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vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Dual displays done right

Vivo's first dual-screen smartphone sheds the front-facing camera, but is this implementation an actually valuable trade-off?

Published onJanuary 4, 2019

Earlier this year, OPPO and vivo surprised us all when they unveiled some of the most unique smartphone designs to date. While Oppo’s Find X hid the front and back cameras in a full cutout slider mechanism in the top of the device, vivo managed to slot the selfie cam into a much smaller mechanism at the top of the phone, keeping the main cameras mounted to the back of the device.

Now, vivo is trying something new.

With displays on both the front and back, the vivo NEX Dual Display avoids using moving parts altogether. Is another screen a good method of ditching the front-facing camera? Let’s find out.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review notes:

I've been using the vivo NEX Dual Display edition on a roaming e-SIM network in the U.S. for 7 days.  Our vivo NEX Dual Display edition is running Android 9.0 Pie and Funtouch OS 4.5 version PD1821F_EX_A_1.5.9 on the December 2018 security patch. We'll refrain from adding review scores until we can put the device through our full suite of tests.

The international version does not seem to support the bands required for T-Mobile. I usually run my devices on Google Fi, which runs off T-Mobile's network, but I couldn't get more than 2G EDGE data. I've reached out to vivo about this and will update this post when I have a response.

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition review unit was provided to Android Authority by vivo.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Design

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition feels quite unique. We’ve gotten used to most phones sporting glass backs for things like wireless charging in 2018, but vivo installed a fully usable touchscreen to circumvent the need for a selfie camera. When you turn your phone to selfie mode the device will ask you to flip it over and use the 5.49-inch display with the rear cameras seated above it. This is quite a unique method of removing the need for a front-facing camera, but if anyone was going to try it, it makes sense that it would be vivo.

vivo embedded part of the camera module in the rear display to make room for a ring light. This is useful for selfies, as it lights up faces much more evenly, but it can also be useful for things like notifications. The ring light’s bright LEDs shine white when taking a selfie, but will glow various colors when it’s charging or when new notifications come in.

Google NEX Dual Display editon ring light

While many phones this year have adopted a curved approach, vivo’s device is definitively flat. This is obviously due to the screen on the rear of the device. Surprisingly, I don’t hate it. Curved devices are made to fit more snugly in your hand, and while the NEX doesn’t do this, I quite like the candybar-style feel the vivo NEX Dual Display edition has going on.

The right side of the device houses the volume rockers and a power button for the main display, and on the left you’ll find yet another power button. This power button actuates the secondary display on the rear of the device. Launching the camera from this side of the device automatically puts the phone into selfie mode, which can be useful if that’s exactly what you want to do.

On the bottom of the device you’ll find a USB Type-C port, speaker grill and dual SIM tray. On the top vivo has included a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s quite nice to see Chinese manufacturers like HONOR and vivo maintaining the port for at least a little longer, while most other A-class companies shift completely over to USB Type-C. We’ve even seen BBK’s third company OnePlus dump the headphone jack in its most recent flagship, the OnePlus 6T, so it’s only a matter of time before every new device sheds the port for good.

Overall I quite like the design, Obviously case options are going to be quite limited due to the nature of this device, but vivo has made a special bumper case in the colors of the device to protect it from accidental falls. The phone itself is made from Gorilla Glass so it should be relatively resistant to cracking, but if you’re exceptionally anxious about breaks this is a good option.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Display(s)

The primary display of the vivo NEX Dual Display edition is a 6.39-inch Super AMOLED panel with a resolution of 1,080 x 2,340. It is big, bright, and vivid, and doesn’t feel overly saturated like some of the displays I’ve used this year. If I had one complaint it would be that the pixel density feels just a little low, especially for how big this display is. While it’s fine for most things, icons and white pages have almost a matte look to them, which makes me think the pixel density or resolution could be just a bit higher.

The rear display is also 1080p, but has a resolution of 1,080 x 1,920. It looks fairly similar to the front display, but squishes apps to maintain the 19.5 x 9 aspect ratio. There is an option to force apps to use the full rear display, but this is only for supported apps. Currently, none of the apps I use support this, which is a bit of a bummer. You’ll likely want to use the main display for most things.

The color on both screens is nice, and not too punchy or washed out like some panels we’ve used this year. The screens can get very dim and very bright, and I didn’t have issues using this device outside.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Hardware

While vivo’s last NEX device has some pretty impressive hardware, the new Dual Display edition pushes its specs even further. This device is one of a handful of recent phones with 10GB of RAM, a healthy amount of memory for even the most intensive user. I didn’t have any memory trouble like I’ve had on the Pixel 3 XL in recent weeks, and while 10GB is overkill for pretty much everyone, it gives a sense of longevity to any potential buyers.

