IQOO 3 5G Review – Competitively-Priced But Flawed Flagship Contender

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The IQOO 3 5G is a flagship that costs significantly less but that also comes with noticeable trade-offs

IQOO 3 5G
$619.29
Rating
Pros
  • Great, understated aethetics
  • Solid build quality and construction
  • Responsive, lag-free display panel
  • Purpose-built for gaming with great cooling
  • Long battery life and rapid 55W charging
  • HDR+ display with 180Hz touch response rate
  • Bluetooth 5.1 with a 3.5mm audio jack and Hi-Fi audio output
  • Great daytime cameras
  • Smooth, highly-customizable user interface experience
  • Dedicated pressure-sensitive 'L' and 'R' edge buttons
  • Dedicated AI Assistant button
  • In-screen fingerprint scanner
Cons
  • Bloated pre-installed software well-above normal
  • Broken 5G networking indicator
  • One too many different apps for managing gaming features
  • Display cuts off some media content in playback due to its ratio
  • Single, bottom-firing speaker falls well short of flagship expectations
  • Night Mode autofocus performs poorly
  • Artifacts are abundant in heavily-backlit shots

Vivo is a brand that doesn't require any introduction but IQOO, a brand built by the company, might. IQOO is, in a nutshell, the company's gaming brand. And the company recently sent its IQOO 3 5G for review. What I discovered through that process is a brand really deserves more recognition.

Now, the test unit received was the India-specific model. That's model number I1928. The handset is priced at ₹46,990, or right around $619.29 USD as of this writing.

For that price, on initial inspection and on paper, this handset appears to be nothing special. It's basically a well-specced flagship from a relatively unknown brand — in the west, at the very least. So it delivers top-tier specs and a few gaming-specific features. There's just not a lot to set it apart.

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With that said, the IQOO 3 5G's high-design frame and features are something else entirely, especially with consideration for the cost. In fact, in some areas, this smartphone really excels. And it even works in the US with at least one exceedingly minor caveat.

But the low price tag does come with its trade-offs. In some areas, it falls flat on its face. And those caveats and drawbacks are worth delving into at some length. Whether its the audio quality, bloated OS, autofocus problems under certain circumstances, or other areas, this phone is definitely not a $1000 flagship.

That's not to say that the IQOO 3 5G isn't a great smartphone for the money. It really is. That's especially with consideration for the consistently rising cost of other brands' flagships — well over $1000, at this point. But there are one or two things holding it back. So let's take a closer look at exactly what this phone is and where it really fits into the grander scheme of things.

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The IQOO 3 5G hardware feels and looks top-tier

01 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Hardware
The IQOO 3 5G hardware is decidedly premium

One of the key areas where the IQOO 3 5G really shined under review is in its external hardware. Now, the handset packs a 6.44-inch display panel, a 4,440 mAh battery, and a ton of other features. We'll cover those in the respective sections later on. But, combined with its metal frame and a Gorilla Glass panel on the back, that equates to a lot of weight. Around 214.5g, to be precise.

The weight here is going to be the one build-quality drawback and the fact that it's not waterproof is another. The extra internal components we'll cover later on make this device thicker at 9.16mm too but the weight is what's most noticeable. It isn't quite as heavy as Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra, but it's close.

Despite that, this smartphone generally looks and feels great in-hand. Not only does it come in three unique colors — Volcano Orange, Tornado Black, and Quantum Silver. My IQOO 3 5G review unit was Tornado Black. It also has a smooth but not too slippery glass backing, comes with a great white-frosted clear case, and curves just slightly around the back and edges.

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The front is flat, allowing a sharper, more angular feel without causing discomfort. Taken in combination, it just feels stable and premium.

The coloration here is interesting too. There is a bit of gradient, curving gently and mostly found down the middle as well as in the center of the rear panel. But it's more of an accent than a true gradient. The same holds true for the Silver variant while the orange unit is speckled with black. That accent-heavy design language carries over to the buttons as well. On my test device, that's a bright orange tone found in the textured power button.

