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Meizu 16S Review: No Notch Needed

The Meizu 16S has a throwback design without a notch. Photo: Ben Sin

TL;DR Version

  • What’s good? Snapdragon 855, in-display fingerprint scanner, OLED screen, sleek, symmetrical design without a notch, for US$450!
  • What’s bad? Meizu’s software doesn’t allow for app drawers and forces apps to sit in a 4X4 grid.

Ever since Xiaomi got the ball rolling with the Mi Mix in late 2016, the entire smartphone industry has been on a mission to eliminate bezels as much as possible. Getting rid of the bottom and side bezels were relatively easy — we can make do without the old physical home button of iPhones and Galaxy phones. But losing the top “forehead” bezel proved problematic, because that’s where the selfie camera is placed.

And so smartphones began coming up with all kinds of weird shit to get rid of the forehead bezel while finding a way to let users take selfies. So we got phones with pop-up selfie cams that elevated from the top of the device; phones that added a second screen to the back so users can take selfies with the back camera; we got a freaking hole drilled into the screen. But the most popular take so far is still the notch, first seen in the Essential Phone but was easily made popular by the iPhone.

The notch was a necessary evil, we were told, because how else could phones get more screen space while keeping the selfie camera in a normal position? Everyone brought into that, as Android brands left and right starting copying the idea. And through it all, no one thought of a more basic way to get more screen; what if, instead of getting rid of the top bezel entirely, we just shrunk it very very small? No one but Meizu, of course.

And so we have the Meizu 16S, a phone that technically has a forehead bezel — which is an absolute anomaly in 2019 — but it’s so slim it doesn’t matter. In fact, the 16S’ top bezel is so thin, it’s comparable to the iPhone XS’s top, which supposedly doesn’t have a top bezel aside from the notch.

The Meizu 16S next to the iPhone XS.

And even when placed side by side with the Samsung Galaxy S10+’s razor thin bezels, the Meizu 16S doesn’t lose out much either.

Meizu 16S and the Samsung Galaxy S10+.

So if the top bezel can be trimmed to such a degree, why do we notches or cut-outs anymore? Now to be fair, the iPhone’s notch is still a necessity because Apple’s phone has an intricate facial scanning system. But for the other Android phones out there? Why?

Anyway, let’s move on. Aside form this symmetrical, “throwback” design that is now a breath of fresh air, there’s plenty to like with the Meizu 16S.

Flagship specs, mid-range price

Meizu, like Xiaomi, is known for producing very well-crafted smartphones with good specs at low prices, and the 16S keeps that trend going. This phone offers Snapdragon 855 with an OLED display and an in-display fingerprint reader, for a price starting at US$450. That’s almost the exact same set of features offered by the Samsung Galaxy S10, which costs twice as much.

The 16S’ fingerprint reader is the optical version from Goodix and not the ultrasonic one from Qualcomm, and in my opinion, Goodix’s optical scanner is better. It’s faster and more accurate. I ain’t jumping to this conclusion after using one phone — Goodix’s scanners are found in the Vivo V15 Pro and Huawei P30 Pro and Oppo Reno, and all of those phones have better scanners than the Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10+ I tested.

In terms of optics, the 16S’s main camera system is headlined by a 48-megapixel Sony IMX sensor, used here to snap 12-megapixel photos with a process called pixel-binning. There’s a secondary 20-megapixel telephoto lens that helps the phone achieve 3X lossless zoom. Around the front, Meizu managed to cram a 16-megapixel selfie camera into that tiny forehead bezel.

The base model I reviewed runs on 6GB of RAM with 128GB of internal storage. There’s a more premium version with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage that sells for about six hundred bucks (American). Unfortunately, the 16S doesn’t support expandable storage via SD cards, so if you need more storage than usual, you’ll have to shell out for the 256GB version.

The phone also lacks headphone jack and waterproofing, but other than that, everything else about it is premium. The device has the usual glass sandwich design, but the edges in which the display meet the aluminum chassis are smoother than on other mid-tier Chinese devices. With a 6.2-inch screen, the phone is relatively small and easy to hold compared to the behemoths out there.

Smooth and sleek.
The forehead bezel includes a 16-megapixel selfie cam and an earpiece.

Software and performance

The 16S runs on Android 9 with Meizu’s Flyme skin on top. Other than the lack of an app drawer, I have no qualms with Flyme. It’s got a nice colorful aesthetic, a bunch of shortcut gestures such as the ability to pull down the notification shade by swiping anywhere on the screen; double tap to turn off display; and drawing an alphabet to launch apps from a sleeping state.

Meizu also offers three swiping gesture navigation systems, and they’re all far, far better than that trash stock Android pill navigation that Google is shoving down Pixel users’ throats.

Performance is snappy, though RAM management tend to kill background apps a bit faster than I’d like. Camera performance is a solid B+, in that it should impress most average joes and even power users won’t have much to complain. The 48-megapixel shooter (again, it shoots in 12-megapixel mode) is fast to focus, and images produced are well-detailed and vibrant. That telephoto lens can indeed produce clean 3X zoom images.

I think dynamic range sometimes suffers, as the phone’s auto HDR isn’t too smart — sometimes areas drenched in shadows may appear too dark.

This photo’s dynamic range isn’t great.

Night time photos are solid too, though whether it’s exposure or ability to pull in light, the 16S falls short of flagship phones from Samsung or Huawei. But that 3X zoom still works quite nicely at night.

Elsewhere, the camera struggles with bokeh images when there’s more than one subject on screen.

This is a mess.

Like I said, this is a solid B-camera… for still photos at least. In terms of video recording, the 16S far exceeded my expectations. The phone can shoot up to 4K/30, but if you go down to 1080p/30fps, you’ll be treated with ultra smooth footage that’s better than what even expensive Huawei phones can do. Check out the 8:15 mark of my video review below to see the 16S’ video footage in action.

In fact, you can just watch the whole video review to get my conclusion of the Meizu 16S if you don’t want to read any further.

There’s a 3600 mAh battery inside the 16S and it can power the phone all day. I’ve been using the phone as my daily driver for nearly a week and not once did I finish a day with less than 25% juice.

No frills, just performance

The Meizu 16S doesn’t lose to the Samsung Galaxy S10 much in terms of offering a screen-to-body ratio.

Meizu grabbed some attention a couple of months ago with the Zero, that hole-less, port-less phone that felt damn good in the hand but was mostly a gimmick. With the 16S, Meizu has built a really damn good phone that has no gimmicks. Everything here performs as it should, and there is no notch or tricks to get more screen space.

Starting at US$450, this is up there with the Xiaomi Mi 9 and Honor View 20 as the best value flagship-level performers out there.