Saturday, July 20, 2024

A camera-centric budget experience done right

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Budget smartphones with a focus on imaging are not uncommon. But most of the time, this combination tends to have glaring limitations. With the Vivo V21 5G, things are different. You find a device that makes no obvious sacrifices and offers quite an enviable package for the price.

Design and build

At 7.29mm and 176g, the V21 5G is one of the most compact and lightweight smartphones available on the market. It uses AG Glass and is available in a Sunset Dazzle finish which is incredibly flashy alongside a more understated Dusk Blue. Rather than opting for a curved chassis, the V21 5G comes with a squared-off one. This makes for sharper edges which we found to get a bit uncomfortable due to the V21 5G’s slightly wider build and thin nature, especially in the palm region.

This is the Sunset Dazzle variant of the V21 5G

On the right edge, you find the power and the volume buttons as usual. They are positioned as usual and offer great accessibility for people with smaller hands like myself. Moreover, the power button has both an indent and a textured feel which is attention to detail that we always like to see. At the back, you find a fairly clean looking triple-camera setup allowing the smartphone to rest flat on a surface with minimal to no wobble.

The edges of the smartphone can sometimes feel sharp

The left edge is bare, the top edge houses a secondary microphone whereas the bottom edges comes with the primary speaker, a Type-C USB input, the primary microphone and a dual nano-SIM tray. Unfortunately, there is no 3.5mm jack for audio however Vivo does provide a Type-C USB to 3.5mm jack adaptor out of the box. As for water or dust resistance, Vivo does not offer this officially however the seal in the V21 5G’s SIM tray signifies at least some level of damage protection. With small sprays of water, it should be fine but do not take it swimming.

Display and multimedia

To complement its flat-edged design, you find a flat 6.44-inch 20:9 E3 AMOLED tear-drop display up front. This sports a 2,404 x 1,080 resolution and up to a 90Hz refresh rate. Before addressing how this behaves in practice, there is also an in-screen optical fingerprint scanner here. It is positioned well and works almost every time, albeit offering a slightly slow unlocking experience.

The 6.44-inch E3 AMOLED display is great for daily use but has a few touchscreen sensitivity issues

Coming back to display performance, it is somewhat of a mixed bag. We found the panel to shift from cooler tones to warmer tones when viewed from an angle. With colourful elements, this shift is not that obvious however when viewing white colours, the shift in colour is more evident. Straight on though, visuals are vibrant, outdoor brightness is great and black tones are deep. If you want to use the panel for movies, TV shows or YouTube videos, it should do the job with a fairly immersive experience to had. However, with only a single speaker for audio, sound is a bit lacklustre. Given that even Vivo’s flagship X60 Pro only has a single speaker, we cannot bash the V21 5G for its omission. However, it is high time that Vivo incorporates stereo sound across its devices.

We like that the fingerprint scanner is in a comfortable position

Oddly, another aspect of the display that felt like an inconvenience was touch sensitivity. While it did not play a major hand when trying to unlock the smartphone, typing on screen was difficult. More often than not, we found ourselves making typing mistakes which is not something we have ever faced with another smartphone. And we observed that the damper our fingers, the more prevalent this was. Initially, we thought this was due to the pre-applied screen protector on the V21 5G but this issue remained even after removing it. With time, you can adapt and vary your typing pace to avoid this issue however we felt it was worth pointing out.

Specifications and user experience

Inside, the V21 5G comes equipped with a MediaTek Dimensity 800U octa-core chip clocked at 2.4GHz. This is alongside 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. The former can be expanded via microSD, whereas the latter uses Vivo’s extended RAM feature where the extra memory is borrowed from storage.

With regular usage, we rarely felt limited by performance. Browsing through single applications is both fast and responsive. And the added 90Hz refresh rate gives the experience extra polish. Even with multiple applications open, the phone is able to handle them in the background just fine. But with multiple applications on screen, the processing power on the smartphone is not able to handle the level of multitasking especially at 90Hz. For instance, a YouTube video in picture-in-picture mode leads to some incredibly choppy performance when scrolling through the application drawer or social feeds. And this occurs even at 60Hz. Recently, we did get an upgrade to FunTouch OS 11.1 atop Android 11, going up to the July 2021 security patch however we suspect the issue is more to do with hardware than software.

Speaking of the software though, we found it fairly clean, just like on the Vivo X60 Pro. But it taking 21GB of storage space is a bit disappointing. We think for budget smartphones like the V21 5G, Vivo should look to tone down storage usage further and perhaps get rid of all pre-installed applications, for example ‘Likee’ or ‘iManager’. These are applications we have never used and unfortunately, they cannot be manually uninstalled either. We have also heard reports about applications sending unwanted notifications to FunTouch OS users however thankfully, we only faced this once in a while from the aforementioned applications.