That key, as well as the volume rocker and dedicated AI assistant key, are snappy and click into place cleanly. Build quality continues over to the USB-C port, two-sided Dual SIM drawer, speaker grilles, and 3.5mm headphone jack too. This phone feels well-made on all fronts and has the premium look to make that stick.

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There's no jostle in any of those ports, either. So the phone feels at least as durable as ergonomic. That's only made better by the frame-embedded pressure-sensitive trigger keys along one edge, which we'll get to momentarily.

As shown in the images above, the fingerprint scanner is in-display. That's snappy and accurate, overall just much better than was expected for that particular type of hardware. Here, it's actually usable.

This phone was made for gaming and it shows

04 IQOO 3 I1928 Review specs performance
Ultra Game Mode and Game Assistant stack atop performance and hardware features to ensure a top-level gaming experience

Now, because this is a gaming phone, three areas arguably matter more than anything else. Specifically, that's the performance, display, and battery life. So we'll cover those topics first, beginning with performance and associated software features.

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Under review, the IQOO 3 5G is a monster of a smartphone. That's not just because this Android 10 handset operates on an octa-core Snapdragon 865 processor — the best around for now — or with 12GB RAM backing that up. It doesn't solely rely on the super-fast UFS 3.1 storage either, set at 256GB. No, there are software and external hardware components to take into consideration.

Of course, the processor and RAM in the IQOO 3 5G combine with great optimization via IQOO UI. The latter of those we'll cover momentarily. That equates to a rapid, lag-free experience all-around and fast boot times.

But the performance side of the software isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. And that comes chiefly down to how the company handles extra gaming-specific features. The settings for individual games and enhancements are typically found in a single app on these types of phones. That's been split into two apps here and neither is necessarily intuitive to get to.

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To begin with, one mode is accessed by a long squeeze of both edge-mounted Monster Touch Buttons. Those are found along one edge, clearly marked with an 'L' and an 'R', and press in without the physical click. It's a similar concept to the edge squeeze features found in some phones but they're placed in trigger positions here.

That action launches Game Space, giving users a readout of current CPU and GPU use as well as internal temperatures. With the tap of an icon, users can also see how much Wi-Fi, mobile data, and duration has been spent on each game. The charts are useful but not necessarily going to be widely used. Setting that aside, users can also swipe through and launch games form the UI.

The second piece of software is called Ultra Game Mode and is found in the Settings app.

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That second app is much more helpful, offering enhancements on a game-by-game basis. That includes Game Assistant for quick access to controls, quick actions, and functions at game launch. That tool also allows the trigger buttons to be assigned. But users can also find Do Not Disturb features, Wi-Fi, brightness, accidental touch protection, off-screen auto-play, frame rate, and picture-in-picture controls in Ultra Game Mode.

All of that, again, is on a game-by-game basis. So it's going to prove useful for those who love gaming on a mobile device. Especially since any app can be added manually and most games are added automatically.

Tied in with a dedicated "Carbon Fiber Vapour Cooling System" that keeps the device cool in even the most intensive games, that equates to a great experience. Mostly. The sole drawbacks there are big ones though. Namely, it's convoluted and difficult to manage without forethought. And there are multiple separate interfaces that need to be navigated for hard-core mobile gamers.

This display is special but not necessarily for the expected reasons

03 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Display
IQOO picked top-of-the-line hardware for the 3 5G

The choice of display for this gaming-focused handset was a good one. Not only is it  HDR 10+ compatible with a touch response rate well above the overwhelming majority of competitors. The 180Hz touch response rate, Full HD+ (2,400 x 1080 pixels) screen has a display to body ratio of 91.4-percent with just 5.17mm of bezel at its widest point.

That's offset by the fact that it's a Gorilla Glass 6-coated Schott Xensation UP panel. And it comes complete with software to aid in preventing accidental screen taps. That's going to be useful for those who reprogram their games to utilize the Monster Touch Buttons.

As noted above, that's a flat display panel too. So there isn't any curve but the above-mentioned branding does imply a higher-than-average breaking pressure.

