Review

Elephone S7 review: affordability has its drawbacks

The Elephone S7 is another affordable device from a Chinese manufacturer, packing decent internal components and looking to become the next flagship killer. If other devices vying for that title are generally in the $400 price range, like the OnePlus 3T, the Elephone S7 is firmly undercutting that being priced much lower.

The device goes head-to-head with the likes of Huawei’s Honor 5c and the Moto G4 Plus, being set around the $200 mark. However, with those low prices come some important drawbacks and limitations, as well as some pleasant surprises. So, does the Elephone S7 hold up? Read on to find out.

Design

Ever since it was originally announced, the Elephone S7 seemed to be very much a clone of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 edge. The company’s renders and marketing material seemed to deliberately accentuate the device’s curved screen and lack of bezels on its sides so that it resembled Samsung’s design.

For better or worse, though personally I think it’s definitely for the better, it turns out this device is in fact not a clone of the S7 edge at all. Yes, it does have a flat, curved design with a single button under the screen, but that’s where the similarities end. The form-factor itself is a bit bulkier than Samsung’s phones and the edges are thicker with a dark metal band surrounding the device. The top and bottom of the phone are somehow less sleek and more squarish while the screen is only slightly bent at its edges; a very far cry from Samsung’s edge design.

The metal band mentioned above also gives the phone quite a bit of weight, though it does so in a manner which I find very satisfying. It reminds me of a good, well-built watch that only benefits from having an adequately solid feeling on your wrist. Similarly, the Elephone S7 feels solid and reliable – though I wouldn’t actually drop test it. Its plastic back cover along with the all-glass front might suffer irreparable damage if you let gravity handle that weighty metallic frame.

Still on the back, you’ll find a single LED flash alongside the 16-megapixel world-facing camera. The back plate also has a metallic tinge to its paint job, evident when holding the device in certain light. It’s a nice little touch which adds a tiny bit of flair where otherwise you’d only find a bland cover.

Coming back to the front you’ll find the single home button under the screen. This has so many functions baked into it that it can be quite unnerving for those uninitiated. Like a number of other Asian manufacturers, Elephone opted for the single-button-does-everything approach, with the home button doubling as a fingerprint reader, a capacitive button, a regular analog button, and also having the Back and App Switcher functions built into it. This can take a while to get used to if you’re coming from a “regular” type of phone, but once you do it’s fairly easy to use.

On the side of the device, you’ll find the volume keys, power button, SIM tray which can hold either a dual nano-SIM configuration or a single SIM together with a microSD memory card. Above the screen, there’s an LED and a speaker grill, as well as the front-facing camera. Next to these you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone port.

On the bottom of the phone, there’s a charging port and speaker grills. Seeing as this is a budget device Elephone opted for the standard Micro USB jack instead of the USB Type-C model that’s showing up more and more today.

Overall I think the phone looks fine and feels very good in the hand. As already mentioned, the sturdy nature of the build lends a lot of class to what can be considered a low or mid-range device.

Display

I won’t insist too much on this section, but I wanted to make a special note of it. As I mentioned above important limitations and drawbacks come with choosing a budget device, especially when it comes to Android handsets. Oftentimes manufacturers opt for cheaper displays or lower-quality panels to cut down on costs, leaving consumers with a subpar experience when looking at their phones.

But I’m very happy to say Elephone did no such thing. The S7’s display is bright, beautiful and a boon to the handset. Though it’s “only” a 1080p screen and relies on IPS LCD and not AMOLED as many of today’s flagships, the S7’s screen does an excellent job.

There are a few minor issues with viewing angles, which aren’t as large as on other devices, and a couple of small problems with light bleed thanks to the curved screen, but overall I found the S7’s very pleasant to look at, even in direct sunlight. The colors are quite vibrant most of the time, and everything fares nicely even when watching 60fps video.

Given it’s one of the primary ways you interact with your device I’m really happy Elephone decided not compromise quality or user experience by opting for a cheaper display.

Specs

Specs oftentimes go hand-in-hand with performance so to give you a better idea of what the Elephone S7 is capable of and what its limitations are, not to mention what your money is actually buying, check out the spec table below.

You’ll notice that some of the device’s internals are a bit more impressive than perhaps you’d expect, such as the “10-core processor” or the 3,000mAh battery, while others may be a bit on the low-end. This is very much in line with other mid to low-end devices, that have a mix of powerful and affordable components.

