Typically when we review a phone we want to spend at a bare minimum a week using the device. We want to put it through the gauntlet and push it to the brink, yes, but we also want a chance to use it as a normal device. Putting a phone through a battery of tests isn't a good measure of what it's like actually using the phone, it doesn't give us time to discover its quirks and adapt as a real owner would.
The software that's on the Vivo Air feels … half baked. The one piece of software you'll interact with most frequently is the launcher, and it's an experience that's just plain weird. Sure, you hit the home button from anywhere in the phone and it drops you back to the launcher. But in contrast to the standard-since-the-dawn-of-time Android paradigm of a launcher with multiple pages on which you put apps and widgets coupled with an app drawer where all of your apps live, the Blu opted against the app drawer and instead drops all of your apps on the launcher screen.
It's very much like an iPhone launcher in that regard, except that you can also intersperse widgets with your apps and place them wherever you like on the screen (so long as they're on the 4x4 grid). But it somehow feels less natural. The spacing seems too wide and the squaring off of all the icons — even round or non-square icons get a translucent white background — make everything blend together.
The software that's on the Vivo Air feels … half baked.
In an odd twist, however, Blu offers the option to change things up. Either hitting the menu button in the launcher or opening the oddly-named "Color" app gives you choices to customize the launcher. In here you'll find wallpaper options, sure, but also themes. The standard Vivo Air theme comes with the squared icons and stark colorful default wallpaper, while "The boat" (such apt naming here) rounds the icons off and swaps a bunch out for softer, bubblier designs and a boat background. And "Android" goes to the default Android icons for everything — it's a much more familiar visual experience.
The "Launcher3" (that'd be the launcher app's formal name) experience's weirdness continues to the multitasking view. It's triggered by holding down on the menu button, opening a side-scrolling card view of your open apps, which you can swipe off the top to close. It's very webOS/iOS in implementation. But frustratingly, you can only get to this multitasking view from the launcher itself. Holding down on the menu key when in any app merely opens the available menu, no matter how long you hold.
Tap the home button and it drops you back to whatever you were last doing in the launcher — if you got to your current app from the multitasking view, you go back to multitasking view, meaning you'll have to tap the home button again to actually get to your list of apps.
All of this launcher weirdness can be very easily overcome by simply downloading and using the Google Now Launcher, thankfully. It's an easy install from Google Play, and once set as your "Complete action using: Always" choice, there's nothing to worry about. You get Google Now a swipe away, you get a proper app drawer, and you even get the classic vertically-scrolling multitasking view when holding down the menu key from any app (and home will always take you back to the launcher).
So there's that weirdness out of the way, let's talk about the lock screen and notifications. When it comes to lock screen security you have the option of a simple swipe up to unlock, pattern tracing, or a numeric PIN. Pretty standard fare here. A few notifications display on the lock screen, namely the number of missed calls and text messages received. But weirdly we've had Facebook notifications show up in a Facebook blue box in the center of the lock screen, and at other times unlocked to a Hangouts quick reply widget overlaid on the launcher.
There's absolutely no visual cue that this is something that can be done, but from that lock screen you can swipe in from the right to bring in what we'll call a "lock screen actions widget". It offers four options, each of varying usefulness and impressiveness: camera, record, flashlight, and fake call. Camera, the default choice when swiping over, immediately fires up the camera sensor (in a oddly-stretched square) which offers both tap-the-icon-to-shoot and tap-to-focus-and-shoot functionality, as well as a small button to launch into the full-fledged camera app. "REC" starts and audio recording until you tap again to stop, and "Torch" toggles the rear LED on and off.
The most intriguing option, though, would be "FakeCall". Tap it and in 15 seconds the phone will light up with an incoming call screen and ringtone as if, well, you've received a call. The default is an unknown caller, but you can also program in the name and phone number of somebody more important than whoever you're talking to (the boss if you're talking to your wife, or your wife if you're talking to your boss) to "interrupt" you with an excuse to get out. There's even a female voice that repeats "Hi, can you send me the file as soon as possible please?" so those nearby can hear that there's somebody on the other end of the phone. It's just up to you to act surprised and then serious and convincingly apologize "I need to take this, sorry, let's get lunch sometime" and then not actually get lunch sometime.
The notifications drawer is mostly stock Android, though toggling over to the settings side brings up a grid of circular buttons to toggle various settings. Below that's a screen brightness slider, while above is a widget showing how much of the phone's RAM is in use with a funny little vibrating cartoon rocket. It's not at all clear what it's supposed to do — tapping on it launches the rocket (yay for animations?) while clearing out a sliver of the unused RAM. At best we were only able to clear about 10% of the RAM using this, but that's completely ignoring that these sort of memory managers haven't been needed in Android for years (and that any RAM we "cleared" quickly filled back up within minutes as the apps).
The behavior of the little toggles wasn't always clear or specific. For example, the "General" button with a speaker icon and "Meeting" with a phone bookended by squiggles are actually paired — they toggle between each other, going from "make noise" (General) to "just vibrate" (Meeting). Guest Mod(e) allows you to lock down the your communications history and photos if you're handing over your phone, while Quick Pow(er Saving) throttles down the processor speed to extend battery life.
It's as if there wasn't a unified design team building the software that was installed on this phone.
Another interesting software touch would gesture unlocking (dubbed "quick operating") wherein you can trace a "c" on the dark display to unlock directly into the camera app, a "u" to launch into music, a backwards "c" into contacts, and an upside-down "u" into messaging. It's not immediately clear when you first check out these options, though, is that you can assign each gesture to open whatever app you want or to immediately dial a contact of your choice. There's also some touches borrowed from others — double tap the phone to wake, flip to silence an alarm, dial by lifting the phone to your face, answer by picking up the phone, and buzzing to remind notifications you missed while the phone was sitting there. The gesture launching worked flawlessly for us, though most of the others were hit-and-miss.
And therein lies the biggest rub with the Blu Vivo Air's software: it's incredibly inconsistent. It's as if there wasn't a unified design team building the various components that were installed on this phone. Some things just don't seem fully thought through (that you can only get to multitasking from the launcher), others are catch you off guard and leave you scratching your head as to why that happened the way it did (only Facebook getting a lock screen notification, or the Hangouts quick reply overlay), and other still are neat features with considered designs (lock screen quick actions). It's just… bizarre.