Living with the Android notch
TL;DR review: The Vivo V9 is one of the first Android smartphones to sport an iPhone X-like notch. But it’s far cheaper than its role model, and it performs well — especially in the selfie department. The rear camera won’t wow you, though.
Cool Factor: 😎😎😎 (3 out of 5)
Camera performance: 📘📘📘 (3 out of 5)
Overall Performance: 💪💪💪 (3 out of 5)
Bang for the Buck: 💸💸💸 💸 (4 out of 5)
⚡⚡⚡ (3.25 out of 5)
The notch is no longer just an iPhone X thing. Numerous Android phone makers have this year decided to launch flagship smartphones that feature a notch on top of their screen, which gives us a few extra pixels to play with.
But does it make any sense? Apple turned its entire phone UI on its head to make the iPhone X usable — it removed the home button, it placed its TrueDepth 3D-sensing tech into the notch, and it added a new set of gestures that completely change the way we interact with the phone. The new, notched Androids did not undergo any such radical transformation, so one has to wonder whether their notches make them better, or are their a nuisance?
To test that out, I’ve gotten a test unit of the first Android notched phone I could find, the Vivo V9. (Yes, I’ve tried out the Essential phone, which had a notch even before the iPhone did. But its notch is quite different than the notches on other Androids, and the phone’s reach is quite limited).
Mostly, I was pleasantly surprised with the Vivo V9’s notchy screen, but there were moments when I thought “what the hell were they thinking.” Here are the things I’ve learned during my week or so with the V9.
People will think you have an iPhone X. Well, for a second.
Yes, every now and then while flashing the Vivo V9 in public I’d get the, “Wait, is that the iPhone… oh no, it can’t be” comment. The iPhone X got a lot of press and it’s still embedded in people’s minds as the only phone with the notch. The Vivo V9 also has a vertical dual-camera setup on the back, making it a dead ringer for the iPhone X — until you see the (faint) Vivo logo.
Is this reason enough to buy the Vivo V9 (or a similar phone)? Well, it did pretty obviously copy the design of the iPhone X, and at roughly $354, the V9 is a lot cheaper, so if you like the notch and don’t want to dish out a thousand dollars on a phone, it’s not a bad option. Keep in mind that, as more Android phones with notches arrive on the market, this effect will wane.
The notch won’t bother you
I got used to the iPhone X notch in about one day (except in landscape mode, where it’s still horrible, but I use it rarely), and it was the same with the Vivo V9. The little Android status icons hover on the left and right side of the notch, and yes, you get fewer of them than you would on a non-notch Android, but you don’t really need to know the NFC is on all the time, do you?
It helps that Vivo heavily borrowed from iOS while designing the user interface for the V9. Swipe from the top and you’ll get notifications (unlike on the iPhone X, though, you get the same set of functions regardless of which “horn” you swipe from). Swipe from the bottom, and you’ll get the control center.
On the flip side, few apps will extend to the top of the screen; most of the time, the apps will run in a resolution smaller than Vivo’s 19:9. The overall experience makes the notch feel a bit of an afterthought, but the experience on the iPhone X isn’t always ideal, especially in landscape mode.
The bugs are there, but they’re not too horrible
What I most feared about the notch on Android phones were bugs, missing icons, text that doesn’t line up properly with the design, and similar nuisances. However, I didn’t notice too many of those on the Vivo V9. There were odd moments: For example, zoom into one of your photos in the Gallery app vertically and it’ll wrap around the notch; do it horizontally and the notch will be hidden by a black bar. It’s not the worst of offenses but it is inconsistent and mildly annoying.
There are worse cases, though. Take a selfie on Instagram and try to edit it, and part of the interface will be obscured by the notch. These issues will likely be fixed with future iterations in popular apps, but it will happen slower than on the iPhone X since the Android notch is not exactly a standard yet (have in mind that all these Android notches differ in size from one another). And if your favorite app has this or similar issue, it will be very annoying.