Elephone S7 Specifications
Size 150.4 x 73.2 x 7.6mm, 148g
Screen 5.5-inch IPS LCD FHD
CPU 10-core MediaTek Helio X20 MT6797
GPU ARM Mali T880
RAM 2/3/4GB DDR3
Storage 16/32/64GB, expandable up to 256GB with microSD
Camera 13-Megapixel f/2.2 Rear Camera with AF & LED Flash | 5-Megapixel Front Camera
OS Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Battery 3,000 mAh
Misc

Bluetooth: V4.0

Quick-Charge: PE+ 2.5A/1.67A(5V/7V/9V) 1.25A(12V)

Dual SIM with Dual standby

Micro USB

Performance

Of course, specs aren’t everything and real-life performance is much more important than raw power. To that end, I used the Elephone S7 as my daily driver for a couple of weeks to put it through its paces and see how well it fared. Overall the results are positive, though I did encounter issues here and there.

As noted above, the S7 is powered by the popular Mediatek Helio X20 processor which features 10 cores for extra performance and battery efficiency. The processor, together with the integrated ARM Mali T880 GPU, are high-end silicon, designed to take on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 and the Samsung Exynos 8890, but MediaTek’s offering doesn’t stack up that well. In fact, the Helio X20 seems to come much closer to the Snapdragon 617 than the 820.

For one thing, the Helio X20 is still built on the 20nm scale while its competitors have moved on to smaller and smaller scales, offering better performance and power efficiency along the way. For another, the so-called Tri-Cluster tech inside of the Helio x20, which utilizes different cores based on how demanding the task is, didn’t show any comparative benefit when pitted against the more traditional 8-core or 4-core processors.

In real life that means that while the Elephone S7 behaves well in most situations, and is fairly snappy, you will see instances where the phone needs an extra second to catch up. I especially experienced this in scenarios where many apps or elements needed to be loaded dynamically. Scrolling through a very heavy webpage is one example, and exploring the Play Store is another. Both resulted in occasional lag as the phone struggled to keep up with me.

The same goes for VR applications that are still some of the most demanding on a modern smartphone. Having to load large amounts of data and render environments with as many frames per second as possible, stresses many parts of the hardware in ways different to most applications. I occasionally experienced dropped frames, long load times and even the very rare crash when I pushed the phone to such extents. However, to its benefit, it stayed pleasantly warm, never getting uncomfortably hot as many other devices do when pushed to the limit.

The Elephone S7 can vary in its performance based on the model you chose. The 16GB starting model, which is rarely available nowadays only comes with 2GB of RAM of LP-DDR3 clocked at 933MHz. The 32GB models upgrades that to 3GB while the 64GB model, which is the one I tested, comes with 4GB of RAM.

In terms of benchmarks, I mostly relied on PC Mark’s Work 2.0 test, because I find its results are quite indicative of my own experiences. The phone came in somewhere just above the middle of the pack scoring 3700 points. For comparison, the Huawei Honor 5c and the Moto G4 Plus, both of which are in the same league as the Elephone S7, scored around 4100 points and 3600 points respectively. On the higher-end, the OnePlus 3T with the Snapdragon 821 scores 5650 in the same test.

Going back to real life usage I have to say that while the occasional hiccup and lag were noticeable, they weren’t necessarily annoying or infuriating. Gone are the days when Android needed the very newest flagship device to perform decently. It only took a couple of hours for me to get used to how the Elephone S7 behaved, and I felt okay using the handset for the rest of my time with it.

Android itself was snappy for most of my use, and thanks to the quick animations that Elephone implemented, a majority of the time I felt like apps popped up exactly when I needed and expected them to.

You don’t buy a $200 device to get top-of-the-line performance, so as long as you’re okay with a couple of extra seconds of loading time here and there, and the occasional scrolling stutter, you’ll most likely find the Elephone S7 enjoyable to use.

But that’s not to say the Elephone S7 didn’t have some problems. Perhaps the biggest letdown is its camera, though I’ll touch on that in the next section. For right now I just wanted to mention that the company did make some compromises to keep costs down and some of them showed up in unexpected ways.

For example, the loudspeaker on this phone is one of the worst I’ve ever heard on a modern smartphone. Not since the days of Nokia Communicators have I heard such low-quality audio. The high notes get lost just as the medium ones get distorted, with low ones being nonexistent. The speaker itself isn’t that loud to begin with and distortion comes in about midway through the volume range, so listening to anything more complex than a single person talking can quickly become jarring. The only thing that seemed to sound good on this phone were its own semi-polyphonic ringtones. A throwback to the old days indeed.

Camera

Camera modules are great examples of specifications not being everything when it comes to performance. The Elephone S7 boasts a 13-megapixel f/2.2 sensor which should be good enough for a mid-range device. However, real-life use shows the camera to be severely lacking in many aspects, and left me quite disappointed.

To start off with, I found the camera app to be very displeasing. What I’m looking for in a camera application are lots of options that are clearly labeled, easily accessible, well organized, and out of the way. That sounds a bit demanding but most application pass that standard easily, and some, like the camera app on some Lumias, did so with flying colors.

