The moment I picked up the Essential Phone, I fell in love.
That pleasingly hefty titanium body. Those slim bezels. The conspicuous lack of ugly branding. That mirror finish. It immediately reminded me of the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I just had to touch it.
But after nearly two weeks with the Essential PH-1 as my primary phone, the honeymoon is over. While the PH-1 is a worthy first effort, it has some serious flaws that keep it from fulfilling its promise to die-hard Android enthusiasts.
The short version: Essential feels rushed, and some of the phone’s most essential features are in shambles. In its hurry, Essential failed to give its bleeding-edge customers much to brag about, or many reasons to buy it over another phone. It’s hard to get behind it today. I’m hoping Essential can fix it tomorrow.
Update, February 2018: We’ve taken a second look at the Essential Phone now that it’s had five months to mature – not to mention a $200 price cut which brings the total to just $500 (roughly £360 or AU$635). The good news? The phone’s camera app is totally usable, and it’s much better value for money now that it’s no longer competing with flagship phones. We’ve bumped its score slightly from 7.3 to 7.5 as a result.
The bad news: The Essential Phone’s camera still isn’t great – and there are still a number of glitches the company has yet to work out. That’s why we’re keeping this review mostly intact, although you’ll see some places where we correct sentences that are no longer accurate. You’ll want to read both this review and our new story to get the full picture before you consider one yourself.
Warning, May 24, 2018: Before buying, you should know there’s a credible report that Essential is in trouble – the company has reportedly canceled its second phone, and may put itself up for sale.
- 1 What’s an Essential Phone, and how much does it cost?
- 2 What works: Design, Screen, Performance
- 3 Essential’s camera app is plain awful
- 4 Essential’s modular future is blurry
- 5 Survives a six-foot drop, but breaks a promise
- 6 Other wrinkles you should know about
- 7 The verdict
- 8 Essential Phone specs versus Moto Z2 Force, OnePlus 5, Galaxy S8
What’s an Essential Phone, and how much does it cost?
Essential is the brainchild of Andy Rubin, the man widely recognized as the father of the Android operating system. A former Zeiss and Apple engineer, Rubin co-founded Android in 2003, sold it to Google in 2005 and ran the division until 2013, around the time Android finished shipping its first billion devices around the globe. So he’s kind of a big deal.
Rubin went dark for years, but when he resurfaced, it was with manifesto in hand – and a plan for a phone unlike any we’ve seen. No logos. No bloatware. Any cellular carrier. Guaranteed Android updates for two years. A modular phone with accessories – such as a 360-degree camera – that attach in an snap. A hybrid dual camera that promised better pictures in low light and a titanium frame that meant the phone wouldn’t need a case.
To me, it sounded like a Google Pixel on steroids, and maybe the phone of my dreams.
But when the Essential Phone arrived in reviewers’ hands without final software and the company missed two promised ship dates in a row, we began to wonder what was up. And in the end, we decided to postpone our review until our phone was the same as the ones shipping to buyers like you.
That time has now come. The Essential Phone is now shipping for $699, which is roughly £545 or AU$935. It’s compatible with all major US carriers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. For now, it’s only on sale in North America at Essential.com, Best Buy, Sprint and Telus in Canada, but it’ll eventually be available globally.
Update: Two months after launch, Essential cut the price to $499 – roughly £360 or AU$635.
What works: Design, Screen, Performance
Here’s the good news: With three key exceptions and a few wrinkles – I’ll explain each in turn – the Essential PH-1 is a remarkable phone. Here are the highlights from my two-week whirlwind romance:
- I can’t get over how good the PH-1 feels in my hand. The titanium frame is just rounded enough, the ceramic back just tacky enough, the phone just tall and narrow enough to provide a fantastic grip for my average-sized hands, and the buttons and rear-mounted fingerprint sensor divot feel perfectly placed, unlike Samsung’s latest phones.
- The edge-to-edge 5.7-inch, 2,560×1,312-pixel resolution LCD screen is beautifully vibrant, and makes any phone without an all-screen front look antiquated. It’s tough to go back.
- While most apps don’t make use of the entire screen, that never bugged me in practice. Your notifications live there, so it frees up “normal” screen real estate for other things. Plus, the unused portions are dark enough that they simply look like normal bezels when they’re not in use.
- This phone is seriously fast. I expected top-tier performance from the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor and near-stock Android software, but even adding my typical dozens of apps, two push email accounts, four busy social networks and a couple background games didn’t stop the Essential from feeling buttery smooth. I got top tier results in benchmarks, too, neck-and-neck with Samsung’s Note 8.
- Swapping mobile networks was a breeze. I popped out the Sprint SIM for T-Mobile and AT&T, and had no trouble with calls or data. Generally, I saw slightly better reception than my Galaxy S7.
- While the battery doesn’t fare well with lengthy sustained use – about 10 hours in our looping video tests – the phone barely sips electricity when idle. I saw it last nearly two hours when it had just 1 percent remaining, and even on days with periods of heavy use I never had to charge before bedtime. I’d like more, but I’m happy with that.
