Ever since the original Moto RAZR V3 came out 10 years ago, the smartphone industry has had a strange obsession with skinny phones. Not because shaving a millimeter or two off a device will give it more functionality, but because it's an effective marketing tactic. In emerging markets in particular, slimmer phones at slimmer prices enjoy a distinct advantage. Gionee, a handset maker based in China, isn't very well known, but it's looking to make a name for itself with devices like the $375 Elife S5.5. At 5.55mm thick, this svelte beauty currently claims the title for the thinnest smartphone on the market. To put that in perspective, that's a full two millimeters skinnier than the iPhone 5s. I spent a few days with the device to see if thinner really is better.
Sporting a chamfered magnesium frame with Gorilla Glass 3 panels on both front and back, the Elife is a beautiful phone with much better build quality than I expected. It features flat sides with angular edges, which -- along with its sleek form factor -- makes for a stylish design that's fun to look at. It's comfortable, but the slim size doesn't play a role in making it any more so than fatter devices. Durability is typically a concern for extremely slim devices, but being thinner doesn't seem to make a difference here: I'm convinced this handset can hold up as well as any other smartphone comprised of similar materials. (That said, you'll still need to be careful with the glass, since it's scratch-resistant, but not shatterproof.) At 4.69 ounces (133g), the Elife also has enough heft to give it a premium feel without being too heavy or too light.
The Elife's camera is a tad thicker than the rest of the device, but Gionee smartly designed the bump to complement the phone's minimal design rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. The 13-megapixel module and LED flash are nestled on the top-left corner of the back, with chamfered and angled edges that drop down to meet up with the glass. Of course, this makes it so the back isn't completely flat when you lay it down, but on a positive note, this prevents sound coming out of the rear speaker from getting muffled.
Along with a thinner frame -- and a lower price point -- comes less room to go all-out on specs. It only comes with 16GB of internal storage space and no microSD slot; it features HSPA+ (either 850/1900/2100 or 900/1900/2100, depending on market), but no LTE connectivity, which likely won't be a problem in most emerging markets for now. There's also no NFC; and the non-replaceable battery is fairly small, at 2,300mAh.
The 5-inch, 1080p Super AMOLED display comes with a pixel density of 441 ppi and features excellent viewing angles. All told, the panel is similar to what's used on the Samsung Galaxy S4, which means you're going to get saturated colors and deep blacks. It's not nearly as bright as most flagships I've played with recently, but it's easily viewable in direct sunlight (provided the brightness is above 85 percent).
Performance and software
Under the hood, the Elife uses an octa-core MediaTek chipset, which, despite its eight cores, is more mid-range than high-end component. And its performance reflects this: Animations and transitions are a bit choppy; the screen sometimes has problems responding to finger input; and gaming is hit-or-miss thanks to some frame skips. Otherwise, though, the performance is smooth enough. Its biggest issue, which is amplified by the phone's slim build, is that the processor runs so hot that the glass surface is almost impossible to hold while playing games. (You'll also want to refrain from holding it up to your face for a few minutes until it cools down a bit.) The 2,300mAh battery is not very impressive, either; on most days, I struggled to make it through a full day on a single charge.
On the software front, the Elife runs Android 4.4 KitKat with a custom user interface called Amigo OS. It's very similar to other Chinese Android options in that it doesn't have an app tray, so all of my apps were scattered on the home panels, à la iOS. You can access Google Play Services as well, ensuring that you'll be able to sync your Google accounts if you want. However, after a few days with the new OS, I was ready to switch over from Amigo to the Google Now Launcher, which is now available for most Android devices and is much closer to a pure Android experience on the front, but features Gionee customizations everywhere else (such as the lock screen and notification tray).
The Elife is only available in a handful of countries including India and China, but the manufacturer has partnered with other brands to create carbon-copied versions of the device. You can get the Blu Vivo IV in the US, for instance, the Allview X2 Soul in Europe and the Bara 1 in Taiwan, all of which have essentially the same chassis and spec sheet. (Pricing varies, but the Vivo IV is $300.)
Thin phones have their fair share of trade-offs. On one hand, the Elife is a sleek, elegant device. On the other, its slim design comes at the expense of battery life, heat dissipation, storage space and other specs. It's also just as comfortable and usable as most flagship smartphones that have two to three millimeters of extra padding (although it can be tougher to pick up when it's lying on a table or desk). Even so, additional thinness doesn't make a difference to the in-hand experience. And yet, there are strong indications that Gionee will soon come out with an even thinner device soon; if it does, the company will keep its claim to the thinnest phone on the market. But at what cost?