In order to sell smartphones every six months or so, our favorite smartphone brands resort to tricks — innovative or sometimes gimmicky features, meant to make phones fresh and exciting.
Over the last two years, these features have ranged from water resistance and near-borderless displays to dual cameras, hot-swappable modules, and perhaps not killing off the headphone jack. Okay, maybe not that last one.
But what if brands adopted a new approach to making phones, one that involves stripping away gimmicks and excess, and focusing instead on features essential to the average user?
That’s what Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, set out to achieve with his new US$ 700 Essential Phone (yep, that’s what it’s called) launching in the US and Canada on September 1.
What’s in a name?
But before we dive in, some definitions are necessary in order to set the pace of the rest of the review: What is essential?
The New Oxford Dictionary defines it as something that’s “absolutely necessary.” Similar to what the folks at Essential Products believe, that phones “should have only what we want and need.”
But aren’t wants and needs relative? Who is to say what I consider absolutely necessary on a smartphone? And are my preferences the same as everyone else’s?
Is its US$ 700 price tag, while fair for a phone of its caliber, not one a vast majority of smartphone users will be able to afford? Shouldn’t a phone built on these principles be more accessible to all?
Lastly, some will argue that Essential’s choice of features are misguided. Dual cameras may be the way forward in smartphone imaging, but are they necessary? And on the flip side, aren’t missing features like water resistance or a headphone jack must-haves on a phone?
I ask these questions because it’s hard not to overlook the promises the Essential Phone makes based on the name it’s chosen. But if you can see past the marketing spin, you’ll find a solid contender in the flagship space, with a top-of-the-line specs sheet, superior build quality, and a promise of being future-proof.
Look and feel
When I first picked up the Essential Phone PH-1 (its full name), I immediately knew it would be one that I would enjoy using, and I did. The phone is gorgeous from every angle and built well.
The phone is made of more premium yet unconventional materials; titanium which is more durable than aluminum, and ceramic which is more scratch-resistant than glass.
It’s also just the right size — not too small, not too big — and while it’s a bit heavy for its size, it’s one that exudes confidence the moment you pick it up.
The Essential design aesthetic is classy and subtle, with no logos on either side.
On its back, the dual cameras do not protrude, and its circular fingerprint sensor is easily reachable by the average index finger. The only seemingly out of place elements are two golden dots that allow for snap-on accessories.
Up front is where the phone is truly a standout. Its 5.7-inch front panel is more display than I’ve ever seen on a smartphone today. Unique to the Essential Phone is a cutout for the selfie camera that makes it seem like the screen wraps around it.
If I were to nitpick, I’d complain that the IPS-LCD screen doesn’t have the deep blacks or rich colors of a phone with an AMOLED panel, but only the most discerning of users will mind.
The software experience is equally good, as close to the original flavor of Android imaginable. Not that you should expect anything less from the creator of Android. All throughout my review process, I silently giggled at the thought that I was finally using Android the way it was intended to be experienced.
Because its display has a cutout for the selfie camera, you get an unconventional bit of space that won’t reach its full potential until developers quite literally design around it. Google apps know it’s there; apps like Maps, for example, take up the entire space, while others like YouTube fill up the space with color. If an app doesn’t support it, the space where you’d find signal bars and battery stats stays black like you’d find on any other Android device.
Because the phone is powerful and the user interface is light, navigating through the software feels snappy. Graphics-intensive games also load quickly, and run without stutters or hiccups.
The phone comes with 128GB as the only storage option; that’s double the default amount on most flagship phones in 2017. But it doesn’t have a microSD card slot, not that the average user will ever need more.
Its 3040mAh battery is a bit lower than the industry standard, but in our tests, we still got a good day’s use out of the phone, with about five hours of screen-on time. The phone supports quick charging, as well. I don’t know if it was just the warm New York summer, but we often found our phone getting warm while we were out taking photos.
Overall, camera performance is one area that needs improvement. The Essential phone’s dual-camera setup consists of a pair of color and black-and-white sensors. There’s no zoom or wide-angle lens. Like similar technology on the Huawei P10 and Nokia 8, the idea is to fuse the color and detail information from both cameras into a technically superior image.
Unfortunately, the results aren’t so great especially in low light. Our sample photos lacked the dynamic range you’d get on an iPhone, Galaxy S8, or Pixel, and photos shot in dimly lit places were very grainy and not the kind you’d want to share on social media.
Its camera app too (one of the few customizations Essential’s made to stock Android) feels like it needs a lot of work. Focusing is slow, and so is switching between color and black-and-white modes.
While there have been at least two software updates since review units were seeded earlier this month, and more expected to come, experience tells us that software updates can’t make a good camera great.
While I have yet to test its only available module, a snap-on 4K 360-degree video camera, I think the Essential Phone’s modular dreams are an important story to tell. The company believes that modules are what keep the phone future-proof.
Two magnetic connectors on the back of the phone will allow users to snap on accessories that expand the phone’s functionality.
While there is only one currently available — and another one, a wireless charging dock, promised — what makes me more confident in Essential’s implementation versus that of Motorola (the only other modular smartphone maker), is the tiny footprint the Essential’s magnetic connectors take up. Just two circular dots spaced about 1cm apart.
Theoretically, the company could completely overhaul the phone’s design and today’s mods would still fit. Here’s to hoping it can get third-party companies to design modules for their platform, something Motorola is still struggling to do.
Is the Essential Phone your GadgetMatch?
If you see the Essential Phone as a top-of-the-line flagship instead of one that delivers just the essentials, it makes sense.
Its pursuit of simplicity, non-compromising performance, and forward thinking, make it a solid step in the direction that manufacturers must take. But as a first-generation product, it’s not one without a few flaws. Had its camera been stellar, the Essential Phone would have made an easy sell, and a particularly strong contender against Google’s upcoming Pixel 2. But unfortunately, it isn’t.
If you’re looking for a phone that’s not going to be used by the average joe walking down the street, you’ll love the exclusivity the Essential brings. If you’re a sucker for simplicity in design, believer in the stock Android experience, and don’t mind a sub-par camera, the Essential is a great choice.
Otherwise, we say wait another year. Perhaps with more experience and more time to develop its product and build its mod ecosystem, Essential can inch closer to its dream of building a phone that all of us will want and need.