Elephone’s U2 blends its elegant ease-of-use with Android Pie in a gorgeous chassis
Elephone is a somewhat niche company in the Western world, or at least in the US, that's managed to build up a serious reputation for devices that can best be described as straightforward on the software front and solid for hardware. I recently took the opportunity to try out the company's new budget mid-ranger, the Elephone U2, and was pleasantly unsurprised to find that trend continues with its latest offering.
The U2 not only performs as sleekly as it looks but also brings Android 9 Pie to the table in a not-easily-dismissable unique frame with plenty of features and an easy-to-use interface. Fans of the all-around great device will certainly love this phone for its price too -- at under $200 on AliExpress and elsewhere -- especially since its one of the few unique devices that will actually work in the US.
So, without further adieu, let's take a deeper look at how the Elephone U2 performs in day-to-day use.
All dressed up
Though not often the case with budget smartphones, the first thing I noticed when slipping the Elephone U2 from its box is just how stunning the design is. The test unit I received is the Blue variant -- it also comes in red or black -- and there are subtle elements to the design that immediately made it stand out, in addition to the color and shape.
Starting with the color, the Blue and Red hues come with a tonal shift beginning at the center of the device with a deeper saturation of color and leading outward toward the edge with a dramatic change toward the bright end of the spectrum. The effect follows the curve of the rear glass panel, giving some indication of how well this fits into the hand. By the end of the test, the shape and how the color plays with that shape were still my favorite thing about this smartphone.
Stepping away from that, Elephone also stepped it up in terms of body accents here. There is a darker matte variation of the color along to top and surrounding all of the edges that nearly matches some of the brighter hues in direct sunlight. That metal accent is also found in the surround at the top of the device, bleeding into the glass panel on the back.
That all makes the U2 a head turner without losing any of the class or premium feel afforded by the sandwiched glass panels.
In-hand, the glass at the back of this handset lends to an almost top-tier feel. Although subjective based on hand-size and a variety of other factors, the curve is just enough and there’s enough weight that it just feels like it fits into the hand perfectly. The device doesn’t feel too big or small either.
Everything else with the hardware worked as I thought it would or better. The buttons were all super clicky and both the nano-SIM drawer and USB-C port were snugly fit and well made, with metal used in the former component.
The mic placement was great too, with almost no chance my hands or face were going to get in the way and accented by dual bottom firing speakers at the bottom, with the earpiece cleanly embedded in the frame. Antenna lines were placed in such a way that I didn't seem to suffer any inconsistency or interference.
Speaking of placement, while entirely subjective, I also absolutely love the decision to place the fingerprint sensor on the side edge instead of in the screen or on the back. That frees both up for a cleaner aesthetic but also meant I could, if I wanted to and programmed in multiple fingerprints, have it kick on and log-in regardless of which hand I used or angle I picked this gadget up from effortlessly.
Better still, there's no reaching with a side-mounted fingerprint scanner and when it works as quickly as this one did, it's a simple matter of placing the thumb or finger naturally just below the power button.
The only area where I found myself second-guessing the design is in terms of the camera surround itself. The top of the forward-facing pop-up camera is comprised of metal to match the buttons, edges, and other design elements. Once extended, the remaining camera surround is plastic. That's disappointing and calls into question how long it might last under duress.
...but without ruggedization and at least one other minor issue
The range of features that there are to love about the overall design and build of this device only stops in two places. The first of those is in the fact that there is actually no IP rating for ruggedization provided by Elephone for its U2.
It isn't at all uncommon for budget-friendly smartphones to lack a rating and still have some protection but that means that using the U2 around water or in very dusty environments felt unsettling during my test. Put simply, no IP rating can also mean no protection whatsoever and there’s no way to know for sure until something actually goes wrong.
This is a gorgeous device and it runs exceptionally well. The majority of smartphone users are buying smartphones in the mid-range or budget segment and there are a number of reasons for that. Not least of all, it is a real headache trying to keep up with the latest flagships at their current pricing but that's only partially relevant here.
But no smartphone is cheap. They're an investment. No certification against drops, the incursion of water, or damage from dust simply makes the device somewhat less comfortable to use in day-to-day activities.
Stacking on top of that, there are a couple of minor caveats in the design aside from ruggedization.
The biggest of those is that there's no headphone jack at all and there's no adapter or cable included for connecting normal headphones either. Audio out does work over USB-C with Elephone's U2 but you'll have to bring your own USB-C headset or adapter.
The inconvenience that would have created for me if I hadn't had a spare adapter lying around from last year's flagship purchase, would have been a deal-breaker for me -- although it certainly won't be for everybody. USB-C headphones are still somewhat expensive and a high-quality adapter isn't always easy to find at a good price.
Following modern trends from edge-to-edge
The lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack on this device was not the only area it is immediately noticeable that the Elephone U2 is tracking along with the most recent trends in smartphone design. Unlike other recent gadgets hailing from the company’s home region, Elephone has gone all-in with a curved back panel, a USB type-C port that supports audio output, and a screen that stretches from edge to edge.
