A review of a smartphone that's primarily sold in China? Yes, that's exactly what this is, and with good reason. The Vivo Xplay merits attention because of the components it contains -- some of which are exotic, like its "HiFi grade" audio chips, and some of which are straightforward but desirable, like its huge, 5.7-inch 1080p display and Snapdragon 600 processor. The handset also helps to set a benchmark for what smartphone hardware is actually worth, since its $480 street price puts it closer to the smaller, Google-sponsored Nexus 5 ($350) than typical big-phones like the Galaxy Note 3 or HTC One Max, which fetch around $800 unlocked. Although US customers can import the Xplay for $520, it lacks the right bands for proper 3G support in North America and is actually more suitable for HSPA+ networks in the UK, where it costs £495. So, let's find out what China can deliver for that sort of money.
Vivo Xplay review
- A good value all-rounder
- 1080p display is up there with the best
- Strong audio from the headphone jack
- Non-expandable storage
- Enhanced audio relies on stock music app
- Doesn't run all Google Play games
Although the Xplay lacks 3G bands for the US, it proves that China can now sell premium phones for a less-than-premium price.
The Xplay looks big enough, and different enough from common Western smartphones, to attract a bit of attention from other people. Strangely, a number of encounters began with the question, "Is that a Sony?" We think some folks may have subconsciously connected the rear VIVO logo with Sony's VAIO branding on laptops, even though the two are actually quite different when compared side by side. In any case, Vivo should probably take this as a compliment, since Sony has a reputation for decent build quality and pleasing aesthetics.The non-removable metal backplate adds a premium feel, as do the gently illuminated capacitive navigation buttons. The metal is sandwiched between a plastic top and bottom that contain the stereo speakers, the 3.5mm jack (top-center) and the micro-USB port (bottom-center), and that are presumably important for radio reception.
The front of the Xplay is covered with a single piece of toughened glass, punctuated only by the earpiece speaker at the top. This glass is bordered by a chrome band that is actually plastic, which is susceptible to dents and scratches and which brings the tone down quite a bit. Finally, on the right-hand edge there's a volume rocker and well-positioned power button, and on the left edge there's a SIM drawer that pops out by means of a pin.
Overall, we'd rate the Xplay's build quality as average to good, while reserving special praise for its dimensions. Thanks to its moderate bezels, sub-8mm thickness and relatively low weight, the phone is easy to hold despite its size, even if it does inevitably bulge in most pockets.
|Dimensions||153.8 x 79.68 x 7.87mm (6.06 x 3.14 x 0.31 inches)|
|Weight||6.56 ounces (187g)|
|Screen size||5.7 inches|
|Screen resolution||1,920 x 1,080|
|Rear camera||13MP stills (1/3.06-inch CMOS with f/2.0 lens)|
|Front-facing cam||5MP stills, 1080p video|
GPRS, EDGE, HSPA+, GSM (850/900/1800/1900), WCDMA (2100)
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 600|
|Connectivity||micro-USB 2.0, USB OTG, DLNA, IR|
|Operating system||Android 4.2.2 with Vivo skin|
Display and audio
If you could strip the LCD panels out of a Vivo Xplay and a Sony Xperia Z (or Z1), and if you could show them to passersby on the street, the Xplay would win every time. In fact, its 1,920 x 1,080 display is right up there with some of the best we've seen in terms of how close icons look to the surface of the glass, viewing angles and outdoor visibility.
Video watching is something of a letdown thanks to the tiny stereo speakers at the rear of the device, which do the job, but don't come anywhere close to the NXP-controlled speakers found in HTC's BoomSound phones, let alone the speakers in a full-sized tablet like a Kindle Fire HD or iPad Air.
Thankfully, things improve when you plug in some headphones. The Xplay has two different audio modes: one for playing regular audio in any app, and one that can only be activated when playing content through the stock audio and video apps. According to Vivo, engaging this second mode routes the audio through a HiFi-grade DAC (Cirrus Logic's CS4398) and amplifier (Texas Instrument's OPA2604). It's impossible for us to tell exactly what's going on in there, but we have no reason to doubt Vivo's assertions, especially since the battery appears to drain more quickly when playing music in the second mode. It's also true, with this mode activated, that the phone's output through the 3.5mm jack can be pushed a lot higher with no perceptible loss of quality -- something that could come in handy if the phone is being used as an analog audio source for a speaker dock or in-car system.
