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

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.

“Dad, you’re holding the phone backwards!”

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

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.

You could just get a normal phone with a notch

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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