Update 11/14/2017: Essential has released Android Oreo as a beta. More information can be found here.
Essential is Relative
This is the Essential phone. There is a reason why I haven’t posted about this before in the past and it’s the first thing I’ll mention in this review: the price. This phone debuted at $699. For all the hype surrounding this phone, it was too expensive to be competitive. Essential has since dropped the price to $499 and at that price the question of whether or not this phone is essential becomes relevant.
Essential is a new company that started up late 2015. One of its founders happens to be the same guy who created Android itself – Andy Rubin started up Android Inc, which was acquired by Google in 2005. Rubin went on to head the Android division within Google and stayed there until 2014 when he left to incubate other startups. There were a lot of rumors circling around his departure: some said that his relationship with Google soured when he saw what Google had planned for Android. Some told tales of a nasty breakup, where Rubin vowed to sever his ties with Android and Google completely.
Rubin is a celebrity among the Android faithful. His oversight at Google led the platform through very fast iteration, culminating into Android 5.0 Lollipop, which was the first drastic redesign in both look and base code since Android’s release. Rubin’s departure from Google left many people worried about the future of Android and its role at Google – although those worries have, so far at least, been unfounded.
With all the bad blood rumors between Rubin and Google, it was a little bit of a shock when Rubin tweeted this:
A near bezel-free phone running Android built by the Father of Android. With one tweet, the Essential hype-train took off. But is it worth that hype? Did Rubin have his comeback moment with the Essential phone?
The best thing about this phone, without a doubt, is the hardware. (The second best thing is the phone’s official name, the PH-1. Get it?) The front of the phone is dominated by a large 5.71-inch display that goes all the way to the top and side bezels. Resolution is 1312 x 2560 with a pixel density of 504 pixels per inch. I generally prefer AMOLED screens because they produce inky blacks, but this LCD is pretty good to my eyes. It does have a little bit of off-axis color shift, but it isn’t something that would really detract you from day-to-day usage. LCDs don’t lend themselves well to an Always On Display, but since that feature isn’t – ahem – essential, you won’t find it here.
Build quality is top notch. The back of the phone is made from ceramic and is as flat as the Midwest with no camera bump in sight. The frame is made from titanium – yes, really. My phone came with the white back and matte silver finished frame, which looks incredible. The flush camera housings and flash, the two metal pins for the modular add-ons (more on that later) and the perfectly placed fingerprint sensor (take notes, Samsung) are the only things to break up the shiny white surface. There are no logos, no FCC stamps, nothing. It’s just amazing to look at and hold in your hand.
Included inside the beautiful hardware package are the usual processor and RAM you would expect to find in a 2017 Android flagship: a Snapdragon 835 with 4 GB of RAM. The battery is decently sized at 3040 mAh but either because of the LCD panel, the 835 chip, software optimizations or a combination of the three, this phone is nigh on unkillable.
To wrap up the rest of the hardware: the speaker is a bottom-firing speaker. It sounds loud enough to be heard and it’s plenty fine. The front speaker is cleanly integrated into the top rail – you’d never notice it unless you went looking for it. It also houses an LED for notifications. The buttons for power and volume are on the right with the power button being on the bottom. Muscle memory being what it is, you’ll keep hitting volume up for the first day or so, but adjust quickly.
Great hardware is nothing without great software. Apple knows this, Google knows this and you’d expect Andy Rubin knows this. Turns out he does. The Essential phone ships with basically stock Android. Not Google’s Pixel version of Android – I mean download-it-from-Android-Open-Source-Project stock Android. The Essential phone came with no bloatware installed except for Essential’s diagnostic app and their custom camera app.
Having said that, the software is sort of Essential’s Achilles Heel. It glides along until it doesn’t, stuttering and lagging at random times. Touch response is weird and takes two touches to register, sometimes registering somewhere else. And while I don’t want to say it lacks polish, it is lacking some of the software touches that make the experience complete. Things like a blue-light filter and fingerprint sensor gestures are missing. They aren’t essential, but I sure missed them when they were gone. So the software is stock, which is good, but bare-bones and not optimized, which is bad.
The same can be said about the cameras. “But cameras are hardware, not software – the flaws in the camera can’t be fixed with software!” Yes, that’s true. However, the cameras on the Essential phone are actually pretty good. And there are three of them: two in the back and one in the front. The rear cameras are both 13-megapixels, one color, one monochrome. The idea is that the monochrome camera picks up the finer details and light variations while the color camera deals with vibrancy and saturation. In theory it makes sense and other phones have proven this can work. The Essential phone used to have major problems in the camera software, though, limiting how effective its hardware can be. The camera app used to be slow to open, would crash after taking a few pictures quickly in succession, and was just generally terrible. It ruined the picture-taking experience. So why is this the software’s fault? Using the same Essential phone with Google’s own camera app yielded dramatically better photos.