Then again, there are software and hardware limitations that prevent this extra audio circuitry from being much use, even before you get to the point of trying to decide whether it's noticeably better. The software limitation is that you can only turn on HiFi audio when playing locally stored music in the stock player, rather than listening to Spotify or other sources. The hardware limitation is the lack of expandable storage, which limits the amount of space for high-bit-rate music (such as FLAC files) that could exploit the superior audio circuitry. In our 16GB version, the system took 5.35GB out of 14.68GB of internal storage space, and our apps and media quickly took this down to a paltry 600MB of spare capacity. So the more expensive 32GB version will be a must for anyone with a decent music collection.
The only other way to get locally stored music onto the device is through a USB drive attached via an OTG cable -- a solution that burns the battery and gets in the way of keeping the device charged up. This will be a particular issue for someone who wants to use the Xplay for car audio -- you'd need some sort of 12v powered hub setup that, frankly, could be more effort than it's worth unless you feel the Xplay's analog output sounds particularly good through your car speakers.
A nice surprise! While we're going to hazard a guess that the Xplay's camera module is a relatively standard, off-the-shelf Sony affair, its 13-megapixel still-image output is excellent in well-lit conditions. Quality falls off sharply as soon as the light dims and the camera has to pump up its ISO, so this isn't in the same league as what you'd find in the Sony Xperia Z1. But the Xplay has already provided us with some memorable shots and we can't see any reason to rank it below the non-stabilized camera module in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 or HTC One Max. The stock camera app is basic at best, but there are plenty of decent third-party camera apps to get around that problem, not to mention better gallery apps too.
Vivo Xplay sample stills
As for the front-facer, it has an unusually high 5-megapixel resolution, but it looks like these pixels are crowded onto a typical small, secondary sensor. Low-light shots look no better than lower-res alternatives from another phone, and it's only in daylight that you'd likely notice much benefit from the extra detail.
Video quality was acceptable given the lack of optical stabilization, with a solid 2.2 MB/s data rate that didn't collapse under the weight of detailed scenes. The camera adjusted exposure quite smoothly during filming, but didn't automatically adjust focus -- we had to do that by tapping the screen. There's nothing especially good about the audio recording quality here, which gave voices a sort of hollow-sounding aspect, perhaps due to excessive software-based noise filtering.
Performance and battery life
|Vivo Xplay||Moto X||Samsung Galaxy S 4 (T-Mobile)||HTC One (global)|
|SunSpider 0.9.1 / 1.0 (Chrome, ms)||764 / 1,116||1,030 / 1,023||772 / 723||991 / 630|
|Vellamo HTML 5||2,347||2,427||1,903||2,429|
|SunSpider: lower scores are better.|
We've often wondered how much of the credit for a fast processor lies with the chip designer or the phone manufacturer. We've seen enough differences in performance across similarly specced devices to know that it's possible to take a great chip and make it perform poorly, which means there's a chance that the Xplay may not be as good as other Snapdragon 600 phones. Fortunately, there's little sign of this happening. Though we did notice some slow frame rates in games, the Xplay's performance is still a notch above something like the Samsung Galaxy Mega, which costs about the same, but uses a slower Snapdragon 400 processor (and a lower-res display, to boot). That said, after playing a game like F-SIM side by side with other devices, it seems the implementation of the chip here is slightly worse than Samsung's (in the Galaxy S 4) and possibly also Sony's (in the Xperia Z).
As for battery life, the Xplay also seems to rank somewhere around average for the current generation of big phones. The 3,400mAh battery gave us a full day of heavy use without issue, only getting down to the 10 percent mark at around 11 PM. On a day of light use, with just calls and browsing, we generally ended the day with around 40 percent of battery left -- results that tally very closely with the HTC One Max, which has a similarly sized battery. In our standard rundown test, however, the Xplay lasted for 10 hours and 38 minutes -- better than the Galaxy Note 3, but significantly worse than the HTC One Max, which shows there's room for improvement in terms of power efficiency. We also noticed that some games, like Clash of Heroes, drained the battery pathologically quickly, but that's not hugely different than some other Android phones.
