Elephone M2 Review: Hardware and Style on a Budget, but Not Much Else

Elephone M2 Review: Hardware and Style on a Budget, but Not Much Else

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The Elephone M2 is a device that aims much higher than its price tag. Featuring the exterior design language seen frequently in the higher-end of the market, the Elephone M2 packs in much of the same hardware internally as other other Elephone devices devices in the market currently.

So what makes the device different and worth considering over other Elephone devices for that matter? Read on as we attempt to take a complete look at all that the Elephone M2 has to offer in experience.

First, here is the spec sheet of the device:

Dimensions155 x 77 x 7.35 mmScreen Size5.5”
Weight169 gScreen Type & ResolutionLCD, 1080 x 1920, 400 ppi
Primary Camera13 MP, Sony IMX214 Exmor RS Sensor, f/2.0Secondary Camera5 MP, f/2.2
Chipset64-bit MediaTek MT6753CPU & GPU1.3 GHz ARM Cortex A53, x8:

Mali-T720

Storage32GB Internal;
expandable upto 32GB
via optional micro-sd card slot
RAM3GB
Battery2,600 mAhNFCNo* (HotKnot instead)
Fingerprint SensorTouchIDSupported BandsGSM: 850/900/1800/1900
WCDMA: 850/900/2100
FDD-LTE : B1/3/7/8/20
Android VersionAndroid 5.1 LollipopSIMOptional Dual Micro SIM

Contents:

Design, Build Quality

When I reviewed the Elephone P8000, I started off by saying that the phone could easily be mistaken for a high end device. The Elephone M2 goes on to one up that, by actually focusing on getting a high-end feel. Starting off, the device features a metallic chassis that extends from the back of the device all the way to its sides. The chamfered sides have a polished metallic texture, while the back of the device has a more matte-like feel to it as it is less slippery than the polished sides. The finish of the back is also quite in contrast with the two glass “visors” on the device, which give it a sense of horizontal symmetry. The visor areas are flush with the back, giving the M2 an extremely flat appearance without any sense of depth. The M2 gets a very boxy and rectangular feel to it despite the slightly rounded corners.

IMG_20151119_131134

 

The retail box that we received had quite a business-like style thanks to the minimalistic style of decoration. The box contained two screen protectors for the front glass, two screen protectors for the back as well as one set of screen protectors already applied onto the device. That is a lot of screen protectors, but hey, choice and numbers are good so we can’t complain about this. Included along was a standard power adapter of 5V/1A (much welcome change from the monstrous brick that came with the P8000) and usb cable, along with a small guide on using the phone and a SIM removal tool.

On the front of the device, you’ll find a large 5.5” 1080p LCD display, protected by Gorilla Glass 3. The black bezel bars that we hated on the Elephone P8000 also make an appearance here. But, this time around, they have been trimmed down in favor of converting them into actual bezel areas. The black bezel bar also is evenly distanced from the screen from all sides, so there is definitely progress on this end. On top of the display is a very small and easy to miss red-color Notification LED (which I really did not notice till my siblings pointed out), the 5MP front camera, the earpiece and the sensors.

Below the display, you will find a touch-ID fingerprint sensor sitting atop the physical home button, and flanked by two capacitive keys with golden colored highlights but no backlighting. The key mapping is done much like older Samsung devices, with the left key being the menu button, the centre key being the home button (with recents/overview functionality reserved for long press) and the right key being the back button. The software presents no way of remapping these, so you are stuck with this layout. The home button functionality is a physical press, while the fingerprint sensor is touch sensitive and always on, even when screen is off.

Buttons tend to “rock” around a bit in their casing, albeit with no detriment to their functionality

The right hand side of the device, where one usually finds the volume keys and the power button on most recent Android devices, bears nothing but the slot for SIM and micro sd card. The Elephone M2 can support either two Micro SIM cards, or one Micro SIM and one micro-sd card, so users can opt for expandable storage at the cost of dual SIM functionality based on your preference.