- Despite not mentioning it previously, Essential told CNET that the phone boasts water-resistance of IP54 (it should withstand a 5-minute shower and splashes but not actual immersion). We still have to test it, but that’s certainly a plus if it holds true.
Update, Feb. 2018: After extensive testing, we and the Essential community on Reddit are seeing issues with the Essential Phone on T-Mobile specifically. We can’t currently recommend an Essential Phone for T-Mobile customers. Also, I can confirm my Essential Phone does survive a brief shower.
Essential’s camera app is plain awful
If you read early reviews around the web, the verdict was nearly unanimous: The Essential Phone’s 13-megapixel dual camera is terrible.
That’s not quite true. I shot dozens of photos and a bunch of 4K and 1080p videos side by side with a fully-updated Essential PH-1 and a Google Pixel – a phone lauded for image quality – and there’s more nuance to the matter than you might have read. Essential’s app is terrible, but the camera is actually pretty decent. Can you see a big difference between these two photos?
It also turns out you can simply use another camera app, such as OpenCamera or Footej Camera. And you can remap the Essential’s double-tap-power-button shortcut to open those third-party camera apps, too, the way you might on other Android phones.
If you get this phone, I would highly recommend downloading a separate camera app, because Essential’s app is a smouldering dumpster fire by comparison. Here’s a shortlist of the issues I saw:
Update, Feb. 2018: Essential has drastically improved the performance of its camera app with a host of software updates, in addition to adding exposure control and a portrait mode. It’s still not a competitive camera, but we’ve crossed off a number of its initial failings in the list below.
- Shutter lag (the phone sometimes takes the picture late)
- A laggy viewfinder, particularly in low light
- Huge delays after saving a photo
- Slow and sometimes poor autofocus
- Lots of blotchy image noise in low light
- Slow shutter speeds + no optical image stabilization = blurry photos in low light
- Slow and buggy HDR mode
- No exposure control to brighten or darken a scene
- No white balance adjustment to ensure colors are correct
- No portrait mode, which is rapidly becoming a standard for today’s dual-camera phones
- No video stabilization means shaky videos
- No microphone wind noise reduction means noisy videos outdoors
- Sometimes, the phone completely freezes and requires reset (it’s rare)
If you’re a photographer, you probably took one look at this list and began laughing out loud. If not, all you need to know is these things are often the difference between taking a beautiful picture of exactly what you see the moment you see it, or not.
To Essential’s credit, it may be able to fix a number of these issues, and it intends to try, both through over-the-air updates to the phone and automatic app updates you’ll receive through the Google Play store.
The company plans to improve shot-to-shot speed, fix instability, add a portrait mode and manual exposure controls, slightly improve dynamic range and HDR lag, and reduce noise as much as it can. And Essential has been quick with bug fixes so far.
Update, Feb. 2018: They’ve made quite a few fixes. Click here to read more.
Even so, don’t expect magic. Even the best color photos I took with the Essential’s camera didn’t have as much detail, or as quick and reliable autofocus, as those I shot with a Pixel. Based on our previous tests, you can probably expect recent iPhones and Samsung Galaxy cameras to outperform the Essential’s camera as well, though each has their own look.
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In case you’re wondering, Essential’s 8-megapixel front-facing camera is perfectly competent and reasonably sharp – just don’t expect any smoothing or filters to make your skin look more attractive.
Essential’s modular future is blurry
There’s no great way to say this: The Essential Phone’s modular accessories aren’t ready for primetime, to the point it makes me worry.
In theory, it’s fantastic. Strong magnets snap the accessory into the perfect position, two copper pins provide power from the phone, and the data transfers wirelessly. Compared to Motorola’s Mods or Google’s long-defunct Ara prototypes, both of which required devices to adopt very specific shapes, it’s an elegant design. (Essential is creating a hardware development kit for other companies to contribute accessories, too.)
But over the course of nearly two weeks, I’ve never been able to reliably use the company’s first accessory, a 360-degree camera. It costs $200, which roughly converts to £150 or AU$250. Or it’s just $50 (about £35 or AU$60) if you buy it with the phone.
Sometimes it won’t connect to the phone. Sometimes it’ll mysteriously disconnect mid-use. Sometimes the camera app will crash. Sometimes it’ll crash the entire phone.
Mind you, these could all be problems specific to the 360-degree camera, whose software is still being finalized. (That’s why I’m not formally reviewing it now: Essential says it’ll have better image quality, fewer bugs and possibly drain the phone’s battery less later this fall.) But it’s the only example I have to go on, and it’s worrying that basic tick boxes like “a rock-solid connection” and “doesn’t ever crash the phone” have yet to be checked off.
Update, Feb. 2018: The 360-degree camera works now, though we still have concerns about its power consumption.
Survives a six-foot drop, but breaks a promise
The Essential PH-1 is one of the first top-tier phones with a titanium frame protecting its guts – not to mention a ceramic back. That’s no mean feat: Traditionally, those strong, lightweight materials aren’t just more expensive than aluminum and glass, they’re also harder to machine.
