The “father of Android” is ready for his next act.
Andy Rubin, who co-founded Android more than a decade ago, is back with a new Android-centric startup. But instead of software, his new company, Essential, is tackling hardware. The company’s first product is the highly-anticipated Essential Phone, an Android phone with flagship specs and, at $700, a flagship price tag.
Considering that without Rubin, Android likely wouldn’t exist, it’s no surprise that the Essential Phone highlights the best parts of Android, even if there are a few bugs.
While most Android handsets tend to be similar-looking black slabs of glass and metal, it’s immediately obvious the Essential Phone is different. Whether it’s the titanium frame, the polished ceramic back, the very-nearly-edgeless display, or, yes, the unmistakeable camera “notch,” the Essential Phone looks unlike anything else out there.
That’s a good thing.
I don’t get excited because a smartphone company figured out how to make its latest phone a little more thin, or a little more curved, or a little more black. But it’s difficult to look at the Essential Phone up close and not be impressed.
It has a titanium frame and a ceramic back that is so glossy that it looks, and feels, like glass. The surface of the “Moon Black” phone I tested is so reflective it looks almost silver in certain light.
This also means that, much like the Jet Black iPhone 7, it will be constantly covered in fingerprint and smudges. (Essential is also offering a “Pure White” variant at launch and has “Stellar Gray” and “Ocean Depths” options “coming soon.”)
The Essential Phone has a 5.7-inch display that feels smaller than it is because of the almost complete lack of bezels. Despite its large screen, this phone is no phablet; it’s only slightly larger than the iPhone 7, which only has a 4.7-inch screen and much smaller than the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus. So if larger phones is something you expect from a flagship, you’ll be disappointed. If however, you fall into the camp of people who want phones that don’t feel like they were designed for literal giants (I do), the smaller frame is just right.
You’d think a smaller phone would be easier to grip, but that wasn’t exactly the case. The more compact size and super glossy back had me pretty much in constant fear the phone would slip out of my hand at any moment. Luckily, it didn’t, and I’ve managed to smash my iPhone display twice in the last six months. But even if I did drop it, Essential says the phone should withstand drops better than most thanks to its more durable titanium enclosure.
There are only three buttons on the phone: two volume rockers and a power switch, which for some reason, is awkwardly-placed below the volume buttons about midway down the right edge of the phone. This wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if Essential had added a little texture to the power switch, like OnePlus did with its notification switch, to help distinguish between the two. Instead, though, I constantly pushed the volume rockers when I meant to hit the power switch.
On the back side of the phone is a fingerprint sensor, dual 13-megapixel cameras, and a two-pin connector for clipping on accessories. All of it sits completely flush — no unsightly camera bumps or anything else sticking out, just a small indentation for the fingerprint sensor.
Speaking of the fingerprint sensor, it sits about a quarter of the way down the back side and, thankfully, is nowhere near the camera (ahem, Samsung). I still find rear fingerprint readers awkward in general, but Essential’s sensor was, for the most part, quick and reliable.
Also, there’s no headphone jack, which might just be the way phones are in 2017, but it’s still really annoying no matter who makes it. Essential does include a comically large headphone dongle, but it looks pretty ridiculous and carrying one around in the first place will always be a drag.
Adding insult to injury, Essential doesn’t include any kind of earbuds — USB-C or otherwise — in the box, which just feels cheap for a $700 phone.
About that notch
There’s really no way around it: the “notch” looks weird. Rubin the unseemly camera cutout is a necessary concession for the edge-to-edge display since putting the front-facing camera on the bottom bezel would be even more awkward.
Still, it looks odd. It might even be a dealbreaker for some people, though it really didn’t bother me. More importantly, the cutout itself didn’t noticeably interfere with any apps. That’s because most apps don’t actually wrap all the way around the “notch.” Some do (mostly Google’s and other native apps like Android Messages and the Play Store), but the vast majority still had black bars on top as if there was a bezel.
The edge-to-edge display, however, was occasionally problematic. That the display creeps up all the way to the top edge of the phone makes it easy to unintentionally nudge the notification shade.
The “edgeless” display is also an issue when using certain apps. In Snapchat, which does stretch all the way around the “notch,” it’s almost impossible to “x” out of a photo you’ve taken because the notification bar gets in the way of the app’s UI.
I only experienced this issue with Snapchat, but it could easily be a problem for other apps too. I’m not sure how Essential fixes this without getting developers to make updates, but hopefully it’s rare enough most people won’t notice.
These issues aside, the crisp 2,560 x 1,312 Quad HD resolution display made me appreciate the lack of bezels.
Pure Android, without the bloat
Essential’s Phone runs stock Android and is refreshingly free of the crapware Samsung, and so many other OEMs, fill their phones with. I couldn’t find a single unnecessary app — just the stock stuff you actually need.
The company confirmed that the version offered by Sprint, the exclusive carrier partner for now, won’t come with any Sprint-branded bloat, either.
