One of CES's most important stories this year, and the recipient of our Best in Show award, was a Vivo prototype phone that showed the world's first fingerprint scanner on the screen. This is a biometric authentication method that could be the best of all worlds, without the need for bulky screen bezels, cumbersome rear-mounted sensors or complex matrices of face detection technology. That prototype was sent later in China as X20 Plus UD, and now Vivo has brought a concept phone to MWC that represents the next evolution of that idea. It's about figuring out how to get rid of frames forever.
The concept of the phone is called Apex, and its main feature is what Vivo describes as "Fingerprint scanning technology on a half screen". The idea here is that instead of placing your finger on an icon the size of a thumbnail to unlock the phone, I could do it in a much larger area of the screen.
At Apex, the usable scanning area is not half the screen, it's more like a third. Or maybe two fifths. But, in any case, the area is large enough to demonstrate the advantage of technology; In this way, you can simply pick up the phone and unlock it without having to think about it. You can also request a simultaneous entry from two different fingerprints for greater security, or for occasions when you want to protect the data shared by two people.
Vivo does not say if the scanner is provided by Synaptics, as was the case with the X20 Plus UD. (I suppose so.) It works in the same way, it requires an OLED screen and the ability to illuminate the surface of your finger on contact. It's not as fast as a conventional fingerprint reader, and I actually found that it works better if you press your thumb against the screen instead of just using the tip. The important thing, however, is that it works.
All this is at the service of the war in the frames
All this is at the service of the war in bevels that almost the entire smartphone industry has declared during the past year more or less. Apex, as a device, is one of the most aggressive expressions of that ideal so far, with almost imperceptible bevels around the three sides of the phone and a larger one, but still thin, on the bottom edge. And, as such, Vivo has needed to find solutions for the kind of features that normally require bezels to function.
The most obvious of these is the selfie camera. Some phone manufacturers have avoided this with notches, others relocating the camera below the screen so you have to hold the phone upside down. But Apex's response is ingenious and friendly: the 8-megapixel camera is hidden behind the screen and appears as a periscope when necessary. It takes 0.8 seconds to prepare and makes a small buzz. I thought the mechanism would be weak, but actually it feels really solid. If nothing else, it's a good way to avoid the notch.
The lack of bevels also means that there is no room for a conventional headset speaker. The Xiaomi Mi Mix addressed this with a piezoelectric design that worked similarly to bone conduction technology, but Vivo's focus here is to vibrate the entire screen like a speaker: you can still hear phone calls without holding the device in the head. I have heard calls of better quality in my time, but it is totally useful.
Apex is purely a concept, and Vivo says he has no plans to launch a real product in this particular way. But none of that feels particularly implausible. The fingerprint sensor works, the selfies camera works, the headset and the speaker work, all in one package with an impressive screen-body ratio. I would not be surprised if one, some or all of these ideas reach several phones in the next year or two, as manufacturers pursue a future free of bevels.