Vivo's latest flagship, the Vivo NEX 3 5G, is a next-generation device that sets itself above the likes of most competitors in terms of pure hardware. On that front, from the camera to its overall design and future features, Vivo obviously put its best foot forward.
Simultaneously, any consumer outside of its sales region is going to have a hard time thinking of this phone as an Android device. Vivo includes its own Funtouch OS overlay based on Android 9 Pie but that doesn't exactly work how most of the world's users would expect. More importantly, it takes away from the intuitive nature of the operating system itself. Switching from almost any other Android device to the Vivo NEX 3 5G is going to feel like a chore.
Those who are able to adapt to the software features and extensive OS customization will face further challenges too. Vivo built this phone to be sold in Chinese-speaking regions. That primarily impacts the software but it's not a negligible impact. That limits basic functionality centered around system notifications and app installations. All of that steps past issues related to audio, camera performance, and hardware design.
So, the question remains. Is the Vivo NEX 3 5G worth buying? A closer look reveals that's going to depend on a number of factors for this CNY 5,698 handset — roughly $806.
Vivo NEX 3 5G works with 4G in the U.S. but 5G is still limited and so is availability
Software is the main drawback I was able to find with the Vivo NEX 3 5G. But for many, its connectivity and availability are going to be the bigger problem. Although I was able to consistently access 4G LTE, 5G wasn't available in my area and won't be for years. Most likely that's going to be the case across a sizeable swath of almost any region. That's a big selling point for this particular device.
More poignant, Vivo doesn't intend this to be sold in many regions outside of its home country. So even though I was able to get 4G with my Vivo NEX 3 5G review device, it's going to be exceptionally difficult to find and to buy. The 5G radios in this gadget may not ever work in outside regions either.
That presents itself in several ways on this smartphone. Those range from the fact that this isn't anywhere near Google's stock Android to the language barriers present in the gadget's menus. As good as Vivo NEX 3 5G is, it's going to be a challenge first for most to buy. For the subset of consumers that are able to obtain one, it's going to be just as challenging to use to its full potential.
Vivo NEX 3 5G is Android but it isn't Google in the slightest
The Vivo NEX 3 5G is undoubtedly based on Android. More specifically it runs on a variant of Funtouch OS that's based on Android 9 Pie. It comes with the October security patch — via one of two updates received during my review of the Nex 3 5G. That's the latest patch as of this writing.
All of the Android navigation elements are in place, as are Quick Settings, app shortcuts, and everything that makes Android what it is. But it isn't a stock form of Android and none of those elements seems to be where I would expect it. We'll cover that a bit later on. Almost everything feels out of place with this phone, from the settings menu to the way apps are stored without an app drawer.
Vivo didn't incorporate anything at all that's related to Google aside from Android and that's where things get weird. The most noticeable highlight of that is that the Vivo NEX 3 5G doesn't deliver Google Play Store. There's a dedicated V-Appstore instead. Vivo also includes its own browser, file manager, cloud service, sharing mechanisms, device manager, security, theming, and pretty much everything else.
That's disconcerting for somebody who has become accustomed to those or even reliant on them, as I am for work. Between the placement of all of the settings — which in their own right work very well — and the lack of Google services, this phone is just difficult to adapt to. Admittedly, that's not going to be an issue for those who have used Vivo devices. It does still feel like it will be a hindrance for anybody heavily invested in the Google-built ecosystem.
The software-based pressure buttons work well if we ignore design
Navigating the "buttons" on this device is made easier by a single quirk of the build. Namely, Vivo marks the "power button" with easy-to-feel grooves and an almost imperceptible 'hump' in the right-hand edge of the phone. There's an on-screen guide to where the power and volume "buttons" are too.
For those wondering why "buttons" keeps being put in quotes here, that's because there aren't actually any buttons to be found in the design. Instead, there are three squeeze zones that sense pressure along the right-hand edge. The on-screen navigation is similarly stark, with three thin lines along the bottom of the UI instead of icons. Gestures account for everything.
The edge-based squeeze gestures worked fine. In fact, they worked better than fine. But that was leading off of coming to terms with the volume segments being split above and below the power segment. That's above for up and below for down.
Vivo obviously put a lot of consideration into how well it works and it's a small quirk. Nonetheless, it's disconcerting and may users are just going to hate it.
Navigating software, conversely, is otherworldly in terms of separating from stock Android 9 Pie. Summarily, the setup is a strange combination of Android 10 gestures and something completely different.
Standard actions such as getting to the home screen and navigating "back" are like the newest Android iteration. A swipe up (only in the middle) returns to the home screen. A set of three thin lines just millimeters from the bottom bezel denotes where upward swiping happens. Swiping from the right or left of the screen quickly moves "back."
But swiping up on the right-hand line at the bottom is also a "back" button and the action to get to the recent apps is two-fold. First, a long swipe up the bottom will either dismiss the current app or a short one will open the recent apps UI. Second, Vivo didn't include a notification bar quick settings panel. Users can find that alongside recent apps and action-based shortcuts with a swipe up on the bottom left-hand line.
It's downright obnoxious to get used to and thanks to other quirks noted above, changing to a more standard icon-based navigation is somewhat difficult to do.
Don't import this if you don't speak or read Chinese
Interestingly, I was able to get Google Play and Google Play Services installed. But it isn't immediately clear if that's going to be the case everywhere.