This is a very good thing. It might even be one of my favorite parts of the phone. Again, Rubin literally created Android, so it makes sense that his company’s phone wouldn’t pollute it with unnecessary junk or an ugly skin. But considering that even Google is unnecessarily bundling a load of its apps onto Pixel phones these days, it’s refreshing to see a phone that’s pure, simple, Android.
Stock Android also means performance is quite snappy and speedy with no skin to weigh things down. I found the Essential Phone to be fast and smooth — no surprise with its Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip and 4GB of RAM powering it all. Battery life is also on par with the iPhone: all-day, but not not a marathoner like Motorola’s Moto Z Play.
A great camera, with some bugs
Most Android phones simply don’t live up to Apple’s greatness when it comes to mobile cameras. So, while I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the Essential Phone’s camera, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in most cases, I preferred its photos over shots from my iPhone 7 Plus.
The phone has dual 13-megapixel rear cameras. Unlike the iPhone 7 Plus, which uses its dual lens setup to blur out the background, the Essential Phone has one dedicated to color and one to black and white. The phone then uses a set algorithms to process and tune its photos after you take them.
Essential says all this allows for better image quality and more accurate colors. In my testing, Essential’s camera consistently produced photos with more realistic colors and sharper details than my iPhone did. If you’re used to phones that saturate colors more, then Essential’s photos may look a bit flatter. (You can always just crank up the saturation in a photo editing app or with Google Photos’ built-in adjustments.)
Essential claims the dual-camera setup is particularly suited to low light photos since the extra lens can let more light in. I found it did pretty well in low-light conditions, but photos shot with my iPhone consistently came out better lit, even though Essential’s shots still had more accurate colors.
Likewise, the shots I took with the 8-megapixel selfie camera also came out with cooler colors overall. This may not be as flattering for selfies, but it was more accurate. (The camera did seem to soften details a bit more than the iPhone, so it is a little forgiving when it comes to blemishes and other details, even if the colors aren’t.)
But as great as both shooters were, there were significant bugs. For the rear camera, there’s a noticeable couple seconds of lag between when you push the shutter and when the image is done processing. This makes it difficult, or in some cases impossible, to quickly shoot multiple photos and then immediately view them.
In one case, I held down on the shutter to try and take a burst and the phone completely froze for about 30 seconds while all the photos processed. Essential tells me this is due to the algorithms working behind the scenes to tune the shot, and that the process should be faster by the time it ships, but it’s difficult to overlook. A laggy camera is simply unacceptable on a phone that costs this much. Hopefully a software update fixes this pain point.
Mods that actually make sense
Essential isn’t the first smartphone maker to take a stab at building a modular ecosystem — there’s Google’s failed attempt with Project Ara and Motorola’s clunky Moto Mods — but it might have the best implementation.
As mentioned earlier, Essential’s accessories clip onto the back of the phone via two pins on the back. The accessories themselves use the USB 3.0 standard and are able to draw power directly from the phone, so they don’t need to be charged independently.
I wasn’t able to try out Essential’s 360-degree camera, which will be the first accessory for the phone. But I was able to get a good look at it — inside and out — and it only underscored how much better Essential’s approach to designing accessories is.
Unlike Motorola’s Moto Mods, which are constrained by the shape of the phone itself, hardware makers can make accessories of any size or shape for the Essential Phone. Since it only needs to clip onto the two pins on the back, this opens up a lot more possibilities for what types of accessories are possible.
Of course, there’s still a question of how many of these accessories will ever see the light of day if you do invest in an Essential Phone. Besides the 360-degree camera, the company has also committed to a dock, and it says it has a handful of hardware partners lined up to make additional accessories, though it’s not clear when they’ll all be available or how much they’ll cost.
Even though the Essential Phone is, for now, far from perfect, it’s hard not to be excited about what it could be.
There’s a lot of remaining questions about how this ecosystem will work and how many people will buy into it in the first place. Which sort of gets at some of the bigger questions I have about Essential. We’ve seen other smartphone startups come and go (remember Nextbit’s Robin, which, for all its promise is basically dead), with the early adopters who bought into them ultimately losing out for having done so.
Of course, in a perfect world, early adopters wouldn’t have to worry that they’ll be punished for their enthusiasm. And, on that front, Essential is likely much better positioned than any of the failed Android phone startups before it. Besides having Rubin at the helm, they have a ton of cash.
And, with pricey phones, they can make enough money to maintain a sizable profit without making a phone for the Android-wielding masses.
So even though the Essential Phone is, for now, far from perfect, it’s hard not to be excited about what it could be.
Pure, unadulterated, Android • Clever accessory system • Beautiful design • Amazing photo quality
Slow camera • No headphone jack • Awkward button placement
The Bottom Line
Serious Android nerds will love the Essential Phone’s sleek design and crap-free software, but there are still some serious bugs.