phone to someone else to take a photo of you. The live view of the shot is right there on the back of the phone, which means you can adjust yourself in the framing to help get the best photo. This mode definitely confused some of the unsuspecting strangers I tried this out on — I heard “Dad, you’re holding the phone backwards!” more than once — but it really is a useful feature once everyone knows what’s happening.

The camera array also includes a time-of-flight 3D sensor, which Vivo showed off at MWC Shanghai last year. The phone doesn’t ship with the demonstrated ability to build a 3D model of your head, unfortunately, but it does seem to help produce some pretty accurate depth of field effects for portraits, and it’s also used for 3D face unlock when you wake the phone while using the rear screen.

As for the main screen, it has a fingerprint sensor embedded inside, like several other Vivo phones from the past year. This one, however, is a fourth-generation sensor that marks a big improvement on previous implementations. It’s far faster than the previous Nex, and I’ve found it to be very reliable. The gap in performance between this and a regular capacitive sensor — particularly one with a less convenient rear-mounted location — is extremely small.

In fact, the Nex Dual Display performs very well by any conventional metric. The Snapdragon 845 processor is as effective as it has been in any flagship Android phone, the 10GB of RAM is frankly excessive, and while the 3,500mAh battery is a downgrade from the original Nex, I haven’t once had a problem making it through a full day. There’s even a headphone jack.

I never quite got used to this phone, though, and the main reason why is Vivo overreached with the second screen’s functionality. If you want, you can use the phone exclusively with the smaller screen, only turning it around when you want to take a non-selfie photo. That’s fine in theory, and I can see it being a useful ability for times when a smaller screen might be more practical — one-handed use while hanging onto a subway handrail, for example. But third-party apps run in a shrunken-down window to match the larger screen’s taller aspect ratio, making them practically unusable.

Realistically, you’re never going to want to use the second screen for anything other than selfies. The problem is that the entire phone has been designed around the opposite of this reality. There’s a sleep / wake / switch screens button on each side of the phone; you press the one on the right to wake it, then press the one on the left if you want to switch to the other screen. It sounds simple enough, but I can’t tell you how many times I pressed the wrong one while taking the phone out of my pocket — the phone’s two screens are near-impossible to distinguish by feel — only to be faced with a blank display. Or the number of times I accidentally pressed the switch-display button while using the phone, then instinctively pressed it again to try to get the display back, which locked the phone altogether, which, of course, is extremely annoying.

Maybe I’d get used to this if I used the phone for more than a month, but I don’t think so. It’s just not an intuitive implementation of the idea, and the benefits of the idea are really minor in the first place. The dual power buttons on this phone make Samsung’s Bixby button look like a functional convenience. All they do is get in the way. I think the experience of using this phone would be vastly better if the second screen only ever activated when you press the on-screen “switch camera” button within the camera app. Nothing of value would be lost.

I also have to mention a serious practical downside of this design: durability. For obvious reasons, you can’t really use a traditional case with the Nex Dual Display. Vivo does include an iPhone 4-style rubber bumper that offers some limited protection, but there’s no getting around the fact that you have a much higher chance of cracking a screen when you drop this thing than basically any other phone. Which, full disclosure, I managed to do before I even found the bumper in the box — though thankfully the damage was limited to the bottom-right corner.

So yes, there are trade-offs to the Nex Dual Display, and unlike the previous Nex, I’m not convinced they’re worth it. Unless, of course, you care about selfie image quality, in which case, this might be the greatest phone ever made. For everyone else, the original Nex’s pop-up camera or a full-on sliding mechanism as seen on the motorized Oppo Find X or the magnetic Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 would probably make more sense. Or — and hear me out here — you could just get a normal phone with a notch, which is really the most sensible solution. You have to truly care about maintaining a giant list of yet-to-be-dealt-with notification icons for a notch to negatively impact the general Android experience.

The Vivo Nex Dual Display Edition is a flagship device in the purest sense of the word. It’s an impressive phone for the $700 price, and it demonstrates beyond a doubt that Vivo is a world-class manufacturer capable of incredible engineering and exciting new ideas.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, that doesn’t mean that this is the particular idea we should all rally behind. Maybe the new Apex 2019 will be the one. Or the 2020 version.

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