A minimalist approach to smartphone-building that focuses on what's important to you.
Elephone latest budget-friendly smartphone, the A6 Mini, isn’t likely the first device that springs to mind for most when it comes to their next handset. The gadget is smaller than many competing devices, with a spec sheet that doesn’t seem to set it apart by much.
In many ways and looked at from a certain angle, it would be fair to say this is just another smartphone from a less well-known OEM, especially if that sentiment stems from potential buyers in the US. But this is a handset that takes convention backward in all of the right ways while stepping forward with modern twists and the latest technologies in a package costing under $150.
On sale, that price tag can be and is dropped to just over or just under $100 but it would be folly to believe that drop has anything to do with quality or worthiness. Although the Elephone A6 Mini is hardly flawless, the manufacturers refined -- and, frankly, minimalist -- approach to this smartphone take it above its price tag and into what’s expected from a $300-500 mid-range device.
Everything about this device is, in a word, simple and easy without losing any of the buttery smoothness or features that make Android such a widely lauded mobile OS around the globe.
Straightforward, minimal software, better performance than expected
The first noteworthy aspect of this device, as indicated above, is the minimalistic approach to everything and that all becomes apparent from the first time the device is fired up. That’s because there’s no login screen to be found here like what would be found on nearly every other smartphone on the planet.
Instead, users are taken directly to the home screen following the short boot animation and a wait so short it very nearly feels like a flagship -- as well as some general housekeeping to get connected and going. Users can still find and get into their favorite Google apps and a few others from there but each app will be logged into individually, giving the user more control and awareness of how they’re logging in.
It was, in a few words, significantly comforting to see that this device allowed my sign-ins at my discretion and didn’t throw prompts to login in my face from the very start.
That rapid jump paves the way for users to see just how responsive the entire UI and software environment are right from the start. There was no lag, either before, after, or during log in. Instead, the UI and taps on the display worked and interacted with as much fluidity as my flagship daily driver.
The performance was unexpected because this is Android 9 Pie but only powered by a relatively commonplace and often underwhelming quad-core MediaTek MT6761, backed by just 4GB RAM and either 32GB or 64GB storage.
So I immediately took to installing secondary apps to try and slow everything down to an acceptable level for such a budget-friendly handset.
Intensive apps such as artist tools for simulating 3D forms and animation, games like Asphalt 9, and multitasking seemed to have little impact on performance. On the latter title, that didn’t run perfectly by any means but it wasn’t unplayable or latency-riddled either. It simply took much longer to load than I'd have liked with some light latency immediately after loading up a stage and on some pages of the game -- which went away relatively quickly.
We’ll delve into some mildly unsavory aspects of the gadget later on but there was also a minor issue in how multitasking is handled here that won’t affect everybody and battery life does seem to suffer in some. There are certainly going to be games and apps that won’t run properly on this handset or will slow it down. None of the ones I use on a daily basis did the trick or fit the bill.
The stock feel of the OS translates across nearly every aspect of the system, settings, and interface, keeping it all as barebones as possible -- sans the pill-shaped home icon and those roundly despised gestures. Everything is exactly where it would be expected with stock Android from any other OEM. Other gestures are available via settings.
Summarily, the low number of pre-installed apps as well as letting users sign in at their own discretion probably helped made that experience better than I expected. Other similar optimizations undoubtedly helped too.
Apps installed out of the box included Google-built services such as Calander, Chrome, Drive, Duo, Files, Gmail Maps, Photos, YouTube, and the suite of both Play and GSuite apps. A Compass and other tools like a sound recorder and FM radio are part of the package too. Just 24 apps are included, in total.
A modern twist on a classic design
Seamlessness, water and dust resistance, large screens, and similar trends from 2019 are not present on the Elephone A6 Mini. A bezel-free display with a water-drop style notch is part of the package though and the 3.5mm headphone jack has made its way over from the now rapidly-fading list of features included in the build.
Although plastics are used throughout the build and lend to a lighter-than-average weight that, when coupled with the steady curve of the back panel, gives this gadget a seriously comfortable in-hand feel.
