Mobile Geeks take on the world’s slimmest ever smartphone, the Gionee Elife S5.5. With chiseled good looks and solid mid-range hardware, is this sleek $350 slab simply too skinny for its own good? Or do we dig slim? Mobile Geek explain all…

Gionee Elife S5.5 review: The skinny on the skinny

Before you get into the written part of our review, check out this in depth video from Nicole which covers all features and specs, plus pros and cons and more:

We first caught up with the Elife S5.5 from Gionee a few months back when we visited the company at their headquarters in Shenzhen China. The first thing that strikes you when you first pick up the device, is of course its extreme thinness. At 5.5mm thin, my first few seconds and minutes with it, had me asking myself if indeed it was possible for a device to be too thin. A question I had not previously pondered.

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The company proudly describe the S5.5 as the world’s slimmest smartphone – a statement I would have to agree with. 5.5mm is astoundingly thin for a 5 inch Android smartphone, and a recognizable landmark for smartphone manufacturing. Ok, so it’s slim, what about the rest of the device? How would the 5 inch screen, the 13MP camera and other components stand up to scrutiny? A good phone needs to more than simply thin.

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In terms of processor choice, Gionee have a very strong and fruitful relationship with Taiwanese silicon vendor MediaTek, so it’s no surprise to see the Elife S5.5 is powered by a 1.7Ghz Octa-core MediaTek chip. It is good to see a decent 2GB of RAM also in the frame. A 13MP rear camera is paired with a 5MP front facing cam, the usual connectivity you would expect is present including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 3G, plus NFC support, although wireless charging support is not present. The Elife S5.5 runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, with the companies own Amigo 2.0 UI.

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Before we get deep into the review, let’s have look at the devices’ specifications in full.

Gionee Elife S5.5 Specifications:

• 5 Inch Super AMOLED Display
• 1920 x 1080, 441 ppi
• MediaTek Octa-Core 1.7Ghz (MT6592)
• ARM Cortex-A7 & Mali-450 MP4 GPU
• 2GB RAM
• 16GB Internal Storage (no microSD)
• 13MP (4160 x 3120) auto-focus, LED Flash
• 5MP Front Camera
• WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
• GPS, A-GPS
• Bluetooth4.0 / NFC Support
• 145.1mm x 70.2mm x 5.55mm
• 130 grams
• 2,300mAh Battery (non-removable)
• Android 4.2 Jelly Bean with Amigo 2.0 UI

The specifications are what I would describe as upper mid-range. MediaTek is a great option for affordable phones and the Octa-Core MT6592 we see here is no slouch. The Super AMOLED display also looks great, while on paper at least, a 13MP shooter would be considered thoroughly decent. Evaluating how it all comes together in practice, will be the core of today’s article.

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The Elife S5.5 retails in India for around 23,000 Rupees which is around $370-80, so it is actually about half the price of a truly high-end device. On the surface it would seem like the S5.5 is just another mid-range Chinese device, but the design and good looks of the device could give you another impression entirely. The Elife S5.5 makes a huge statement the first time you pick it up, with design and build quality that immediately grabs your attention.

Design and Build Quality

Thinness of course, is trait that we traditionally enjoy in all our devices. It can even be used as a gauge of technological progress, certainly the Gionee marketing machine believes so. And perhaps they have a point too, as the thinness of the device screams at you the moment you get it in your hand.
In terms of build however, it’s not just about thinness; the Elife S5.5 can definitively be described as a very well built and attractively designed handset. The key to it all is the use of tough polycarbonate plastic and aluminum for the chassis, with an almost glass-like back and chiselled aluminum frame that combines to create something that feels exceptionally well built.

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The review sample that we acquired arrived in white but, we also caught the black version while in China – it kind of reminds you of chocolate bar. The Elife S5.5 certainly looks slab-like and enjoys a more expensive aura than its price tag suggests. The only part of the phone that is not actually 5.5mm thin is a raised portion on the top right corner of the rear, which seats the camera sensor. I guess sensor needed a touch more depth than the 5.5mm thick chassis could provide. It does not detract from the over appeal of the device however.

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I have already raised the question of thinness, and the idea of a device actually being too thin. Is there such a thing as too thin? The Gionee Elife S5.5 actually feels solid and good in the hand, but there is a hint of fragility there too. Being only 5.55mm thick means that you almost feel like the device should be able to bend. Of course it doesn’t bend because the polycarbonate back plate feels totally rigid, but kind of almost defies the laws of physics.

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Overall however, the build quality of the device is exceptional and proof that Gionee are capable of very innovative and solid manufacturing. I would certainly point to the design and build quality as major plus points for the device.

Gionee Elife S5.5 Gallery

Display

The Gionee Elife S5.5 is fitted with a very attractive 5 inch AMOLED display that has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels and an impressive 441 pixels per inch. The brightness overall is ok, but in brighter outdoor conditions, the brightness probably could have benefited from an extra notch or two. Viewing angles are also very reasonable.

