Nine times out of ten, new smartphone startups fail, and there’s a reason for that. Making it in this industry is incredibly difficult, especially when you’re aiming for the higher price points. Essential has pulled out all the stops with its very first product, the Essential Phone, and thanks to that it’s playing directly against phones like the Pixel, Galaxy Note 8, LG G6 and V30, as well as the iPhone.
How does it hold up? That’s a mixed bag. There are a lot of good things about the Essential Phone, but also a lot of bad. So, let’s take a closer look.
Nomad case for Pixel 3
Premium materials that feel like nothing else
Regardless of what is offered in the software, hardware is a very important part of any smartphone. With the Essential Phone, it’s very clear that the hardware was the primary area of focus. Just taking a glance at this device tells you it is a premium device, but that doesn’t prepare you for what it’s like to actually pick it up.
The Essential Phone is built using a polished ceramic back and a titanium frame. At the end of the day, that adds up to a device which is strong against drops and scratches, but not totally indestructible. Ceramic is more brittle compared to Gorilla Glass, so a direct drop to the back will probably break it, but thanks to the stronger titanium frame, drops to the sides shouldn’t lead to much damage at all.
What’s most interesting to note about the Essential Phone’s hardware is the lack of any sort of branding, at all. The phone has no logos for Essential, and it even ditches the FCC text by hiding it inside of the SIM card slot. That leads to a clean look on the back of the phone, or at least it would if the black model I had wasn’t one of the biggest fingerprint magnets I’ve ever seen. The finish on the back of this phone is essentially a mirror, and thus, it picks up smudges literally seconds after you’ve cleaned it. I highly recommend purchasing the white model for this reason (or at least a skin).
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to use the Essential Phone as a daily driver, and that’s mainly because the experience doesn’t line up with what we’ve come to expect from smartphones. This is a pretty small smartphone (at least its footprint), but it has a heft that even mammoth devices don’t match. At the same time, it’s a first-generation release from a brand new company, and the hardware is basically flawless. That rarely happens, and I’m incredibly impressed.
Bezel-less is here, but Essential might be too late
The Essential Phone’s display is one of its biggest selling points, and it absolutely should be. The 5.7-inch QHD 19:10 panel is surrounded by, well, nothing. Bezels are there, but they are so slim around the entire phone that they just fade away once the screen is turned on.
Traditionally, a 5.7-inch display meant a pretty large phone, but with the Essential it’s more than manageable. Even competing “bezel-light” flagships like the Galaxy S8 and LG V30 don’t quite match what Essential has done, and the great feeling of holding nothing more than your screen hasn’t faded away at all in the past couple of weeks I’ve been using the phone.
However, that’s coming from me, someone who loves smartphones and gets excited by things like this. Handing the phone off to other people, though, brought up less mentions of the thin bezels than I expected. Regardless of who I handed the phone off to, I never saw a response regarding the lack of bezels. While I don’t think this was because no one was impressed by it, I do think the accomplishment Essential has made here has been significantly lessened by the crop of “bezel-light” phones on the market. Had this device been released even 6 months ago it would have blown away the average Joe.
An impressive achievement, but it could and should be better
As much as I love what Essential has done with the display, I can’t help but wish they had refined things a bit more. For example, the company is using an LCD panel on this phone instead of OLED. They tell us that this was due to suppliers not being able to accommodate the camera cutout on OLED panels, and I get that, but the inky blacks of OLED would go incredibly well with this phone.
Further, I would have loved to see a panel that was more vibrant and bright. In its current state, the Essential Phone’s display is simply, fine, but it pales in comparison to the displays used by the competition, and that’s unfortunate.
This is especially present when it comes to the brightness. Where Samsung is shattering records with smartphone brightness, Essential’s display feels like a step backwards for flagship devices. It’s usable in most conditions, but outdoor use on a sunny day, it’s clear where corners were cut.
SOFTWARE & PERFORMANCE |
Stock is great, but the essentials aren’t always enough
When you’re talking about a phone developed by the father of Android himself, Andy Rubin, you would of course expect it to ship with a clean build of the OS, and you would be right.
