There’s so much to say about the big, brash experiment that is the Essential Phone, I almost don’t know where to begin.
Let’s start by saying that, based on the couple days I’ve spent with it so far, it’s a beautiful titanium and ceramic device that looks and feels very high-end. There’s a dual camera in the rear that’s performing well in my initial tests. It’s got mounds of storage and a bright, beautiful screen. It’ll cost $699, which converts to about £545 or AU$935.
But what makes the Essential Phone — officially the Essential Phone PH-1 — important are the two little cut-outs on the back that look like a vampire bite. These magnetic pins are the attachment point for the modular accessories that are the phone’s main reason for being. The connection is quick and wireless, and the phone can power the add-ons or vice versa.
Let’s back up for a quick minute, because this is important, too. The Essential Phone is the first device from a new company that’s spearheaded by Andy Rubin, the guy who co-created Android and, from 2005 to 2013, was the face of Android at Google. So a phone launched by Andy Rubin is a really big deal, particularly when you have a field stacked with talent from entrenched players like Samsung (Galaxy S8 ($669.88 at Amazon Marketplace) and soon, ), Google ( and soon, Pixel 2), LG ( and upcoming ), Motorola ( and ) and Nokia (Nokia 8), just to name a few. How does it plan to pull this off?
Rubin’s team thinks that the Essential Phone’s modular accessories will appeal to Android enthusiasts who want to customize a high-end Android with swappable add-ons that physically attach to the phone. Although there’s only one accessory so far, a 360-degree camera, Rubin and his team envision an ecosystem that includes a bunch of accessories and powerful software to support them. Essential also plans to launch an Essential Home speaker for the living room, which will work with the phone’s accessories.
What makes this experiment so risky is that it’s the industry’s fourth recent attempt to go modular, and the concept hasn’t caught on. Google and LG tried out modular phones and failed. Motorola is still hanging in there, but Essential’s two magnetic pins on the back form a novel approach that, unlike Moto’s Z phones, don’t take up the entire back of the phone’s body. So that paves the way for more flexible shapes and uses.
Overall, I’m finding this test unit really sleek and likable, but too stripped down in the camera department, with buggy software that makes the phone feel unpolished. Essential says that it’s already addressed most of the bugs I found in this prefinal version of the phone software, and will update buyers’ devices, especially the native camera and 360-degree camera attachment. Therefore, we’ll withhold our final assessment until the phone is completely ready — consider this a sneak peek, not the last word.
Scroll to the end to see how the specs compare to top Android phones.
A word on the Essential Phone’s camera: Good images, laggy operation
Essential gave us prefinal software to test, which means that our experiences with the camera may not be the same as yours, when the phone is completely finished. But here’s what we ran into, and frankly, what we think the company needs to work on most.
- 13-megapixel dual camera lenses are color (RGB) and monochrome
- 8-megapixel front-facing camera — the center placement is good for selfies
- You can take a black and white shot through the monochrome camera
- No portrait mode yet, but Essential says it’ll add a version of portrait mode later
- No manual controls or filters — Essential says it’s avoiding gimmicks, but may add more features in response to buyer demand
- Photos aren’t as bright or colorful as they are on Samsung’s Galaxy S8, but they’re a smidgen more detailed
- No burst mode, and focus and processing take longer than the Galaxy S8
- Bugginess makes it sometimes crash (Essential says it’s aware and is fixing the problem)
On Friday, we tested a new software update that improves the camera app by fixing bugs and adding HDR mode — which takes a series of photos at different exposures and merges them together. While this still isn’t the final-final version of the software, it does address some of the camera app bugs we initially experienced (whew!).
So how is it? The camera opens faster than it did before, but still has a tiny lag, which is extra noticeable when toggling HDR mode on and off. It’s significant enough to make you second guess if you tapped the button correctly.
The images in Auto or Mono mode look good. In use, Mono snaps are quicker to capture while Auto mode tends to have a slight lag between the time you take a photo and the time the camera is ready for the next shot.
In HDR mode, your patience is tested with every shot: the focus takes a long time to lock onto its target. The processing time after taking an HDR picture takes longer than phones like the Galaxy S8. And actual HDR image quality is mixed. In ideal conditions like even outdoor light, shots were crisp with nice true to life color. But in low light situations, HDR shots look overly smooth like there was a lot of noise-reduction applied.