The left of the device features the volume rocker and the power button below it. The power button bears a concentric-circle pattern and is easy to tell apart from the volume buttons without looking at the device. One thing that I did notice for the buttons is that they tend to “rock” around a bit in their casing, albeit with no detriment to their functionality. Also, having the buttons on the left side of the device definitely takes some getting used to if you are right handed, as for me, my index finger could barely reach the power button without resorting to finger gymnastics. Thankfully, you do not need to touch either of those buttons frequently as both the functions can be handled by the software in most cases.

Moving on to the top of the device, you will find the earphone jack towards the left, with a microphone hole near the centre and two plastic antenna strips. In my subjective opinion, the positioning of the earphone jack made it easier to keep the device in my right jeans pocket with the screen facing outward, and still have my earphones undamaged or bent near the connection joint. A niche scenario, if you will, but this is something I miss on the OnePlus One after cycling through so many earphones every few months.

The bottom of the device sports two speaker grilles towards either of the edges, and two more plastic antenna strips, along with the micro usb port and microphone slot.

The back of the device bears the 13MP rear camera and LED flash. There is no camera hump on the device, nor any elevation for the visor. Infact, the LED flash is very slightly recessed into the visor. The back of the device is non-removable, and as such, offers no quick way to remove the battery.

The elephant in the room that has been avoided so far is that the Elephone M2 looks a lot like some of the recent devices that have come out. The back of the phone bears a certain resemblance to the Nexus 6P thanks to its visor design. The M2 appears similar only at a distance, as there are definitely other significant design choices which do not make it an exact copy. Other than that, the boxy and flat design is also reminiscent of the Xperia Z series lineup, with the distinguishing point being the use of metal as the primary back surface instead of glass. In the device’s defense, it draws all of its inspiration directly from its predecessor, the Elephone M1 which featured the same flat design (with more rounded corners) and a less pronounced visor.

The Elephone M2 indeed is a very good looking and well=built device. Even though it is technically heavier than the OnePlus One (162g), it feels lighter due to the even weight distribution throughout, whereas the OnePlus One feels denser in the middle. There is no creaking in the frame, and the phone did not appear to bend anyhow within my normal usage [I am apprehensive of bending any device by force, and hence do not plan to undertake such kinds of stress tests]. As a subjective opinion, I wished the phone incorporated more curves in its design. The corners felt very sharp to me despite their softening, and they poked the palm of my hand whenever I held the device for one handed use. Otherwise, there isn’t much to complain about the build of the Elephone M2.

Software UI & Features

One of my pet peeves with the Elephone P8000 that I reviewed was that the device lacked a setup wizard of any kind. As an advanced user and someone who likes to be knee deep in settings and personalization, this is not a big issue for me on a personal use case. However, the lack of a setup wizard affects the use case of all others who are not as Android-savvy as I am. The first boot of the Elephone M2, just like the P8000, lands you directly on the homescreen, and I am not a fan of this intended behaviour of having no setup wizard.

Launcher

Thankfully, there have been improvements on the launcher end of things. The iPhone-esque launcher has been replaced by AOSP’s Launcher3, but as it was on Kitkat. There are barely any customization options available, but it feels much more at home than the previous launcher of choice from Elephone. The customization from Elephone comes in the choice of wallpapers, and as such feels very unobtrusive and I appreciate their attempt to not touch things that are not broken. There is the persistent Google Search bar on the homescreen, along with translucent status bar on the home screen, but there is no tight integration with Google Now as we had come to expect on Nexus devices. There isn’t really much to the launcher as it appears similar to what one would expect on Android 4.4; albeit the M2 is running on Android 5.1. But this is Android, and launchers can be swapped much more easier than battery these days, so you can suit it up to your liking.

UI Additions

The UI from Elephone follows along closely to stock Android with just minor modifications here and there.

The notification shade on the Elephone stays close to AOSP, but has a few toggles added in for the Quick Settings panel. We see an appearance of the Sound Profile toggle, which lets you switch between General, Silent, Meeting and Outdoor; just like it did on the Elephone P8000. There is a toggle for Hot Knot too, a “feature” which we will touch upon later in the review. Apart from this, the notification area had no bugs present from the Elephone P8000 as all seemed to be ironed out on this phone.