Of course, the display ratio means that this phone doesn't always display all content. At least, without being either letterboxed on the right- and left-hand edges or zoomed in and cutting off portions of the content. But that's a somewhat small price to pay for the perks that the screen delivers.

And, of course, the display comes with the expected Dark Mode features, screen color adaptation, and eye protection mode for blue-light reductions. Always-on display features are present and accounted for.

Brightness and responsiveness are well above average. In particular, responsiveness is not only measured at a high response rate. But the experience that represents is natural without feeling too sensitive. Similarly, since this is a Super AMOLED panel, the blacks are as deep as can be and contrast can be described as stellar.

During my review, all of that allowed for a great experience at the price-point from the Vivo-built IQOO 3 5G. The primary caveat with that is the above-noted exception of video content when played back due to the aspect ratio.

IQOO 3 5G has advanced battery features, good battery life marred by quirks and easily-diminished longevity

05 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Battery
Charging is fast with a few caveats if this phone is being charged from dead

Topping off the list of key gaming phone characteristics with this phone is its battery life. I managed to eke out no less than 8-hours and 52-minutes of screen-on time during the battery test portion of this IQOO 3 5G review. That's stopping just short of 9-hours without any battery-saving features turned on and with screen brightness pegged at 100-percent.

As noted earlier, that level of display brightness simply isn't needed. So, on that front alone and without considerations for dark mode, this phone performed spectacularly. It is also fair to say that I didn't use any of the battery-draining performance modes either. Bearing that in mind, I didn't feel the need for those at all — although mileage always varies on battery life.

In total, that time was split with 4-hours spent in video streaming at the maximum resolution. I also played some relatively intensive mobile games for approximately 1-hour and 21-minutes. Web browsing and camera usage rang in at an hour while a half-hour was set aside for flashlight usage — with the screen remaining on. A minute beyond one hour was spent in messaging apps, calls, and other day-to-day activities.

Standby time, however, ringing in at ten minutes past 16-hours, was not great on the battery. Every six hours this smartphone loses just over 2-percent of its capacity.

Charging the phone wasn't a great experience ever. Unless the phone was turned on, which it wasn't because I'd just drained the battery, no percentage is shown. Instead, the battery percentage is graphically represented via an animation. That left a bit of confusion and made determining exact percentages more than a little annoying.

However, just short of 20-minutes did appear to take the battery to just over half full. From there, I noticed charging slows quite a bit. The end result was this phone taking around 50-minutes to charge up. Once charged, a "fully charged" message appears below the animated battery graphic.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to this flagship is its lack of wireless charging support. Almost making up for that, IQOO includes a unique angled charging cable, making it easier to game and charge at the same time. The battery doesn't heat up much while charging either.

Audio with the IQOO 3 5G held the device back

08 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Audio
Audio quality is not the best from the single bottom-firing speaker but a 3.5mm jack all but makes up for that

The audio quality from this particular handset is yet another area the IQOO 3 5G fell apart under review. That's not to say its single, the bottom-firing speaker is tinny or unusable. It's loud and works just fine for ringtones, alerts, and alarms. But it's not a strong point by any means.

That comes back mostly to the fact that it is, as already noted, a single bottom-firing speaker. Where many flagships utilize a second speaker or at least add in noise via the earpiece, this phone doesn't. Sound isn't one of the key selling points so that's mostly okay. Most users also don't rely on built-in speakers. But it's a point worth noting.

When it comes to audio elsewhere, this phone does stand apart in one regard. It's one of the few available flagships that doesn't dismiss the 3.5mm audio jack in favor of USB-C audio or Bluetooth. Bluetooth 5.1 is included but users can also just plug in a traditional set of earphones or headphones.

Simultaneously, the 3.5mm audio plug on the IQOO 3 5G doesn't support FM Radio. That's not a huge issue but doesn't make a lot of sense since the jack itself is included and that's typically how the feature works in other phones.

IQOO 3 5G supports Hi-Fi audio in the requisite menu within the sound options in the Settings app. But that's not enabled across the system itself. Instead, it's only included on an app-by-app basis, with users required to navigate to Settings to turn it on themselves. There, the audio can also be fine-tuned by age group for a better experience.

