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Essential Phone review: This gorgeous phone has one fatal flaw

by Brandon Russell | September 1, 2017September 1, 2017 2:15 pm PDT

Back in January, we lamented the sorry state of mobile, declaring the market stale due to its lack of meaningful innovation. All high-end flagships were good and, to an extent, virtually indistinguishable. Andy Rubin, the founder of Android, thought the same thing.

In May, Rubin said he became frustrated with the state of technology, saying Android had created “this weird new world where people are forced to fight with the very technology that was supposed to simplify their lives.” So, he started Essential with a strong message: Simple is always better.

The result, the PH-1 (we’ll just call it Essential Phone), is a device that promises to get the fundamentals right in a supremely premium package.

If we look at the Essential Phone strictly from Rubin’s point of view, he has accomplished his goal. The device is as simple as they come, offering a straightforward software experience and some of the nicest hardware on the market. Anyone can pick it up and immediately know how to use it.

But compare it to some of its more popular competition, and there comes a point when Rubin’s obsession with simple works against the experience. Sometimes it’s nice to indulge in the lavishness offered by the Galaxy S8.

An elegant design

The quickest way to make a good first impression is through design, and I was smitten by the Essential Phone from the word go.

When you see the device in person and hold it in your hand, it won’t be something you soon forget. The mix of titanium and ceramic is assuring, its lack of branding confident. The craftsmanship on display is simply stunning.

I like the more rectangular frame and wider stance. And the fact that it’s on the heavier side gives it a substantial and pleasing heft. It’s also not rail-thin, leaving enough room to include a 3,040mAh battery that will last all day.

That’s not to say the design is perfect. There is no headphone jack, and the ceramic back is a fingerprint magnet. The Essential Phone also isn’t waterproof, a feature that’s all but standard among high-end flagships.

As for its durability, I don’t have an answer one way or the other. Because of its titanium enclosure, the handset should theoretically be more equipped to survive the inevitable drop. On its website, Essential said it performed a drop test on solid concrete, with its device passing with flying colors.

I’m not brave enough to do my own experimenting, so I’ll just take the company’s word for it. Needless to say, the Essential Phone wasn’t designed to live inside a case.

The most striking aspect of the Essential Phone’s design is its 5.71-inch display, which features negligible bezel and a funky cyclops cutout that makes way for a front-facing camera. It’s a stunning achievement that looks even more marvelous stuffed inside such a small footprint.

For context, compared to the iPhone 7, which features a 4.7-inch display, the Essential Phone is slightly taller and wider.

As for the camera cutout, it’s a visual distraction at first. Mostly, though, you won’t even notice it’s there. The software typically throws a black border across the top of the display, rendering the cutout virtually invisible. The only time the cutout really makes its presence known is when you’re jumping through your home screen or in an app like Google Maps.

The LCD panel looks great, displaying sharp text and video, but outdoor visibility is just ok, and it looks nowhere as good as the stellar screen found in the Galaxy S8.

The rest of the phone reads like a checklist for a modern day flagship: Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and Android 7.1.1. As to the last feature, Essential has promised it will release Android OS updates for two years, with monthly security updates for three years.

We have no way of knowing if Essential will keep its promise, but the device does already have the August 5 security patch. When it’ll receive Android Oreo is anyone’s guess.

A disappointing camera

Essential has been hyping its phone’s camera since May, promising better resolution, better noise control, and better details. So far as I could tell, however, the device didn’t meet our expectations, and needs plenty of work before it can usurp the Galaxies and Pixels of the world.

There are two 13-megapixel cameras, one that’s color and one that’s monochrome, which are capable of capturing “up to 200% more light than traditional phone cameras,” according to Essential.

Both work well to take decent images with ample daylight available, and pictures are mostly ok in low light. But the camera’s actual performance is not up to a par.

Focus is slow and unreliable, and the phone takes too long to process photos after they’re snapped. It means if you have finicky children who refuse to sit still, you’ll have a hard time making a good photo of them. There’s also no burst mode, which just seems insane.

Essential’s camera app is also pathetically spartan. There’s only an Auto mode, Mono mode, and Slow Motion mode. There’s no way to control exposure, so photogs who enjoy tweaking setting will find the app severely lacking.

But the good news is the camera can potentially get better. A few days after we got the device, a software update was issued, promising better performance and quality. I didn’t notice any major differences, but there were improvements. Hopefully, it’s a sign the company can continue to fine tune the camera into an elite experience.

If not? Well, it’s not good enough as it is. The camera is easily the Essential Phone’s biggest weakness.

 

One of the Essential Phone’s biggest draws is its modular system, connecting wireless accessories via two magnets on the back. It’s similar to Motorola’s take on modularity, but a bit more elegant in its execution. Mainly because Essential’s technology is more flexible.

The first accessory to support this system is a 360 camera, which Essential engineer Xiaoyu Miao believes is the “next big battlefield” in mobile. I didn’t get an opportunity to test the camera out, so I don’t know if I’d recommend it. If taking 360-degree pictures is interesting to you, then by all means.

At $199, though, the 360 camera is expensive, especially on top of the phone’s asking price. Rubin said his company will release new wireless accessories every few months, so expect more cool stuff in the near future.

I am a fan, but remain cautious

While simple is all well and good, some key features are conspicuously missing. I love that there’s no skin over the software, but some thoughtful tweaks would have been nice. Companies like Motorola and OnePlus have proven you can enhance Android while keeping Android “stock.”

And as immaculate as the hardware is—no camera hump!—the device is missing things like waterproofing, wireless charging, and a headphone jack. These are features that are part and parcel of today’s top Android devices.

Who knows, perhaps Rubin cut these features in order to keep the cost of the phone down. Which, at $699, is already pretty expensive—about on a par with its closest competitors. When you throw in the prospect of its modular accessories, however, the cost could rise exponentially.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed my time with the Essential Phone. I’m drawn to its minimalist design, edge-to-edge display, and cyclops eye. But a Galaxy S8 this is not, and that’s kind of the point. If you can accept its shortcomings, you’ll be treated to a great experience that’s brimming with potential.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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