The Essential Phone is just about to ship to early customers, and there’s a lot that’s good about the first product from Andy Rubin’s startup. Early reviews have been glowing overall, but the camera has been disappointing for most. I’ve spent the past couple of days using the Essential Phone as my daily driver in preparation for my full review, and I’ve been testing out the camera quite a bit. Is it actually as bad as everyone has been saying? Well…

The Essential Phone comes with a dual-camera system on the back, both 13MP f/1.9 sensors. One is a color sensor, and the other is monochrome. This is something that’s becoming pretty common in the industry, and some OEMs like Huawei have nailed its implementation.

Unfortunately, Essential’s results so far haven’t been as impressive as I’d hoped. Daylight photos are pretty good with solid sharpness and respectable colors, but it’s not impressive by any means at all. That’s especially obvious compared to phones like the Pixel. Colors can feel washed out and there’s no “wow” in any pictures.

Slightly below average daylight performance is something you can look past, though. However, when combined with poor low-light performance, things do get a bit worse.

Even though Essential has already pushed an update to improve low-light and HDR, it’s performance is still pretty poor. I’ve yet to get a shot out of this camera in even somewhat low-light that I can describe as good. They aren’t the worst low-light pictures I’ve seen on a phone, but for the Essential’s price point, it should be much better.

Update: The pictures below compare the low-light on the Pixel XL (right) and Essential Phone (left).

The only other poor aspect of this device comes from the camera app. I understand simplicity, and 99% of the time it’s appreciated. However, I think Essential takes it too far with its camera app.

Somehow, though, that ends up making the Essential Phone’s camera one of the slowest I’ve ever used. I can forgive a somewhat slow camera app as long as the results are decent, but with Essential, there’s no excuse. That’s especially true when this is literally the only app the company had to work on to get this phone ready for launch. Hopefully, this will all improve with time.

In all reality, it feels as though most of the issues here come down to the software, not the hardware. If Essential can take the time to fix the speed and reliability of its camera app, as well as tuning the low-light performance, I think we’ll have a much more respectable camera here. In the meantime, though, I can easily see why this camera would turn buyers away.

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Ben Schoon

Ben is a writer and video producer for 9to5Google.

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