If you follow smartphone news, you may have read that Apple and Samsung has had a less-than-stellar 2018, mainly due to falling sales in China and Southeast Asia (examples: in Thailand, Apple’s and Samsung’s market shares dropped 52.2% and 36.1%, respectively, in the fourth quarter of 2018 compared to the same period in 2017, according to research firm Canalys; and in China, Samsung’s market share had fallen below 1% in 2018, becoming virtually extinct). The reason for the steep decline is clear: Chinese phone brands are pumping out mid-tier products so good, it is harder and harder to justify buying a top flagship device.
Vivo’s latest, the V15 Pro, which was announced today and is aimed squarely at the Southeast Asia market, sends a clear signal that Chinese brands aren’t going to let up in 2019.
Even in an industry that moves at a breakneck pace, Vivo’s V series may be the fastest evolving line in the industry. Exactly two years ago, I tested the the V5 Plus, and 24 months later we are already at the V15.
The big number jump is helped by the V series’ “odd number only” styling–the V5 jumped to the V7, then to the V9, etc.–and the skipping of V13 altogether. Vivo didn’t explain why the line skipped 13, but I think it has more to do with Vivo wanting to mark a significant design/spec upgrade rather than following western superstition.
I think the logic is apt. The V15 Pro departs from the design language set by the V7, V9 and V11, instead taking cues from its higher-end Apex/Nex series with notch-less screen design that uses an elevating, pop-up system to house the selfie camera.
This pop-up front-facing camera continues the V series’ trend of pushing the boundaries of what’s necessary for selfies. When the V5 was released two years ago, Vivo dubbed that phone “the perfect selfie phone” due to its 20-megapixel camera, which was the highest resolution by far at the time. Now, the V15 Pro’s selfie camera is an absurd 32-megapixel lens. And yes, this is a “world’s first”–words that Chinese brands are increasingly fighting to claim.
Around the back is a triple camera system that adds a wide-angle lens to the established main+depth sensor set-up. I have written about the usefulness of the wide-angle lens for years, and I’m excited that other brands–it is rumored the next iPhone will have one, too–have finally jumped on board after being an LG exclusive for many years.
The rest of the package isn’t quite as exciting as the cameras, but we’ll go over that briefly before getting back to talking about the main selling point.
Hardware: blend of cutting-edge and outdated tech
The Vivo V15 Pro runs on a Snapdragon 675 processor, Qualcomm’s new upper-mid chipset that isn’t quite on par with the 855 or 845 but a step above the 710. It was mainly designed to handle Sony’s 48-megapixel IMX586 sensor that has been all the rage with mid-tier Chinese handsets in recent weeks, as well as improved battery efficiency. The chipset worked without problems for me and scored a very impressive 2390 and 6501 on Geekbench’s single- and multi-core tests, respectively.
The uninterrupted, notch-less display is a 6.4-inch OLED panel with a fingerprint sensor underneath it, and it is very similar to the last couple of Vivo V phones in that the panel is very good, but slightly less impressive than the panels found on top tier flagships, mainly because max brightness and resolution doesn’t get as high. There is no color-shift when viewing at off-angles, and colors are generally accurately represented, however. And without a notch digging into the screen, full-screen media do look more immersive.
The pop-up selfie camera module seems to be even faster than the one in the Vivo Nex, and in over a week of use I have not encountered any issues with lag or the module getting stuck. The under-display fingerprint reader is also best in-class, allowing unlocking that’s almost as fast as a traditional fingerprint sensor now.
There are two major disappointments with the hardware in my opinion: the first is the plastic body that feels below par, even factoring that this is a mid-tier handset selling in the $550 range. Less expensive handsets from Xiaomi or Honor give us glass or aluminum bodies, both feel sturdier and better in the hand than plastic. The plastic feels especially cheap after handling two ceramic-backed phones recently in the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 and Meizu Zero.
The other major gripe: the V15 Pro still charges via Micro-USB, the dying port that has been replaced two years ago by the vastly superior USB-C. Vivo’s reasoning is that the V series is aimed at developing markets in Southeast Asia, and USB-C adoption there isn’t as wide as in, say, the U.S. or Hong Kong. This thinking was fair in 2017, or even 2018. But I think that in 2019 users everywhere are ready to make the move. I’ve certainly heard enough feedback from readers here and viewers on my YouTube channel to know that Micro-USB ports are not desired.
And so I find the Vivo V15 Pro’s hardware a series of contradictions and juxtaposition. The phone has impressive, spec-sheet stuffing cameras, a fingerprint scanning tech that most Americans have never gotten the chance to try yet, and a bezel-less, all-screen display, but the phone is wrapped in plastic and charges via a port no techie want to see again. At least the battery size has been increased to a respectable 3,700 mAh — and battery life is excellent thanks to the usual Chinese software battery optimization — so the phone only needs to be topped up once a day.
Cameras: strength in numbers
One of the common misconception among casual tech observers is that the larger the megapixel count, the better the camera. That is not true, and in smartphone photography specifically, software image processing and camera sensor size are more important. But with that said, having more pixels doesn’t hurt, and the 48-megapixel camera shines partly because of it.