As a result, earphone listening is decidedly better than speaker listening. But, as with everything else to do with this phone, it just doesn't feel as though it's quite as good as some other flagships.

The camera here performed better than expected

06 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Camera
The IQOO 3 5G camera is impressive and feature-rich, mostly

For the most part, the IQOO 3 5G quad-camera array impressed over the course of my review. Tested under a variety of conditions, the primary problems and artifacts arose where dramatic light variances were present and at night. In fact, the sole camera inconsistencies I noted were in Night Mode, dimly-lit environments, and with direct, bright backlighting.

Diving deeper into the issue, Night Mode consistently failed to focus properly. That was especially a problem with subjects closer than 5-feet away. Under direct backlighting, the cameras had issues in the other direction. Specifically, they created blooms and even some spotting artifacts.

In dim environments, blurring from camera shake and heavy pixelation also occurred. In some cases, as shown in our sample photos via Flickr, even using a tripod didn't help much. All of the nighttime shots we showcase there were taken on a tripod.

Setting that aside, snapshots in good or great lighting turned out well. Especially in 48-megapixel mode, where details, shadowing, and other characteristics really shine through in all of their glory. Color accuracy was exceptional in proper lighting too, leaning only slightly toward bright and vibrant while maintaining a natural feel.

Now, that quality does carry over to the other available modes too. The super-wide-angle lens — selectable via the lens icon or via on-screen AI suggestion for some scenes — snaps at a 0.6 zoom. There's also a Bokeh lens and Super macro lens. As shown in the above-mentioned gallery, shots taken with the appropriate lens turn out wonderfully, with plenty of detail and accurate color. The autofocus, under proper lighting, is quick too.

Of course, other expected features such as Slo-Mo, Time-Lapse, Pro, AR Stickers, and Jovi Vision AI machine vision modes are available. As is a dedicated Document mode. Portrait Lighting, Beauty adjustments — including a ton of fine-tuning tweaks — and even HDR and shot styling features are present and accounted for. There's even a mode full of poses that give users a dashed-line form to mimic when taking shots.

There's simply a lot to explore and discover with this camera. And all but the caveats listed above work almost perfectly.

Moving around to the front, many of those features remain. And the selfie-camera under the display is significantly smaller than on other flagships — just slightly larger than the lens itself. Even compared to flagships such as the Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro, this punch-hole is immediately noticeable as being smaller.

On the video front, slow-motion captures and a stabilization mode are present, neatly rounding out the expected flagship features. Each mode works as expected for a device in the IQOO 3 5G's price bracket.

To call the IQOO 3 5G software bloated is an understatement

07 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Software
The biggest caveat with the IQOO 3 5G is its OS bloated, over-featured overlay

Now, many OEMs and subsidiaries are now starting to launch their own Android OS overlays and IQOO is one of those. The IQOO 3 5G sent to me for review started out with one version of iQOO UI and ended with another — version PD1955F_EX_A_1.14.3, to be exact. But that update didn't really seem to improve much beyond some optimizations to make the experience a little smoother. And that really felt unnecessary since this is a smooth Android 10 OS overlay, to begin with.

The biggest problem with this OS isn't in its system Settings menu, or the company's decision to offer user's a choice between three-button navigation and gestures. With the exception of IQOO's use of Vivo's Jovi AI instead of Google Discover, that's all laid out in a way that's relatively easy to use.

Features that would be expected, such as animation, dark mode, ambient light effects (an Always-on Display and On-Screen animation for receiving notifications or calls), are present and accounted for. In fact, on the customization front, this phone has quite a lot going for it. Digital Wellbeing is included out-of-the-box too. And all of that is buttery smooth and user-friendly.

Having said all of that, this OS is also exceptionally bloated. That starts with the appearance of duplicate apps. Google's app suite is part of the package her, of course. But IQOO includes V-Appstore from Vivo as a secondary app store. The iQOOCloud app is another option as opposed to Google's Drive, also allowing messages to be backed up. And there are also Vivo-specific Email and browser apps from Vivo and Opera in addition to Chrome.

