Andy Rubin is credited as the originator of Android which is now the dominant smartphone operating system in the world. Android has over two billion active monthly users and the platform owns 87.5 percent of the smartphone market.
The Essential Phone is Rubin’s latest project. Led by a small team of very dedicated engineers and designers, the company aims to fill a void in the Android space by releasing a thoughtfully designed, powerful, and innovative device.
Having spent some time with the Essential Phone, I can say the design it truly is remarkable. The 5.71-inch QHD display (with 2,560 x 1,312 resolution) looks amazing for a non-AMOLED display, mostly because of its tiny bezels and seeming seamlessness. The Essential Phone’s aesthetic is pleasingly spartan—no protrusions, sleek finish, and no logos or markings anywhere.
The company went over and above to choose the best materials possible. Titanium is lighter than aluminum yet stronger than steel and was selected because it is more resilient to drops. Ceramic was chosen for the backplate because it helps antennas grab clearer signals. This ceramic was lacquered with zirconia and polished to a mirror-like finish. The overall effect is a smartphone that feels great in the hand and whose design is easy to appreciate.
Essential has done some interesting things with its camera by offering a dual camera array with one RGB and one black and white camera. This, they said, is to ensure great tone and detail while maintaining color quality. It’s a unique approach and one that will appeal to photographers, like myself, who value the drama and impact that black and white photos provide.
You can shoot with either of the cameras or use them both to create better photos. Sadly, the software seems unfinished at this point and the photo quality of the Essential Phone’s cameras are slightly better than that of a mid-range Android device. After seeing some of the other early reviews, I understand now while Essential was wary of making us test the camera functionality. It is slow to focus and images just aren’t sharp.
The Essential Phone has some modularity to it by way of two magnetic pogo plugs at the rear. These can accept a 360-degree camera which is the smallest such camera I have seen. Essential built this from the ground up, and even fashioned the world’s smallest fan to dissipate the heat generated by the camera. The modular options are fewer than what Motorola has right now, but time will tell if the company will invest more time on other add-ons.
My excitement for the 360-degree camera solution quickly dissipated. While you can capture 360-degree video and possibly even edit it in the phone, there’s no virtual reality headset companion to watch the said immersive video.
What’s more ridiculous is that the Essential Phone itself, can’t be used with Google Daydream VR or any other such headset because the display technology doesn’t lend itself to viewing on such platforms (a limitation of LCD vs AMOLED).
So, while full of promise and the beginnings of great ideas, the Essential Phone really doesn’t deliver in any impactful way, certainly not for a premium device priced to compete against Samsung Galaxy devices or even Google’s true standard-bearer, the Pixel phone.
I wanted to be excited about the Essential Phone, especially since it had the potential to distinguish itself from the herd and disrupt Android.
The Essential Phone right now is all about potential and it feels rushed and somewhat unfinished. Aside from the edge-to-edge display, which is also available on newer Samsungs and the upcoming iPhone, there’s very little else that this phone does that 80 percent of existing smartphones can’t do. It also falls short in the one area where competing smartphones are excelling, the camera.
Is the Essential Phone an ego play by Rubin, who maybe feels he can deliver a “better experience” than his former compatriots at Google (or every other Android OEM, for that matter?). Or is this just a hiccup in the first step towards what many expect to be a truly innovative and competitive Android flagship?
The company and the product have been beleaguered by complaints. First, they failed to ship the devices on time or as promised. They also failed to respond to customers who cancelled orders (at least until after they charged customers and shipped the devices). Then, there was a massive leak of customer information, including driver’s licenses which led to phishing attacks. Not a good look for a company that’s angling to be the plucky new upstart.
As for the Essential Phone PH-1, is this device expected to really make an impact in the industry?
Tough to say at this point, for one thing Essential Phone is limited to two carriers in North America with no option for buying an unlocked device straight away. This limits the audience and potential for discovery.
The Essential Phone misses the mark in that it offers zero differentiation in software, something that one would expect addressed from the founder of Android. Even mid-range smartphone makers like OnePlus have their own innovations in terms of software, love it or hate it, there’s at least an effort to be different from the pack. Not so with the Essential Phone.
As lovely as it looks and feels, and it really does feel different, the Essential Phone is an expensive and frustrating sideshow product that has very little to offer other than outstanding design and build.