Other specs include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 128GB of storage, and a 3,500mAh battery. I initially though battery life would suffer on a phone using two screens, but both displays are on at the same time so infrequently it wasn’t an issue. Unfortunately vivo’s UI doesn’t report screen-on time, but we’ll be sure to run the device through our full battery suite during our full testing process. I usually ended my days with about 25 percent battery life. That isn’t the best battery life we’ve seen so far, it should be enough for most users.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition fingerprint sensor

vivo included two additional methods of device authentication past a simple unlock code — an in-screen fingerprint reader and a 3D time of flight (TOF) IR camera sensor. The in-screen fingerprint reader is on the main display and works fairly well, though it isn’t quite as fast as the HUAWEI Mate 20 Pro. The 3D TOF sensor is located on the back of the device, so you would probably only use this when getting ready to take a selfie. This sensor can also be used to scan real world objects into 3D space, giving you modeling capabilities for apps like Facebook.

How fingerprint scanners work: Optical, capacitive, and ultrasonic explained
google pixel 7a fingerprint sensor 2

As mentioned before, vivo has included a 3.5mm headphone jack. This almost entirely invalidates the argument that there isn’t enough space with a larger screen. The NEX Dual Display edition has one of the highest screen-to-body ratios we’ve seen in a device so far. While there isn’t a dedicated headphone amp past the one included in the SOC, it’s extremely nice to see the port on a flagship device.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Performance

As expected, the NEX Dual Display edition performed admirably in everyday use. I never once had to worry about apps closing due to memory constraints, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 was every bit as fast as it has previously.

In benchmarks, the vivo NEX Dual Display edition performed very well, beating out the OnePlus 6T and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 in multiple tests. We ran the device through  3DMark and AnTuTu benchmark tests. You can see the results below.

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition scored 4,720 in 3DMark, while the OnePlus 6T and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 scored 4,697 and 4,294, respectively.

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition scored 296,854 in AnTuTu, compared to the OnePlus 6T’s 262,266 and the Galaxy Note 9’s 272,168.

We tried to run Geekbench 4 as we usually do with our devices, but for some reason the test wouldn’t complete, citing an internet connection error. We’ve reported this bug to Geekbench.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Camera

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition has three cameras, but unlike most devices, they are all on the rear of the phone. Because the device has two screens, vivo has re-purposed the main 12MP f/1.8 shooter alongside the secondary 2MP f/1.8 sensor for both general shots as well as selfies. Rear cameras have traditionally been superior to front-facing options on smartphones anyway, so it only makes sense to take advantage of the extra quality.

vivo included a set of two LED’s in the camera module, which emulates a ring light. This gives the subject very even exposure during selfies, and drastically improves the quality of the image.

Generally, images are a little soft, but I quite like the color. It has a much more muted profile than many other flagship devices, and it reminded me of the camera on the OnePlus 6T. If the clarity was a bit better images would look quite similar to the Xiaomi Mi 8 camera, which was my favorite smartphone camera from 2018.

Dynamic range on the vivo NEX Dual Display edition is decent, but I found it over-processed images to raise the shadows. This created a lot of noise in those areas. Computational techniques like Lucky Imaging, which is employed by the Google Pixel to clean shadows, would help with this. The phone has an HDR mode, but it was quite inconsistent.

The phone uses the 2MP depth sensor to enable some different portrait lighting modes which look ok, but the quality of the bokeh, or out of focus areas wasn’t very convincing. The NEX struggles with a problem many smartphone cameras have, in which they only create two distinct focus planes in an image. Google’s new Pixel 3 can create a variety of focal planes using its dual-pixel technique combined with an enormous database of trained data to measure depth. This is much more accurate to how an analog camera lens operates, so we’d like to see manufacturers like vivo adopt similar techniques.

Google NEX Dual Display editon ring light

One little thing that isn’t technically important but just plain cool is the LED light strip around the camera module. This lights up the color of the device when you get notifications or charge the phone, but it can light up a variety of colors when you use the different portrait lighting modes. One of my favorites was the rainbow lighting mode, which adds a rainbow lens flare to the image and illuminates the ring in a variety of different colors. Even though this isn’t technically important to the performance of the camera, it’s a nice little addition.

