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Essential Phone review

An arcane artifact from an unrealized future

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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Even though it was announced less than three months ago at the Code Conference, there's already enough mythology surrounding the Essential Phone to fill a book. It comes from a brand-new billion-dollar startup led by the person who helped create Android itself, Andy Rubin. That origin binds it up with the history of all smartphones in a way that doesn't usually apply to your run-of-the-mill device. The phone was also delayed a bit, a sign that this tiny company hasn't yet quite figured out how to punch above its weight class — which it's certainly trying to do.

Although it runs standard Android, it's meant to act as a vanguard for Essential's new ecosystem of smart home devices and services connected by the mysterious Ambient OS. Even if we trust that Rubin's futuristic vision for a connected home will come to pass, it's not going to happen overnight. Instead, all we really have right now is that future's harbinger, a well-designed Android phone that I've been testing for the past week.

Available unlocked or at Sprint, the $699 Essential Phone is an ambitious device. It has a unique way to connect modular accessories, starting with a 360-degree camera. It has a bold take on how to make a big, edge-to-edge screen paired with top-flight materials such as ceramic and titanium. And it has a dual camera system that is meant to compete with other flagship devices without adding any thickness to the phone.

That would be a lot for even a massive company like Samsung or Apple to try to do with a single phone. For a tiny company like Essential, the question is simply this: is it trying to do too much?

It won't be long now before we take edge-to-edge screens like the one on the Essential Phone for granted, but for the moment it's still something special. There's a cutout at the top for the selfie camera (and a couple of sensors) shaped like a little U, splitting the status bar in half between notifications and your radio status icons.

That cyclops eye seems like the sort of thing that would be distracting, but in my experience it becomes invisible almost immediately. Ninety-five percent of the time Android doesn't put anything of value in that particular part of the screen anyway, and the phone is adept at keeping apps that go truly full screen (like video) letterboxed in. Every now and then you will have something like an image that will be full screen and cut off by the camera, but it's rare.

Giant phones with big bezels feel really silly after using this phone

The screen itself is LCD instead of OLED, which means the Essential Phone won't really work well with VR headsets. (It doesn't work with Google Daydream, for example.) The engineers at Essential tell me that finding a supplier who could do the cutout when development started 18 months ago limited their options. Because something has to drive the backlight under the screen, going with LCD also means there needs to still be a small "chin" bezel on the bottom of the phone.

Even though we've seen the no-bezel trick on phones like the Galaxy S8, it still feels remarkable to have such a large display on such a small phone. The 5.7-inch screen on the Essential Phone is bigger than what you'll get on an iPhone 7 Plus or a Pixel XL, yet the phone itself is much smaller. It’s much closer in size to the smaller counterparts of those phones, the iPhone 7 and Pixel, and their significantly smaller displays.

The aspect ratio is 19:10, which makes it taller than those two phones but slightly squarer than the Galaxy S8. For me it feels like the sweet spot for Android, which often requires you to to pull down the notification shade from the top. It’s just easier to reach on the Essential Phone. (Sadly, there's no way to do that with a fingerprint sensor gesture on this phone.)

As a display, it’s great. It has wide viewing angles, is totally viewable in sunlight, and of course it has approximately two kajillion pixels like all modern smartphones.

Essential Phone

The Essential Phone has the most appealing hardware design of any phone I've used in at least a year. Everybody's taste is different and so this is mostly my own personal aesthetic judgement, but it's a strong one. I simply like holding and using this phone, and I love that it is unapologetically rectangular. The Essential Phone weighs about as much as an iPhone 7 Plus, but, as I said, it's much smaller. That makes it feel substantial, actually dense.

Lots of phones feel like they're derivative copies of other phones, but the Essential Phone genuinely feels like its own thing. There's an old joke that all phones now are "big black slabs" that simply aspire to look like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Near as I can tell, Essential decided to just up and own that joke. There isn't a single logo or regulatory ID or anything anywhere on the phone (beyond a little flag inside the SIM card tray). Turn it off and stand it on its end and you can imagine astronauts encountering it on the moon as an atonal choir chants them to their impending doom.

The ceramic back is pretty, but it picks up fingerprints like crazy

The phone's materials are unique, too: it's a mix of a titanium rail, a ceramic back panel, and a Gorilla Glass 5 front. There are also some lines of plastic around the screen and interrupting the titanium edge for antennas. Essential says the titanium makes the phone more rigid and less susceptible to cracking when you drop it. And the ceramic is meant to be very scratch-resistant and allows certain radio signals through. I can't say that I did a bunch of drop and key-scratch tests to verify those claims, because I did not.

