The Essential Phone ($499) is the first product to launch from Essential Products, the new billion-dollar and design-focused company started by Andy Rubin, the creator of Android. It’s an Android smartphone with zero bloatware, similar to Google’s Pixel line, and high-end specs that put it on par with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG V30 and Google Pixel 2. It’s supremely designed, with a unique and super strong titanium-and-ceramic body, edge-to-edge LCD screen, and a dual camera system. It also works as part of a modular system, similar to the Moto Z with its Modo Mods, so you can buy separate accessories as you go. Right now, only a 360-degree camera accessory is available, but more are expected to come.
When it launched, the Essential marketed its smartphone as something of an iPhone- or Galaxy S8-killer, but early reviewers noticed that the camera wasn’t as good as advertised. The app crashed frequently, processing photos took a long time, and the shutter speed seemed slow and laggy. Since then, there have been several firmware updates to remedy these “bugs” and, more significantly, the Essential Phone’s price dropped from $699 to $499 — leading many, such as Engadget‘s Darrell Etherington, to say that Essential Phone is “the best deal in smartphones.”
After testing the Essential Phone for a little over a week, along with its 360-camera accessory, here’s what you need to know:
The Good: The Essential Phone legitimately feels different from any other smartphone I’ve tested in 2017. It’s heavy, in a good way, and has a beautiful edge-to-edge display that’s bigger the iPhone 8 Plus’s. The phone is fast, built with the latest Snapdragon 835 processor, and runs like a top-tier smartphone. Its Android OS is bloatware-free, which, as a lover of the original Google Pixel, I found refreshing.
Who It’s For: First, you have to want an Android. And second, in order for it to work for you, you have to value good design. The Essential Phone has no branding, and it’s beautiful, from the screen to the materials used. Best of all, even with a big screen, the phone feels small in your hand; its 5.7-inch display is just slightly more diminutive than the iPhone X’s 5.8-inch display.
Watch Out For: It has an LCD instead of an OLED display, meaning you’re not getting the same black levels and bright colors as you’re getting with the iPhone X or Galaxy Note8. There’s no headphone jack, and the one speaker isn’t great. The modular camera is neat, and magnetically clicks to the phone perfectly, but you have to keep track of it and keep it on you at all times to use it. And chances are you won’t. Also, 360-degree cameras haven’t caught on yet. The biggest thing is that the camera isn’t quite as good as other high-end smartphones. Even if the specs (dual 13MP system) sound impressive, I found the app felt dated, and the photos didn’t “wow” like they did when I tested the S8 and iPhone 8 Plus. There was no setting that resembled a portrait mode, either.
Alternatives: Because of the new price, the Essential Phone doesn’t have many peers. You can go high-end and say it’s a great Galaxy S8 or Pixel 2 alternative if you don’t care too much about the camera. Or you can compare to mid-range or older high-end smartphones, and say that the Essential Phone is a steal. If you’re desperate for an alternative, OnePlus is expected to announce a new Android soon.
The Verdict: After spending most of my adult life carrying an iPhone, last year’s Google Pixel was the first Android that blew me away. The Essential Phone didn’t quite have the same effect on me as Google’s previous flagship — mainly because there are so many beautifully designed, high-end smartphones on the market this year. The Essential Phone doesn’t look or feel like any of those other smartphones, to be fair, and I love that about it. I didn’t care too much for the modular camera accessory since I don’t want to shoot 360-degree videos or carry another gadget on my person. (Although, it magnetically clips onto the phone fantastically well). But maybe that doesn’t matter. You can’t miss what you don’t use, and since the accessory costs an extra $179, I don’t think many people will buy it. Taking that away doesn’t make the Essential Phone any less of a smartphone.
Bang for your buck, the Essential Phone is an excellent choice. It’s also one of the best Android smartphones you can buy. It’s powerful, pretty and I love the way it feels in my hand. However, the camera is such a big part of what people look for in a smartphone these days, and even with recent firmware updates, the rear-facing camera system isn’t quite as good as its high-end competitors. If you’re looking for a small and new Android (with a big screen), and you don’t plan on buying extra accessories, and you don’t mind the non-elite camera, this is a great option.
What Others Are Saying:
• “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.” — Dieter Bohn, The Verge
• “There’s absolutely room for a phone that doesn’t shove its manufacturer and advertising partners in your face. If you buy this phone, I think you’ll appreciate that about it. You’ll also realize that Essential, like everyone else, is still working out how to truly change the smartphone game.” — David Pearce, Wired
• “Is the Essential Phone now worth considering? It really is at $500 (or $450 at the time of this post). You are competing with OnePlus at this price point, rather than Samsung and LG and Google, which makes sense since the total package doesn’t really add up to what those companies are offering. I’d argue that the hardware and design are better than OnePlus’, but that the camera is a touch below that of the OnePlus 5 and the software experience similar, though it hasn’t been quite as fine-tuned as OnePlus’ phones nor does it have the extra customizations. Would I choose this phone over something like the OnePlus 5? Probably, and that’s because I love the hardware and design so much, plus I appreciate the ultra-bare-bones software.” — Kellen Barranger, Droid Life
Display: 2560 x 1312 QHD
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Aspect Ratio: 19:10
Rear Camera: 13MP dual RGB and mono camera, 13MP true monochrome mode, f/1.85 lens
Front Camera: 8MP, f/2.20
Materials: titanium body, ceramic back
Water and Dust Resistant: IP54