Essential is the new kid on the block but it’s backed by the very man who created Android, Andy Rubin. The Essential Phone isn’t being sold on features or gimmicks, but rather an experience. In a flooded market where even the big shots are struggling, can a newcomer without any gimmicks to sell to the masses succeed?
Display: 5.71-inch 2,560 x 1,312 19:10 with rounded corners
Processor: Snapdragon 835
Storage: 128GB UFS 2.1
Camera: Dual 13MP rear (RGB + monochrome), f/1.85 lens rear, 8MP front
Battery: 3,040mAh, 27W fast charging
Operating system: Android 7.1.1 Nougat
Ports: USB Type-C
Other features: Fingerprint sensor, accessory pins, 4 mics
Dimensions: 141.5mm x 71.1mm x 7.8mm, 185g
Where to buy: Essential
The first thing you’ll notice about the Essential Phone is the display that takes up a staggering amount of the front. The top corners are curved, giving the device basically no bezels on three sides, while the fourth side is a bezel that’s smaller than most. The only thing at the top is the camera that cuts into the screen. It’s a very unique yet odd look. When the screen is off, all you see is a black slab.
The rear is made out of ceramic, which creates a dark gray perfect mirror finish on the black model. The dual camera lenses, dual flash, laser autofocus, and accessory pins sit at the top without protruding. There is no camera hump here. Below them is the fingerprint sensor mounted in the traditional location.
The frame of the device is made out of titanium that’s been polished to a mirror finish. You’ll find the volume and power buttons on the right side and the USB Type-C port, speaker, and SIM tray on the bottom. The absence of a 3.5mm jack a shame.
One of the best parts of the Essential Phone is the lack of logos. You won’t find a single marking; no brands, no names, not even FCC info. Not only is this brave in terms of marketing, but it’s also drop dead gorgeous. I’m sure many of you know what I mean when I say how huge of a deal not having any logos on a device is. This phone is as aesthetically simple as it gets and I can’t get enough of how beautiful it is.
As a flagship device with a flagship price, one of the first things to notice is build quality. Construction, materials, and design all affect how the device feels in the hand. The Essential Phone feels absolutely phenomenal without a single bit of exaggeration. It’s heavier than most devices of its size and feels incredibly solid. It feels like a brick. That doesn’t sound positive, but it really is.
The combination of the titanium frame and the ceramic back gives it weight and a strong feeling. The square edges give it the feeling of substance and makes it feel thicker than it really is (it’s a fairly slim phone). This means that it’s easy to hold, yet the edges are all rounded and don’t dig into your hand. The top of the frame has some plastic molded to the very edge around the display and this feels great, too. The buttons are solid and click very nicely. If any device conveyed pure quality, this is it.
Holding it in the hand feels great. Having no bezels is a big concern for some, as some people tend to accidentally touch the screen on other devices. This isn’t an issue with the Essential Phone. The square edges give you plenty of surface area to hold on and protect the edges of the screen from accidental touches. Despite being all screen, it’s as easy to hold and use as any other phone. It’s seriously impressive that Essential’s design made having no bezels so easy.
The Essential Phone is being billed as a tough device as well. Compared to an aluminum frame, the titanium frame is far harder to dent. A corner of the frame denting is a common cause of a shattered screen rather than an impact on the surface of the glass itself, and the titanium frame protects from that. After dropping it 5 feet onto hardwood right onto a corner, it came away without a single mark.
The rear resists scratches very well, far better than even the Gorilla Glass 5 on the face of the device. After hard use, it still looks pristine. However, it is a bit slippery on flat surfaces.
Of course, the display is the star of the device. Despite the Essential Phone’s small size, the display is an impressive 5.71-inches in a 19:10 form factor. It has a resolution of 2,560 x 1,312, making it very sharp. It’s a beautiful panel, though it could use a little more brightness. You can’t see individual pixels whatsoever and the colors are vibrant and accurate. Despite being an LCD panel, blacks remain very deep.
The camera intruding into the top of the display is very controversial, but it virtually disappears after a moment of use. Despite such things usually bugging me, the camera felt completely natural in the middle of the display.
Inside the Essential Phone you’ll find a Snapdragon 835 paired with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage. This is pretty much on par with other flagships and offers blazing fast performance. Animations are buttery smooth, apps launch quickly, and there is no lag to be found in normal use. Thanks to the stock software, there is no extra bloatware to slow it down.
The lack of expandable storage may be a downside to some, but most phones start at 32GB while the Essential Phone gets you a whopping 128GB. That will be plenty of space for most people.
The fingerprint sensor on the back works great. It may not be as quick as the sensors Huawei uses, but it’s quick and accurate, and it performs better than Huawei’s sensors when it comes to wet fingers. Failures to read my finger are few and far between. Unfortunately it does not feature the “swipe down for notifications” feature.
The device also features Bluetooth 5.0 LE, though stock Android still does not have a battery life indicator for connected Bluetooth devices.
One big omission is the headphone jack. The Essential Phone is missing a 3.5mm port, meaning you’re forced to either use Bluetooth headphones or the included adapter. This may not be a big deal to some, but it really does impact day to day use for me. I still prefer wired earphones and having to remember to grab an adapter is a daily annoyance. But with how great Bluetooth earphones are these days, it shouldn’t be a huge deal for most. Still, I figured a headphone jack is an essential!
