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Featured Review: Elephone P9000

March 1, 2016 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Elephone’s pedigree in the budget smartphone world continues to expand with every release.  They’ve already dropped one flagship this year in the form of the $300 Vowney, and they’ve even started moving into the wearables game with the W2 Watch.  With the P9000 they’re taking the P lineup and once again bumping up the specs, build quality and price with the P9000.  Elephone’s P series has always hovered around the $200 mark, but the P9000 is the most expensive one yet at $210.  This one debuted just on March 29th so it’s fresh off the manufacturing line.  Let’s see how it stacks up against other $200 phones out there.

Specs

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Elephone has always stayed competitive with its phone specs, especially for the P series.  A metal frame with incredibly thin 1.6mm bezels make this phone quite a looker, and the 5.5-inch 1080p LG LTPS display keeps things sharp and bright.  Powering the heart of the hardware is the MediaTek Helio P10 MT6755 true Octa-core processor with a Cortex A-53 cores clocked at 2.0GHz.  The Mali-T860 MP2 provides cutting edge graphics while 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM allows for seriously amazing multitasking.  32GB of internal storage is double what most phones in this price range offer, and microSD card support up to 256GB gives expandable storage.  A 13-megapixel Sony IMX258 camera sensor is found on the back, while an OmniVision OV8858 8-megapixel sensor is on the front.  A 3,000mAh battery supports Quick Charge functionality and wireless charging as well, two things not commonly found in this price range.  The phone measures 148.4mm high by 73.2mm wide by 7.3mm thin, and weighs 145 grams.

In the Box 

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Presentation can make a huge difference when it comes to first impressions, and the stylish metal box makes the phone feel more premium right off the bat.  Popping off the top reveals the phone, placed to be the first thing you see, which is good because there’s almost nothing else in the box.  Aside from the usual set of manuals you’ll find a USB Type-C cable inside with a standard USB Type-A connection on the other end, as well as a clear rubber TPU case for protection out of the box.  There’s no wall charger included unfortunately, rather Elephone sells it in its $30 accessory pack for the P9000, or separately for $15.

Display

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On the box Elephone proudly flaunts that this display is an LG LTPS LCD screen, and there’s a good reason for it.  This is absolutely among the finest LCD displays you’ll find on any phone, this price or not.  It’s got fantastic viewing angles, super accurate colors, is nearly perfectly saturated to provide rich colors but not unrealistically saturated ones and is super sharp to boot.  Brightness levels are what you would expect from an LCD, as it’s super bright when outside and can get very dim when reading in a dark room too.  Even the white balance is great, with a screen that only very slightly edges towards a cool palette.  Black levels are about what you would expect from an LCD and generally look great until you get in a darker environment, where the general gray color of the blacks becomes more apparent.  Just about everything is configurable from the MiraVision component in display settings too, so if one particular component of the display doesn’t please your eyes you can adjust it as needed.

The biggest problem, unsurprisingly, is the digitizer.  This component, which provides the medium for electricity to travel between your fingertips and the screen in order to facilitate the capacitive touch screen experience, is often not sensitive enough on phones in this price range.  The Elephone P9000 doesn’t differ from other phones in this price range unfortunately, and often times I would find myself getting frustrated with the touch experience as I was typing and swiping around on the screen.  This didn’t happen every single time I used the phone, but pressing hard on the screen fixed the issue every time it cropped up.  Such a thing is annoying on a touch screen device as most movements feel like they should only require a light touch instead of a hard press as a physical button might.  A software update could fix this issue, but there’s no telling if that will happen.

Hardware and Build

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Upping the game from the pseudo-premium feeling phones of the previous P series, the P9000 fits more in line with the elegant designs of modern premium smartphones and less with the clunky and more bulky feeling P7000 and P8000.  The flat metal ring that runs around the outside features ever so slightly chamfered edges toward the back while the front-facing side has the most minimalistic chamfered edge possible.  The construction feels solid yet light, and at 150 grams it really feels just right.  On the front, the super thin bezels make the device a little smaller than some other phones with a 5.5-inch screen.  On the front, you’ll also find a single capacitive home button below the screen, which contains an LED notification light and a gesture sensor.