From there, matters only get worse. Of course, IQOO includes all of the device transfer, tips, notes, game-centric, video, weather, calculator, calendar, music, theming, album, and device management apps. Those are expected on just about every device, as is a recorder, compass, Kids Mode, and dedicated feedback app.

Looking beyond those, however, Vivo Includes a secondary News app — Dailyhunt — in addition to aftermarket office software — WPS Office. And that's not accounting for V-Appstore dedicated Hot Apps and Hot Games folders. Or for the included Amazon Shopping and Flipkart apps. For Social Media, not only has Facebook been pre-installed, So has Indian social network Helo.

Some of those apps, including V-Appstore and Helo, send push notifications on a regular basis — sometimes more than once per day. And in each case, I hadn't even signed into those apps or opened them.

More choice, it goes without saying, is better. But this phone isn't leaving much by way of choosing and many of the secondary apps, such as V-Appstore, can't be uninstalled.

Connectivity was just a bit off here but not deal-breaking

09 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Connectivity
Connections are solid in the US on Google Fi via a dual SIM drawer but there are software problems here too

For connections, the IQOO 3 5G is a real contender in many ways although I was unable to test its namesake next-gen networking during this review. To begin with, as with many other flagships launching this year, connections are bleeding-edge. That means that Wi-Fi 6 is part of the package too, although that was also untested.

Setting that aside, if 5G and Wi-Fi 6 perform as consistently as LTE and more common Wi-Fi protocols, those connections are going to be solid. I didn't notice any unexpected drops or disconnections at all during my review.

Stacking atop of all of that, this phone features Bluetooth 5.1, allowing for some of the best audio around via wireless devices. And that also means accessories that support Bluetooth 5.1 can connect from much further away without issues.

Of course, IQOO 3 5G supports 4G VoLTE and Wi-Fi hotspots as well. But there is one big caveat there too. Namely, there's no NFC radio. That means tap-to-pay is out of the question for users in the US among other things.

Now, earpiece speaker quality was great and speakerphone worked as expected with this device during calls. And so did the mics. But the lack of NFC is undoubtedly going to be a reason to give pause for some users.

The final caveat is that — and this one could be fixed via a software update — the UI associated with mobile data connections is decidedly unreliable.

Although 5G isn't even supported by my carrier, Google Fi, the phone did show an icon for that. And it didn't turn that off throughout my review until I removed the SIM card. While probably not deliberate, that did make it difficult to see which type of network I was actually connected to. Ultimately, it felt misleading.

Final Conclusion

10 IQOO 3 I1928 Review Final
IQOO 3 5G

The Vivo-built IQOO 3 5G tries very hard to be a flagship killer and, to a certain extent, it really succeeds. Perhaps more importantly, it really succeeds at being a more budget-friendly gaming smartphone. Performance is smooth and the OS is intuitive to use despite not featuring an app drawer to store the bloatware. Enhancements to performance are also abundant and individually tunable.

When it comes to making calls, 5G capabilities are going to set this device apart too where that's available. So are its cameras, since those are built to contend with anything else in its price bracket.

Similarly, the battery experience here is great, so long as the handset isn't turned off for charging — despite the lack of wireless charging.

Bearing that in mind, this is also a phone that made trade-offs to make that work. While the design of the IQOO 3 5G is understated and appealing, the bloatware in the OS is not. Neither is the single, bottom-firing speaker — even if headphones address that.

IQOO also simply didn't pay enough attention when it comes to on-screen icons and connections either. I never used this phone on 5G. That's because I couldn't but it continuously said it was. And it doesn't ship with NFC capabilities.

Those trade-offs could very well be worth it for many users. In this device's intended region, for instance, some of that bloatware will be more useful than obnoxious. Most of the issues here could also be fixed with software updates and IQOO seems more than prepared to push those out.

That all makes it difficult not to recommend the IQOO 3 5G as a gaming device below $1000. But potential buyers will want to make sure they can live with the caveats first.