Not helping matters is that the phone shipped with and still uses Android 7.1.1. No big deal, normally – a lot of newer phones haven’t gotten the 8.0 Oreo update (and some might never), but remember that this is basically just normal, run-of-the-mill Android here. No customizations, no OEM skins, no carrier lockdowns. On top of that this is Andy Rubin’s phone – the Father of Android! This phone was purposely designed for quick software updates and it still doesn’t have the newest version, despite the beta period lasting months prior to the phone’s release. This is completely inexcusable, especially since Essential says that Oreo is coming soon – as a beta.
Also not essential, apparently, is a headphone jack or waterproofing. The former is quickly becoming a missing component on most new phones and is hotly contested while the latter is becoming table stakes. Were it my job to develop this phone, I would have included both. Essential includes neither. Whether or not that ends up being a deal-breaker is up to you.
Something that is a deal-breaker is the phone’s mediocre mobile network signal. My Pixel 2 is able to pick up bare minimum mobile signal at my friend’s apartment, which is the T-Mobile Signal Black Hole of Death. The Essential phone showed nothing. A reboot fixed the issue temporarily, but ultimately the Essential doesn’t seem capable of getting signal in fringe areas. If you happen to spend a lot of time in a fringe network signal area, this isn’t the phone for you.
One more thing, and I admit that it’s a minor thing, but still annoying: as much as this phone feels like a tank, it is extremely slippery. Twice this phone has gone from sitting perfectly still on my desk to on the floor. It has slid from the arm of my couch to the deep, dark recesses of the cushions on multiple occasions. First-party cases aren’t available to cure this malady, so skins from dbrand might be your only option.
Essential or Not
Since release day, Essential has released a ton of software updates, most designed to improve camera performance and squash bugs. While a lot of the problems I’ve mentioned have been fixed with software updates, some issues remain. The camera is now more reliable and takes quicker, better photos. The touch response is better and fingerprint gestures are now A Thing. But there is still a nagging lag every now and then, a slowdown or hiccup that doesn’t occur on a Pixel that make it apparent that while the software has gotten better, it still has a way to go to be the best.
You can see some photo samples above, mostly indoors with varying lighting conditions. Some turned out really well, some not so much, but most photos come out with enough quality for social media postings – and let’s be honest, you’re really only posting to Instagram and Facebook these days, not printing out full-size pictures. Still, don’t expect Pixel/iPhone/Samsung quality photos here.
So the camera is fine, the hardware is amazing. It doesn’t have a headphone jack or waterproofing, but the screen is edge-to-edge and beautiful and bright. It isn’t running the newest version of Android, but it has the latest security update (which arguably matters more) and at least Essential is releasing update after update to squash bugs and improve the experience. In a land of Galaxies and Notes and iPhones and Pixels, does this phone matter? Is it really essential?
At $699, it’s not. The Galaxy S8 can be found for far less than this price, it has beautiful hardware, fits a little better in the hand, features waterproofing and a headphone jack and is currently receiving Android Oreo as a beta. The Pixel 2 is $50 less, comes with the latest Android version and the option to run the 8.1 Developer Preview, has a killer camera and amazing battery life despite a smaller battery. iPhones are iPhones and you either love them or you don’t, but the price is competitive with the Pixel.
$499 $449, the picture changes. Suddenly the updates aren’t indicative of fixing half-based software: it becomes an effort to quickly improve the product. As I type this, my Essential phone is finishing an update that includes the November security update and bug fixes for the fingerprint sensor. The fact that Essential has held a couple of Reddit AMAs and actually listened to feedback gives the company an air of transparency and a feeling of a relationship with its customers. They seem to want to succeed, badly. They’re really trying to push out a product that its customers can love and be proud of.
I’m too deep into the Pixel line to switch to a non-Google device. But during my time with the Essential phone, I grew to love it. I almost smile when I pick it up. Its beautiful to hold and it has a fresh design and people took notice and asked me about it. It has its problems and some of these are Essential going through teething pains, but you can’t fault the effort and the company’s quick responses to feedback. This is a young startup company that really wants to build a customer base and make them happy and for that they should be applauded.
Is it essential? Not for me. But if you’re in the market for a well-built phone with 2017 design and a company that stands behind its product, it’s essential that you give the Essential phone a look.