The list of feature additions builds up on the Elephone P8000 as it includes everything that I noted on the P8000 and more. For the sake of brevity, I am mentioning only the newer features found on the M2, that are not present on the P8000. This is not a comprehensive list by itself, so please refer to the P8000 review for the rest of the list.

  1. Smart Wake: The M2 offers support screen off gestures. Some of these are:
    1. Double tap to wake
    2. Slide up to directly unlock
    3. Slide down to directly open camera
    4. Draw various alphabets for other shortcuts
    Surprisingly, all these gestures worked quite well and did not cause any noticeable battery drain.
    Long pressing the Home Button when screen is off turns on the flashlight. There is no setting to enable or disable for this, so my discovery for this was by accident.
  2. Proximity sensor and G-Sensor calibration built into settings app: The ROM provides easy access to calibration of these sensors, incase your sensors develop minor issues.
  3. Image Editor built into Gallery app: The Gallery app features a detailed image editor, which offers much more finer control over editing than a lot of apps on the Play Store.

There is one more curious addition on the M2 which I had not heard off before I owned the device. This is the vaguely worded “HotKnot” feature that we’ve mentioned in earlier parts of the review. HotKnot, as it turns out, is MediaTek’s answer to NFC. The technology was developed by a company called Goodix Technology, which was substantially acquired by MediaTek in 2011. HotKnot works very much like NFC, but utilizes the screen of the device (more specifically, the interaction between the capacitive receiving grids on the touch screen), to create a pairing connection between devices. The file transfer then takes place via Bluetooth or Wifi, much like how it does for NFC. Various apps on the device (like the Gallery and File Manager) have HotKnot intents baked in for easier interaction and sharing.

The most interesting element to HotKnot is that it does not need any more additional hardware. Phones need to have only the HotKnot-supported touch panels to utilize this feature. Since this solution requires touchscreen interaction, it could be built onto anything with a screen without needing any NFC antennas. However, the rate of adoption of HotKnot is what makes it inferior to NFC solutions currently. As expected, HotKnot is not cross compatible with NFC, so you need two HotKnot devices to test this functionality out. As the P8000 does not have HotKnot (nor NFC for that matter), this “feature” has remained untested from my end.

You can read more about HotKnot and its available API here.

Another addition is the presence of a small “memory cleaner” button on the recents multitasking panel. Clicking on this button clears all apps and gives us a message of “Memory Released: xx MB”. As was with the previous device, the presence of RAM Cleaners is unsettling because the device really does not need one.

As someone who reviews apps, games and devices often, one of the things that I look out for is methodology for new user retention and familiarity. With Elephone devices, the thought of getting a new user acquainted with the device seems like a non-existent idea, even at this stage. The hardware that they produce is certainly quite capable, but this fact remains useless if the user never knows that features exist. A lot of what I found as “features” on the P8000 as well as the M2 have been out of pure accident. A setup wizard at the first boot, even if it just introduces the less obvious functions to the users, would really add points to the device for being recommended as a starter phone for anyone who is just dipping their toes into Android.

Performance & Memory

In this Elephone M2 review, we have been mentioning the Elephone P8000 over and over again. There’s a good reason to that: the devices are practically identical when it comes to specs on the inside. Just like the Elephone P8000, the Elephone M2 features a MediaTek MT6753 processor, a 64-bit processor with 8x Cortex A53 clocked at 1.3GHz. The same Mali T720 is found for the GPU, and with the RAM, screen size and resolution being same across the devices, there just aren’t any variable factors to create a drastic difference in the performance of the devices.

In typical Elephone fashion, the M2 is essentially a P8000 on the inside

And as was the case with the P8000, the benchmark scores of the M2 sit firmly in the budget segment, with barely any deviations. At this stage, I would ask readers to refer to the Elephone P8000 review’s performance section for a more comprehensive look at the theoretical prowess of the device. Yes, the devices are that similar on the inside.

