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
Mobile

Samsung rumored to mark 10 years of the Galaxy S line with a 5G model

Samsung is rumored to launch a 5G version of the Galaxy S10, called the Galaxy S10 X. The phone may be larger than the standard Galaxy S10 devices, and feature a very impressive specification sheet.
Mobile

On a budget? We found the best affordable smartphones you can buy

Here are the best cheap phones for anyone working with a tight budget, whether you're a fan of stock Android or marathon battery life. Find out what you can get for under $500 or far, far less as we round up the best budget smartphones.
Mobile

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2019

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.
Photography

From 4K powerhouses to tiny action cams, here are the best video cameras

Although not as popular as they once were, dedicated video cameras still have their benefits. From travel vlogging to home movies to recording your kid's little league game, here are the best video cameras you can buy right now.
Gaming

You're never too broke to enjoy the best free-to-play games

Believe it or not, free-to-play games have evolved into engaging, enjoyable experiences. Here are a few of our favorites that you can play right now, including Warframe and the perennially-popular League of Legends.
Computing

Our favorite Windows apps will help you get the most out of your new PC

Not sure what apps you should be downloading for your newfangled Windows device? Here are the best Windows apps, whether you need something to speed up your machine or access your Netflix queue. Check out our categories and favorite picks.
Emerging Tech

CES 2019 recap: All the trends, products, and gadgets you missed

CES 2019 didn’t just give us a taste of the future, it offered a five-course meal. From 8K and Micro LED televisions to smart toilets, the show delivered with all the amazing gadgetry you could ask for. Here’s a look at all the big…
Mobile

The most expensive Galaxy S10 could be the priciest Galaxy phone we've seen

Not long now; with 2019 underway, the Samsung Galaxy S10 is almost here. Before it arrives, here's absolutely everything you need to know about all three of Samsung's next flagships.
Computing

Yes, Android apps can run on your PC, and it's easier than you think

Wish you knew how to run Android apps in Windows? It's easier than you might think and there are a number of different ways to do it. In this guide, we break down the steps so you can follow along with ease.
Mobile

Unleash your inner artist with the best drawing apps for the iPad Pro

The best drawing apps for the iPad Pro turn Apple's robust tablet into a canvas worthy of a true artist. Here are 20 of our current favorites, whether you're looking to keep things simple or take your art to the next level.
Android

Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019: Complete Coverage

There's no bigger show for mobile tech geeks than Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain: where flagship phones are born and intriguing new wearables shine. And this year, where foldable phones and 5G are likely to dominate the news. For…
Mobile

C you soon? Rumors swirl of a USB-C port on 2019 iPhones

While it's not been long since the last iPhones launched, rumors for the next iPhone are already surfacing. Apple's 2019 flagship could include a variety of upgrades ranging from a new design to enhanced features.
Mobile

Biometric phone unlocks can’t be forced by feds, says U.S. judge

Fingerprint and face unlocks used to not be protected by the Fifth Amendment, but that may soon change. A judge in California has ruled biometric unlocking methods of all kinds are protected in the same way as passcodes.
Mobile

The Note 8 and S8 range now have access to the Android Pie beta

Android 9.0 Pie has been released. But is your phone getting Android 9.0 Pie, and if so, when? We've done the hard work and asked every device manufacturer to see when their devices would be getting the update.