Product Reviews

Essential Phone

For a brand with no track record of making smartphones, the Essential Phone is an interesting first attempt. 

The phone, officially called the Essential PH-1, is a confidently-made, yet mysterious slab of glass and ceramic that seems rather basic in what it’s trying to attempt, but it’s hiding a few tricks up its sleeve – one of which it’s not quite ready to show off yet.

Launching at $699 (no price confirmed for UK) is a bold move for such a new player in the smartphone market, especially given OnePlus’ success at nimbly undercutting the flagship market. 

For many, betting on a unproven phone is a tough sell in the midst of the iPhone 8, Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Google Pixel 2 launches. But the PH-1 gets some credit for accomplishing what the others haven’t, even if what the company considers to be “essential” won’t matter to some.

We have a final unit in hand and are testing it for the full review, so stay tuned and feel free to fire off any questions you might have to me on Twitter and I’ll try to address them.

Design

For its first act, the Essential Phone somehow manages to fit a 5.7-inch 2,560 x 1,312 display into a chassis that’s not much larger. Stacked up against the Google Pixel XL, the it’s roughly the same size in the hand, but there’s so much more screen here.

Essential has taken bezel reduction to a new level. You’ll find a rather small bezel “chin” on the bottom of the phone, but the screen nearly spills over the top of it, where you’ll find the selfie camera. This feat is all the more impressive because the LCD display wraps around the front-facing camera instead of shoving it to the bottom like Xiaomi Mi Mix. That phone’s “nostril camera” as Essential’s Andy Rubin calls it, makes for awkward selfies.

Essential opted for a titanium frame, which it claims offers much higher durability (and heft) compared to the oft-used aluminum we see in many smartphones. This means, theoretically, it shouldn’t break or bend under circumstances wherein most phones do. On the phone’s outside, Essential covered it all up in ultra-glossy ceramic, which looks fantastic, but is oh-so inviting to your fingerprints.

Around the phone’s edges, Essential has cleverly implemented a grippy material that doubles as its antenna passthrough. While you won’t find a 3.5mm headphone jack on this phone, the assortment of volume rocker, power button and USB-C charging port make their usual appearance here. On first impression, the tactile buttons are simple to find and have a nice click to them.

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The backside of the phone is as flat as the front and about 80% of it is free of any markings whatsoever. The backside of the phone is as flat as the front and is so devoid of any marketings that there’s not even an Essential logo anywhere on the device. It’s a way of Essential saying “this isn’t our phone, it’s your phone.” On our way up, there’s a fingerprint sensor flanked on its top by a dual-lens camera, flash and Essential’s accessory connector ports, the latter of which we’ll touch on below.

Performance

Something that we can all agree on is that solid performance is an essential component of a good smartphone. Thankfully, the PH-1 appears to have it in spades. Equipped with the Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM, this smartphone is poised to tackle the apps of today and tomorrow in stride.

However, what it won’t be able to handle is Google Daydream since the phone doesn’t come with the requisite OLED screen technology. That aside, this phone operates much like other flagship phones, which is a good tick for the new company.

The PH-1 comes loaded with Android Nougat – and an almost-stock build of Android, at that – and Google has confirmed that Android Oreo will be coming to the phone soon.

We have reservations about the Essential Phone’s accessory port, those two holes aligned with the rear camera array. We’re told that Essential will be frequently introducing new accessories (not mods, likely in a bid to avoid comparison with Motorola’s Moto Mods), but its first, a 360-degree camera mod, isn’t shipping yet. This is a little disconcerting not just to the press, but to the many people who pre-ordered the device. 

This accessory port is the trick that Essential isn’t quite ready to show off just yet, though it’s probably the one function offered by the PH-1 that stands to give it a potentially big advantage over the competition. We’ve seen the 360-degree camera in action and it is rather convincing with a sensor that matches the one inside the Google Pixel camera. 

The camera seeps power from the phone to operate, though data is transmitted wirelessly and it all seemed to work flawlessly. Essential only had pre-production units of the camera to show, which leaves us concerned that other accessories for the PH-1 might still be a ways off.

Touching on the camera, Essential has directed a lot of energy to showing off what it’s dual-lens array is capable of. Each lens is 13MP, though one is capable of shooting in color as well as black and white, while the other is a dedicated monochrome lens. During our limited time with the PH-1, we’ve recorded some samples below that show off what it’s capable of, though we look forward to expanding our catalog below in the coming days.

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Not the most inspiring photo, but the contrast here is nice.

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Monochrome is immediately producing good results.

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That’s not to say that auto mode doesn’t pull its weight.

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But monochrome gives scenes a dramatic look.

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I’m really happy with this off-the-hip shot.

Lastly, its battery comes in with a respectable capacity of 3,040mAh. We’ve seen larger batteries in phones of this size, but when you’ve got a nearly bezel-less screen, space for more battery (or anything, for that matter) becomes a commodity. We’ll be sure to test the battery performance in-depth for the full review, but touching back on how limited the space is inside of this phone, Essential gets a commendation for squeezing in 128GB of storage by default.

Early verdict

There’s certainly a lot riding on the Essential Phone. It offers a lot of promise, what with its expandable accessory port. Though, where it stands in its early days is just as a phone that has a lot of promises to fulfill.

For those in need of an elegantly designed Android smartphone, look no further. Essential’s dedication of squeezing so much tech into a smartphone is admirable, but its steep price paired with a dire lack of interesting use cases at launch won’t do it any favors. 

We’ll be expanding this review with final impressions soon, so stay tuned.


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