Essential Phone review: A Google Pixel alternative?

Google just launched their highly anticipated Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL phones, a follow-up to the Pixel line’s debut last year. They run clean, stock Android and are going head to head with Apple’s new iPhone 8 duo and the iPhone X. But another phone launched a few weeks ago that wants to compete against the big fish as a sort of unofficial Pixel. Created by the “Father of Android,” Andy Rubin, the Essential Phone is also a premium device running clean, stock Android. Can Rubin’s new entrant compete with Google? Well, let’s take a look.

Design

Otherwise known as the PH-1, the Essential Phone has an interesting take on the “no-bezel” design. Instead of having very small top and bottom bezels like the latest Samsung Galaxy series, the screen wraps completely around the sides and top, leaving just a small chin at the bottom. There’s a small “keyhole” notch at the top to accommodate the front-facing camera, but it’s very forgettable, in a good way. A couple of phones like the new Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 have a similar design, but without the notch. The front-facing cameras had to be relocated to the chin, however, which proved to be a less than ideal compromise. It was a worthwhile sacrifice on Essential’s part. The earpiece and notification light sit in a wide, narrow slit at the very top, just above the notch.

The back of the phone is very clean, without any protrusions or even logos. Nothing identifies this as an Essential Phone. A dual camera sits at the top left next to the flash and focusing sensor, while there are two metal contacts at the right (I’ll get to those in a minute). A fingerprint reader is centered about a quarter of the way down. And the back may look like glass, but it’s actually ceramic, which is much more scratch resistant.

Like the back, the frame of the phone uses a more durable material than the norm, polished titanium. It’s stronger than aluminum and more resistant to scuffs and dents from accidental drops. For the first phone from a new company, the abundance of exotic materials are both ambitious and impressive.

Along the right side are two volume controls and a smaller power button. Nothing is textured for differentiation, but I rarely had trouble finding the right one to press. There’s a rounded plastic strip above the three buttons that spans the entire perimeter of the frame. I’m not sure of its purpose, but I do like the look. It also adds a little grip.

The bottom houses a single speaker on the left and USB-C port that supports fast charging. The SIM tray sits on the right, followed by a small microphone port. The placement of that port is unfortunate, as it can be easily confused with the port to insert your SIM tool. Pay close attention and use the tool on the left side. It’d be a shame to damage the microphone.

The left side and top of the frame are clean. No buttons or ports to be found. Overall, this is arguably the best looking Android phone of the year. It’s not as fancy as the Galaxy S8 or LG V30, but it’s beauty lies in its simplicity. It’s one of those things that you just have to see in person to appreciate.

Let’s take a quick look at those two metal contacts on the back. They’re Essential’s take on smartphone modularity. It’s similar in concept to Motorola’s Moto Mods, but instead of the phone being designed around accessories that encompass the back, these two contacts keep design options open. There is a lot of potential here, but only one actual “Mod” exists at the moment. I’ll get to that in the camera section.

Hardware

 Essential Phone
AnnouncedMay 2017
ReleasedAugust 2017
Display5.71 inch IPS LCD, 504 ppi (1312 x 2560), Corning Gorilla Glass 5
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 835
RAM4GB
Storage128GB (no MicroSD)
Rear CameraDual 13MP, f1.9 (monochrome & color), laser/phase detection autofocus, LED Flash
Front Camera8MP, f2.2
Battery3040mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB-C with fast charging
SoundSingle bottom firing speaker, no 3.5mm headphone jack
SoftwareAndroid 7.1.1 Nougat
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Sensors Ambient, proximity, accelerometer, compass, gyro, barometer, IR sensor (laser focus), fingerprint
Measurements141.5 x 71.1 x 7.8mm
Weight185g
ColorsBlack Moon, Stellar Gray, Pure White, Ocean Depths

Performance

I’m reviewing the PH-1 a few weeks after initial shipments reached customers. There have been many complaints from early adopters and reviewers alike about performance issues and serious camera shortcomings. Essential is well aware of this and has been consistently pushing out software updates. Before I could even set up my own device for review, two major software updates hit.

Most of those early teething problems have apparently been solved. After a week of heavy use, my unit was very fast and fluid, without any of the screen sensitivity issues or crashes from earlier reports. The camera app has also been moved to the Play Store, allowing for independent updates as needed.

Under the hood is a Snapdragon 835 CPU and 4GB of RAM, which is on par for a 2017 flagship (although 6GB of RAM is becoming more common). There isn’t a MicroSD slot, but a generous 128GB of storage is onboard (and is the only configuration available). Web browsing, watching videos, messaging and other daily tasks were predictably fast and trouble-free. Resource intensive games like Batman Arkham Origins ran without a hitch, while multitasking and running multiple browser windows never slowed it down. The PH-1 is every bit the flagship as its specs suggest.