Most of the time, though, the notch merely housed the status icons and its color faithfully mirrored the color of the app below it.
In some ways, the notch is better than the one on the iPhone X
First, it’s significantly smaller, both vertically and horizontally. A smaller notch means more screen real estate, and visually, it looks fine (to me) regardless of the size, so chalk up a small win for Android there. And don’t forget the Vivo V9’s screen is a hefty 6.3 inches, which is quite a bit more than the iPhone X’s 5.8-inch screen.
Second, the fact that most apps in landscape mode ignore the notch is often for the best. Just look at the photo comparison below — yes, the way Gmail looks on the Vivo V9 in landscape mode isn’t ideal, but the iPhone X’s variant looks even messier.
You get the ‘wow’ effect. Well, sometimes.
Some may disagree, but for some reason watching a full-screen video on the iPhone X looks really cool to me. The video wraps around the notch, and yes, the notch technically obscures a part of the video and gets in the way of the experience, but it also emphasizes the fact that the screen is just so damn big.
You also get this on the Vivo V9 — a full screen YouTube video will wrap around the notch just like it does on Apple’s flagship. However, the fact that the Vivo has a noticeable chin on the other side definitely takes away some of the “wow” factor. For comparison, Huawei’s freshly launched P20 Pro does not let you enlarge a YouTube video to the edges, leaving noticeable black bars on both sides.
In general usage, the times when you’ll notice the notch the most is at lock screen, as the wallpapers on both the Vivo and the Huawei wrap around the notch. After years and years of square smartphone screens, I find the look refreshing, so I chose a light wallpaper to increase the contrast; if you want to hide the notch, choose black or something that darkens towards the top.
You’re just going to have to learn to live with it
Love it or not, the number of flagship phones that don’t have the notch is dwindling. Soon, it might just be Samsung phones, as Huawei, LG (with its upcoming G7), Vivo, OnePlus (with its upcoming OnePlus 6), Oppo and possibly Xiaomi flagships will all have a notch. On one hand, this is not a bad thing; it means that Android itself adapt to work well with this new design (Google already announced this for the upcoming Android P). On the other, it means that having a Samsung flagship might soon be the best way to differentiate from the crowd (hear that, Apple?).
Ultimately, in my time with the Vivo V9, the experience was very much the same as with the iPhone X — it took me a day to get used to it, and then it was business as usual. I reckon this will be the case for most users, and if you don’t like it, on Android it’s even easier to hide it (the Huawei P20 Pro actually has a setting for this) and forget it exists.
The Vivo V9 has a great selfie camera and a so-so rear camera
Vivo V9 has a 24-megapixel selfie camera and a 16/5-megapixel camera combo on the back. Aside from adding another rear camera, those specs are the same as those of its predecessor, the Vivo V7+, and the performance was similar as well.
The selfies are great: Sharp, huge and amazingly bright in low-light conditions. Bokeh still sucks, just like it did on the V7+. The rear camera is sort of meh by today’s standards: it’ll take beautiful photos in sunny conditions, but in the evening, you can just forget about it. And yes, Vivo V9’s cameras now have an AI-powered scene detection feature, just like Huawei and LG flagships, though I’m not really sure it did much to improve my photos.
It’s a perfectly alright phone for its price
The Vivo V9’s LCD screen is big but looks dull compared to the beautiful OLED screens of, say, the iPhone X and the P20 Pro. The performance is what you’d expect from a strong midranger; most of the time, you won’t even notice it’s a Snapdragon 626 and not an 8xx ticking underneath. The 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage are more than adequate (those huge selfies do take up a lot of space, though, so you might want to buy a microSD card). Thankfully, it has a fingerprint sensor on the back and a headphone jack. The 3,260mAh battery won’t do wonders, but it should last a day. And there’s a fair amount of crapware you’ll need to remove from the phone.
While that seems like a whole lot of “meh,” remember once more that this phone costs $354 (in India). Would you rather have one iPhone X, or three of these? The choice is yours.