iQOO 3 5G review: It’s all about challenging the status quo

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Updated: Jun 09, 2020 10:13 AM

The iQOO 3 is a phone that tries to be a jack of all trades, but at the same time, it’s a master of none. But how does it fare in India’s bustling smartphone market? Let's find out.

iqoo 3The iQOO 3 comes in 4G and 5G-ready options. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The iQOO 3 is all about challenging the status quo. With it, iQOO aims to fill the void left by the lack of a proper Vivo flagship in India in years. iQOO in India may be slightly different from iQOO in China in that it’s being pitched as a completely independent brand here, but after spending some time with the iQOO 3, I can tell you that it’s still pretty much a Vivo phone at heart despite its outwardly appearance. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

That said, looking at (and after having experienced) the iQOO 3, I am having trouble putting it in any pre-set category. This is because it seems like the iQOO 3 wants to do everything, a jack of all trades if you may, without being set inside a mould or anything. I am not sure if this has also got something to do with challenging the status quo, but an identity crisis isn’t the best look for a brand that’s trying to make inroads into India’s bustling smartphone market. In the case of the iQOO 3, it’s hard to tell where its loyalties lie, and that can be a problem.

Two intro paras in and I am sure you’re wondering, what’s all the fuss about. Isn’t it a good thing if the iQOO 3 can do everything and yet look and feel like a familiar phone? Yes and no. Let me explain.

Design and build quality

The iQOO 3 looks and feels like a Vivo phone, there are absolutely no two ways about it. It’s a design we’ve seen before, quite recently in the Vivo V17, only difference is the iQOO 3 bumps up the premium quotient with an all glass and metal body (sort of like the Vivo V19). It’s taken Vivo longer than almost any other brand in the market today to transition from plastic to glass, though it is starting to do that now, eventually. Ironically, even iQOO has beaten Vivo to the punch in this regard.

iqoo 3The iQOO 3 has pressure-sensitive shoulder buttons called monster touch. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

For the most part, the iQOO 3 is essentially the Vivo V17 with an all glass (this is Corning Gorilla Glass 6 for your reference) and metal body. The back (of my review unit) is shiny and reflective, with a rectangular assembly housing the cameras and the iQOO logo etched vertically below it. The front is nearly all screen with a punch hole cutout pushed all the way up towards the right.

That’s not to say there are no iQOO touches. The biggest change comes in the form of colour choices. There’s the tornado black (which I have for review) that’s more like a purple shade than being, black. An interesting thing about this version is that it uses 3D layers that react differently depending on how you hold and view the phone. The bottom most layer has a mesh-like structure that’s visible on close inspection only. Then there’s the middle layer that radiates striking moon-like crescents when you observe it at an angle. The top most layer is, well, just shiny.

Because of this multi-layer design, it’s virtually impossible to stain the iQOO 3 with smudge and fingerprints, despite all that glass. The tornado black version also has an orange power button that stands out, making it look cool and jazzy. Speaking of which, the iQOO 3 also comes in a limited edition volcano orange (matte finish) and quantum silver (that’s like the most Vivo colour ever).

iQOO has also custom-made the outer frame. This frame, which is made of metal, has recessed areas on the right as well as on the left (towards the ends). On the right side, these areas are also pressure sensitive and act as dedicated shoulder controls for when you’re gaming. iQOO has also labelled them left and right for visual appeal to probably appeal to gamers. Though that’s the only gaming-specific element that iQOO uses in this otherwise regular-looking phone.

As far as in-hand feel and construction go, the iQOO 3 doesn’t disappoint. It’s a tad heavier and thicker than competing phones in and around its price point, but again, not to an extent that it becomes a deal breaker.

