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Vivo V15 Pro Review: Why Buy Flagships Anymore?

The Vivo V15 Pro with a 6.4-inch OLED display with no notch. Photo: Ben Sin

TL;DR Version

  • What’s good? The cameras on this thing punch way above its price class and can hang with the big boys; battery life lasts all day easiliy; no notch.
  • What’s bad? Plastic body doesn’t feel premium; Micro-USB charging port (bruh!).

***

Over the past two years, anytime a family member or friend asks what phone they should buy, I’d tell them to go for the latest OnePlus device, even though I’d likely be holding a Huawei or Apple or LG phone at the time. I wasn’t trying to mislead my homies; but rather I was telling them honest advice: it’s not worth paying the extra US$300 to US$500 for an iPhone or Galaxy when a OnePlus can offer 95% of the same power and experience — unless you’re a tech geek with money to blow, like me.

Well, OnePlus is no longer the sole value king, because in the past year, several brands have jumped into OnePlus’ space by offering the same type of products: really, really damn good phones that sell for half the price of what big names retail for. I’m talking about Vivo, Honor, Xiaomi. Neither of these brands are new, of course — heck they’ve been around longer than OnePlus — but they only began to sell to the west last year. So now, consumers have more options than ever, and it’s really tough to justify buying a Samsung Galaxy or even a Huawei flagship for a thousand American bucks when there are phones like the Honor View 20, OnePlus 6T, Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 at nearly half the price. We can add the Vivo V15 Pro to the mix too: I’ve been using this phone as my daily driver for nine days and it is legit.

The V15 Pro with its triple camera set-up. Photo: Ben Sin

Let’s get the specs out of the way, because this phone has some gaudy, eye-catching numbers. The phone’s main claim to fame is its 32-megapixel selfie camera, hidden behind the screen, only popping up out of the phone’s top chassis when need. Thirty two megapixels! This is the most pixel-heavy front-facing camera in smartphones right now, and it’s wild because you can take a selfie and zoom all the way in until you see your nose hair.

Personally, I don’t like selfies, so to me, the more exciting part about the V15 Pro is its triple camera system on the back of the device. This includes a 48-megapixel sensor developed by Sony; a secondary wide-angle camera offering 120-degree field of vision; and a 5-megapixel depth sensor. The main camera is best used for shooting 12-megapixel photos, because it uses techniques known as “pixel binning” and “Quad Bayer” to combine four pixels’ worth of image information into one. This means photos come out sharper and more vibrant because it’s got four times as much image information as a typical 12-megapixel shot. If you want, you can shoot in 48-megapixel resolution straight up, and doing so will allow you to zoom in more than you normally could with smartphone photos.

I’m most excited about the wide-angle camera, however, because it simply allows the user to capture more into the frame. This is ideal when for shooting grand architecture; or capturing an entire group of people; or shooting in tight spaces in which you have no room to back up. LG pioneered this whole wide-angle thing on smartphone camera, and I’m glad other brands are finally jumping on the bandwagon.

A wide-angle shot captured with the V15 Pro. Photo: Ben Sin

The depth sensor is self-explainatory. It helps with bokeh images. I’m not sure if it’s really needed, as the V15 Pro can also take great bokeh selfies using software processing instead of a dedicated second lens.

I’ll show more photo samples later. Let’s cover the rest of the phone’s hardware. The chipset inside is a Snapdragon 675, which is a relatively new SoC from Qualcomm designed just for the 48-megapixel camera. It’s not as powerful as a Snapdragon 845, but it more than gets the job done. If your smartphone usage habits is mostly browsing Instagram, sending texts, reading websites, and playing games, the Snapdragon 675 is just fine. There’s a 3,700 mAh battery inside, and battery life is excellent as to be expected from all Chinese phones. I’ve been using this phone heavily everyday for the past week and not once did the battery run out before my day ended.