So far, videos from the Essential are serviceable, but not very impressive. Shadows show up pixelated and there doesn’t appear to be any stabilization (optical or digital) which other flagships like the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S8 both have. Essential still has some work to do before the final release.
The most important things you need to know about the Essential Phone’s…
- Gorgeous, but the materials make it a little heavy
- Slim bezels
- Extremely smudge-prone and reflective
- Connector pins are small, conveniently-located and strongly magnetized
- Good, central placement of the fingerprint reader on the rear of the phone
- The front-facing camera in the middle of the screen does not cut off notifications
- Phone gets warm, but not dangerously hot in our tests so far
- No water resistance
- No dedicated headphone jack
- Very bright 5.7-inch LCD display with 2,560×1,312 pixels
- Front-facing camera cuts a notch in the screen, but this doesn’t obstruct notifications
360-degree camera attachment
- Sold separately for $199 — it’s $749 when you buy it alongside the Essential Phone
- Extremely easy to attach to the right spot
- There’s a whirring, whining fan inside to cool the components — it turns off while you record video so the sound won’t pick up in the recording
- The camera uses the phone’s battery, storage and internet connection
- Runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat at launch with guaranteed Android updates for two years and monthly security updates for three years
- Clean installation with almost no bloatware even on the Sprint version I tried — purists will like that
- Not every app looks its best while working around the camera cutout. Essential says it’ll reach out to the top 100 Android app makers to help them optimize for the phone’s screen layout. In our tests, apps didn’t look completely cut off
Where can you buy the Essential Phone and for how much?
The Essential Phone will sell globally, but it starts in North America before rolling out to other regions. In the US, it sells at Essential.com, Best Buy and Sprint. If you buy it unlocked (that is, not through a carrier) it’ll work with all US networks. You can also buy it from Telus in Canada. Essentials promises to ship devices sold on Essential.com within seven days of purchase.
Sprint’s preorder deal is pretty sweet, though. It offer customers half off by paying $14.58 a month over a year and a half — this applies to the black color only.
Essential Phone specs versus Moto Z2 Force, OnePlus 5, Galaxy S8
|Essential Phone PH-1||Motorola Moto Z2 Force||OnePlus 5||Samsung Galaxy S8|
|Display size, resolution||5.7-inch; 2,560×1,312 pixels||5.5-inch; 2,560×1,440 with ShatterShield||5.5-inch; 1,920×1,080 pixels||5.8-inch; 2960×1440 pixels|
|Dimensions (Inches)||5.6×2.8×0.31 in||6.1x3x0.24 in||6.1×2.92×0.29 in||5.9×2.9×0.31 in|
|Dimensions (Millimeters)||142x71x7.8 mm||156x76x6 mm||154.2×74.1×7.3 mm||148.9×68.1×8 mm|
|Weight (Ounces, Grams)||6.5 oz; 185 g||5 oz; 143 g||5.4 oz; 153 g||5.5 oz; 155 g|
|Mobile software||Android 7.1.1 Nougat||Android 7.1.1 Nougat||Android 7.1.1 Nougat||Android 7.0 Nougat|
|Camera||13-megapixel camera (RGB), 13-megapixel (Monochrome)||Dual 12-megapixel||16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto||12-megapixel|
|Processor||2.4GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||2.35GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||2.45GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)|
|Storage||128GB||64GB, 128GB (varies)||64GB, 128GB||64GB|
|RAM||4GB||4GB, 6GB (varies)||6GB, 8GB||4GB|
|Expandable storage||None||Up to 2TB||None||Up to 2TB|
|Fingerprint sensor||Back||Beneath screen||Home button||Back cover|
|Special features||Magnetic pin connector for accessories||Splash-resistant; Gigabit LTE-ready||Portrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging||Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready|
|Price off-contract (USD)||$699||$730-$810, depending on carrier||$479 (64GB), $539 (128GB)||AT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; US Cellular: $675|
|Price (GBP)||Converts to about £545||Converts to about £615||£449 (64GB), £499 (128GB)||£689|
|Price (AUD)||Converts to about AU$935||Converts to about AU$1,005||Converts to about AU$635 (64GB), AU$715 (128GB)||AU$1,199|