Designed by Chinese smartphone maker Elephone the S3 is a mid-range handset released in spring of 2016. Sold unlocked, it’s capable of working with GSM carriers on 3G and 4G technologies. If you’re a “typical” US consumer looking for a new phone for AT&T, T-Mobile, or any of their respective prepaid brands, this is the sort of device you might consider.
In terms of hardware, the Elephone S3 matches up closely with phones such as the Moto G (fourth generation), Blu Life One X, or Nuu Mobile X4. In other words, it’s more than enough to get you started in the world of smartphones, but it’s not going to set any benchmark records. Specs are a generation or two behind the flagships, but pricing is attractive enough to make them worth a closer look. It’s these sort of phones that come in around $150-$200 and offer the sort of experience most people would be happy with.
If there’s one thing that intrigued about this phone going in, it’s the nearly stock Android build. You don’t often find companies willing to leave off their own custom software touch; it’s common for a brand to push its own agenda wherever possible. Aside from the Nexus line, you don’t have much to choose from and that goes double when you’re at this price point. Most companies hope to differentiate with a unique skin but we were actually more impressed upon learning the Elephone S3 didn’t have one.
- 5.2inch bezel-less 2.5D Arc FHD 3D curved glass Incell screen (1920×1080 pixels)
- CPU:MediaTek MTK6753 octa-core 1.3GHz
- Android 6.0
- 3GB RAM
- 16GB internal storage
- microSD support for up 128GB
- Dual sim card: Micro + Nano sim card
- 5.0-MP front camera
- 13.0-MP Sony IMX135 camera with flashlight
- LTE: 800/1800/1900/2100/2300/2500/2600MHz
Thanks to its bezel-less design and 2.5D Arc display, the Elephone S3 looks more expensive than it actually is. The unibody metal build materials keep pace with other, more costly phones such as the HTC 10 or the Samsung Galaxy S7. Judging books by their cover, you would be forgiven for thinking this one runs $300-$400.
The screen size comes in a 5.2-inches but the phone holds like a 4.7-inch or 5-inch handset. The Champagne Gold finish on our review unit was classy; the chamfered edges add just the right amount of sophistication to help the phone “pop” a bit. All in all, these elements combine to deliver a simple yet elegant approach that feels great in hand.
Looking directly at the phone, you’ll find the power and volume buttons along the right hand side of the device. Power sits below the volume and is the first one you’ll feel if blindly looking to take action. The buttons are ever so subtle and protrude ever so little. Pressing them, however, gives a nice response and a slightly audible click. Across to the other side you’ll find the dual SIM tray slot which allows for micro-SIM and nano-SIM (with adapter) cards.
Up top we find the 3.5mm headphone plug, set off approximately ¾ to the right. Down below is the microUSB port flanked by a pair of stereo speakers. The back of the phone houses the rear 13.0MP Sony IMX135 camera and just below that, a fingerprint reader. Like the Nexus 6P, this one puts the reader in a convenient and natural spot. Finally, we move around to the front where the 5-megapixel camera sits
With phones pushing ever closer to a 5.5-inch screen size as a norm, we often find that some of the best models on the market are just a tad unwieldy. Sure, they’re ultra-powerful and able to handle anything we throw at them, but they can get to be a literal to work with at times. Given we appreciate being able to operate a phone with one hand, the larger flagships sometimes don’t play nice.
The Elephone S3 fits comfortably in one hand and feels like it has a smaller screen. That is, rather, until you turn on the display and actually use it. It’s then that you see how spacious it is and how it reads for text and basic usage. At 5.2-inches, the S3’s is in somewhat of a sweet spot for us.
As for resolution, the Elephone offers up a 1920 x 1080 pixel IPS LCD screen. It’s on the lower end of the spectrum by today’s standard, but it doesn’t look bad whatsoever. We just happen to be in place now where a full HD screen is average. Would we like a 2K resolution? Sure, but then we’re trading off battery life, performance, and price. Given the rest of the hardware we’re completely content with the Elephone’s S3 screen.
We found the handset worked well in all lighting conditions; the ambient light sensor was responsive outdoors and pushed the brightness to where it was fairly easy to read text or discern what’s going on in photos. The DragonTrail Glass, which keeps things protected against your typical scuffs and scratches, is the same you’ll find in Sony’s Xperia Z line.
In summation, we quickly fell in love with edge-to-edge screen and pocketability of the Elephone S3.
The camera on the Elephone S3 was pretty solid but was far from perfect; the 13-megapixel rear shooter has an aperture of f/2.2 so it’s not quite on the level of the more costly phones. But, with that in mind, we still found the camera experience to be respectable.
We weren’t holding our breath over a $180 phone’s camera but we’ve come to expect at least something worth sharing to social media. That’s exactly what you get with this one — a camera that takes good and sometimes great photos worthy of sharing online. It’s not always fast and it’s not going to win any head-to-head competitions, but we’ve seen people settle for far less.
Autofocus was rather quick in most cases, but occasionally we found that we had to manually tap the display to set the focal point. Switching on the HDR enhancement we noticed no difference in focus times. Taking pictures did slow, though, and the S3 felt as if we were going to capture the wrong moments.
There were rare occasions (see in gallery above) where it would do an almost ghosting or two images on top in action scenes. In trying to capture a truck driving down the road it ended up putting two pieces of a truck together instead of blurring it. This only happened every so often in the dozens of pictures taken over a few weeks, and we learned how to “shoot around” this. Really, it comes down to having a super steady hand on the HDR shots.
Results varied across the board, but there’s nothing here that we felt was poor. It didn’t take long to learn what it was good at shooting and where it lacked. Sometimes we’d find some white haze in low-light indoor shots where others it would be fine. Again, remembering what we often do with these images snapped by phone, it’s somewhat of a non-starter. Once you filter a photo or throw it online it’s going to degrade anyhow.