As mentioned earlier, that pop-up selfie camera is hidden most of the time, which means the Vivo V15 Pro doesn’t have the notch, and boy, does the screen look good. It’s a 6.4-inch OLED panel, completely uninterrupted, with only a tiny chin bezel at the bottom. There’s a fingerprint reader embedded underneath the screen too, and it is the fastest and most accurate in-display fingerprint reader I’ve used yet. It’s better than the one found in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and even Vivo’s earlier phones. It’s so good, it’s almost as good as a traditional hardware fingerprint reader.

The device has an extra hardware button on the left side, which in China is used to trigger Vivo’s own AI assistant, Jovi. For global versions of the V15 Pro, that button will trigger Google Assistant, which should be good news. There’s also a headphone jack too, and a dedicated SD card slot that’s separate from the dual-SIM tray. That means you can use two SIMs and a Micro-SD card at once.

Now, there are two bad things about the hardware: the first is the phone’s plastic build feels cheap, especially after I’ve used phones with ceramic back such as the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 and Meizu Zero. The second is that the V15 Pro charges via Micro-USB!!!!!!!!!

Micro-USB charging port … booooo!

BRUH …. Micro-USB is an outdated port that needs to die. It has no place in 2019. The silver lining is that the phone’s battery life is so good you only need to charge it at night when you’re in bed, so you only have to deal with that old-ass Micro-USB port once or twice per day.

Cameras, lights, action

Let’s get back to the most exciting part about this phone — those cameras. So, the 48-megapixel lens here uses Sony’s Quad Bayer design, which uses the same color filters across pixels over a 2X2 grid, this allows the image processor to handle pixels in such a way that it could increase details and lighting, supposedly to equivalent of a 1.6μm pixel size, which is damn good for a mobile phone.

I’m not an expert photographer, but I can tell that the Vivo V15 Pro captures dynamic, sharp images that have an extra oomph to them when compared side-by-side with the same shot with an iPhone. It helps that Vivo’s AI-assisted image processing is smart enough to balance exposure after-the-shot automatically.

In the samples below, you can see the Vivo V15 Pro’s image is slightly better balanced than the iPhone XS’s image; notice the red neon signs in the left side of the frame can be read somewhat clearly on the V15 Pro’s image, while the iPhone XS’s image blows it out.

Likewise with the next image, in the streets of Mong Kok. It’s a very busy image with lots of lights coming in at different angles, and the V15 Pro’s images captured and processed everything with ease. Nothing in this shot is over- or under-exposed.

Now, this superb post-shot balance adjustment also kicks in when shooting with the main lens. If you’re using the wide-angle, then the image tends to blow out lights, requiring the user to actively tweak exposure by tapping on the screen and sliding down on the exposure compensation dial. Notice the below wide-angle shot, which I took point-and-shoot dummy style without adjusting anything — lights are now blown out and the image doesn’t look as clean.

In general, the wide-angle lens will always be inferior to the main lens, but with some user adjustments, you can capture a pleasing wide-angle shot too. See below samples.

Notice that almost all my samples so far are night shots — the most challenging shooting scenario for smartphone cameras. If I shoot during the day with the sun out? Images are always clean and vibrant and Instagram-ready.

Now, onto that 32-megapixel. Man, I’ll say this — if you’re pretty with perfect skin, you’re going to love it. The selfie camera allows you to zoom in so much you can blow your face up on a large monitor and examine individual hair. I, unfortunately, have bad skin and dark eye circles under my eyes (I’m old as hell, man), so I can’t say I need selfies with such high resolution. Just look at how close I can zoom into my face, you can my blemishes and acne scars and individual eyebrows.

The pop-up mechanism feels very sturdy and pops up very fast, with no trace of lag so far. Of course, a moving part may not be as reliable as a non-moving part, but I think the Vivo Nex and Oppo Find X still operating out in the wild today without mass reports of failures is a promising sign that Vivo and Oppo’s quality control is strong. There is a bit of a camera bump because of the pop-up module, however.

