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Featured Review: Elephone Trunk

December 2, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Elephone has been around the Android train for a little while now, and as such debuts quite a few phones each year.  Like a number of other Chinese OEMs Elephone specializes in providing phones that are almost too good for the cost, often times packing in processors or other components that could go toe to toe with much higher priced phones in many areas.  The Trunk is one of the latest phones to debut this Fall by Elephone, and it’s this $120 phone we’re taking a look at here today.

Specs

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The Elephone Trunk packs some more familiar name hardware than other budget Chinese phones, such as the 64-bit 1.2GHz Quad-core Snapdragon 410 (MSM8916)  and Adreno 306 GPU.  Also inside is 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage with a microSD expansion slot and a 5-inch 720P LCD panel up front.  An 8-megapixel Samsung camera is found on back (with 13-megapixel interpolation) and a 2-megapixel shooter is on the front side.  There’s a 2,100mAh battery behind the removable back and the experience is powered by Android 5.1 Lollipop with Elephone’s super light ELE UI.  The whole package comes in a small 142.5mm high by 71.6mm wide by 8.9mm thin, and it only weighs 138 grams.

In The Box

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The contents of the box for the Elephone Trunk are a bit sparse, but that’s to be expected when the whole package only costs $120.  Inside you’ll of course find the phone, a wall charger and microUSB cable with a few manuals, and that’s about it.  There’s a screen protector already applied to the device out of the box but an additional one isn’t included.

Display

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For $120 it’s very difficult to find any complaints about the quality of a display.  The biggest issue here is the contrast, which leaves the screen feeling washed out and relatively lifeless looking.  Beyond this black levels, viewing angles, color accuracy and white balance are all good and aren’t outside of the range of what you might expect from a display in this price range.  720p resolution keeps things from looking super sharp, but at 5 inches it’s not bad or cheap looking.  Since this isn’t a MediaTek chipset there’s no built-in adjustments to the screen either, so what you see is what you get.

Refresh rate of the panel is within acceptable range too and didn’t bother me, although higher cost panels will obviously look better.  Brightness outdoors was great and I never found myself struggling to see it, even when on auto-brightness where some phones struggle to crank the brightness up enough.  The digitizer is somewhat decent, especially for many phones in this price range, and took fast taps of the finger more often than it didn’t.  There are definitely better digitizers out there, but in this price range often times digitizers are downright bad and don’t keep up with the sensitivity that fast typing requires.

Hardware And Build

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At this price range it’s nearly impossible to find a phone that isn’t made entirely of plastic yet still retains some worthwhile internals to keep the experience smooth.  Elephone chose better internal components to beef up the experience rather than a material nicer feeling than plastic, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a well put together phone.  Plastic doesn’t always have to feel cheap and the combination of the soft touch back together with the quality construction makes this one feel as good as plastic is going to get at this price range.  There are no hollow points, no obvious points where the plastic depresses or gives way easily, and this all with a removable back too.  It helps that the removable back is actually the whole shell around all edges of the back, keeping everything feeling sturdy and whole.

The size of the device is ideal for one-handed use but isn’t so small as to make things annoying to use.  The curved back fits easier in your palm and thanks to the soft touch material used on the back, it’s also incredibly grippy.  On the right you’ll find a power button situated just above the mid-point of the phone with the volume rocker just above that.  On the top you’ll find the micro-USB port and the 3.5mm headset jack right next to eachother, an ideal placement for when you need to charge the phone and listen to music at the same time.  Around the back sits a small speaker at the bottom, while the round camera lens and single LED flash are situated near the top and centered above the logo.

Around front is the 5 inch screen with average sized bezels, as well as a dedicated circular capacitive home button below it.  To the left and right are customizable buttons that light up when pressed and only look like small dots to keep them from feeling weird if you change their function.  Overall the size and weight of the device make this one perfect for one-handed use, and fans of smaller phones will be very happy here.

Performance And Memory

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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 410 isn’t exactly a beast of a processor, but it certainly gets the job done and I found that this is easily one of the most smooth experiences I’ve ever had with a Snapdragon 410 powered phone.  We review a lot of phones at Android Headlines and I can tell you just how much manufacturer optimizations come in to play when using some of these entry-level chipsets, especially Qualcomm’s which don’t seem to be as easily optimized for lower spec phones.  Every day tasks load quickly, there was almost never any noticeable pausing when launching apps, and even apps that did require some loading did so in a reasonably quick amount of time.  Fast internal memory helps keep things running smoothly without creating a bottleneck for the rest of the system.