Out of the box the Essential Phone is running a stock version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat. Now, when I say “stock,” I mean it quite literally. Even on the Pixel and Nexus devices, Google makes changes to the OS, but the Essential Phone simply doesn’t.
On the entire device you’ll only find very, very minor changes which the phone absolutely requires in order to work properly. Those changes include adjusting the status bar to better accommodate the camera cut-out, a small menu for submitting bug reports, and whatever backend stuff was added to make mods work. Outside of that, you won’t find anything else that is altered in the OS.
Even bloatware is kept to its absolute minimum. Out of the box, the phone includes just a few apps, mainly including Google’s suite of services. The only app Essential made for this phone was the camera app, but we’ll get to that one later. What’s best about all of this, though, is that carrier versions of the device also won’t ship with any bloatware.
Many reviewers, myself included, have been begging for a stock Android phone with excellent hardware like this for quite some time, but what Essential may not have taken into account was what features would be missing with a “stock” phone.
Android OEMs like LG and Samsung go overboard when it comes to features, packing in basically everything you can think of. Essential, on the other hand, offers nothing above what Android itself does. While, granted, that’s a large and ever-growing list of features, there are also a lot of things missing.
For example, many smartphones today with rear-facing fingerprint sensors and tall displays offer users the ability to swipe their finger on that sensor to pull down the notification shade. For me, that’s become second-nature and I do it on every phone I use. On the Essential Phone, though, it isn’t there.
Another example could be a double-tap gesture to check your notifications. Why those two features? I chose those two examples because they are both found on Google’s own Pixel, a device which runs stock Android, but in a way that never feels boring or empty. There’s also Motorola’s approach which, arguably, is even better.
Clean software and a Snapdragon 835 provide an incredibly quick phone
Add up that stock Android build with the Essential Phone’s specs and you’re looking at a lightning quick device. Under the hood, Essential has a Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. All of that creates a phone that feels fast no matter what you’re doing.
During the two or so weeks that I used the Essential Phone, I never encountered much in the way of lag. The early software builds I was using were riddled with bugs that cause a lot of lock-ups, but the phone rarely ever had regular performance issues in day-to-day use. The only area where I experienced issues was in the only app Essential built, so let’s talk about that.
A good camera is essential, you would think
It’s 2017. Smartphone cameras are really, really good now, and they just keep getting better. The likes of Samsung, LG, HTC, and especially Google have been seriously raising our expectations for mobile cameras over the past year or so, and I’ll just be frank here, Essential falls flat on its face in this area.
On the back of the Essential Phone you’ll find two cameras, both 13MP sensors. One is a standard color sensor while the other is a monochrome sensor. We’ve seen this setup numerous times, and I’m still not convinced it helps in any way.
With the Essential Phone’s dual-camera system, a ton is promised with the specs and marketing materials, but those promises don’t hold up in day-to-day use. In bright daylight, the Essential Phone is capable of taking good, if a bit washed out and dull, pictures.
However, when you take literally any of that light away, pictures go from “fine” to “noisy dumpster fire.” Pictures taken indoors even in a well-lit room usually have noticeable digital noise, and the same applies for pictures taken later in the day as the sun is going down. Once nighttime falls, things just go from bad to worse, delivering shots that just look terrible with a lack of detail and tons of noise.
Essential has already shown that this can be fixed to some extent through software, and as it turns out, using a port of the Pixel’s camera app actually helps a lot, so I won’t totally write-off this camera just yet. However, if you intend to buy this phone, the absolute last thing you should be buying it for is the camera.
The thing I don’t understand most of all, though, is how the camera app is so bad. For one thing, the camera app is almost too simple. It lacks even basic controls over your photos, and even less for videos.
What’s worse, though, is the camera app’s performance. The app takes a while to load and when it does, it’s even slower to take a shot or switch between the three available modes. Toggling things like HDR don’t really make a noticeable impact on anything either. Even simple things like launching the camera app from the lockscreen or the power button gesture only works about half of the time. It’s staggering to me that the only app Essential had to build for this phone is this bad, but at least we know that it can definitely be fixed through updates.