There’s a lot more you can do with the cameras. Vivo’s filled it with beauty modes that allow you to adjust the size of your nose, lips, and even shoulder width and leg length. I suggest going to my YouTube channel and watching my VIvo Nex Dual Display video review to see the beauty mode in action, as I don’t want to go too in-depth here.

In terms of video, the V15 Pro can record at up to 4K/30fps, but stabilization takes a major hit at that mode. Shooting in 1080p will result in more stable videos. Please watch my video review on my channel to see samples.

Software that doesn’t make me pull my hair out

The V15 Pro runs Android 9 with Vivo’s FunTouch Android skin on top. Like literally every English tech reviewer on earth, I don’t love Chinese Android skins. It’s a cultural thing — I know many in China prefer Vivo or Huawei or Xiaomi’s heavy-handed software tweaks over plain vanilla Android — so I can’t fault Vivo too much. In fact I want to give Vivo credit, because it’s improved its software quite a bit over the years.

FunTouch 9 has a relatively pleasing aesthetics, though I am not a fan of the “squircle” app icons; it also offers night mode in the settings page, which is a nice touch; and the software adds plenty of useful features such as swiping navigation (way better than Google’s implementation in the Pixel 3), double tap to wake/sleep the screen; and this chat app management when viewing full screen media that I absolutely adore.

Allow me to explain the latter: whenever you’re in an app that is best experienced in full screen, such as YouTube, NetFlix, or Chrome, and you get an incoming chat message, you get a pop-up chat bubble showing you the notification, and from there you can either dismiss it or tap on it and bring up a response box that doesn’t get in the way of the other app too much. So when I’m watching YouTube videos and I get a WhatsApp message, I don’t get a full floating notification that takes up a quarter of the screen like on iPhones, instead I get a small bubble. See screenshots below.

So overall, I still prefer a cleaner version of Android (OnePlus’ OxygenOS is still the goat), but I don’t hate Vivo’s FunTouch. It’s usable and tolerable and slowly growing on me. Props to Vivo’s software team.

675 = 845

The Vivo V15 Pro runs on Snapdragon 675, which isn’t as powerful as the 845, but to be honest, other than processing 4K videos in Power Director, you’re not going to notice much difference. We’re at this point where mobile processing power far exceeds what the average person need. I have been using the V15 Pro all week and not once did I think “oh, this thing I usually do with my LG V40 or Samsung Galaxy Note 9 can’t be done here because of the 675 chipset.”

Performance has been great with the V15 Pro, with apps staying in the background nicely without broken push notifications, and everything loading just fine. That this phone only has 6GB of RAM shows how much of an overkill 10GB of RAM is on phones. There are phones already with 12GB of RAM from Lenovo and soon Samsung, and to that I say: whoa whoa whoa hold now, you got too much dip on your chip!

Ain’t worth it to get flagships no’ mo’

If you follow smartphone news you might have heard that Apple and Samsung suffered less-than-ideal 2018 revenue, mainly due to falling sales in China. Lots of experts are trying to come up with all these political reasons like Chinese patrotism. Man, it’s got nothing to do with that. People just aren’t buying iPhones and Samsung phones anymore because their prices are skyrocketing and there are so many good mid-tier Chinese phones out there that can get the job done.

Like I said at the beginning of this review: you should only buy a new iPhone or a Galaxy S10 if you’re a tech geek power user with money to spend. If you are just an average smartphone user and you care about savings, then a US$550 to US$650 phone is already more than enough.

I don’t know the official pricing of the Vivo V15 Pro yet — Chinese brands do this weird thing where they let reviewers test phones ahead of launch event and give us all the specs and details, but somehow refuse to let us know the price, forcing us to wait until the launch event — but judging by the pricing of previous Vivo phones, I think this will be in the US$550 range? And at this price, the Vivo V15 Pro offers a hell of a lot for your dollar.

The Vivo V15 Pro is tied with the Honor View 20 and the OnePlus 6T and the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 as phones you should consider if you want something nice but want to save money.