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Why Vivo thinks port-less phones are the future

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And why this one isn’t

Mobile World Congress is in the rear-view mirror, and by far the hottest topic was foldable smartphones. “Finally,” the thinking went, “we can be free of the boring and conventional phone form factor!” But that involves using flexible plastic for the bendable screens, which is likely to represent a compromise in durability and plain niceness. What if there’s more to be done with glass?

That’s what Vivo’s Apex 2019 concept smartphone is all about. With a stated goal of “futuristic simplicity,” Vivo devised a way to build a phone almost entirely out of glass, with its “super unibody” chassis designed to make the screen even more prominent. “All user interactions are centered around the display alone,” says Vivo product manager Ding Guanli, who wants the Apex 2019 to be seen in the same light as iconic, seamless designs like Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” in Chicago.

What this means in practice is that the Apex 2019 is a subtly gorgeous smartphone. The glass on the back of the phone is uneven in thickness, which allows it to extend around the edges until it meets the screen panel. We think of most premium phones today as having “all-glass” designs because the front and back panels tend to use the same material, but the Apex 2019 eliminates the metal “sandwich” frame altogether. It’s not an ultra-flashy design, but after using it for a while, it did make the otherwise-pretty-hot iPhone XS Max and Xiaomi Mi 9 that I’ve been using feel sort of clunky and glued together.

Apart from the considerable engineering challenges Vivo had to overcome in order to make glass work like this, the resulting device still isn’t close to being a viable consumer product. The “concept” designation is apt; the Apex 2019’s glass design introduces multiple compromises that Vivo spins as minimalism but ultimately aren’t quite there from a usability perspective.

The most obvious of these is that the Apex 2019 has absolutely no ports or buttons whatsoever. I’m not going to say this doesn’t add to the device’s sense of futuristic cool, because it does, but Vivo’s solutions range from imperfect to entirely impractical.

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The volume and sleep/wake buttons are handled by a combination of pressure sensors and capacitive surfaces. They work fairly reliably and feel okay thanks to Vivo’s inclusion of a proper linear motor — something its flagship phones like the Nex line could really use — but there isn’t really a sensation of localized haptic feedback. The bigger problem is that the virtual buttons lie directly under where my thumb naturally rests when I hold a phone in my right hand, and I’d constantly trigger accidental inputs. It doesn’t help that there’s no way to tell where the buttons are by feel until you’ve “pressed” them.

Vivo’s “body soundcasting technology,” which substitutes for a conventional speaker, is more successful. The glass unibody itself vibrates in order to produce sound, and the results are actually a lot better than I expected — it’s loud, clear, and unquestionably better than any of the bottom-firing mono speakers that Vivo usually puts on its phones. I’d rather have forward-facing stereo speakers, of course, but this is an auditory step forward for Vivo.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the Apex 2019’s charging solution. Vivo, like a few other Chinese smartphone makers, has been oddly reluctant to embrace wireless charging, and although you’d think a port-less concept phone would be the perfect time to do so, it is not to be. The Apex 2019 has a chunky proprietary magnetic charger that handles data transfer and 18 watts of power, and it does attach to the back of the device with a satisfying snap, but I think this is a total miss. Who wants exposed gold contacts on a supposedly seamless phone?

I asked Ding about this, and he said that while wireless charging is a mature technology, the same can’t be said for wireless data transfer. Maybe, but I was doing wireless iTunes backups with my iPhone 4, and I can’t remember the last time I plugged any phone into a computer. I also use wireless charging every day. Of all the things I would miss from a port-less phone, the ability to plug it into the wall would be fairly low down on the list. I don’t want any part of a future that involves carrying around proprietary pogo-pin cables.

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While Vivo’s refusal to adopt wireless charging continues to be frustrating, the company’s iteration on in-display fingerprint sensors has been admirable. No-one did more to spread the technology last year, and by the time Vivo shipped the Nex Dual Display Edition it felt impressively refined, even though companies like OnePlus and Samsung have shipped less reliable implementations. The next step is increasing the active area of the sensor, and the Apex 2019 goes all-out by letting basically the entire screen scan your finger. “Let me let you in on a secret,” Ding says. “We knew this would be the way.”

The good news is that it works. The bad news is that Ding admits it involves covering the entire screen in individual sensors, which makes it cost-prohibitive in the short term. It’s also a little slower than the Nex Dual Display’s sensor, though that’s forgivable considering how much easier to use it is. You can unlock the Apex 2019 pretty much just by picking it up, which offers a similar experience to secure face-unlock systems without requiring a notch like the iPhone or pop-up camera array like the Oppo Find X.

So what does the Apex 2019 tell us about how Vivo sees the future of phones? Probably not a lot. While it’s a really cool device from a design perspective, I don’t think I could use it as my main phone for more than a few days. It doesn’t even have a front-facing camera — not a particularly big deal for me, but given that this is the company that went out of its way to pioneer cute little motorized selfie cameras, you can tell the Apex 2019 isn’t intended for public consumption.

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Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

Those pop-up selfie cameras actually appeared first on last year’s Apex, so the natural question is whether any Apex 2019 features will make it onto Vivo’s mass-produced phones this year. Honestly, I’m skeptical unless the company can cut holes in this type of glass to allow for actual functioning buttons. Maybe we’ll see larger in-display fingerprint sensors at some point, but that was also a feature of the Apex 2018. And Vivo still ships Micro USB on a bunch of otherwise fairly high-end phones, so don’t expect it to drop charging ports altogether any time soon.

When Ding was attempting to place the Apex 2019 in the context of classic unibody designs, he showed a slide including Alessi’s famous ‘Juicy Salif’ lemon squeezer, designed by Philippe Starck. It’s undoubtedly an iconic and beautiful product, but I wonder if Ding’s ever tried to use it, because it’s also pretty universally acknowledged that it sucks at squeezing lemons.

That’s the Vivo Apex 2019. It is pure form over function.

But what a form.

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