One point to note is that the Elephone M2 comes with 32GB internal storage (~25GB user available), along with an optional microsd card slot. We ran the device through AndroBench storage tests (4KB) and the results from the benchmark blew our mind. Theoretically, the Elephone M2 closely matches the OnePlus 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The M2 killed the “2016 flagship killer” and an actual flagship of 2014 in this test, which is very surprising considering that you can buy multiple M2’s within the budget of any of the other devices. The results are very surprising, and honestly, we do not have any convincing explanation on how or why, except that it may actually be that good.

Display

The Elephone M2 comes with a 5.5” LCD display with a resolution of 1080×1920, giving it a pixel density of 401 ppi. This display gets even brighter than the P8000’s at maximum brightness, which is a good thing as outdoor viewing will not be a problem on this device. On the other end of the spectrum, at minimum brightness levels, the device still remains brighter than either of my two primary comparison devices, the OnePlus One and the Elephone P8000. You either have to avoid extended use in zero external light (like at night), or use a screen overlay to avoid damage to your eyes.

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RGB Color Model

The difference in the screen quality continues, as the Elephone M2 has a rather yellowish display. For comparison, the P8000 has a neutral display (as noted in my P8000 review), while my OnePlus One has a warm display. The yellow tint is quite noticeable thanks to the (what were supposed to be) white backgrounds present all throughout Lollipop. Color reproduction is skewed, as the reds pop out a lot, with greens next on the comparison scale, and blue remaining consistent with my other devices. Blacks are rendered slightly better than on the P8000, but it is only noticeable if you try to notice it. Viewing angles of the phone are good, and color distortions are present at higher angles only.

Minimum Brightness:

From left to right: Elephone P8000, Elephone M2, OnePlus One

Maximum Brightness:

MiraVision calibration settings for the display make an entry for this device too, but they feel inadequate to deal with the display’s yellow tint. I appreciate the presence of settings for color calibration, but software can only go so far when the hardware is limiting. To be very frank, the display on the M2 feels like the place where cost cutting was done, even though the it sports Gorilla Glass 3, which was absent from the P8000.

Audio

The bottom facing speakers on the M2 are surprisingly good, even though only the left holes have a speaker behind them. They have a decent level of output, and have only small distortions when using “Volume Boost” settings. Likewise, the earphone experience of the M2 is decent. It won’t blow you away, but it will suffice for casual music listening via standard level audio equipment.

The Elephone M2 features 2 microphones, one at the top and one at the bottom. Calls are good in quiet as well as medium level noise environments like an office cafeteria. Under heavy background noise, the phone does understandably suffer. Most of my calls have had no issues with regards quality. The front earpiece of the device also offers decent volume and quality.

Overall, the audio experience of the M2 left me satisfied on the whole, and almost impressed keeping in mind its price.

Camera

This is another one of the key areas that the Elephone M2 differs from the P8000, as the M2 uses a 13MP Sony IMX214 Exmor RS sensor, with an aperture of f/2.0. If you recall, this is the same camera found on the OnePlus One and many other popular devices. The sensor was actually one of the better sensors when it was released, but due to the advancements in imaging technology in smartphones in 2015, it does not really stand close to providing the best shots from a smartphone. But, and a very massive but at it, the Elephone M2 is present on the other end of the smartphone race. It does not compete with the top flagships at all, but with what it competes with, it does a fine job. Unlike the P8000, the M2 does well even under low lighting conditions. With one of the shots I took with absolutely no light source nearby, the M2 still managed to pick up the presence of objects in the distance (albeit with a lot of noise and practically no detailing). This by itself is a feat that I could not manage with the P8000. The dynamic range of the device is also quite good, but images tend to be over exposed often. Snapping images with focus takes just a second (impressive for phones in this price range), but it does take around 2-3 seconds if you take an HDR image.