The 5.71 inch IPS LCD screen is adequate. An OLED would’ve been better, but trying to source an odd sized OLED panel (it has a 19:10 aspect ratio) with a custom camera cutout just wasn’t possible for the new startup. Too much competition from the Apples and Samsungs of the world.

With 504 ppi, everything is tack sharp with nice, vivid colors. Viewing angles are good, but the backlight becomes overly visible when they get steep (and from a corner), washing everything out.

The PH-1’s 19:10 aspect ratio is taller than the standard 16:9, but shorter than the new 18:9 on the Galaxy S8 and LG V30. Black bars will appear (left and right) when watching videos and in most apps, but they never really bothered me. Unlike other 18:9 phones, however, PH-1 users can’t force content to fit the screen. Outdoor visibility is solid, even in direct sunlight, but it still doesn’t get as bright as the best out there at approximately 500 nits.

Compared to other LCD flagships like the LG G6 or iPhone 7, it’s a satisfying display, especially for a unique first effort.

Sound comes from a single speaker at the bottom, which gets louder than expected and has an average amount of base. It’s a decent bottom firing speaker, but audiophiles will want to stick with headphones. There is no headphone jack, unfortunately, as Essential found the courage to ax it, but a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle is included in the box. Speakerphone calls were loud and clear, and I had no trouble hearing callers outdoors or in a noisy car. Multiple microphones with noise cancellation worked well and callers on the other end never had a problem with volume or clarity.

Battery

Battery life has been excellent. The sealed 3040mAh power plant never dropped below 25% after a full day (and night) of use. Essential’s fast charging via the USB-C port is comparable to the Galaxy S8 in my experience. You’ll need around 75 minutes or so to fully charge it. A Battery Saver option also comes standard if you’re a very heavy user.

The charger itself seems to be a solid block of aluminum with a nice chamfer, connected to a high end braided cable. It’s a nice touch that adds to the already impeccable build quality of the phone.

Software

The PH-1 runs stock Android. Not Motorola or OnePlus stock Android, but bone stock Android. There are even less apps installed than on the Pixel phones. Andy Rubin is the original Android guy and wouldn’t have it any other way. And official Pixel or not, neither the PH-1 nor Google’s phones will sell in Samsung or Apple numbers, so they’re competing for the same “purist” consumers.

After the initial setup and inevitable software updates that will immediately hit a new PH-1, you’re greeted with the most bare-bones experience possible. There is zero bloatware and only Google’s traditional apps are in a half-empty app drawer. This is not only great for purists but ensures timely software updates as well. There are no software skins or carriers to slow things down, although there is a Sprint version that I’ll get to soon. It’s a relatively blank canvas and your paint and brushes are in the Play Store.

Okay, so there’s one new app in there. Essential made their own camera app that works with the dual camera hardware. I wouldn’t call it bloatware. More like Rubin’s interpretation of Google’s camera app. If you dig into settings, there’s also one that allows users to send diagnostic information back to Essential if we’re going to get technical here, and that’s pretty much it.

The phone comes with Android 7.1.1 Nougat, which is the latest version prior to 8.0 Oreo. It currently has the September security patch and that should be updated anytime. Essential has been working overtime to push out regular software updates and has promised an upgrade to Oreo around November. Despite earlier shipping delays and other hiccups, I have no reason to doubt that Essential’s updates will be close to, if not at Pixel levels.

And then we have a carrier version… Sprint sells a locked PH-1 that’s available with carrier financing, easing the full retail blow. They currently offer an 18-month Sprint Flex Lease, which knocks 50% off of the retail price at only $14.50/mo with zero down. The full price is still $699 outright. It’s a great deal for Sprint customers and the phone is identical to the unlocked version otherwise. However, a couple of Sprint apps will install themselves when a SIM card is activated. We’re only talking about two and I can’t imagine that will have any impact on software updates. Let’s just hope that the carrier itself doesn’t create a bottleneck.

Camera

Essential is following the latest trend and the PH-1 has a dual camera setup. It’s also my preferred arrangement, similar to Huawei’s recent flagships and the Moto Z2 Force. Both cameras are 13MP with an f/1.85 lens, with one being monochrome and the other color. No wide angle or zoom onboard. They work together to provide better images than a single camera alone, as the monochrome sensor is able to capture more detail before integrating with the color shot. Pure monochrome images can be taken as well and I had fun shooting some old fashioned pictures.

Monochrome just adds some drama and character to shots, like this one I got of a canon as a thick fog rolled into Santa Monica.

Color shots are excellent in good lighting, providing sharp details and rich colors. It did have a tendency to blow out highlights a little, but nothing I would consider serious.

A fun fact… That house is the one from the original 1982 Poltergeist movie, now tragically covered by trees.

