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The Essential Phone: a first look at the hardware

It’s a little blocky, but the screen makes sense

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Immediately after Essential CEO Andy Rubin finished up his interview with Walt Mossberg at the Code Conference, I headed to the hotel to track the phone down and see it for myself. The units on hand here are prototypes, early enough that they have their individual identification numbers etched directly on to the ceramic back in giant font. So while I can’t really say a ton about performance or the software (beyond that it’s plain Android with Google apps), I do have some thoughts on the hardware.

It is, in short, not what you might expect given the recent trend in Android phones. It’s unapologetically wide and almost blocky compared to the curved Galaxy S8 and the skinny-tall LG G6. That’s not to say it’s phablet-sized, though: the bezels are so small on the 5.7-inch screen, it doesn’t feel as massive as it could.

But Essential isn’t trying to compete directly with Samsung by creating some kind of liquid curvature on the edges of the screen. It’s a squarish phone, and that’s what it’s intended to be. The titanium rail around the phone is squared off at 90 degrees with just enough of a curved edge to keep it from biting your hand. It feels substantial without being too massive.

The back is a glossy ceramic and it feels like glass, honestly, but presumably it’s much more damage resistant. The fingerprint sensor is blessedly simple to reach compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S8, and it’s big enough that it should be an easy target.

True to Rubin’s promise, the only ports you’ll find are a USB-C port on the bottom, flanked by a single speaker grille and the microSD nano-SIM tray. Actually, that’s not entirely fair: there is one more port, namely the wireless one on the back. It works with two pogo pins that are designed simply to transfer power. To get accessories to stick you use a magnet, and to transfer data the phone utilizes wireless USB.

There are two cameras on the back, each 13 megapixels. Since this is such an early unit (and since it was far away from the hotel), I didn’t get a chance to test them. But we know that one is a regular color sensor and the other is monochrome, which allows it to take in more light and data to improve the regular color image. The two-tone flash is there, too, and all three are thankfully flush with the device.

But I know why you’re here. You’re here to read about the crazy screen that wraps around the front-facing camera. Here it is, up close:

I’ll say this about it: it’s super weird at first to have a camera sitting in the middle of the top of the screen, where you’d expect it to cover up stuff you’d need. But Android almost never puts anything in that space — it’s empty status bar up there. And Rubin said onstage that it won’t cut into movies either. In the few minutes I played around with the Essential phone, my eyes kept getting drawn to that gap... until they didn’t. I am guessing that people who see the phone will find it strange, but people who use the phone won’t mind it at all.

I can’t promise you you’ll like the Essential Phone’s hardware, but I can say this: it’s managed to have its own unique design identity even though it’s hitting on the same bezel-less, curved-screen design trends we’ve seen on other phones. It feels satisfyingly dense, which is hopefully a sign that the battery inside it is capacious enough to last through a full day.

We’ll have much more to say about the Essential Phone, the ambitious / Quixotic plan to create an ecosystem of wireless modules, and all the rest. We’ll be watching carefully to see if Rubin’s plan to keep carrier bloatware off the phone really comes to pass, too.

The good news is that we won’t have to wait especially long to find out the answers to some of those questions. Rubin implied onstage tonight that he hoped to ship the phone within the next 30 days.