The good news: We dropped the Essential Phone twice onto solid concrete, from 3 feet and from 6 feet, and neither the ceramic back nor the Gorilla Glass 5-covered screen shattered upon impact. We can’t say the same for the Samsung Galaxy S8’s glass back.
The bad: After two drops, we still wound up with dings and scratches on both the Essential’s titanium frame and the rim around the screen, even though Essential specifically claims the titanium should survive that test “without blemish.”
“Unlike aluminum, which is what most phones are made of, titanium doesn’t scratch, dent or bend. That’s why you won’t find an area for phone cases on our site,” reads Essential’s website.
Essential doesn’t promise a shatterproof screen, so it wasn’t surprising or disappointing when we broke it, too, after a couple fumbles down a flight of stairs. But the company’s suggestion that you won’t need a case seems misleading at best.
(Essential followed up with us to clarify that it conducted its drop tests from 3 feet onto smooth concrete and granite, and that it stands by its claims.)
Other wrinkles you should know about
None of these are dealbreakers, but I do have some other nits to pick with the Essential Phone. I figure you’ll want to know:
- It’s a fingerprint magnet. The mirror finish, front and back, mean I’m constantly wiping away smudges. They show up more prominently on the black version than the upcoming white one, though, and you can literally use the black back as a mirror to take selfies or look around corners.
- The screen is glossy enough that it’s tough to see in bright light outdoors. It could really use a better anti-glare filter, or a mode that boosts the backlight.
- Since the screen is LCD, not AMOLED, it doesn’t have perfect blacks in a dark room, so it’s not the best for reading in bed.
- No AMOLED screen also means it won’t work with VR headsets like Google’s Daydream.
- The single external speaker can get quite loud, but it’s rather tinny. I wouldn’t listen to music that way.
- There’s no headphone jack. Or SD card slot. (The phone does ship with a 3.5mm to USB-C audio dongle, and a generous 128GB of onboard storage.)
- One of our two units has unsightly holes in the earpiece. Essential says a few were shipped missing a grille – so if you see that too, you can get it fixed under warranty.
- I’d like the power button to have more texture and a slightly more satisfying press. It’s a little shallow and stiff.
- The plastic rim around the edge of the screen can scuff easily, unlike the ceramic or titanium.
- The SIM tray isn’t perfectly aligned with other ports on the bottom of the phone, and the bottom mic hole can be confused with the SIM one if you’re not careful. Don’t stick your SIM tool in there.
- Twice, the Essential Phone wouldn’t recognize a cell network until I fully rebooted it.
- My Dell laptop wouldn’t recognize the Essential Phone using the included USB-C cable. It worked fine with a different cable.
I can’t recommend the Essential Phone with a clean conscience. Despite having two extra months to work on it, the phone I’m holding still feels unfinished in too many ways, and too many of the reasons you’d buy an Essential Phone – a wide variety of modular accessories, quick Android updates, seamless interaction with all your smart home devices – are based on promises the company has made.
(Speaking of which, Essential tells us the phone should get updated to Android Oreo within the next couple of months.)
Update, Feb. 2018: We’re still waiting for Android Oreo, but the company says it’s just a few weeks out.
But we’ve already seen too many broken promises from this company. And worse: Promises broken with no explanation. At the time of writing, Essential hasn’t even acknowledged the shipping delays. The company’s website still brags about the dual camera’s low-light performance and the fact that the phone can survive being dropped without so much as a scuff.
Heck, it took a privacy scandal, with the potential for serious identity theft, before Essential apologized to its first wave of customers at all. Yes, it’s a small 100-person company that lost its heads of marketing and PR in July, but the hubris still feels astounding.
Essential has secured $300 million in funding, so I’m not too worried the company will disappear overnight and leave buyers out in the cold. It’s not the Nextbit Robin. But I’m not really sure I’d take a chance on this company’s first phone, either. Essential reminds me more of OnePlus, which eventually began making excellent phones, but owners of the original dealt with a variety of hardware and software quirks.
Update, Feb. 2018: Sure enough, software quirks still affect the Essential Phone five months later – but the company has done a pretty decent job turning around its reputation for acknowledging and interacting with its customers. It’s shipped over a dozen software updates, held multiple Reddit AMAs (“Ask me anything”) and its employees can be found answering a la carte concerns as well.
There are just so many better choices right now if you’re attracted to the Essential, including the Motorola Z2 Force (which also boast modular accessories and wide carrier compatibility), the OnePlus 5, the HTC U11, and of course Google’s Pixel, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and the iPhone. But you also might simply want to wait, since we’re expecting a new iPhone next week and a new Pixel in October, as well as the LG V30 and beautiful Nokia 8.
Update, Feb. 2018: Also check out the new OnePlus 5T, or the Moto X4 if you’re on a budget. The Nokia 8 was eh.
All that said, I still like the Essential Phone’s standout design, and it’s functional. If you do buy one with low expectations – an above-average phone with great performance and decent battery life – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Just swap out that camera app straight away.
And hey, companies: Stop shipping unfinished products. Good things are worth the wait.
First published Sept. 8, 4 a.m. PTUpdate Sept. 9, 2 p.m.: Adds Essential’s new claim that the phone is water resistant, which we will test.