The cameras were under fire just a few weeks ago for having poor quality indoors. After several software updates, however, my experience wasn’t bad as long as the lights were up. It handled exposure well in mixed lighting conditions and noise levels were low.

In darker indoor settings, however, things went downhill. Shots are okay for onscreen viewing and social media, but so are ones from a $200 Motorola. Focus was soft and noise levels were too high for a flagship. Monochrome mode let in more light (see the dog shots), but didn’t help with the noise. Also, the camera sometimes took a full second (or more) to actually capture the shot. Hold steady and hopefully your subject isn’t moving.

Night shots were actually solid. They’re still not at a flagship level, but again are adequate for social media and messaging. Noise levels weren’t terrible and exposure was more than acceptable.

The cameras don’t have image stabilization and although High Dynamic Range (HDR) was recently added with a software update, I honestly didn’t notice much, if any, difference. It kind of feels like a placebo.

The camera app itself is as bare bones as the software. Maybe even a little too sparse. There are three modes – color (auto), monochrome and video. The settings button only provides two options – play shutter sound and store location. You have the questionable HDR addition and a couple of welcome slow motion options. 60fps at 1080p and 120fps at 720p. There are no manual controls and no portrait mode, although Essential says that the latter is coming soon.

You can shoot 4K video at 30fps and the 128GB of internal storage will hold a lot of footage. A MicroSD option is still preferable.

The front-facing camera is an 8MP shooter with an f/2.2 lens, capable of shooting 4K video and the same slow motion features that its rear counterpart has are available.

And that’s the camera app. A modern day Ford Model T. There is a third camera, however.

I mentioned earlier that the PH-1 is modular and a small 360-degree camera is its one available module. It snaps into the two contacts on the back, which simply provide power from the phone’s battery, and magnets hold it in place. A wireless USB connection handles the rest. Compared to Motorola, there are pros and cons to this setup. Essential isn’t beholden to the modules’ dimensions when designing a phone, so different screen sizes, designs, etc. are possible. Modules can also be much smaller for the PH-1 as they don’t have to span the entire back. That being said, Motorola’s Mods fit seamlessly onto the back, so the phone is still easily pocketable (depending on the Mod). Motorola also offers Mods with integrated batteries, so they’re not aggressively feeding off of the phone. The 360-degree camera, with its own internal fan, is already notorious for draining the PH-1’s battery.

I don’t have a modular 360-degree camera to test, but initial reviews are promising. It opens up a lot of possibilities, from video you can watch in VR to 360-degree pictures you can post on social media. Early bugs were present, but again, Essential has an outstanding record so far in regard to software updates.

Closing

I’m a big fan of the Essential Phone, but an even bigger fan of the concept of the Essential Phone. I like that we have this bone stock Pixel competitor from the “Father of Android.”

The build quality is outstanding and the “no-bezel” design never gets old. And as I said before, it’s arguably the best looking Android phone this year. It’s also compatible with all major US carriers, so no one is left out (pay attention, OnePlus). It retails for $699 from Essential, Best Buy, and Amazon, and Sprint customers can lease one for half the price. However, I still have some concerns.

There are supposed to be four colors available for the PH-1 (Black Moon, Pure White, Stellar Grey and Ocean Depths), but only Black Moon has shipped. There have been reports that manufacturing has been so problematic that the other colors may never see the light of day. Company morale has also been reported as low. In recent months, Brian Wallace, VP of Marketing, Andy Fouche, Head of Communications and Liron Damir, Head of UX have all left the company. Damir left for Google.

And what about the modularity aspect? Only one module is available thus far, the 360-degree camera. A charging dock, which isn’t even a module, is supposedly coming at some point. And that’s about all we know for now. Motorola had a much more promising start with their Moto Mods.

Rubin’s company is currently worth over $1 billion, so it’s not going to fold tomorrow. But a company needs to move product and it’s been reported that only 5,000 phones have sold in its first month. That just isn’t going to cut it. It’s not sustainable in the long term. Samsung sold five million Galaxy S8 units in its first month. We can really use another player in the hyper-competitive smartphone game and Essential has a worthy contender. They just need to stabilize the company and perhaps invest in some marketing.

Despite all of this, I would definitely recommend the Essential Phone to anyone looking for a well-built flagship, especially an Android purist. As long as photography isn’t your top priority, there’s a lot to like with Rubin’s first effort.


About the Author: Erik Slaven

He was born and raised in Virginia, but escaped to Southern CA. Started out as a BlackBerry addict until he bought HTC’s Droid Eris and never looked back. He's owned dozens of Android devices and can rarely settle on a daily driver for more than a few months. He's currently using a Galaxy S8 and BlackBerry KEYone. He rides motorcycles for fun and would live on the beach if it was legal. Marketing and freelance pr help keep the lights on.