Hands on: Elephone Vowney

$300 buys you this overweight Nexus lookalike, and it’s really good

The Elephone Vowney is a non-name, no-frills Chinese phone with a killer spec sheet and an appealing price.

Names like Xiaomi, OnePlus, Huawei, and ZTE are slowly becoming more recognizable, and the phones they produce are getting better and better. However, there are still little-known brands on the fringes of the smartphone world that keep pushing out new hardware in the hopes of attracting buyers who are disillusioned by the big names and equally large price tags. Even farther out on the fringe is Elephone, the Chinese company responsible for the Vowney, which we’ve been testing out for a short while.

My hopes were recently dashed by another Chinese phone with monster specs and a low price tag — the Blu Pure XL — so I was cautious about the Vowney. After all, it’s $300 and has a 5.5-inch 2,560 x 1,440 pixel screen, an octa-core processor, a 21-megapixel camera, a giant 4,000mAh battery, and 4GB of RAM. That’s a promising spec sheet for a very tempting price.

The stereotype for imported Chinese phones is that the user interface isn’t even going to look like Android because of the ridiculous bloatware and skin on top. Even big names like Huawei and ZTE can’t resist meddling with Android. It was a very welcome surprise to find an almost stock version of Android 5.1 Lollipop installed on the Vowney, complete with Google Play, and very little in the way of apps I’d never want. Elephone’s own browser and an FM radio app was about it.

Plenty of power

Because it’s running nearly pure Android, the Vowney is fast. The Helio X10 processor really benefits from having 4GB of RAM, and ran Riptide GP and Danmaku Unlimited with all the graphics settings turned up without issue. It’s also quick to startup, reboot, and use. Experienced Android owners will find all the settings and tools in the usual places. There’s no hunting around, digging through custom apps, or spending an hour trying to delete the things you don’t want. The only thing that could be improved is the camera app. Elephone’s needs improvement, or it should just install the standard Google Camera app on its phones. Otherwise, like a Nexus phone, it’s ready to use once you’ve added your account details.

I can’t stress enough how much of a difference stock Android makes to the user experience today. Android 5.1 is great, and the Vowney operates in the same way as a Nexus phone, which is high praise indeed.

However, it’s like a chubby Nexus phone that doesn’t care about dieting. The chassis is nearly 9mm thick because inside is a 4,000mAh battery. The LG G4, for comparison, has a 3,000mAh cell. That honking battery does have to drive the big, bright touchscreen, though, and the MediaTek Helio X10 processor isn’t known for being the most efficient. Still, over three days of average use, all the while connected to an Android Wear smartwatch, it needed recharging only once. By the end of day four, it had 73-percent left. It’s safe to say that the Elephone Vowney has the best battery life of any phone we’ve used in a long time.

Compact and manageable

The phone’s size isn’t intimating, though, and the overall dimensions are surprisingly minimal. The Vowney even has a smaller footprint than the iPhone 6S Plus, but it’s a little longer than the LG G4. It matches the OnePlus 2 exactly in size. The chassis is metal and the rear cover — which has been sensibly wrapped around the corners for a more uniform look — is plastic, but in-hand comfort is excellent. There are no sharp edges, and although the squared-off shoulder look isn’t very modern, the phone is still attractive. Oddly enough, that symbol under the display isn’t a home button, but a notification light.

Build quality, for the most part, is good, although the plastic does creak and flex around the fingerprint sensor and camera lens. The finish isn’t quite up to the standards seen on the OnePlus 2 or the OnePlus X, but it’s still way beyond what one would normally expect from an imported phone at this price. The fingerprint sensor is very quick and awakens the phone from sleep in the blink of an eye. The phone’s compact size makes finding the sensor easy, and despite the recess, it recognized my finger on the first try. It didn’t do really well with even the slightest bit of moisture, though.

It’s like a chubby Nexus phone that doesn’t care about dieting.

The camera’s supplied by Sony and has 21-megapixels. Elephone promises super fast focusing, but it didn’t seem any quicker than other camera phones, and the indoor performance could do with a tweak, as it didn’t deal with challenging lighting very well. The shutter speed was also a little slow, resulting in some blurred shots after I mistakenly thought it was finished taking my picture. There’s a handy and easy-to-use set of editing tools built-in. The front cam isn’t good at handling odd lighting either, and produced far worse selfies than the iPhone 6S Plus. It’s disappointing on the camera front, but a software update and an extended trial may reveal improvements.

Don’t buy it if you’re in the U.S.

I tested the Vowney in the UK on the O2-driven GiffGaff network, where it connected to 4G when available. However, it’s missing key GSM 4G LTE bands for use in the United States, which means it’ll work, but there will be connectivity problems when trying to receive a 4G signal. In other words, we can’t recommend this to U.S. readers at all. The phone has 32GB of internal memory, and the MicroSD card slot accepted my Samsung 64GB card.

The $300 smartphone market was once a barren place, but it’s getting more crowded by the day, and the Elephone Vowney needs to do plenty in order to gain attention. It’s certainly managed to do that over the past few days. It’s a mature phone, with a strong spec sheet that, outside of the camera, delivers on the promise. We’re particularly happy to find almost stock Android onboard, and consider that to be one of the main reasons to purchase the Vowney. If you’re desperate for a 1440p screen, but don’t want to pay Galaxy S6 or G4 prices, it’s worth considering.

However, the usual advice regarding imported phones applies. The warranty may be a pain to claim should it go wrong, there’s limited band support in the States, and you’ll have to deal with an importer to get one, which could mean long lead times and unexpected delivery charges. If you’re happy with that, the Vowney is a fun choice with commanding presence. If not, the $350 OnePlus 2 negates these downsides, and remains the strongest choice for wary smartphone bargain hunters. You can’t go wrong with the Moto X Style Pure Edition, either, but it’ll cost you $400 and up.

Highs

  • Stock Android
  • Fast, smooth performer
  • No bloatware
  • Long battery life
  • Good build quality

Lows

  • Camera disappoints
  • Not the slimmest or lightest phone
  • No U.S. LTE bands
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