There aren’t too many settings or custom shooting modes in the phone and the app itself is pretty bare bones. Toggling to and from video is straightforward enough as is setting flash or the front-facing camera. Dig a little deeper and you will find there are enough manual settings (ISO, white balance, exposure, etc.) to satisfy a more savvy user. Along those lines, you can also toggle timers, picture size, face detection, smile shot, and gesture shot.
Sound is rather impressive for the Elephone S3. There’s no rear or stereo setup, and there’s no software enhancement, but things come across loud and clear. Watching a video in landscape might take a short amount of time to get used to, but it’s no worse than any other brand with a similar hardware setup.
Taking calls on speaker was pleasurable as was listening to podcasts and select music. We’d like to say all music sounds great, but that’s just not the case with phones. Some are louder than others, yes, and a few models are more rich than others. By and large, though, it’s usually a case of how loud do you really want to hear before it gets annoying? Want to listen to extended periods of music? Throw in some headphones or pair to a Bluetooth speaker.
The Elephone S3 pumps out loud, crisp, and clear music. What it doesn’t do, though, is provide an overly rich sound. You won’t find the range of highs and lows that you might think of when you hear “stereo” sound.
One area where we would have liked to see improved a bit is in the battery. Because the phone runs Android 6.0, it does feature the Android Doze feature and its ability to put devices into a deeper sleep or shut down unused apps and services. That alone helps handsets eek out more usage life than in previous versions of Android. Good, right? Well…
The Elephone S3 comes with an internal, non-removable battery at 2100mAh capacity. That’s considerably lower than you’ll find in many of today’s Android phones. If we’re being honest, it’s about 500mAh, at a minimum, lower than it should have. A lot of the flagships and mid-range phones are pushing into that area and it would have been nice to see Elephone do the same.
How does this relate to daily usage? It’s good, but not great. The processor is a Mediatek CPU so it doesn’t come with the Quick Charge feature present in Qualcomm-powered models. We’re definitely able to get more than a typical day’s usage out of the phone, but we always appreciate a few more hours away from an outlet. On the plus side, the phone does charge fairly quickly, something we partially attribute to the 2100mAh capacity.
The Elephone S3 employs the microUSB charging port so you’ll be pleased to know all of those cables you have around the house still work. Would we like USB Type-C? In mid-2016 that’s a tossup. Any earlier and we wouldn’t care much. Later on, though, we’re going to expect it.
Powered by Android 6.0, the Elephone S3 runs a pretty current version of the platform. With Android 6.0+ Marshmallow having been out for roughly a year now, we’d expect nothing less. Not only for some of the UI tweaks, but also for the security that comes with the latest releases. It’s not as if an older release leaves a phone necessarily vulnerable to anything particular, but there’s nothing like peace of mind.
The model we tested came with an essentially stock version of Android. This is a big plus in our eyes as it doesn’t force some weird OS down our throat. Considering this is a device from a Chinese vendor we expected to see a strange layout or configuration. After years of acclimating to the various custom flavors of Android, we are able to quickly hop in and navigate about our phones. The S3 proved to be no challenge in getting started; things were presented in English and nothing felt “foreign” about the experience.
Although the phone comes with a number of Google apps, one you won’t find out of the box is Chrome. You do get a browser but it’s a no-frills client that we weren’t in love with. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we’ve come to appreciate what other alternatives provide.
We’ve not had any previous time with Elephone models so we cannot attest to the manner in which software updates are done. Seeing as how this is a pretty lean and clean build, and the phone’s not tied to any carrier, we would not anticipate slowed updates. Then again, you’ll have to factor in price and market availability. Those two give us pause, at least for now.
Is there enough here to keep us from not recommending the phone solely based on operating system? Hardly. Just know that you may be left with what you get out of the box, save for some minor updates or OEM tweaks.
Generally speaking, the Elephone S3 was able to handle everything we threw at it. This includes your typical social media, productivity, and casual gaming. We didn’t load any high-end first person shooters on this one as it’s not what we might do on a daily basis. Moreover, we suspect the “average user” target demographic doesn’t have that sort of usage in mind. If you are here to play bleeding-edge games, you are likely eyeballing a different phone anyhow. But, given what we did with the phone, we didn’t run into any snags or hangups. Part of this is likely due to the clean OS that is void of carrier or heavy UI customizations.
The fingerprint reader responded well to our touches in almost every case. We did have a time or two where it wasn’t reading on the unlock screen but the backup PIN got us in just fine. Validating purchases in Google Play and PayPal was always accurate and as quick as we’d hoped for.
Hopping to and from various apps and games was seamless with no stuttering or noticeable lag. We might have liked more storage for local media but aren’t going to write the phone off because of it. Users will just want to get familiar with cloud-based backups sooner rather than later.
All things considered, the Elephone S3 makes for an enjoyable and elegant mid-range phone. It looks more expensive than it really is and handles pretty much anything your common user wants to do with it.
What really impressed us is the concept of a sub-$200 phone with a nearly stock Android OS. It’s unclear whether there will be any major updating beyond the 6.0 Marshmallow build but we’re okay with that today. You’re not going to find too many companies doing the stripped down Android approach so props to Elephone for taking this route.
We’re not sure how well the Elephone brand will fare in the US, but we’d be happy to recommend this one based off our experience with it. We don’t know how often the S3 will receive software updates so we’re cautious. Along those lines, finding custom cases and accessories might be trickier than normal. But, at roughly $180 it’s worth taking the chance, if only as a stop-gap replacement while you wait for the next big flagship.
We’d like to thank our friends at GeekBuying.com for providing us with the Elephone S3 for review.