Essential’s modular system shows promise, but we’ll have to wait and see what comes next
One of the more quiet selling points of the Essential Phone is the modules. The back of the phone has two pins which deliver power to mods which attach to it while transmitting data through wireless USB. It’s a really cool system that shows a lot of promise, but it feels a little early to fully judge it.
That said, there is one module we can spend a bit of time talking about — the 360-degree camera. Essential has launched the smallest 4K 360-degree camera alongside its phone, and it’s an equally impressive little device.
Pictures don’t really prepare you for just how compact Essential’s camera is, but it’s impressive to say the least. The tiny mod magnetically attaches to the phone and works great, however, the same performance issues that plague the phone’s camera also apply here to a certain extent. That’s unfortunate, but overall things work pretty well with this 360-degree camera, and the output is pretty solid too.
BATTERY LIFE |
One thing that concerned me a bit with the Essential Phone was battery performance. A big, high-res screen with a 3,040 mAh battery didn’t sound great on paper, but in practice, it’s pretty good.
I’m a medium user when it comes to my phone’s workload. Most days I barely pass 2 hours of screen-on time in a 15-18 hour period, but most days left the Essential Phone with 30-35% of its battery remaining. Heavier days on the go naturally drain the battery a bit more, but with up to 3.5 hours of screen time, I still f0und myself ending the day with around 15-20% battery.
A headphone jack isn’t “essential”, but it would be nice
The continued debate of the headphone jack on smartphones is a big topic of controversy on the Essential Phone, but in this case, it’s led to the same joke over and over again. I get it, a headphone jack is something that is necessary for a lot of people, but as we move forward, it’s going to disappear as more OEMs continue to ditch it.
In the case of Essential, the reason for ditching the headphone jack isn’t just to follow the crowd, but for a legitimate reason — space. There’s not much room inside of this phone, and the hardware needed for a 3.5mm jack isn’t small by any means, so I’m willing to forgive, especially since there’s an adapter in the box.
A speaker that’s loud, but not all that great
Speaker audio is something that’s really important to me on a smartphone, but Essential doesn’t really impress here. The single mono speaker found on the bottom edge of the phone is fine. It has pretty solid output in terms of volume, but the quality just isn’t there. Audio doesn’t have much depth and the speaker is incredibly easy to cover too.
THE LITTLE THINGS |
The included accessories are awesome
The accessories included with your smartphone often go unnoticed, but on the Essential Phone you get something special. There is, of course, a USB-C cable, wall adapter, and USB-C to 3.5mm dongle, along with SIM tool.
What’s unique about these accessories is that the cables and adapter are just as premium as the phone itself. You get high-quality braided cable on both the charging cable and headphone adapter, and the wall adapter is crafted from aluminum. It’s a really nice package, and the included charger is very fast too.
Updates should be pretty fast, and they’ll last a while
One of the benefits of using a stock Android build is the ability to push out fast software updates. Rubin’s company has stated that it intends to push out Android updates regularly and quickly, and it has even been working with Google to provide a swift update to Oreo.
Essential is also promising customers 2 years of major software updates. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s about how long most people will be using this phone. Further, 3 years of monthly security patches will also be included.
FINAL THOUGHTS |
A valiant first effort, but a missed opportunity
When we first heard that Andy Rubin was building his own smartphone, we were all understandably excited, and as information was revealed, the hype continued to build. However, the Essential Phone has had some early issues with missed deadlines, confusing customer service, terrible data leaks, and an underwhelming camera.
There’s so much that is good about this phone, and so much more that can be fixed. However, it’s hard to recommend it in its current state. The Essential Phone isn’t some cheap device. At $699 I think it costs less than it should, but that’s based solely on the hardware. Since there’s nothing to back it up and so many flaws, though, it becomes an overpriced device that isn’t going to do well in the competitive fall season. Everyone else is stepping up their game, and Essential needs to as well…