The display panel around the front of the device, when the gadget is turned off, resembles pretty much every other panel out there. There’s a super slim speaker just above and almost no bezels at all around the edges. But where one might expect to find a hole in the display for the cameras or a taller top bezel to allow for one, that’s not the case here at all.
Instead, Elephone has used a pop-up camera that we’ll cover a bit further down and the effect of that is seen in a relatively stunning screen-to-body ratio of just over 92-percent.
The display is set at a somewhat low resolution, just as all budget-minded handsets are but that doesn’t hamper things for this 6.26-inch screen.
A brightness of 500-nits coupled with a 1080 x 2280 resolution put the Elephone U2 in line with several devices that are much more expensive and that shined through while watching movies or playing games. No pixels were found to be out of place without putting some serious effort into looking for them. This gadget's screen was definitely bright enough to use outside on a cloudless sunny day
Responsiveness was more than high enough, regardless of what app I was using. In real-world use, that means quite a lot since I didn't find myself frustrated at being stuck using this device even once. It's not a flagship but a smartphone doesn't always need to be in order to feel like a great device or be enjoyable to use.
The cameras mostly line up with the design
When examing the cameras on this smartphone, a few characteristics became apparent. First, the selfie-camera is not as well-built as some competing devices. The lens and internal motor function well and I have no doubt it will last for the entire 300,000 uses under the right conditions but people aren't necessarily careful with smartphones, generally speaking.
There just doesn't seem to be any kind of safety mechanism to protect the internal motor from external damage.
For instance, on many top-of-the-line devices with pop-up camera mechanisms users will be greeted with a warning if they try to physically push the camera back in. It will also slide back in on its own if pressed relatively lightly or, in a few cases, if the device senses that it's falling. That's not the case here. I didn't press too hard because of the plastics involved here there don't seem to be any of those measures in place to prevent physical damage to the selfie-camera when open.
Setting that aside, the mechanism was smooth and buttery, emitting almost no noise or whine whatsoever and that's impressive.
In terms of the photographs themselves, the Elephone U2 falls into the upper mid-range category handily. That's thanks to a dual forward facing camera at 16-megapixels and 2-megapixels while the rear triple sensor is set at 16-megapixels, 5-megapixels, and 2-megapixels. Each of those serves its own purpose and is used in conjunction with a respectable f/1.6 aperture leading to relatively clean shots and good accuracy.
As shown in our gallery of samples via Flickr, color capture is accurate and feels natural except where backlighting is high. Contrasts are held well and artifacts only appear in low-lit situations. The overall range of colors captured and detail accuracy is good too. This certainly doesn't snap an image like a run-of-the-mill budget device.
Software on the camera front is simplified but, unlike in some other devices where the algorithms seem to take over too much, they seem well balanced. There are only a few shooting modes built atop the stock AOSP software and options for adjusting photos, while minimal, are cleanly tucked away for an easy experience.
“Beauty” functionality and the now-standard “Portrait Mode” for blurring out the background in portrait shots or cleaning up blemishes work as well with the selfie cameras as they do with those on the back. I'm not a big fan of either feature, preferring a more natural look to images but they're going to more than meet the needs of the average user.
In other words, the software doesn't really have a lot of special features or even all of the usual modes typically included -- generally attached to buzz words that don't mean an awful lot in real-world use. It's a good camera that matches up well with Ulephone's efforts on the rest of the U2 and that effort seems to be somewhat better than the overwhelming majority of devices in the lower price bracket it occupies.
The battery holds this device back
The non-removable battery found in the Elephone U2 is impressive, or at least it should be. It’s not larger than those found in competing devices at 3,250mAh and 5V/2A charging is in place.
It is isn’t a flagship either and impressive may not be the best descriptor.
With a normal day’s use, I saw just over 6-hour and 15-minutes of screen-on time and a full day without needing to charge up. That included an hour or two watching streamed video content, a couple of hours of music, and five or ten minutes of mobile gaming here and there.
As with nearly every other smartphone user on the planet, it also includes endless instances of picking up the phone to check notifications, a phone call or two, and using the camera. Bearing in mind that the term “normal use” is subjective, that isn’t at all bad. In fact, it’s very good compared to the vast majority of devices out there.
Given that the internal hardware is as much efficiency-focused as performance ready, it’s also not brilliant. But it does work better than most in that regard so I can’t say I was disappointed.
What I was least impressed with was the charging especially since USB-C is used here.
Now, it may be that I’ve spent too much time with rapid-charging devices with larger batteries that can fill up in just over an hour or just under and my experience here was biased as a result. Nearly two-and-a-half hours to fuel up a battery that’s just over 3,200mAh seems excessive. The first fifty percent wasn’t quick either, taking around a minute per percent -- in other words almost an hour.
Elephone has gotten a lot right with this smartphone. If it comes down to how quickly the battery can be charged up though or how long it takes to drain, this just isn’t the phone to beat. That’s setting aside that the heaviest smartphone users will want to invest in a portable battery bank.