Display

Strangely enough, the iQOO 3 also has the same screen size and resolution as the Vivo V17 (and V19). We’re basically looking at a 6.44-inch Super AMOLED display with a 1080×2400 pixel resolution and 20:9 aspect ratio. The panel seems better though, especially in terms of peak brightness, and as an added bonus, there’s also support for HDR 10+.

iqoo 3The iQOO 3 does not have a high refresh rate panel like many of its competitors. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The display here is as good as it gets when it comes to vibrancy, saturation, and viewing angles. It’s no less than a marvel how iQOO has been able to make the punch hole cutout smaller (than anything we’ve seen before) and even though there are some bezels on all sides, the experience while watching content on the iQOO 3 is as immersive as a high-end Samsung Galaxy. The optical in-display fingerprint scanner is also quick and accurate for biometrics.

There’s nothing really to complain about here, and yet, there’s one thing, or the lack of it, that leaves a lot to be desired. The iQOO 3 does not have a high refresh rate panel like many of its competitors, even lower priced ones. It can respond faster to your touch inputs (since it has a 180Hz touch sampling rate) but fast and smooth, it most certainly is not. At this point of time, it’s a crime to launch a value flagship phone with a 60Hz refresh rate, as simple as that.

Performance, software and battery life

The iQOO 3 is one of the few phones in India to come with Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 865 processor. The fact that it does that at a relatively more mass-market pricing than competing products makes it even more attractive. iQOO is maxing things out in the RAM and storage departments as well. The iQOO 3 comes in three configurations, 8GB/128GB, 8GB/256GB, and 12GB/256GB. iQOO is also using the latest and greatest RAM (LPDDR5) and storage (UFS3.1) standards in the iQOO 3. So basically, iQOO isn’t holding anything back when it comes to core hardware in the iQOO 3.

How does all of this translate in real world usage? Quite well actually. The iQOO 3 literally breezes through everything that you can throw at it, be it day to day tasks or high-end gaming. And it can do all of this without breaking a sweat, which means it does not heat up as much as it’s supposed to, considering all the fire-power machinery that’s inside it. A Samsung Galaxy S20+, with an Exynos equivalent, heats up more than the iQOO 3, so full marks to iQOO for the phone’s fairly efficient heat management system.

iqoo 3The phone has a “monster” mode for high-end gaming smarts. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

But is it as fast and smooth as a Samsung Galaxy S20+ or the Realme X50 Pro or even the OnePlus 7T (with last year’s flagship processor)? Not really. It’s obvious that (lack of) hardware’s got nothing to do with it. It’s the software that’s bringing the iQOO 3 down.

The iQOO 3 runs iQOO UI 1.0 based on Android 10.0 on paper. But actually the phone is running Vivo’s Funtouch OS 10 with iQOO theme and enhancements, all of which are only cosmetic. There are plenty of unwanted apps, too, similar to Vivo phones. I have used many Vivo phones (including one that’s also based on Android 10) and all those phones have somehow felt snappier despite their lesser hardware. The iQOO 3 is in dire need of software optimization or else all that hardware is simply fighting a lost cause. A Poco like approach would have made a lot of sense for iQOO, in my humble opinion.

There are some things I (still) like about iQOO UI 1.0. I like that it doesn’t blindly copy iOS (that’s something that Vivo is also doing now with Funtouch OS 10 by the way). There’s a full-blown app drawer (as against a springboard-style layout) by default, a notification panel that although still needs some more work is surely heading in the right direction, complete set of Android 10 features including navigation gestures, system-wide dark mode, privacy controls that matter, and more granular notification management. That last bit is particularly useful in a Vivo/iQOO phone since first-party apps have a tendency to crowd your notification pane so frequently, it’s a menace. Just to be clear, there are no ads in iQOO UI 1.0 (or Funtouch OS), just a truckload of push notifications.

iQOO isn’t marketing the iQOO 3 as a gaming phone as aggressively as it does in China. But even if it did, it would be hard to sell it as a gaming phone for multiple reasons. The iQOO 3 doesn’t look like a gaming phone, at all. It does not have a high-refresh rate display either. Performance is iffy too. That’s not to say, iQOO hasn’t tried. Remember, the iQOO 3 wants to be a jack of all trades, and the list also includes gaming.

iqoo 3The iQOO 3 runs iQOO UI 1.0 based on Android 10.0 on paper. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The phone has a “monster” mode, which is basically a high performance mode designed to squeeze more out of the processor, in addition to stylizing the system icons to accentuate the effect. The pressure-sensitive shoulder buttons are also called monster touch, because well, why not? You can use them in certain games to mimic physical/touchscreen controls, that leaves you with more real screen estate to enjoy the game that you’re playing. All of these experiences are nowhere close to giving you that ultimate gaming thrill you get in an actual gaming phone like the Asus ROG phone II for instance and that’s a bummer. They just leave you asking for more.