In all I would describe the display as being a very good quality implementation that stands up really to scrutiny next to all but the very best we have seen. Next to the Sony Z2, the Gionee will reveal its limitations. You could say the same of any of the top tier phones we seen recently, including the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. For the kind of mid-range price tag, the 1080p display in the Elife S5.5 is actually very solid, providing a good overall viewing experience. You are getting what you pay for, and then some.

Cameras

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The rear 13MP camera on the Elife S5.5 has one of the fasted auto-focuses we have ever seen. In general the standard camera app is slick and well thought out with a ton of options, some of which are pretty standard like HDR and Auto-Scene which does a good job adjusting settings according to your environment. Although there are plenty of standard camera settings for photo resolution and size, there was no white balance option, something which would have helped the sensor which occasionally lost its way in terms of hue.

Hey Nicole... feeling blue?

Hey Nicole… feeling blue?

And then there’s Charm Cam, a dedicated app that offers a broad selection of effects and Instagram-like options including some (tacky?) beautification and makeup effects that you my tire of pretty quickly. I guess young ladies will enjoy these effects much more than myself, and it’s fair to argue that these kinds of apps and features are probably more popular here in Asia, which represents Gionee’s major target market. But there are some useful features in there too, with settings that help you shoot moving objects, live color filters , plus gestures settings if you want that snap taken when you smile or flip the bird perhaps.

Before Beauty Mode

Before Beauty Mode

After Beauty Mode

After Beauty Mode..

It is cool to see that Gionee are definitely making an effort to squeeze every ounce of value from the camera with plenty of features and effects to play around with. However the actual quality of the 13MP sensor itself is nowhere near what we have seen on recent high-end devices like Galaxy S5 and the Xperia Z2 which perform far better in low light environments. The Gionee Elife S5.5 offers a decent camera, and I would suggest that most users will find it usable and sufficient. However, if you really need a great camera on your 5 inch smartphone, you will not find what you are looking for here.

Gionee Elife S5.5 Photo Shot Gallery

Audio

So how does being the world’s thinnest ever smartphone affect audio playback on the devices’ single mono speaker? We found that it offered a fairly clear and crisp sound only lacking in the area of volume. It is definitely not the loudest smartphone we have tested. In a comparison with the Xperia Z2 Nicole found that the Sony was noticeably louder with a touch more bass – making the Gionee Elife S5.5 kind of tinny by comparison.

The S5.5’s audio performance is probably not helped by its ruthlessly thin design. In some respects it actually quite amazing that a speaker this thin performs as well as it does. One gripe however is the location of speaker on the lower rear of the device which can easily be muffled by the palm of your hand during playback, especially if you are using the device in a vertical position.

The audio is decent enough considering the limited space available for the speaker. The HTC One family of devices is the current leader by some distance when it comes to audio, and interestingly benefit from having a plenty of space within a considerably larger 9mm thick chassis.

If you are in the market for the thinnest smartphone ever, I’m not sure you would also expect to demand a best-in-class audio experience. Having said that, the device does offer reasonably good, clear (if not loud) audio.

Performance

The MediaTek MT6592 is one of MediaTek’s most used processor designs with over a hundred design wins from a broad base of predominantly Chinese manufacturers including OPPO, Zopo, TienHe, Kerbonn, GooPhone, Huawei, Tengda and more. We also saw it used on the Xiaomi RedNote Mini a few weeks ago, an entry-level Android phablet. The MT6592 is a 1.7GHz Octa-core processor based on ARM’s Cortex-A7 architecture. In terms of gaming grunt, the MT6592 relies on a Mali-450 MP4 graphics processor clocked at 700MHz.

One issue with opting to use MediaTek as a processor vendor is that current MediaTek compatibility ends at Jelly Bean. When we spoke to Gionee a few weeks ago they mentioned that a 4.4 Kit Kat should roll out at some point this summer. So far, we have seen no sign of it however.

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The eight ARMv7 cores do a good job of keeping the UI slick when zipping around inside the Amigo UI, but there does seem to be some small degree of laginess on occasion, but I would put that down to over ambitious animations in the UI. In terms of switching between apps and general multi-tasking, the MediaTek system-on-chip does a really good job, no doubt helped by its eight cores and a fairly generous 2GB of memory.

Here are some benchmarks for you to check out comparing the MediaTek MT6592 against the top tier Snapdragon 801 from Qualcomm (Xperia Z2) and the Intel Z2580 processor (ASUS Zenfone 6):

Gionee Elife S5.5: Benchmark Comparison

Sony Xperia Z2ASUS Zenfone 6Gionee Elife S5.5
AnTuTu327322296716818
GFX Bench T-Rex26.9fps9.1fps10.9fps
Geekbench 3.0756559443
Geekbench Multi-Core237412642411
3DMark - Ice Storm1875380416964
Anamoly 21056986316199366137
Sunspider (lower is better)762.49621516
Vellamo HTML158319072047
Quadrant179131083516818

It is a familiar story where Qualcomm is concerned, wiping the floor with the competition in most benchmarks (note: Vellamo definitely has an issue with Android 4.4.2, so we should probably discount the Xperia score on that one). 3D Mark scores show the Adreno 330 GPU on the Qualcomm chip to be far ahead in terms of gaming prowess, but MediaTek defends itself reasonably well against Intel, especially in the Geekbench multi-core test where its Octa-core design allows it to pull comfortably ahead, even beating Qualcomm.