The 48-megapixel sensor uses Sony’s new “Quad Bayer” color filtering tech in which pixels in the images are filtered through the same color in 2 X 2 grids. This, along with a process called pixel-binning that effectively combines four pixel’s worth of data into one, means the final image captured is far brighter and well-detailed than mobile cameras had previously offered. It helps that Vivo’s image processing is even-handed and not overly aggressive like Huawei’s. In the first photo sample below, which uses both Quad Bayer and pixel binning for produce the 12-megapixel shot, notice the image is well-balanced: the lights on the buildings across Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor are properly exposed, while the shaded areas closer to the bottom left corner of the image are well lit. The bright lights from the orange roofed building on the right edge of the photo is also accurately represented. The image overall also has minimal noise. For a mid-tier handset, this is an impressive image, and most of this was post-image processing via the Quad Bayer system and Vivo’s own “A.I.-assisted” algorithms at work.
Below is another example of Vivo’s algorithm cleaning up the image a bit to make it more appealing. The iPhone image is more natural to real life to my eyes, but Vivo’s shot cools the image temperature a bit to remove the yellow hue of the incandescent street lights, and also pulled in more light in the darkest parts of the alley.
Now shooting in full 48-megapixel resolution, the camera’s algorithm can’t do as much post-shot tweaking as there is no pixel binning or Quad Bayer tech involved, so very good lighting is more crucial. If you shoot on a sunny day, you will get a shot that allows you to zoom more than usual without losing much image integrity. Check out the two samples below, of the original 48-megapixel shot, and then a cropped image zooming all the way into the sign.
Moving on to the wide-angle lens, it offers a field of vision of 120-degrees, which is wider than what LG offers on its V40, but the V15 Pro’s wide-angle shots tend to suffer from slight distortion. The wide-angle lens, like shooting in full 48-megapixel resolution, is also best used during the day, as it really struggles with noise and exposure compared to shooting in the optimal Quad Bayer/pixel-binning 12-megapixel mode, but it is still a useful lens to have. I have written this for years—a wide-angle lens allows the average Joe without professional equipment or shooting skills to capture more dynamic, eye-grabbing shots. It is far more useful in my opinion than the telephoto zoom lens offered by Apple’s and Samsung’s phones. I think both companies know this, too, as the next Samsung and Apple flagship phones coming will likely add a wide-angle shooter, too. Below are two sets of images with the first being a normal shot, and the second a wide-angle shot. Notice the night shot, the wide-angle image suffers from overexposure and loss of details.
I am not the best person to review the selfie camera as I dislike taking selfies and my less-than-perfect skin doesn’t want to be shot in super high resolution. But in general, I can say the selfie camera is on point, with a great software bokeh mode that can simulate edge detection well (which makes me wonder why phones bother with a dedicated depth sensor anymore) and has a shorter focal length for a wider field of vision. You can zoom very close to your face—in the sample below, I can pull close enough to see my pores and blemishes. This is a camera that should be good enough to produce printable, full-sized headshots.
Overall, the V15 Pro’s camera is very impressive, especially factoring in the phone’s price point. Its night shots and no OIS (optical image stabilization) when shooting videos keep it from truly beating the top flagship phones, but it’s far closer than the $400 to $500 suggests.
Software, performance, battery: decent, good, excellent, respectively
I have written in the past about my dislike of Vivo’s Android skin, named FunTouch, but version 9 that runs here on the device has been improved to a point that I don’t dislike it anymore. It’s still nowhere near my favorite software (OxygenOS, which ironically is developed by Vivo’s sister company OnePlus). Overall, software aesthetics has been improved with new animations and more modernized, Google-like app icon aesthetics. There is now a search option within settings (previous Vivo devices didn’t offer this and it annoyed me to no end), and there are useful software feature additions such as a pop-up chat bubble for all major chat apps. For example, when I’m watching a movie on Netflix and a WeChat message comes through, a small pop-up bubble displays in the corner, and I can either dismiss it or tap on it and open a split-screen response box while the movie continues to play, mostly uninterrupted. On something like an iPhone, I must leave the NetFlix app to respond to the message. It’s a small touch on Vivo’s part, but it improves user experience.
Overall performance is smooth, too, despite the relatively low 6GB of RAM on my demo unit. The Snapdragon 675 chipset is comparable to the 710, and handles daily tasks fine. Battery performance is excellent and can easily last all day even under heavy use—which is a line I should just copy and paste into Chinese phone reviews at this point. I don’t know why South Korean and Japanese Android phone brands haven’t caught on to Chinese brands’ optimization, because battery performance on Vivo, Huawei, Xiaomi, and Oppo phones far outperform any LG, Sony or Samsung handsets I’ve tested.
Conclusion: Chinese brands continue to chip away at big dogs
Official pricing hasn’t been announced yet for the V15 Pro at time of this writing, but I am certain it will be in the $450 to $550 range, and at this price, it’s offering a lot for the dollar. The Honor View 20 and OnePlus 6T is probably still a better value overall because they have a more premium build and chipset, but the V15 Pro has a totally uninterrupted display and the best selfie camera of the three. Vivo is selling this phone mostly in the Southeast Asia market, and it should be a hit.