After finally going on sale yesterday, the first reviews have dropped on the first phone from Andy Rubin’s startup, the Essential Phone. The bezel-less device indeed suffered delays (and weathered hype for other devices), but the remaining question is the tried-and-true: Is it actually worth buying? We’ll answer that ourselves soon, but in the meantime, here’s what others are saying…
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One thing that runs through every review of the Essential Phone, of course, are notes on its unique display and hardware, both of which are major factors on the phone. While it’s a little heavy, the Phone is easy to grip thanks to the sharp titanium edges, Wired:
You learn a lot about the Essential Phone merely by picking it up. This sharp-edged, slippery slab of titanium and ceramic conveys power, all tool and no toy. It has no camera bumps, no branding…
…I love how this phone feels. I wish it were a little lighter in my pocket, and not quite so slippery or prone to fingerprints. It’s also not as tough as it looks. Yes, that titanium body won’t ding or scratch the way aluminum or plastic do. In a show of confidence of the phone’s strength, the company doesn’t offer a case. Still, it won’t quantify the phone’s ruggedness, because if you drop it, you might just break it.
That physical toughness is a nice thing to see in a bezel-less phone, as competitors like Samsung can’t quite make the same claims. The display itself is also solid despite using LCD technology rather than the more prevalent (and preferred) AMOLED. Best of all, that cutout for the front-facing camera doesn’t get in the way, The Verge:
That cyclops eye seems like the sort of thing that would be distracting, but in my experience it becomes invisible almost immediately. Ninety-five percent of the time Android doesn’t put anything of value in that particular part of the screen anyway, and the phone is adept at keeping apps that go truly full screen (like video) letterboxed in.
The screen itself is LCD instead of OLED. The engineers at Essential tell me that finding a supplier who could do the cutout when development started 18 months ago limited their options. As a display, it’s great. It has wide viewing angles, is totally viewable in sunlight, and of course it has approximately two kajillion pixels like all modern smartphones.
Another important aspect of the Essential Phone’s hardware comes down to its modularity. Through two pins that give power to modules and wireless USB, the phone’s interpretation of modules is one of the best we’ve seen yet. It’s easily comparable to Motorola’s system, both of which have their pros and cons. Right now the only available accessory is a 360-degree camera, but the promise is certainly there, The Verge:
Compared to Motorola’s competing modular system, Essential’s setup has one fairly big flaw: you can’t just attach a module and stick the whole thing in your pocket like you can with a Moto Z. But there are a few advantages. It doesn’t constrain future phone designs, for example. A future phone could stick the module bits in another spot without breaking compatibility.
The phone’s software is Android, as you’d expect from Andy Rubin, and it’s a very clean version at that. The pre-loaded Android 7.1.1 is fast and clean, with nothing added outside of a custom camera app and the bits needs for the status bar and modules. As you’d expect with any new phone, though, there are some minor issues, VentureBeat:
The PH-1’s software doesn’t provide much in the way of surprises, which is a good thing. The Essential team made the smart decision to use stock Android Nougat (version 7.1.1 in the device I tested), rather than trying to add its own wrapper around the operating system. The software user experience felt clean, though the phone was weirdly unresponsive in certain scenarios, like trying to scroll a long YouTube video.
The Verge also points out that Rubin intends to keep updates fast on this phone, a huge plus indeed.
Rubin has said that he expects to provide software updates for two years for the Essential Phone and security updates for another year after that. He tells me that the desire to push out updates quickly is one of the reasons Essential didn’t do too much tweaking to the software.
As for the phone’s dual-camera system, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The dual-13MP sensors take an approach similar to that of Motorola and Huawei in taking a color shot and a monochrome shot and combining them to enhance the final shot, PCMag:
In good lighting conditions, the Essential takes photos that might even rival the Galaxy S8, our favorite camera phone. Its dynamic range is better, delivering truer shadow areas while not stinting on brighter parts of the picture… But something software-wise is still wrong with low-light performance. It’s much worse than I expect from an f/1.8 camera…
The camera app itself is very minimal as well, Engadget:
For better or worse, shooting with the Essential is dead-simple. I say that because there are a grand total of four shooting modes in the custom camera app, including Auto, monochrome and the option to shoot a slow-motion video clip. (Don’t worry, you can also shoot normal video at up to 4K.) Meanwhile, a trip to the settings reveals only two options: one to toggle the shutter sound and one to store location data in a photo. I appreciate the simplicity, but a little extra control would have been nice.
Shortly before reviews hit the web, Essential pushed out a last minute update to help fix the camera’s issues. Where the low light was previously poor, it’s now at least a little better, The Verge:
…a mere eight or so hours before we needed to publish this review, I got a software update for the camera that added a manual HDR mode. More importantly, the update improved image quality — in some cases drastically. What was yellow and flat before became punchier and more contrasty. Where before I would have described the low light performance as “a dumpster fire but worse because you can at least see fire in the dark,” now it’s approaching something like respectability.
Let’s also not forget the terrible app icon that comes with that custom camera app.
Overall, the consensus on the Essential Phone has been this: It’s a solid offering in more ways than one, but there are some inherent flaws with it as well, the camera being one of the biggest flaws. A lot of this can be fixed through software, and the company has already shown that it is capable of doing so, but so far, it just seems like it was pushed out just a little too soon. Essential is trying hard to make a splash in the Android market, but I think Wired sums up the situation perfectly:
You’ll also realize that Essential, like everyone else, is still working out how to truly change the smartphone game.