The rest of the standard phone elements are hit and miss. There's one speaker on the bottom, which is loud enough but easy to muffle with your palm. The fingerprint sensor is on the back, in the middle where you can comfortably reach it. The earpiece speaker is an almost invisible slit that you don't even notice until the charging light appears through it.

There is no standard 3.5mm headphone jack, which is basically a trend now. But at least it ships with a USB-C dongle (though not USB-C headphones). Trends be damned, I'm going to continue to be a curmudgeon about it, if only because once this week I left both the dongle and my Bluetooth headphones at the office, so I couldn't listen to music or podcasts the next day.

Cynthia Gil

Here it is, really the most important part of any Android phone review: the camera. Because only a handful of Android phones (Samsung's Galaxy line, LG’s G6, Google's Pixel, and HTC’s U11) have been able to clear the bar of "as good or better than the iPhone." So, Essential Phone camera: any good?

It's... complicated.

Essential Phone on the left, Pixel on the right

The camera system works by combining two 13-megapixel sensors; one is full color and the other is black and white. (It is a similar approach to the dual-camera systems used by Huawei and Motorola.) Combining the images from each sensor allows phones that work this way to take the data from each and create a better image.

As Essential's camera engineer Yazhu Ling explains it, a black-and-white sensor doesn't need to bother with color information, so it can create a cleaner image with much less noise, especially in low light. Pair that to the color image and you should get better performance. Doing it that way allows Essential to use smaller camera modules, which means it can cram its cameras into the monolithic aesthetic it's created here without the need for a camera bump. (Here’s a nice explainer on how Huawei’s similar system works.)

Now, the complicated part: a mere eight or so hours before we needed to publish this review, I got a software update for the camera that added a manual HDR mode. More importantly, the update improved image quality — in some cases drastically. What was yellow and flat before became punchier and more contrasty. Where before I would have described the low light performance as “a dumpster fire but worse because you can at least see fire in the dark,” now it’s approaching something like respectability.

I’ve tested it up against the Pixel XL after the software update in low light and in our office and my take is that the Pixel is much, much faster at taking shots and has an edge in quality. We often talk about the top tier of smartphone cameras being a matter of taste more than a matter of quality — and the Essential Phone hasn’t quite earned its way into that class yet.

Usually when an Android phone maker tells me that a bad camera can be fixed through a software update, I roll my eyes. That’s because every time I’ve heard that in the past, it’s basically been a lie. Color me pleasantly surprised that Essential managed to make its camera better on the eve of the release.

I’m not sure if the physics of pixels and lens size will allow it to rise to the level of the iPhone 7 Plus, Galaxy S8, or Pixel XL, even with another software release. But I have a lot more trust that one’s coming than usual — the engineers at Essential were already showing off a background-blurring portrait mode earlier this week.

Ostensibly the real headline feature for the Essential Phone is that it's the first of many Essential devices that is compatible with a new system for wireless module accessories. The first of these is a 360 camera that snaps on to the back of the phone via magnets.

As far as phone module systems go, Essential has landed on a series of technical solutions that I think are fairly elegant. There are two little metal contacts that are there solely to provide power. The data gets transferred wirelessly, but in actuality, that wireless signal is just good ol' USB.

The modules don't need their own batteries, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi — they can get it all from the phone from either the pogo pins or the wireless USB connection. The magnets make it easy to attach and detach them. And the standard USB approach to wireless data means it should be easy for other companies to make modules. Keeping the data wireless means fewer contacts that could corrode, too.

It’s an elegant system, but there’s only one device so far

Compared to Motorola's competing modular system, Essential's setup has one fairly big flaw: you can't just attach a module and stick the whole thing in your pocket like you can with a Moto Z. But there are a few advantages. It doesn't constrain future phone designs, for example. A future phone could stick the module bits in another spot without breaking compatibility.

The biggest advantage of the Essential system, however, is that these modules could work on other devices beyond phones. Not just the upcoming Essential Home smart speaker, but other gadgets, too — potentially from other manufacturers. Since the spec is just USB and Essential is going to open it up to anybody, anybody could theoretically take advantage of it. It's a smarter approach, because even if Essential hits its goal of selling a million phones a year, that's still a tiny market for major hardware manufacturers.