Despite that and the fact that its gadget isn’t going to cost just about anybody an arm and a leg to replace if it does break, Elephone includes a snug-fitting case to keep the plastic back from scratching. That should offer decent protection from screen damage in short drops. Happily, that fits so well that it doesn't take away from the in-hand feel.
Also helping to protect the device from damage in falls is the fact that Elephone has opted for aluminum in the SIM drawer tray instead of the plastics sometimes seen with inexpensive handsets.
The side-mounted fingerprint scanner is placed intuitively next to the power button such that picking up the device led to it unlocking every time before I’d even had a chance to glance at it. That’s a nice feature made even better when multiple fingerprints so that it almost didn’t matter how I picked the device up. It always caught my fingerprint and granted me ready access.
That appears to be a standard capacitive sensor and Elephone has, based on a preliminary run of tests, worked to ensure that it won’t be any easier to break through than the standard sensor used in a high-dollar gadget.
Despite being a plastic chassis, the gadget doesn’t really look "cheap" in a negative sense like some others in its price bracket. It’s available in a high-sheen “Nebula” -- an 80’s style hot pink that fades into a deep purple -- or it can be picked up in Black, Red, or Grey. Our test unit was a Blue variant that’s bright and playful to match the simplicity of using the A6 Mini.
In terms of the display panel, that’s not any less brilliant than the tight-fitting display port and clicky buttons that helped usher in a sense of quality with this handset. In fact, it’s so responsive and easy to use with a good enough resolution (for its 5.71-inch size) that I never felt like I was using a budget device at all. The pixels shown brightly under bright sunlight and color was accurate.
The design and premium feel were made all the more enjoyable by the fact that it was just flashy enough to catch the occasional envious glance and questions while I was using it in public. That's not going to necessarily be a common occurrence and certainly isn't guaranteed but it speaks to the work that went into keeping everything as straightforward and stress-free as possible without seeming superficial or forced.
This proves that budget cameras are getting better
As with everything else in this handset, the camera is kept as simple as possible while retaining the features and hardware users have come to expect. That means that there are only a grand total of four shooting modes set on the familiar AOSP carousel -- Photo, Video, FaceBeauty, and Blur. Each of those works as expected, with UI changes between the modes suited to their respective purposes.
That interface was, at first load-up, similar to what's available on other devices. So it's familiar and I had no trouble navigating it but on further inspection, it's revealed to actually be very sparse. There's not "Pro" mode or settings to be found here, despite HDR capabilities.
Scene adjustments and fine-tuning are all handled by algorithms and the only deeper settings pertain to whether audio should be captured, whether imagery should be captured on "touch," or to self-timer adjustments and on-screen grid lines. Location recording for photos and videos is turned off by default.
Despite the relatively stark software, the algorithms obviously work. I never suffered any of the struggles often seen with cameras on comparably-priced gadgets. Namely, there was no lag and no unsightly artifacts cropping up in shots. Irrespective of the fact that this camera is literally just “point and click,” it didn’t showcase major problems with washout under full sunlight and color accuracy is good enough that a blue sky could be caught even on a bright day.
The shutter speed is fairly quick too, as is highlighted in at least a couple of shots in our sample gallery via Flickr.
It also features an automatic portrait mode, thanks to the true dual camera set-up at the back, driven by a 16-megapixel and 2-megapixel sensor array at an f/1.8 aperture. That can shoot video at up to 1080p at 30 frames per second too, backed by a flash for settings where lighting isn’t ideal.
The selfie camera is a 16-megapixel snapper and brings a moderately secure Face ID feature to the table.
What is going on with these speakers?
Of all the things the company could have done poorly, the speakers would presumably be the first to have issues in terms of audio quality, clarity, and levels. That's not too far from the truth but problems only arise at very low volume levels (a click or two up from zeroed out).
When this handset is turned up it's not only loud, it's well balanced. Listening to a variety of genres, one thing was immediately apparent. This isn't going to pump out the bass any better than any other smartphone out there. What it will do is allow you to actually hear the bass tones themselves and they aren't tinny either. They're balanced.
That's a feat considering the cost of this smartphone or any device under any bracket that isn't premium and it isn't without its faults either. It may just be that top-tier audio components are finally making their way to the most inexpensive Android devices but regardless, it's good in spite of the fact that no speakers this size are going to be "great."
