Android fans had a ball last autumn poking fun at the iPhone X’s notch. Well, the jokes on them -- or rather, us, because I was one of them -- because 2018 is the year of smartphone notches.

Virtually every significant new phone hitting the market this year, other than Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and the Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S, will have a little chunk of screen missing at the top to accommodate the selfie camera, earpiece and proximity sensor. Huawei’s doing it with the P20 series, and LG’s upcoming flagship will almost certainly do the same.

But while Huawei and LG at least tried (or will try) to keep its own hardware design language intact everywhere else, Vivo doesn’t see the need to pretend. Its recently released V9 is an iPhone X clone, down to the choice of wallpaper and retail packaging.

Once I got over the initial bad taste of a major company this brazenly copying another company’s product, I enjoyed the V9 quite a bit.

Size does matter

The best part about the V9 is easily its screen-to-body ratio. The notch may be a design compromise, but it does add more display real estate without increasing physical bulk. That, coupled with the V9’s even taller 19:9 aspect ratio, allows it to fit a 6.3-inch display into a body that’s surprisingly compact and easy to use with one hand. Samsung’s phones are already super sleek, but Vivo’s V9 feels noticeably more compact than the Galaxy Note 8, and both phones have similar screen sizes. The V9 isn't quite as edge-to-edge as the iPhone X though: It has a chin at the bottom of the display.

The V9’s IPS LCD panel is good for its price range, with above average viewing angles, but it’s nowhere near as vibrant as Samsung’s OLED panels (used on the iPhone X and Galaxy S9) nor does it get nearly as bright. Still, a larger screen is a larger screen, and consuming full-screen videos on the V9 feels awesome. In fact, after using the V9 for two weeks, I find the iPhone X’s 5.8-inch display a bit small. There are rumours that Apple is making a Plus version of the X this year with a 6.5-inch screen. After using the V9, I’m convinced that’d be the right call.  

The Vivo V9's LCD screen (on the right) isn't nearly as bright or vibrant as the iPhone X's OLED display (left).

Everything else about the V9’s hardware is in solid, but unspectacular. The phone’s plastic body allows the device to remain light at 150g, but the back feels a bit flimsy, almost hollow. The Snapdragon 626 processor is more than enough to handle everyday smartphone tasks, but graphically intensive games like Asphalt Xtreme and 4K video editing apps like Power Director run noticeably slower and are slightly more prone to freezing. The cameras have impressive specs -- 24 megapixels for the front camera, with a dual 16 and 5 megapixel set-up on the back -- and generally take above average stills, but shots tend to be overly processed by Vivo’s aggressive software.

You may also be disappointed to learn that the V9 has a fingerprint reader on the back of the device, instead of utilising the cutting-edge under-screen fingerprint reader that Vivo introduced a few months ago. Vivo’s saving that feature for its more expensive devices, such as the X21. Truth be told, the under-screen fingerprint scanner is slow; until the tech improves, I’d rather use a dedicated scanner on the back.

Software tricks that aren’t all bad

If you find rear-mounted scanners a hassle, it may help that Vivo’s software offers face unlock that works fast -- about half a second. Of course this method, which uses the phone’s selfie camera to identify facial features, isn’t as secure as Apple’s Face ID system (which builds a 3D map of a user’s face instead of a simple photo). For what it’s worth, I was unable to trick the V9 into unlocking with a life-sized photo of my face despite many attempts.

Vivo’s Android skin (the software that sits on top of Android) has long been known as an iOS lookalike and nothing much has changed here. You still don’t get an app drawer like on other Android handsets, and shortcut toggles are triggered by swiping up from a bottom part of the screen (like on iPhones before the X), and not embedded into the notification shade like virtually every other Android phone. The V9 also offers swiping gestures to get around the phone that resemble the iPhone X -- you can swipe left and right on the bottom bar to swap apps, for example -- though to be fair, Vivo experimented with swiping gestures on last year’s V7, which came out a few months before Apple’s phone.

Yup, there's a notch.

Vivo’s also advertising that the V9’s software has been “AI-optimised”, but after two weeks of using it, the only area I’ve noticed improvement is in selfie beauty mode, where the filters that clear up my skin and removes dark eye circles appear more natural than previous Vivo devices. Supposedly, Vivo’s software has scanned and studied over a million faces for better identification. Maybe it’s because I’m a dude, but I feel like there has to be better use for artificial intelligence than slimming my face in photos.

I don’t feel the effects of AI in any other aspect of the phone. Battery life is strong, but it’s less intelligent resources allocation than overly-aggressive battery management that kills idle apps in background; the main camera doesn’t account for weather conditions automatically like Huawei’s NPU-powered phones do.

Pretty good for the price

Ultimately, factoring in the sub-US$400 price range, the V9 ticks just about every box one would want for a mid-tier phone. The almost edge-to-edge screen alone makes this phone worth considering, as long as you’re okay with the blatant copycat design.

If you want more power, you might want to wait another month or so for the OnePlus 6, which has just been confirmed to rock the newest Snapdragon 845 processor with 8GB of RAM (plus a much cleaner Android software). That phone should look virtually identical to the V9, because Vivo, Oppo and OnePlus are all owned by the same parent company and their spring-releases over the past couple of years all share the same outer shell.

The OnePlus 6 is likely to cost at least US$150 more though, and there’s the whole waiting thing. If you’re looking for a good mid-tier device now and don’t want to pay too much, the Vivo V9 has a lot to offer.

Vivo, Oppo and OnePlus all have the same parent company, so expect to see this particular design again from those companies.