On the right side of the phone sits a power button dead smack in the middle, while the volume rocker rests just above this, providing maximum comfort when adjusting the volume while talking on the phone.  The left side holds the dual-SIM tray which features two micro-SIM card slots, with one slot also functioning as a microSD card slot.  Below the SIM tray is a special button that can be assigned to launch any app on the phone, however curiously enough cannot be used as a dedicated camera shutter button.  These metal buttons feel fantastic along the metal frame, and you can really feel the cold, quality feel of them when pressing, as they all deliver a very satisfying click.  Up top is a lone 3.5mm headset jack, while the bottom holds a USB Type-C port flanked on both sides by what appears to be stereo speakers.  Upon use, however, you’ll realize only the right grille holds a speaker while the left grille holds the microphone.

Not a fan of this material on the back
Not a fan of this material on the back

The back of the phone is where mixed feelings come in.  Design wise it’s great, with a cross pattern containing the camera sensor in the middle, dual-LED flash to the left, laser auto-focus module to the right and round fingerprint scanner below.  The material used for the back is what’s a bit odd, and resembles a much softer version of the sandstone material that OnePlus uses on its flagship models and cases.  The problem is that it’s a little too soft and ends up feeling almost gross, especially in more humid climates.  Colder weather and dry skin makes it feel better, but unless you live in such a climate it’s a bit of a grease magnet and just doesn’t feel great.

Performance and Memory

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MediaTek’s Helio P10 is a true octa-core CPU, which means 8 dedicated ARM Cortex A-53 cores instead of the big.Little architecture that many octa-cores on the market use.  This allows Android to use all 8 cores to the same degree, but often times I found only 4 cores were doing anything under most circumstances simply because the other didn’t need to be activated.  This keeps things incredibly zippy no matter what you’re doing, and I never found performance to be lacking no matter what I did.  Gaming performance

Even multi-tasking was phenomenal thanks not only in part to the 4GB of RAM, which kept apps from ever having to reload no matter how intensive they were, but also to the interface.  Elephone allows users to enable the standard Android software buttons, which gives access to the dedicated Overview multi-tasking button.  They retained the 3D carousel from stock Android while adding in an incredibly useful clear all button right at the bottom for clearing everything out of RAM.  This gives easy one-finger access to app switching, all while providing an interface that’s clear and concise and helps easily identify what you want to switch between.

Benchmarks

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Performance wise this one ranks somewhere between a Lenovo K3 Note and a Nexus 6 depending on the benchmark at hand and what it tests.  Check out our full benchmark suite below.

Phone Calls and Network

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3G connectivity in the US on T-Mobile was the best I was able to get, although there’s 4G LTE support here so long as your carrier of choice broadcasts over the supported spectrums listed below.  Call quality was as good as a non-HD call could be, and I found the clarity and volume of the earpiece were perfect.  The loudspeaker left a lot to be desired though, as it’s tinny and vibrates a lot, making hearing the person on the other end rather difficult.  I stopped using the loudspeaker after a few tries and never went back, it’s really just not worth using.  WiFi support includes 802.11 b/g/n as well as both 2.4GHz and 5GHz signal support, and NFC is fully supported on the P9000.  It’s not often you see 5GHz WiFi or NFC support on $200 phones from China, but this phone actually has both!

NFC support is here, another thing that’s nearly non-existent at this price range, and is wonderful to see in conjunction with a fingerprint scanner, Marshmallow and Android Pay support because of all this.  The only irritating thing is that there’s a constant banner in the notification shade that tells you when NFC is enabled, a bizarre choice for sure that’s not able to be removed.  There’s also a turbo download feature that gives the phone the ability to use both WiFi and cell data at the same time to power download a file over 20MB.  Check out all the supported cell bands below.

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

3G Bands: 850/900/1900/2100MHz

4G FDD-LTE Bands: 1/3/7/8/20

4G TDD-LTE Bands: 38/40

Battery Life

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3,000mAh is the average size of a phone with a 5.5-inch screen, but the Elephone P9000 has slightly better battery life than many phablet sized phones.  That’s excellent not just because you’re getting longer usage time on it than other phablets, but also because this is a mostly stock version of Android.  Many Chinese OEMs in particular use heavy skins for Android that often have big modifications of how Android works with background tasks, often times completely killing apps in the background instead of letting them run when needed.  This means you’re not going to see weird app-killing behavior on the P9000 all while still getting better battery life as many of these skins provide.