Video recording on the M2 is a noticeable improvement over the P8000. On its own though, the video capabilities of the device are just about right for its price segment. The M2 can record video at a maximum of 1080p at 30fps. The camera loses details of distant objects often and suffers from focus issues. In my video sample below, I had to refocus frequently as the phone takes a while to recognize a change in scene. Nonetheless, the videos are surprisingly good, very much so for the price you pay for the phone.

Talking about the Camera UI, the stock camera app for the M2 has the viewfinder in the middle, with various options on the boundaries. The UI is not minimalistic, but is not very cumbersome either. Right side of the viewfinder, you will find the gallery preview, the shutter buttons for camera and video recording and the settings icon. On the left, you will find a scrolling pane housing the various modes: Normal Photo, Live Photo, Motion Track, Beauty, Panorama and Photosphere. The options on the main viewfinder are for Slow-Mo video recording, HDR, Flash, and Front Camera. Pressing on the settings icon brings up a floating window with more in depth options, ranging from exposure, geolocation, white balance, scene presets and color effects. There’s also gesture shot and smile shot for photos along with EIS (no OIS) and time lapse for videos.

My main gripe with the UI is that for the shutter buttons, pressing on the video shutter button immediately starts recording video, even when you are in photo mode. There is no separate video mode, so you can’t switch to video mode, focus on your subject and then start recording when you are ready. Most videos I took with the device ended up having extra time in the beginning which was not meant to be recorded.

All in all, the camera performance on the M2 is a few steps ahead from the P8000. Devices with this sensor and performance level tend to be either more expensive, or be missing on other features that the M2 boasts.

Fingerprint Sensor

IMG_20151216_213616The Elephone M2 comes with a TouchID fingerprint sensor, which boasts of 360 degree identification. The sensor is placed as an elliptical rectangle on the front of the device, and also doubles up as a home button upon press. In my experience, the sensor does not work well.

With the P8000, you have the sensor placement on the back of the device as a square. The placement, shape and the target finger was an optimal combination to give the best results. However, on the M2, this is not the optimal combination. The sensing area itself is flat and long, and with the way the device is held, and how the thumb moves in its arc, it does not come to rest on the sensor with maximum contact.

The claimed 360 degree identification was questionable for me as unlocking the device with my right thumb was an exercise every time. Each of my correct entries were preceded by atleast 4 or more incorrect attempts and ~5 seconds of wasted time. This ratio did not improve over my weeks worth of usage of the device, and as a result, I ended up disabling the fingerprint sensor altogether towards the end of my review period.

To Elephone’s credit, they did fix the menu bug where you could rename only the first fingerprint. The M2 lets you store and rename 5 fingerprints, but using anything other than your thumb on the front of the device feels awkward unless the phone is lying flat.

If I had to choose between the P8000 or the M2 only on the basis of the fingerprint sensor, I would choose the P8000 with not the slightest hint of regret.

Battery Life

Unlike the P8000, the M2 does not feature a massive battery. With the capacity being a normal 2,600 mAh, there isn’t too much to talk about here. Using the device with light-medium workload, I usually had to plug in my phone an hour or two before I left work, just to make sure I don’t run out of juice until I’m settled at home and ready for another round of charging.

Benchmarks for the battery also back up the claim that there isn’t too much magic going on behind the scenes. With the phone set at minimum brightness and in airplane mode, the device barely managed to touch the 6 hour mark on PCMark’s battery endurance tests. Keep in mind, the minimum brightness of this device is highest amongst all the phones that I own. That, compared with a normal capacity battery and average efficiency translates into an unimpressive battery life.

Screenshot_2015-12-13-18-59-09The charger accompanying the device is rated for 5V/1A output. The M2 is not advertised as sporting any Quick Charge standards, so the smaller output adapter makes sense. Charging with a 5V/2A adapter, the phone expectedly capped out at 970 mA. The phone remains cool throughout the charging process.

IMG_20151119_130054As a whole, the battery experience of the device does not come at par with what one expects in 2015 devices. We can cut some slack for this being a low/mid end device, but even then, if one has to consistently plug in twice a day just to make it through, something should have been done.