Multi-tasking was a dream especially when one of the dedicated capacitive keys below the screen was set to the Overview window, making multi-tasking a single button press away.  2GB of RAM is plenty of space for a phone with a 720p screen, and I never once found apps reloading when switching back and forth between them, even when having more RAM hogging apps like Chrome open with multiple tabs.  Gaming performance wasn’t quite as good as multi-tasking, but that’s to be expected with a weaker GPU like the Adreno 306.  Games were playable but higher quality 3D games are either going to be a slow experience, or at worst unplayable.  Games that are able to scale well will work best here.

Benchmarks

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The Elephone Trunk benches about what we would expect from a Snapdragon 410 device, that is to say around 1/3 of the performance you’d expect out of a high-end 2015 device.  Still that’s pretty good considering the vast price chasm between these higher end phones and the Trunk.  Check out our full suite of benchmarks below.

Phone Calls And Network

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US users are going to have a hard time here.  The signals supported show that the Trunk is simply not designed to be used in the US, as the bands are far more friendly to Europe and Asia.  I got 2G reception on T-Mobile US and AT&T, and phone calls went through without a hitch, but 2G is absolutely horrid for trying to do anything data related.  I simply cannot recommend this in the US at all.  Users in countries where dual SIM cards are a popular fare will be happy here, as there’s full dual SIM support for standby and other management.  Check out the list of all supported bands below including up to LTE support, and don’t forget to check with your carrier of choice before you buy.

2G Bands: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G HSPA Bands: 850/900/2100MHz

4G FDD-LTE Bands: 1/3/7/20

Battery Life

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Battery life is absolutely the strong suit of this phone, and it’s simply mind boggling to see what Elephone was able to eek out of a super small 2,100mAh battery.  This size battery is small by any standards, but you wouldn’t know it when using the phone at all.  Even with 3 hours of on screen time in a day it was hard to get this one below 50% at the end of the day, and the secret here is in some insane standby time.  After a few days of regular use I noticed just how good the standby time seemed to be, so I left the phone with a SIM card and WiFi on, as well as my Google account syncing emails and all other data that I normally have going.  It took nearly 5 days of standby time to reach the 50% mark, and the battery life meter in Android told me I still had another couple of days to go before I needed to seek a charger.  What Elephone is doing here seems like pure magic, and whatever it is it’s something I’d like to see out of every phone on the market.

Elephone as included the ability to make custom system profiles too to keep your battery life going as long as possible.  Within each system profile you can select whether WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and plenty of other options will sync, as well as ringer modes and volumes and other settings as well.  Each of these can be triggered based on a location, WiFi network connected to or Bluetooth device connected to, and you can make your own profiles as well.

Sound

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Average quality is the best I can describe the sound output from the 3.5mm headset jack or Bluetooth audio from the Elephone Trunk, but that’s certainly not a bad thing considering this is much cheaper than your average priced phone.  There’s no equalizer or any fancy audio equipment here to make adjustments, so what you hear is what you get from the output.  Software equalizers will help adjust the audio to an extent, but without proper audio support you’ll find that the more you adjust within popular audio apps like Google Play Music, the quieter the audio gets.  There is an FM radio built into the phone that requires headphones to be plugged in for use, but it’s a great feature for those on the go that don’t want or can’t use the many streaming music services out there.

Audio out of the speaker on the back is pretty darn good for such a small size, and I found that keeping the volume level 2 notches below max was where the point of distortion started.  After this you’ll find the speaker rattling a bit and sounds aren’t quite evenly distributed, but even at this level I found it to be excellent volume and easily audible from 20ft away while inside of my house.  Loudspeaker while on the phone was equally as loud and generally provided a decent experience, although again turning it up to the loudest setting creates a distortion and rattling that makes things more difficult to understand.  Rear placement is also a bad spot, since it’s always facing away from the person using the phone and gets lower marks for it.

Software

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Elephone doesn’t go about changing too much when it comes to Android and only adds a few things to Android 5.1 Lollipop over Google’s stock options.  For the most part the UI looks identical to stock Lollipop with a bit of flair here and there.  When pressing the volume buttons the volume panel itself has been made to look like foggy glass, a very iOS look if you will, although functionally it hasn’t changed a bit.  Elephone’s launcher is identical to the one they’ve included on a number of phones this year, and features a bit of an interesting hybrid of iOS and Android style launchers.  Like the iOS launcher all the icons are found on a desktop and there’s no dedicated app drawer.