Summarily, I was eventually able to find and install a Google-Google app that required it from the apparently Chinese-only default market. I opened that once it was installed. The phone presented a message indicating it requires Google Play Services. That required a Google Play download too and both installed from the web automatically.
So there was some reprieve on the software front. However, system-level messages still appeared in Chinese. Messages from all of the pre-installed apps showed up in Chinese too. There didn't seem to be any way to change the language used there.
The same holds for the overwhelming option of app shortcuts in the Chinese-only app shortcut market. Those are the app shortcuts that show when the Quick Settings are pulled from the bottom. So there was no way for me to test those to a "full" extent either.
Again, the same holds for the keyboard. I switched the keyboard to English but a few keys and menus were still Chinese-only. That made for a disconcerting, disconnected experience.
If Vivo installed an app on this phone, it's probably going to only be in Chinese when the user goes to open it. That's regardless of whether it's the app stores, keyboard, web browser, or just about anything.
This won't be sold in the US or many other regions but it's still a problem if this phone is going to have any reach. The biggest concern derives from the fact that the options for switching that are available aren't all-encompassing. So both use and customization are hindered extensively for anybody who doesn't speak the language.
Speaker audio is a big weakness for the Vivo NEX 3 5G and other audio isn't great either
Exploring the audio experience of modern flagships is ordinarily among my favorite things to do and that wasn't untrue with the Vivo NEX 3 5G. But the experience here didn't get off to a great start either. Summarily, the word "tinny" doesn't describe the situation perfectly. It's close enough to not quibble over too much though.
The biggest problem here seems to come down to balance. Vivo included a relatively wide front-facing speaker grill and a bottom-firing speaker for its flagship. It lists Hi-Fi audio as a feature. But even the mids from those speakers show a tendency to get lost. In fact, they get lost almost as much as bass tones do. There's unsurprisingly very little by way of power on that front.
Ironically, the fact that the mids aren't helping higher frequencies to drown out bass tones means that the negative impact on mids and bass spreads over the two ranges.
The result is that the problem gets worse as the audio playback widens in terms of frequencies and sound filling in space. That shows particularly well in some music and movies but not all of them. Narrower audio, such as podcasts, sounds great but it never quite stops sounding like things are off.
Headphones and Bluetooth playback alleviate that somewhat.
That's not at all surprising via the 3.5mm audio jack since Vivo built in a separated Hi-Fi chip and there are even optimizations related to that in the Settings app. The company put a lot more effort into that front and that improves things significantly. It even included age-based adjustments that alter how playback sounds.
Vivo's focus here, like many OEMs, isn't going to be on the tiny notification speakers. It put most of its efforts into audio elsewhere and it shows. The issue is that creates a disconnected experience overall.
No ruggedization rating makes this a comparatively fragile flagship
Vivo engineered a brilliant device here in terms of aesthetics. The non-physical volume and power keys, aside from some design problems, work great. One area that I noticed Vivo dropping the ball with this phone is its lack of any kind of IP rating whatsoever. Nobody should treat this phone as if it's protected from water or dust damage. It isn't.
Now, it's a given this phone will survive some light splashes and possibly even a light drizzle of rain. Submersion or heavier wetting will almost certainly kill it outright. So it's a comparatively weak phone when it comes to durability.
Making matters worse, the fact that the glass is coating both front and back and so steeply curved presents an issue. When glass screens shatter or crack, they tend to do so where there are curves, corners, and edges. The curve presents a problem because it substantially increases the regions where curves and corners exist. That's on both the front and back too, effectively doubling the problem.
Stacking on the fact that this phone feels relatively heavy makes that glass-sandwich design seem worse.
That's not to say I found the Vivo NEX 3 5G to be heavier in any empirical sense during my review of this device or that it's necessarily bad. It seems to be truer that its the balance of weight makes it seem heavier in-hand. Regardless, that combines with the fact that it uses steeply curved glass and is somewhat more slippery.
So it's a good thing this phone comes with a case, even if it is a somewhat flimsy and low-coverage design, as shown in the positive review for this handset.
Vivo NEX 3 5G is still going to be worth the money for its intended sales region
In its intended sales regions, Vivo isn't going too far outside of the box with any of those caveats.
I only found two exceptions to that, tracing back to the speaker issues and design outlined above. Interestingly, speaker quality during speakerphone calls or video chats is above acceptable. So that may not present much of an issue after all. Most users aren't listening to music or media directly through on-device speakers anyway. In general, those are simply too small to be any good.
The ruggedization problem is worse. This may be among the first Chinese smartphones to bring 5G technology. But a phone without any water or dust protection at over $600 is almost impossible to overlook. Buyers will want to buy a good case to add extra protection.
Other minor caveats exist in the cameras and in special features and can be found in the positive review. Those are probably even less likely to serve as dealbreakers.
Perhaps more importantly, none of those are necessarily caveats in the intended sales region. Chinese smartphones almost never hold to a stock Android ecosystem. That's because Google's apps and services, in general, aren't available in those OEM's home region. That forces outside-of-the-box thinking and nearly all of the caveats here will be most noticeable to those outside of the region.
For any consumer who is looking to buy a phone for use in the U.S. or Europe, it isn't intended to be sold there. They should probably avoid this phone. More tech-savvy users probably won't have the same issues. But just about anybody in the sales region will want to check out this smartphone if they're looking to replace an aging flagship. Overall, it's actually a very good device.