 

Rootability & Future Proofing

Screenshot_2015-11-19-08-31-05The Elephone P8000 was THE easiest device to root for me, beating the likes of even Nexus (possibly by accident and not by choice). With the M2, things are a bit different. The phone isn’t rooted by directly installing SuperSU and rebooting. One needs to install CWM 6 on the device via SP Flash Tool, and then flash SuperSU via recovery. Fairly straightforward method which should not pose any difficulty to anyone who has rooted a device before.

As users will have a custom recovery after rooting, the gates for custom roms are wide open. The device has two custom roms present at the moment (Eragon and Flyme OS), but the scene should get better as there aren’t many obstacles in getting things to run on the device. The device also sports a spec configuration which can be found on plenty of Chinese devices, so cross compatibility is expected to be quite good.

Kernel sources for the Elephone M2 are not out yet, but are present for the Elephone P8000 which shares the same chipset. The device does have its own dedicated sub forum at XDA, which can be found here.

Will this device receive Android 6.0 Marshmallow? Elephone confirmed that the P8000 will be given the dessert treatment, so it would be a no-brainer not to extend the same to the M2 as well (especially considering the hardware similarity of these devices). There has been no official announcement on either case, so we hope for the best.

On the topic of future proofing, there is one decision that is questionable to me as a user: Elephone has already announced an Elephone M3. What’s more, the company will also release a Pro version of the M3. Why is this a problem? Because the Elephone M1 was announced along with its “successor”, the M2 in late September 2015. Now, before 2015 even ends, the company has announced the successor to the M2, and an even better version of the successor to the M2. The M3 will reportedly go for sale for as low as $99 and will sport specs like MediaTek Helio P10 octa core processor, USB Type C port and Android 6.0 Marshmallow. The M3 Pro will bump up the camera to a Sony IMX 230. With this information in hand, it is difficult to predict what iteration the M series will be on by the time the M2 reaches 2 years in its product cycle.

Final Thoughts

IMG_20151119_131608During all of my time using the Elephone M2, the phone got a lot more curious glances and questions than any of my other phones. The M2 has looks that kills (subjectively, ofcourse), and a camera that can shoot. There are no noticeable lags or stutters during everyday use, and the phone just flies around with an aura of a premium device.

The Elephone M2 has a lot of good things going for it: the overkill RAM, the premium build quality, the sleekness of the design, a camera worth the price and a close to stock Android experience. The phone does these things, and does these well.

But, there are a fair share of compromises that come along in the package: the disappointing fingerprint sensor, the battery life and charging scenario, the yellow-tinted screen and worst of all, a company that does not respect its own product.

In terms of a good package, the Elephone M2 makes for a good recommendation depending on where your priorities as a user lie. However, it is difficult to suggest and recommend this device as a reviewer when it is known that the successor will be released soon. This point alone destroys confidence in the product. How can one sanely suggest product x when product x+1 will come with bumped up specs and an even more competitive price?

The Elephone M2 costs $199.99 normally, but can be purchased for $149.99 every Wednesday during the Elephone M event. The device is available for purchase in Europe from authorized online shops here and from off line shops in some cities. Sale outside of Europe is carried out through these resellers, but is limited to a few countries.

I personally like Elephone devices because it is difficult to find phones that have a manufacturer that stays developer friendly. They also boast of a build quality which is much more premium than what other devices in the price range offer. But on the other hand, I really cannot recommend people to buy this device even when I, myself, enjoyed my time with it. The P8000 itself offers neck to neck competition to the M2, and with the P9000 and the M3 and M3 Pro all being announced with better hardware, updated software and lower price points, the company itself has killed off reasons to buy the M2.

To wrap things up, the Elephone M2 does a lot of rights and a few compromised wrongs. But for $150, compromises have to come in somewhere. Know what you are purchasing and you shall be happy. But if you do get buyer’s remorse, do not say that we didn’t warn you so. In any case, you’d end up with a stylish phone that looks more premium than it’s price tag would suggest.

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