Apps are categorized into folders automatically and the interesting part comes when you open these folders.  When in folder view you can swipe left or right to move between all folders available, giving you quick access to categorized apps.  If you don’t like the automatic categorization you can of course make your own folders, all of which will be accessible from this view, with the priority being where they are located on the desktop.  Swiping up anywhere on the home screen brings up launcher options, while swiping down brings up the search function.

Customization

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The buttons below the screen can be fully customized, including single and long press actions.  There’s no software button support here though so fans of software buttons will either have to mod the phone or look elsewhere if you absolutely must have them.  There’s some very light customization on the look and feel of the OS including the blur effect mentioned above, which can be toggled for the lock screen, volume panel and toast notifications.  In addition you can enable battery percentage on the status bar so you don’t have to pull down the notification shade to see what percentage you’re at.  There’s also a full theming suite for the default launcher, but it only themes the launcher and not the rest of the system.  Still there’s quite a wide range of themes and one is sure to suit your tastes.  Each theme completely changes the color scheme, icon pack and wallpaper for the launcher and makes the phone look extremely different because of it.  All the themes I used were super high quality and looked completely official, and the best part is that if you’re willing to make your own theme you can even upload and share it with others.  All the themes are free and download and apply in seconds.

Camera

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Here’s an area the Elephone changed the most from previous phones, and from other Chinese OEMs in general at that.  Most OEMs seem to use the exact same camera software between all phones, and it’s difficult to tell who makes what phone based on software looks alone sometimes.  Elephone has created an entirely new interface for the Trunk, and it’s one that’s almost all positive in every regard.  The interface sports a large dedicated camera shutter and record button for quick pictures and video without having to switch modes.  The overall look of the interface is closer to Samsung’s older camera interface, although the color scheme and iconography are wholly unique.

There are an absolute boatload of options here to choose from, and all are represented in a grid layout of 8 icons per page, all with clearly marked icons with labels below them.  The lack of color makes it slightly difficult to tell the difference between these icons at first glance, but a closer look is enough to differentiate between most of them, and the consistency gives it a pleasant look overall.  Some surprising options here include auto HDR, a feature normally reserved for higher-end phones, as well as the option to completely turn off the denoise filter.  I particularly applaud Elephone in this regard, as denoise filters on smartphones can tend to create some incredibly muddy looking pictures that prioritize details in the photo over trying to take out all noise.  This gives users the ability to choose between more detail and more noise, or less noise and less detail.

There are also a boatload of modes to choose from that can be seen in the screenshots below.  Some of these are very superfluous and will only be used maybe once or twice by most users, if even that, but the auto mode seems to just work best in most situations.  You’ll also find a dozen different live filters to choose from to enhance your photos before editing in your favorite social networking app.  Overall speed of the shutter was OK at best in good lighting, and nearly impossible to use once the lighting got too low.  At times during low lighting the camera software would hang on me and never take the picture, but this problem was inconsistent at best and I couldn’t replicate it every time.  Photo quality was pretty poor in any light though and I found that most of my shots were blurry, even in good lighting.  Turning off Auto HDR didn’t seem to alleviate this problem, and there seems to be an issue with shutter speed in general that’s the main cause of this.  Trying other camera software gave me worse quality photos, so using Elephone’s built-in software is the best recommendation.

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The Good

Epic battery life

Light and fast software

Great multi-tasking

The Bad

Mediocre camera

Gaming performance, especially 3D games

Final Thoughts

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The Elephone Trunk is a pretty average competitor in most respects, with excellent multi-tasking performance, every day performance and of course some absolutely incredible battery life.  The rest of the phone is pretty average at best, but the software side of things shows some serious promise for the future.  CyanogenMod 13, which is based on Android 6.0 Marshmallow, has just been released for the phone, and even if Elephone doesn’t provide too many updates for the Trunk it seems the community is hard at work to keep it updated regardless.  Elephone provides an easy flashing tool to keep your phone updated, official updates or not, and it makes it a little easier to stomach such a risk if you’re not used to all the steps it takes to unofficially flash a device.  For $120 you’re getting some good customization, a light OS and a phone that’s pretty well rounded.  Just make sure the camera won’t be a deal breaker by checking out our sample gallery, and of course, don’t try to play any intensive 3D games on this one unless you’re OK with slow performance, otherwise this is a pretty solid $120 device.

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