Take a look at the gallery above to get a sense of what this camera will look like. These are compressed images to make the website load faster for you. If you want to see the photos in their full resolution, head to this shared Google Drive folder.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Software

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition runs on Funtouch OS 4.5 based on Android 9.0 Pie, and I think it’s just plain bad. I recognize vivo devices are primarily tailored for the Chinese market, where emulating iOS is normal, but I personally hate it.

There is no app drawer, and no way to add it in settings. Because of this, you’re forced to use multiple folders and pages to store your apps. I’m a minimalist at heart, and usually use the app drawer and dedicated gestures to access my apps. Folders and pages just aren’t my thing, and I wish vivo would give users both options on this device.

Navigation gestures aren’t enabled by default, but you can turn them on in the settings. The phone has some of the better navigation gestures I’ve seen on Android, blending the newer iOS gestures with traditional Android navigation quite nicely. You can swipe up from the bottom center to go home or hold to multitask, swipe up from the right to go back, and swipe up from the left to access a quick settings panel with various toggles and switches. While this panel looks extremely similar to the iOS version, it’s a smart implementation I enjoyed throughout my time with the phone.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: The second screen

While I initially expected the second screen on the vivo NEX Dual Display edition to be little more than a gimmick, it adds enough features and functionality to the device I thought it deserved its own section in the review.

While the main intent of the second screen was obviously to take selfies, vivo has made the imaging experience better by adding something called “mirror mode.” This mode displays the camera output on both the front and rear displays, allowing the subject as well as the photographer to see the scene. This is incredibly useful when taking photos of other people, because it lets them pose in a way they like before the image is actually taken. I don’t see a lot of portrait photographers switching to this phone just for the functionality, but people were always quite impressed with the feature when I took photos of them.

The other main feature vivo is touting is the ability to use the rear display as triggers for games like PUBG. vivo worked with Tencent to get this functionality working in the NEX, and I think it’s quite intuitive. It always felt strange to run, aim, and shoot with buttons on the front screen, so it’s nice to be able to keep your thumbs on the front of the phone while shooting with your middle fingers on the rear. While vivo hasn’t announced any other partnerships to bring functionality to other games, I could see it being quite useful for racing titles as well.

The other benefit of a second screen being able to continue using the phone if you break one of your displays. Taking selfies would be tough if you break the back display, but for someone that cares about general functionality above all, it’s convenient to have a second screen on reserve.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Specs

vivo NEX Dual Display edition
Primary: 6.39-inch Super AMOLED, Full HD+ (2340 x 1080), 19.5:9 aspect ratio

Secondary: 5.49-inch Super AMOLED, Full HD (1920 x 1080p resolution), 16:9 aspect ratio
Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 with AI Engine, 64-bit, octa-core, 10nm
Adreno 630
Rear: Dual pixel 12 MP f/1.8 (Sony IMX363) with 1.4µm pixel size, OIS and EIS, 2MP f/1.8 for depth sensing, f/1.3 TOF sensor
32-bit/192kHz audio, 3.5mm audio jack
3,500mAh, fast charging
IP rating
Fingerprint (3rd generation in-display), accelerometer, proximity, compass, gyroscope, infrared, ambient light
GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 - SIM 1 & SIM 2
CDMA 800
3G bands HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
4G bands LTE band 1(2100), 3(1800), 5(850), 7(2600), 8(900), 19(800), 28(700), 38(2600), 39(1900), 40(2300), 41(2500)
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4G/5.1G/5.8G, hotspot
Bluetooth 5.0
3.5mm headphone port
USB Type-C
Dual SIM/hybrid slot
Android 9.0 Pie
Funtouch OS 4.5
Dimensions and weight
157.2 x 75.3 x 8.1mm

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Price and availability

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition is available now in Chinese markets for 4,998 yuan (~$727).

There will only be one SKU available at launch, with 10GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The device will come in red or blue.

vivo NEX Dual Display edition review: Final thoughts

The vivo NEX Dual Display edition isn’t the vivo NEX 2 we were expecting, but it is a thoughtful and creative way to avoid the notch on a smartphone. With smart implementations like mirror mode and dual screen gaming, the second display is more than just a gimmick for me. While I don’t necessarily see this becoming a trend in 2019 devices, I’m glad to see companies like vivo continuing to innovate and keeping smartphones fun.

At the equivalent of $730, this rather unique device is relatively affordable. While I would like to see a better camera, and a dedicated UI more tailored for a western audience on the international version, the vivo NEX Dual Display edition surprised me in a very good way.

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