Battery life is one of iQOO 3’s main highlights. The 4,400mAh battery inside the phone lasted nearly 14 hours in our loop test. This is a phone that will easily last you a full working day (maybe more in some instances) in general usage. Continuous gaming, especially PUBG, chugs through the battery faster of course but the iQOO 3 also supports 55W fast charging and the bundled fast charger can charge the phone from 0-50% in 22 minutes, while a full charge is completed in 1 hour. Not bad, not bad at all — but still not best in class.

Cameras

The iQOO 3 has four cameras on the back. There’s a 48MP main (Sony IMX582) sensor behind an f/1.8 aperture lens (no OIS), a 13MP ultra wide-angle sensor behind an f/2.2 aperture lens with 120-degree field-of-view, a 13MP telephoto sensor behind an f/2.5 aperture lens for 2x optical zoom, and another 2MP depth sensor.

Let me tell you at the outset, cameras are not the strongest highlight of the iQOO 3. They may well be the phone’s weakest link in fact. Camera performance is decent at best, across the board. The main camera can capture some good-looking (12MP by default) shots in good lighting with good-enough dynamic range and sharpness, but details could be better. You can choose to capture 48MP photos and they do seem slightly better (especially for zooming in) but the level of noise can be a bit too much at times. Same goes for the ultra wide-angle and telephoto cameras. Portraits shot with the iQOO 3 are good, but we’ve surely seen better.

iqoo 3Cameras may well be the phone’s weakest link. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

I like the ultra wide-angle camera more in the setup for two reasons. It allows for manual correction of distortion before taking a shot, and the results are fairly nice, considering that this is an area of concern in some of the more expensive phones out there. Also, the ultra wide-angle camera works like a charm when it comes to macros, even more so since it has autofocus.

Low light photos shot with the iQOO 3 are just about okay, even disappointing in some cases. There is night mode, but it’s limited to the main camera.

Videos shot with the iQOO 3 are more or less the same story. You can shoot at up to 4K@60fps but lack of OIS and sub-par performance means videos are just about passable here.

The front-facing 16MP camera can click some good selfies with mostly natural colour tones in good light but the quality goes down in tricky and low light.

Should you buy the iQOO 3?

iqoo 3iQOO 3 starts at Rs 34,990 (8GB/128GB). (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The iQOO 3 comes in 4G and 5G-ready options. Price starts at Rs 34,990 (8GB/128GB) and goes all the way to Rs 44,990 (12GB/256GB). Only the top-end model with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage supports 5G. I have been using this variant for review and while I haven’t been able to test 5G (because, obviously) 4G connectivity on the phone has been rock solid. No complaints there.

So, coming back to the iQOO 3 as an everyday phone. As mentioned earlier, this is a phone that tries to be a jack of all trades, but at the same time, it’s a master of none. That’s not a bad thing on any given day, in isolation. Problem is, you can’t look at the iQOO 3 in isolation, simply because there’s no dearth of viable options today. Unfortunately, each one of them, whether it be a Realme X50 Pro or a OnePlus 7T, is better than the iQOO 3 as an overall package. The iQOO 3 seems lost in translation as you can’t really put it in any category so to say.

It’s a great debut product for iQOO no doubt, but at the same time, a wake up call too. India’s smartphone market is hard to crack and challenging the status quo here is now easier said than done. Hopefully, iQOO will iron out the kinks in its next product.

Pros:

  • Bright, colourful display
  • SD865 on a budget
  • Gaming “extras”
  • Fast charging

Cons:

  • Derivative design
  • Display lacks high refresh rate
  • Software needs work
  • Disappointing cameras
  • No stereo speakers

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