Audio through a headset -- I tested against a flagship using AKG buds -- shows that the bass isn't as punchy as it probably could be but that it's still very well balanced. A third-party equalizer application fixed that up, bringing things closer adhere to my listening preferences but it is by no means poorly done.
The "perks" of a budget phone ...trade-offs
No smartphone that's made to exist this far down the budget-end of the spectrum isn't going to be without its tradeoffs and that's to be expected. There aren't many of note with Elephone's A6 Mini but the few that exist could present issues for some potential buyers so they're worth pointing out.
The first issue I ran into was actually with the speakers on the handset. While they are actually quite good at around mid to full volume, at the lowest levels there exists what appears to be a problem that causes crackle and pops joined with audio cut-out.
It may just be that my test unit had somehow sneaked out with a hardware problem. In either case, unless users plan on using their volume turned exceptionally low, that's not going to present a problem. No cut-out was noted during playback via either Bluetooth or wired audio playback either.
The second issue worth note is, unfortunately, to do with the battery life. As noted earlier, performance seems much higher than what would be expected from the built-in chipset and RAM but that appears to affect screen-on time. The Elephone A6 Mini I only saw four-and-a-half to just over six hours of screen-on time -- depending on which savings features I had active and how brightly I had the 500-nit screen turned up.
The battery will go for more than a full day on standby mode with light use for texts and the occasional call. As soon as games are played or heavier apps are being used the life just drops drastically. That's not necessarily going to be a major issue. Charging the 3,180mAh via micro USB takes just over 2-hours with most of the battery filling up within the first hour or so but it is definitely a trade-off.
There's no notification indicator led on the front of this handset. So there won't be any way to know the battery is charged either without checking manually. This is another throwback and relatively small drawback but means that catching notifications can be hit or miss.
That's not automatically a bad thing since I never felt like a slave to my notifications -- which can happen with other handsets that have flashier systems. It does mean that this isn't going to be a perfect device for somebody who relies on that indicator.
Networking was a pain too but probably won't be for everybody
The bigger issue may be that although there is wide support in both Europe and Asia as well as the US for network connectivity, that doesn't automatically seem to extend to MVNOs.
Utilizing a US MVNO, I had to actually go in and manually adjust some of the access point settings (APN) before data would flow. Texts and calls worked fine regardless and were strong in each case but I didn't see any actual data working until after I adjusted those advanced settings.
The company actually lists which bands are supported in each region, which is helpful. In the US, bands that are supported include GMS, WCDMA, and 4G LTE. For GSM, those are B2, B3, B5, and B8 while WCDMA supports B2, B4, B5, and B8. FDD-LTE is supported on bands B2, B3, B4, B5, B7, B18, and B28.
For buyers in Europe and Asia, GSM is supported on an identical array of bands but LTE is a bit different for obvious reasons. FDD-LTE works via B1, B3, B5, B7, B8, and B20 while TDD-LTE connects on bands B38, B40, and B41.
For ease-of-use, this is the one
As companies like Apple have known all along, there’s a certain charm to any device that’s a subtle charm and appeal to any device that’s just easy to use and as simple as possible. More than anywhere else, in spite of its obvious optimization and buttery smooth user experience, that’s where the Elephone A6 Mini really excels.
Topping that off, it's just surprisingly comfortable to hold and interact with due to its size, especially after spending years using larger devices. The display panel actually seems noticeably better than what’s par for the course here too and the camera presented no issues but plenty of promise despite lacking deeper controls or special features.
Now, on paper, nothing about this device is actually perfect or on par with flagships. The approach is taken means that it can and often does feel like it is. That's an important distinction to make as well as showcasing how good this gadget is in its segment of the market but it also brings forward something that sets this device apart.
Because of how easy this handset is to use, any caveats with the handset were, over the course of a day's use, forgettable. All of the issues that were spotted in deeper testing simply don't present themselves often enough to remain at the forefront. What does remain is just how user-friendly and well-put-together everything is, making the Elephone A6 Mini a device that absolutely needs to be recommended for anybody who wants a straightforward experience on a budget.