Elephone’s camera app felt like the exact opposite for some reason. I know this is a very personal opinion and others may disagree, but I found the menus, organization, icons, and options to be infuriating. Oftentimes I couldn’t find what I was looking for quickly enough, with options being thrown in both general and photo-specific menus, options on screen not doing what I was expecting and certain features coming or going based on whether other functions were active without a clear explanation as to what influences what. I also found that settings wouldn’t be saved or would revert to some other value seemingly at random.

Moving on to the actual images themselves, the camera was underwhelming. The very first thing I noticed was the incredibly slow shutter. I’m not sure why, or which exact features influenced this, but the shutter speed was ridiculously slow during the first few days of use. This obviously led to problems when taking images seeing as there’s no image stabilization, so snaps would come out soft and blurry with even the slightest hand movement.

Generally, images come out decently well if you have a good light source, a very steady hand, and a stationary subject. However, even in this ideal scenario sometimes detail is easily lost and images come out noisy for no reason.

One aspect I was actually impressed with is that the Elephone S7 can be setup to save RAW image files, in DNG format, so you can manually process and export images to your liking. Of course, if the raw images are of inferior quality you can throw in as much post-processing as you want, there’s not much you can do to save it.

And indeed, oftentimes the image data is of low quality. Besides the issues noted above, I found most photos to come out pale or just slightly under-colored. This goes beyond the “realistic” color levels that make images look less impressive, and strays into color accuracy problems. This also shows up with white levels and what’s either severe chromatic aberration due to the optics or horrible color reproduction on white surfaces in some scenarios.

Surprisingly, one area where the phone actually took better than expected images was in low light. That’s not to say these can stand side-by-side with any flagship phone, but given the problems I had seen in regular daylight, I was expecting very bad results in low light. Happy to say that wasn’t the case, with images coming out much less noisy or softer than expected.

The good news here is that some of these problems seem to have been caused by software, and have been fixed through one of the three OS updates that I received while testing the device. For example, the slow shutter speed seems to be mostly gone now, and HDR no longer makes images too dark.

Those are welcome improvements but users can’t purchase a device and then hope its faults will get fixed over time.

Battery Life

I have mixed feelings when it comes to battery life on the Elephone S7, mostly because my expections were not met, though they may have been inflated.

To make a long story short I could usually get the 3,000 mAh battery to last me close to two days with very light use. That’s definitely a good result with a modern smartphone but it does come with some caveats.

Moderate usage usually made the phone last about a full day which is very much in line with other devices, but I found that to be somewhat disappointing. Yes, my OnePlus 3 or Galaxy S7 edge lasts about the same, but those devices are much more powerful, have better, brighter screens and rush through any task I can throw at them.

Meanwhile, the S7 stutters, groans, hiccups, falls on its bum when taking a picture and distorts every sound that comes out of it. With those drawbacks, not to mention the less powerful internals, I was expecting to be blown away by the Elephone S7’s battery life. Instead, all I got were average results – after performance sacrifices had been made.

Clearly at fault were some of the radios on the device. It’s normal for cellular connectivity to substantially decrease battery life but in this case that seemed to happen much more so than expected. I noticed this when I used the phone without a SIM card for two days and it fared much better than previously, even when used for gaming or streaming media off of Wi-Fi.

The phone does support quick charging, with the company saying you can go from 0 to 50% charge in half an hour. However, the standard charger that comes with the handset only provides 2 amps of power at 5 volts. That means you still need to wait somewhere close to an hour forty-five minutes before you go from 0 to 100% in terms of charge.

Like I said above, I have mixed feelings in this area. On one hand, the phone fares well and is very much in line with other Android devices on the market. On the other, given its somewhat reduced performance and above average battery capacity, I was expecting quite a bit more from the Elephone S7.

Wrap Up

Overall, I’m fairly neutral on the Elephone S7. It’s a limited device with some obvious flaws, but then again, it’s a budget-friendly phone with decent specs and a great screen. I guess it very much comes down to what a user is looking for in a smart device. The Elephone S7 is clearly not the “full package” so you’ll be required to pick and choose based on your preferences.

Are you someone who appreciates a good viewing experience, well-balanced display, a nice solid build, and fairly robust performance with average battery life? Then this might be an excellent budget device for you.

If however, you’re much more interested in mobile photography, a pure Android experience, and long-lasting battery life, then you’ll be much better served by a different handset and should stay away from this offering.

I personally fall into the first category, so using the Elephone S7 as a budget-friendly device appeals to me quite a lot.

If you also fall into the category and looking for a good offer, TomTop, which sent us the review unit, is currently offering the 64GB model for $215.

 

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