On average I got 4-5 hours of screen on time, which is at least an hour longer than most other phablets we’ve tested.  Standby was excellent too, lasting multiple days with little use, so people that don’t often use their phone for hours at a time should be very pleased with what’s to offer here.  Quick charge is also supported through the new 15W MediaTek standard, which charges the phone from 0-100% in about 1 hour flat.

Software

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The P9000 is the first phone Elephone is shipping with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and that’s a really good thing for customers in this price range, as many phones still ship with the year old Android 5.1 Lollipop.  As has been the case with many Elephone’s previous phones, the interface is very much stock Android with plenty of enhancements.  This keeps things in line with Material Design guidelines as far as visual elements go, and navigation is along the lines of Google’s design preferences rather than more like an iPhone as many Chinese OEMs tend to do with their Android skins.  All the proper Android 6.0 Marshmallow features like Google Now on Tap, dynamic sharing and more are here, as Elephone has only added to Google’s amazing experience, not modified it.  There’s also very little in the way of bloat included with the phone, and only about a dozen apps or so over the pre-installed Google apps are here to take up space.

Additions above and beyond the normal phone, messaging, and other standard apps are FM Radio, Pedometer, Sound Recorder and the Elephone Service app.  As usual the FM Radio app requires the use of headphones to operate, but the included FM Radio inside of the P9000 allows it to receive local radio stations without needing data services or subscriptions.  The pedometer is a bit weird because it only works after opening the app, and I had it stop randomly on me a couple of times.  Since Google Fit already has similar functionality built in I’d say just don’t bother with this app.  The real meat of Elephone’s additions come in the form of OS features which are found in the system settings menu and broken up by feature.

Many gestures are supported on the P9000, including off-screen gestures that enable users to draw different letters and symbols to perform actions and launch apps without having to turn the screen on.  Some of these are far more useful than others, and it’s mainly because some are just too simple and end up being triggered automatically in the pocket.  For instance, music control requires a single swipe left, right or down to control playback, but since this is only a single swipe it often gets triggered easily by rubbing against the leg when in a pocket.  The rest of the gestures involve drawing shapes like C to open the camera, V to open the calculator and half a dozen more customizable selections, all of which require unlocking the phone first before the app in question is launched.  This keeps them from launching accidentally, which is good since that too would happen all the time in a pocket.

There are two gestures that are activated by dragging three fingers on the screen at a time.  Swipe up or down takes a screenshot, while swiping to the right launches the Overview multi-tasking screen (which is actually mislabeled and says swipe left).  Flip to mute will mute incoming calls, alarms, music and videos when enabled, giving users an easy and quick way to pause content without having to fumble through the UI.  You can also enable the standard Android navigation bar containing the home, back and overview buttons for easier access to these things instead of using the gesture-based home button.  If you prefer the single capacitive home button a single press will go home, while a swipe either left or right will go back, and a long press will open up Overview.

Fingerprint and Security

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Android 6.0 Marshmallow now comes with built-in app permissions which are enabled on a system level and not able to be disabled.  Oddly enough Elephone seems to have left the old app permissions framework from Android 5.1 Lollipop and below that its previous P series phone has, which is disabled by default.  It really makes no sense as to why this is even included in the first place, and it fights with the built-in permissions in Android, causing confusion if enabled.  While it’s a good thing this is disabled by default, the phone will tell you every time you reboot that it’s disabled, increasing the likelihood that users will eventually enable it and become annoyed or confused with the conflicting systems.

There’s a full auto-start management feature that enables users to enable or disable apps upon startup, a problem that may plague users that have too many apps running in the background upon bootup.  Oddly enough this phone isn’t encrypted by default, which is actually a requirement Google has set for phones that ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box and include Google Play Services.  Since this is a Chinese device and doesn’t normally come with Google Play Service unless it ships outside of China, it seems Elephone decided this feature wasn’t necessary and therefore isn’t enabled out of the box.  We’ve seen the importance of encrypted phones and keeping your data safe lately in the news, so those that want such features should enable that first thing since it actually wipes everything on the phone to encrypt the internal storage.