Finally, there were no major hiccups in terms of call quality or cellular data. The Xplay sometimes reverted to EDGE connectivity when other phones managed to retain weak, but usable HSPA+ reception, perhaps because the handset is only compatible with one WCDMA band (2,100). This behavior may actually be a good thing for battery life, but it sometimes left us with data speeds below what we knew to be achievable in a particular location. This was only an issue in low-reception areas however -- everywhere else, the phone behaved as normal.
This is a tricky section to cover because some of Vivo's pre-installed software additions, like its "Vivoice" voice search, were only of use to speakers of Chinese. Moreover, Vivo has stuck a couple of skins over Android that we just couldn't get along with -- the "BBK Launcher" that gives app icons a cartoony feel and somehow removes the app drawer, plus an even stranger interface called "Scene Desktop" that comes complete with annoying background music.
Such is the flexibility of Google's operating system, however, that it's no big deal to switch these skins out for something more familiar, like Nova Launcher -- which is precisely what we did, while also replacing the default keyboard with SwiftKey.
That said, we still made use of a couple of Vivo's software extras, and in particular a little interface mode that we came to call "Mini Me" (not its official name). Much like Samsung's "one-handed operation" mode on the Galaxy Note 3, this overlays a downsized version of the display on top of the regular screen to make it easier to control the phone with your thumb. The mini screen can be resized and placed in any corner, and we set it to be activated just by shaking the phone. We'd be lying if we said we came to depend on Mini Me, but it was shaken into existence on the street a couple of times and certainly came in handy.
We also used a feature that allows you to switch the display on with a double-tap. That's something we first tried on Nokia's N9 and in a number of devices since, and which makes some sense on a phone the size of the Xplay because the power button is sometimes hard to reach.Other, less useful additions include Samsung-esque features that keep the front-facing camera constantly powered on so that it can react to gestures -- such as keeping the display on when you're looking at it, or switching it on when you wave your hand in front of the phone. We found these "non-touch operations" to be hit-or-miss, and not worth the inevitable battery draw.
Aside from all the Xplay's optional curiosities, we also encountered a more fundamental issue: The Google Play Store refused to let us install a number of games, particular AAA titles, leaving us with a 50-50 hit rate as to whether a particular game we wanted was disallowed. Wordament, M&M Clash of Heroes and F-SIM Space Shuttle all ran fine, with no issues using motion controls in the latter title. Asphalt 8: Airborne, Real Boxing and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City didn't make the grade, so there'll be no guarantee that your favorite games will be playable on this handset.
This review had dual purposes: to see how the Vivo Xplay measures up in its own right, and to use it as a benchmark for what can be achieved in a premium Android smartphone that costs less than $500 in its native market. As far as the first part goes, we need to be critical of a few things. Vivo's vision of creating a "HiFi grade" smartphone for audio and video is let down by the subpar stereo speakers and the lack of expandable storage. The idea of using audio circuitry that wasn't intended for use in a low-power smartphone smacks of marketing gimmickry, although we can't be too harsh on it because the audio output was pleasant even at high volumes. Plus, we've heard many smartphones that fare worse in this department. Finally, the same allegation of gimmickry can be leveled against Vivo's UI additions, only one or two of which we actually put to use when we weren't trying to show off. If we're totally focused on price, we'd probably go for the cheaper Nexus 5 rather than the Xplay, even though the difference in screen size prevents these devices from being totally comparable.
Then again, we have to give Vivo a nod for demonstrating what can be achieved in this price bracket. It hasn't only shoved in a 1080p panel, a Snapdragon 600 processor and a very capable 13-megapixel camera module, but it has also implemented these parts relatively well, inside a chassis that is sturdily built and portable despite the handset's big proportions. If we think about what a device like the HTC One Max provides over the Xplay -- better software, better speakers, more aluminum, fewer gimmicks, pogo pins for attaching a power case -- we'd have to conclude that the One Max is superior, but not necessarily to the degree that we'd pay an extra $300 for it. That's not to say that HTC is ripping us off; there could be many reasons why its One Max is more expensive than the Xplay -- perhaps things like shipping and tax costs -- but the extra money doesn't buy much in the way of better hardware. One thing's for certain: China is becoming better at making premium phones that will translate globally, and Vivo is continuing to make interesting devices, even if the Xplay slightly falls short, so we'll definitely be leaving some room in our suitcase the next time we travel in that direction.