It's also worth noting that although some connectivity within the US is possible, the device ships with a standard 100~240V power adapter -- complete with an EU-style plug. So a power adapter with an appropriate rating will be a must for areas where a different plug is needed.
Audio and connectivity are good, leave some to be desired
Elephone's U2 is, first and foremost, a smartphone and that means that the most important aspect is going to be how well it works in the real world as a phone. There, as with other gadgets from the brand, the device is going to be hit-and-miss. At least, that's going to be the case in the US.
Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth are as solid here as any other device I've used. The older Bluetooth 4.2 protocol is in use so there's a bit of discrepancy compared to other devices that have abandoned the 3.5mm headphone jack. But Wi-Fi hits all the bands in true dual-band fashion. GPS and GLONASS are both in place for positioning connectivity.
In the area of the US the Elephone U2 was tested in -- with a Straight Talk AT&T SIM occupying one of the two SIM slots -- I was able to get access to 3G with no issues. That's a bit disappointing coming from a 4G LTE enabled gadget and on the cusp of the advent of 5G but wasn't at all unusable. Calls and data alike were transmitted without worry and without lag as that's relative to 3G.
Now, I live in a relatively rural region of the US so that's not at all surprising and the U2 does support US 4G bands. In fact, Elephone is one of just a few Chinese OEMs that lists US bands on its site and those include bands B2, B4, B5, B7, B17, and 28ab on the 4G side. For GSM, bands B2, B3, B5, and B8 are supported while WCDMA bands B1, B2, B4, and B5 are covered.
There is a minor caveat to that, though it should be simple enough to overcome since it doesn't require jailbreaking or anything of the sort. Users will need to adjust APN settings in the US or other regions where the bands are supported but the gadget isn't officially sold.
That short but not necessarily easy process is one that many carriers -- especially MVNOs -- have customer guides online to help with. It's not one that should be undertaken by those who aren't willing to explore and adjust advanced network settings but it also shouldn't be something that stops others from buying this phone.
The audio from the dual-bottom-firing speakers follows a similar vein, blasting out at a more than reasonable volume with clarity and the same lack of bass seen in other smartphones. The lower registers aren't non-existent in this device as they so often, and so annoyingly are. They just don't punch through as powerfully as might be desired for some users or well enough to listen to bass-heavy rap or any of the many genres of electronically-generated music.
Within an almost stock framework
Under the glass-coated hood of the Elephone U2 is a variant of Android 9 Pie -- without the annoying requirement that the pill-shaped gesture controls have to be used. That's close enough to stock Android that I was able to adapt to using it without any issues at all. It also has a minimal number of pre-installed applications that are almost exclusively Google apps.
A couple of tools falling into the 'recording' category are included as well as a compass and an FM Radio but nothing too noteworthy. The settings menu is similarly simplified and Elephone effectively only includes a video and display enhancer and an audio enhancer as extras.
That does not at all mean that this device is boring though. On top of keeping things mostly stock, Elephone utilizes its own custom theming for icons and color across the OS. That's chosen via a dedicated app with a few different options as well as the ability to change fonts, ringtones, and more easily. It's not extensive but it does add some flair for those who don't want to go through the trouble of downloading and tweaking an entire launcher app.
The stock nature of the software plays well with the hardware that's part of the build too. Elephone utilized a comparably powerful MediaTek Helio P70 chipset backed by 6GB of RAM and a generous 128GB of storage here. The chipset is an octa-core component. In the most straightforward terms, all of that stacks up with the exceptionally high-level of optimization so that just about any app is going to run without lag.
Multitasking doesn't seem to hamper that too much either, or at least it didn't across the nine or ten apps I consistently had running in the background as well as the one I used in the foreground.
The entire experience was just easy and it just works -- and it works about as seamlessly as any gadget, even those that are much more expensive.
To buy or not to buy
In terms of all-around performance, capabilities, and ease-of-use, the Elephone U2 is going to rank pretty high and that only becomes more true with consideration for the fact that it can be purchased for under $200. The primary drawbacks here are almost exclusively related to the design of this Android 9 Pie smartphone and, in at least one case, that's going to be a subjective matter.
Where Elephone could have improved its U2 is in terms of the materials used around its pop-up camera since the plastic breaks with its premium feel and its apparent lack of preventative measures to stop the user from accidentally breaking it. The lack of a headphone jack -- or an adapter even being included in the box -- will be a dealbreaker for some.
The performance of that camera and those at the back, coupled with a sleek glass and metal body, great optimization, and a simplified, clean user environment counteract that. So do the side mounted fingerprint scanner and other features. This is one of the best-looking devices in its segment with color options that brilliantly show off just how well-made it is.
So the question of whether to buy or not will, oddly enough, come down to whether or not it works with local bands and whether or not no headphone jack really is a deal breaker. If it does work and the few issues aren't a big deal, it's going be a great investment to go with Elephone's U2.