The first (and so far, only) module that Essential has announced is that 360 camera. It sells for $199, or bundled with the Phone for $50 extra (for a limited time). I've only had it for a couple of days, so I can't give more than a few basic impressions.

My first impression is that it, you know, works. You snap the camera on the back of the phone, it launches a custom version of the camera app that is capable of taking 360-degree still images or video in 4K, and that's it. Remove the camera and everything just toodles along. It seems like a small thing, but it's absolutely possible for a company to screw up hot-swapping accessories.

It is nice that the camera itself is so small and pocketable and that I don't have to remember to charge up yet another thing at night. The images and videos it produces don't seem especially stellar to me, but we'll do a deeper dive comparing it to other 360 cameras soon. I had the camera app bug out a few times, but generally it's been fast and stable.

One funny thing: there is a tiny little fan inside the camera itself that whirs up when you connect it. I guess making all the bits in there so tiny also meant they could overheat? It doesn't hurt anything — the fan turns off when you're recording video and it's not that loud, but it is kind of weird.

Really, my main problem with the module system is that there's only one of them, so you're buying into a whole ecosystem based entirely on trust.

As for the processor, performance, and software, Essential did almost all of the obvious and right things. It’s running on the same modern hardware you can get on other top-shelf Android phones: a Qualcomm 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. There's just the one storage option, and you can't expand it.

I've found battery life to be excellent, at least when compared to other big-screen Android phones. I'm hitting a full day without issue — though two will be a stretch. That's with fairly heavy use, too. Android people generally use the amount of time the screen is on before the battery dies as an apples-to-apples comparison, and on the Essential Phone I got just over seven hours.

In terms of traditional hardware specs, my biggest complaints are that the Essential Phone is not waterproof and that there's no option for wireless charging (unless you count the proprietary dock Essential intends to sell someday that charges via those accessory contact pins).

Performance has been quite good, which I attribute in large part to the fact that Essential basically hasn't done anything to change Android. It's running version 7.1.1 and the only software customizations I could find are as follows:

  • Custom camera app
  • Whatever software is necessary to make the modules work and accommodate the screen cutout
  • A setting to send diagnostic data back to Essential

That's it. There isn't even any Sprint software here — even if you buy it directly from the carrier, nothing will get installed against your will and there's nothing to uninstall. In an age of crapware, bloatware, adware, and spyware all masquerading as consumer-friendly options direct from carriers, this is a breath of fresh Android air.

I suppose it's possible that there are some close-to-the-metal software tweaks on the Pixel XL that would benefit the Essential Phone, but beyond the camera I haven't felt their lack. Nor have I missed the many software tweaks Samsung puts on its Galaxy line, some of which I genuinely like, but none of which I consider absolutely necessary.

Rubin has said that he expects to provide software updates for two years for the Essential Phone and security updates for another year after that. He tells me that the desire to push out updates quickly is one of the reasons Essential didn't do too much tweaking to the software.

The Essential Phone is an artifact from a future that doesn't yet exist. Like every cultural artifact, it has a rich and compelling history that's only hinted at by its physical form — even though it's a history of a future that may not come to pass. You can appreciate artifacts for what they are: an object of human craft like a well-turned vase (the Phone is made of ceramic, after all).

And yet: There's no way to judge whether it fits nicely into Rubin's vision for a connected home, since we're still months away from really knowing what that will look like. Looking at the wireless module connector and guessing whether it will matter is like looking at an ancient altar and trying to guess what arcane rituals it was truly meant for.

The Essential Phone does so much right, but one critical thing wrong

Instead, all we have is this phone, and it is a very nice Android phone. Aesthetically, it might be my favorite Android phone. But in achieving its monolithic design and in getting it to retail store shelves so quickly (presumably to beat some of its highly anticipated competitors to market), it seems like Essential cut the one corner you just can't cut on a premium smartphone: the camera.

The Essential Phone is doing so much right: elegant design, big screen, long battery life, and clean software. And on top of all that, it has ambitions to do even more with those modules. If you asked Android users what they wanted in the abstract, I suspect a great many of them would describe this exact device. But while the camera is pretty good, it doesn’t live up to the high bar the rest of the phone market has set.

Sometimes artifacts are better to behold than they are to use.

Video by Vjeran Pavic, Tyler Pina, and Cynthia Gil.