How well optimized for multi-core architectures is Android at this moment in time? It’s not all too clear, but we hope that the Android development team are allowing the OS to take advantage of the Octa-core designs now available. The Elife S5.5 feels responsive and performs really well, suggesting that those cores are already being utilized reasonably well.

Battery Life

One area where we have seen Chinese manufacturers really cut corners, is in the battery department. There are plenty of really cheap and nasty batteries available to manufacturers in Shenzhen, we have seen almost comically short battery life on some of the earlier devices coming out of China not so long ago, so battery life was an area where we tended to apply extra scrutiny in the case of the Elife S.5.

The 2,300mAh battery is smaller than what we are now seeing in the higher echelons of the device spectrum – the Sony Xperia rules supreme in the 5 inch segment with a 3,200mAh Li-ion. We soon formed the opinion that battery life was not going to be area where the Gionee Elife S5.5 would excel. The upshot is that many heavier users will need to carry a battery pack with them on the road, or during a busy work day. During extended use, we did feel the device tended to get quite warm. Noticeably so.

In general anything other than light web surfing and social media interaction, could have you worrying about a total drain, and spare batteries are not an option. While it is disappointing to see a non-removable battery, the thin design of the chassis gives Gionee a pass here. Consider yourselves forgiven.

Software

We have mentioned already that my choosing MediaTek as the devices’ processor platform, Gionee is limited to Android 4.2 but in reality that does not really present itself as a serious issue. Also, the Amigo 2.0 UI that Gionee has developed actually adds some pretty cool apps and features that we don’t find on stock Android.

UI

From the lock screen you can get easy access the camera app, voice recorder, flashlight etc – but the one that I really think shows some valuable innovation, is the option to receive a fake phone call; a great way to get out of an awkward conversation. Inspired perhaps by iOS or perhaps Xiaomi and their MIUI, the Amigo 2.0 UI relies only on the launcher for its app access, there is not app draw,. You can easily make folders for app groups and select up to five apps to remain always available on the lower, fast access launcher.

The general styling and colorful feel of things really creates an enjoyable look and feel to the software. One area where things go slightly awry is with the bouncing animation when you reach the end of a menu, which is poorly implemented, either putting undue stress on the processor, or using a plainly crude animation.

The Amigo 2.0 experience manages to feel like a complete OS without feeling bloated. There are tons of options including smart gestures while the standard camera and Charm Cam apps add lots of value to the camera. The bundled apps are solid and include voice recorder, calendar, file explorer, compass, calculator and lots more. All the apps are simple, uncluttered and easy to use. Gionee also pre-installs all Google apps as well as WhatsApp, TouchPal and other popular 3rd party apps too. Good job.

Overall the user experience with Amigo 2.0 is great. It looks good, moves at a blinding pace and strikes a really good balance, offering everything you would ever need without feeling like bloatware. Non of the apps we used insisted we join the Gionee eco-system- they just worked.

The Amigo 2.0 UI moves really fast, swiping from screen to screen you can sense that the whole experience has been sped up to the extreme. In fact at times the slick, super fast animations seemed to get a touch laggy – again I would argue that things have been overly aggressive configured. Biting more than it can chew. It does happen once in a while and it can be annoying for sure.

Laggy OSes would normally put a device straight in the dungeon, but seeing as the UI excels in other areas, I am willing to be forgiving to a point. Perhaps an option to tone down transition speed would be a good idea.

Price

The Gionee Elife S5.5, like most of the Gionee catalogue, is not widely available in Western markets, although it can be had from various online retailers for around $350-$370. This is half the price of a genuine top tier flagship device, and to be honest it is not far off looking and feeling in the same class as devices that are much more expensive.

The Gionee Elife S5.5 is not flawless, but for the price tag, it is great value for money.

Final Thoughts

The Gionee Elife S5.5 is definitively the best looking mid-range phone on the market right now. It has a superb design that feel really solid in the hand. The incredible thinness of the device might throw you initially, but you will soon learn to appreciate its combination of slim and solid.

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The general performance of the processor is sufficient for playing games although a limited 16GB of memory might soon vanish when installing some larger games. The lack of microSD card support is a touch infuriating, but perhaps a decision made in pursuit of thinness. The camera might not win any awards and battery life is not great. However, I think that these flaws can be overlooked if you are attracted to the phones great styling and deadly build. For the price, it is a strong mid-tier contender.

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