While the fingerprint scanner is located in a truly optimal place below the camera sensor on the back, its accuracy leaves a bit to be desired.  It’s a tad slower than the ones found on phones like the Nexus 5x and 6p to name a few, and I found that at least half the time it wouldn’t read my fingerprint when pressing on the scanner.  I also found the fingerprint scanner wasn’t recessed enough into the body of the phone unless it had a case on, making it more difficult to find and press it when needed.  In general, I wasn’t super impressed with the fingerprint scanner, although it’s not annoying enough to not use it.

Sound

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Sound output via the 3.5mm headset jack or Bluetooth audio was phenomenal to say the least.  I had no issues with the default equalizing, which is good since there’s no software equalizer built into the phone.  It sounded great on earbuds, over the ear headphones and my car and truck’s audio systems as well.  Thankfully this is the case because the speaker on the body of the phone is nothing short of awful.  Sure it’s got good volume, but that’s about the only positive thing I can say about it.  It’s tinny, rattles, has poor range and just sounds awful in general, and I would recommend staying away from using it as much as possible.

Camera

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Sony’s Exmor IMX258 is no slouch, providing advanced 4th generation imaging capabilities at 13-megapixel resolution.  Unfortunately, the antiquated and generic camera software that Elephone continues to use on their phones makes this sensor feel like a much cheaper one, which is unfortunate since the image quality is phenomenal when it gets it right.  The biggest problem is in focusing, where the camera seems to have an extraordinarily difficult time figuring out what to focus on.  This even with the option to enable laser auto-focus, a module found on the back that’s supposed to aid the camera in not only getting the focus right the first time, but to do it incredibly quickly.  Many pictures ended up being out of focus, even when touching on the screen to focus on a certain point.

This software is essentially the same you’ll find on the vast majority of Chinese OEM phones under the $300 range, and features the same generic settings and modes that aren’t specifically tailored for a specific set of hardware.  The user interface is quite good too, which is rather unfortunate given the rather lackluster results of many pictures.  Dedicated camera shutter and record buttons allow picture or video taking at the single press of a button without having to switch modes, and the convenient dedicated row of modes on the left side allow for fast mode switching when needed.  There’s also a dedicated row of icons on top that give options to toggle HDR, flash, timer and a few other settings depending on the camera mode.  There are also live filters that can be applied via the arrow at the bottom of the screen, and there’s even .DNG RAW file support too.

Overall shots, when properly focused, look absolutely phenomenal and blow other phones in this price range out of the water.  Having a sensor that’s more often found in high-end phones like a Samsung Galaxy S6 (which features an IMX240 sensor) really helps things a lot, it’s just this camera software that holds so much back from being truly great.  Even HDR mode, which should be great on this sensor, turns out to be downright terrible, blowing out highlights, messing up the white balance and just generally looking bad besides the fact that it’s terribly slow to take the shot.

Even video isn’t that great, which makes little sense again given the pedigree of this generation of sensor and its use in other phones on the market.  Video quality modes only include options like good and fine, which make little sense in the world of 720p, 1080p and 4K video settings on most cameras.  If you’re patient and can get the camera to focus it has the potential to be a phenomenal one, but there’s far too much fighting required to recommend it as a good one just yet.  As this is solely a software problem it’s entirely possible that it could be fixed in future updates, but for now it’s nothing short of a mess.  Check out the full gallery below and judge for yourself.

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The Good

Great overall build

Attractive design, small bezels

Excellent screen

Balanced sound output

Mostly stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow

Battery life is better than average

Phenomenal performance

The Bad

Fingerprint scanner is inaccurate

Material used on the back feels a bit off

Camera software is terrible and often times ruins a good sensor

Conclusion

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There’s a lot of potential for the Elephone P9000 to be one of the best phones $200 or so can buy, but there’s still a few things that hold it back from true greatness.  Most of these issues are thankfully software ones, like the camera software or fingerprint recognition, and some confusing overlaps like the dual app-permissions that seem to have been left in here even though Marshmallow handles them out of the box.  Once Elephone irons these out this phone is absolutely a must buy if you’re looking to spend $200 or so, especially if you want a mostly stock device that’s fast and has plenty of positive aspects to it.

Buy The Elephone P9000