The V21 5G could benefit even further from a leaner user interface that perhaps takes less space

Given the performance issues we faced, high-end gaming will also not be the most satisfactory. Popular FPS titles like Call of Duty: Mobile or PUBG run decently well, and that too with toned down graphics. Extensive sessions also led to the smartphone heating up however this is not unusual. And after a bit of a break, it came back down to manageable temperatures.

Primary camera performance

On the top left edge of the smartphone’s back, you find a triple-camera setup. This includes a 64MP primary camera with optical image stabilisation (OIS), an 8MP ultra-wide camera and a 2MP macro sensor. Starting with the primary camera, it shows some decent performance in well lit conditions with a fast enough shutter. But if you want to take multiple images very quickly, it may struggle to keep pace. Colour balance in photos remains great but detail is a bit washed out. To compensate for the latter, the V21 5G also has a high-resolution 64MP mode. However, instead of bringing more details to light, the end result just ends up looking over-sharpened and unnatural.

To capture a wider landscape, you can use the 8MP ultra-wide camera. Instead of this being on an intuitive slider in the camera user interface, it is tucked into a separate option. This took a bit of time to adjust to but once done, it definitely allows for more coverage in pictures. However, the quality of these pictures are not great. The lower resolution of the sensor means washed out detail and compared to the primary sensor, there is visible change in colour balance. In our case, this sometimes made a sunny day look cloudy. However, in terms of pure dynamic range, the ultra-wide sensor is fairly good.

Completing the setup, we have a 2MP macro camera. Quite frankly, it gives you a very marginal upgrade of regular close-up photos. While it allows you to move further towards a subject, the lack of quality is noticeable even in good lighting. Although in dimmer environments, we recommend you avoid the macro sensor altogether. Likewise, the primary and ultra-wide sensors also see a drop in quality when in low light. Without night mode, you tend to see grainy photos with washed out details and enabling it introduces sharpness. In some situations, this processing can do wonders but in others, it will tend to make your images look fake. We also tested the ultra-wide sensor in these scenarios and found it to be underwhelming purely due to the detail it captured. You can still use night mode with it but we do not see a major improvement with it.

The best way to describe the camera package is mixed. In certain situations aligning to the camera’s hardware, pictures will come out great. But at certain times, you might struggle to capture the colours of a sunset accurately. Moreover, in low light, the camera’s shutter also becomes much slower. This means capturing moving objects such as cars will be difficult in these circumstances.

Moving to video camera performance, the camera is capable of recording up to 4K video. But we found the sweet spot to be 1080p video with OIS, where details and stability remained usable. More than quick video capture, the package can also be used for content creation, especially on social media. For example, using dual-view video turns out to be pretty handy to film vlog form content. However, extensively doing so takes a toll on performance which is again due to the processor on the device.

Selfie camera performance

To add to the primary camera, the front selfie camera on the V21 5G is a 44MP sensor with OIS. Having used this for both photos and video, we are quite impressed. Firstly, the sensor is able to capture a lot more detail than usual and this is evident in our pictures. Moreover, even in challenging dynamic range situations, the camera seems to do a fine job. Usually, budget smartphones tend to struggle with selfie portraits but even here, we saw some great results. However, when using portrait mode, Vivo’s makeup effects were very obvious. This is not uncommon to smartphones but we just felt it was way too exaggerated. It gave selfie images a caked up look which is not what we prefer. While there are ways to tune this down, we never got to a point where the portrait image looked as natural as a regular selfie.

For low-light selfies, the V21 5G has extra goodies up its sleeve. By itself, it will not do a good job however with night mode, the improvement is evident. Especially for these challenging situations, the smartphone has a dual selfie spotlight. This brightens up your face and surroundings and we can see ourselves using this feature a fair bit. Plus, the fact that it minimises glare on glasses means it gets extra brownie points from our side.

Battery life

At a glance, the 4,000mAh battery seems rather small on the V21 5G. However, these days, battery performance is more about optimisation than raw size. Whether we were using 5G or not, the battery on the V21 5G is exceptional. We ended every day we used the smartphone with battery left in the tank, which is fantastic. A regular day involved browsing social media, videos, multitasking and sparse camera usage. And even with this, we saw screen-on times close to 10 hours hours and beyond, even with 90Hz refresh rate enabled.

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