However, the output of the Type-C adapter is quite a bit louder than most phones. It can give a set of AKG K702 open back headphones enough juice for relatively high volumes while other devices struggle. The sound is also quite good. I’m impressed by this, though volume intervals for the lower end of the spectrum could be a bit finer.
At the top is a slim slot housing a notification light and an earpiece. The LED is quite bright and easy to see from any angle. The earpiece is above average and very loud. It sounds good in calls. The speaker at the bottom is ridiculously loud. In fact, it’s so loud I keep the ringer volume two notches below full, which is a first in my entire time owning smartphones. It’s not the highest quality speaker, but it’s loud and clear.
The vibration motor is powerful yet accurate, something that can’t be said for all devices. The haptic feedback feels very nice.
Included in the very nicely laid out box is the device, a SIM tool shaped like the Essential logo, a charger, a Type-C to Type-C cable, and a headphone adapter. The cable and headphone adapter are of the highest quality, with a black and gray braided coating and metal connectors. The USB Type-C wall charger is seemingly made out of metal as well, at least around the edges. These are some of the nicest accessories I’ve ever seen, making the whole device experience feel even more premium.
On this device you’ll find a stock version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat. It even features the August 5, 2017 security patch at the time of this review. There are a few small modifications, but it’s pretty much the stock Android that we know and love.
Things that Essential has changed are the status bar behavior, the additional software for the modules, and the camera app. Everything else is pure Google.
The status bar is a point of interest for everyone. If something needs to be fullscreen, like videos or games, a black bar surrounds the camera bump. This pretty much creates a 16:9 display like you’re used to. Just like in stock Android, the status bar will color match to whatever app it’s in. With the rounded corners, this looks especially nice.
While most apps would not take advantage of this bigger status bar, some stock features do. The notification shade features the date and time and settings button flanking the camera, while pressing on the various toggles will show you data screens utilizing the entire top of the display. The Essential camera app puts its settings toggles around the camera bump, which is a very efficient use of space.
We hope that others apps will take advantage of the extra screen real estate if Essential allows it. For the most part, it acts like a regular phone without anything intruding into the display. But when something does take advantage of it, it looks fantastic.
The device features dual 13MP cameras on the rear, installed flush with the backside of the device. The setup is similar to what we’ve seen from Huawei. The two sensors are identical, but one has had its color filter removed. This makes it more sensitive in low light, giving the Essential Phone better low light capabilities.
The custom camera app is lackluster, offering few features and mediocre design. You can tap to focus, but you cannot adjust exposure. You can enable HDR, switch to monochrome mode, and shoot slow motion video. There are no features like depth of field, grid, or panorama. Honestly, the app could use a lot of work. Exposure control is critical.
Using a different camera app like Google Camera solves many of these problems (hint hint, the ported HDR+ app works on this device).
Photo quality is mostly fantastic, but don’t let that “mostly” worry you. There is a big silver lining to consider.
The photos are generally very nice, though post processing can occasionally act out. In ample light, it can take some beautiful photos. The stock app produces vibrant colors and gorgeous close ups. Oversharpening is a problem, as is the lack of optical image stabilization. This omission really takes away from the flagship status of the camera.
In low light, the photos tend to be a little noisy, and when they’re not they tend to be soft. Low light performance isn’t bad, but it’s not great either.
In mono mode, photo quality is absolutely stunning. Adding a black and white filter is nothing like taking true black and white photos with the monochrome sensor. The contrast, depth, and pop is beautiful. Some of the photos the device has taken look far above what a smartphone is usually capable of, and this is without any editing.
The silver lining I mentioned earlier is that constant updates have been improving the camera experience, and some of the changes have been drastic. Overall photo quality has absolutely skyrocketed, making the average photo beautiful. And the device is still constantly getting camera updates.
Unfortunately, this also means that many of the photos I took earlier in my time with the device are significantly worse than the photos it takes now. The photos in this review aren’t quite representative of the images it can take now and in the future.
The front-facing camera is an 8MP sensor with a fixed lens. It’s capable of shooting 4K video, which is pretty cool. It’s not the best selfie camera, but it’s pretty good in ample lighting conditions. Unfortunately, photos from this sensor tend to come out somewhat blurry in low light.
Though the current camera situation is excellent, it’s only going to get better. I believe that the camera hardware is very capable, and the software is getting there too.
The battery is only 3,040mAh, which is on the smaller side for a flagship. It’s definitely not small for the size of the device (the body is smaller than a Samsung Galaxy S8). However, the device lasts a full day with ease. There have been a few days where I forgot to plug in my charger and it almost lasted two full work days with over 4 hours of screen on time. That’s pretty impressive for the battery size.
In case that’s not enough, the fast charging will take care of you. The included charger puts out 27W of juice, which should take care of a low battery situation really quick. I was seeing a charge of about 30% every 30 minutes.
A big selling point of the Essential Phone is its accessory pins on the back. These pins are for modules like the announced 360-degree camera. There’s a magnet inside to keep the accessories attached. More accessories will be released down the road, like a charging dock, so this is just the beginning.
Unlike Moto Mods, the Essential Phone modules don’t cover the entire back of the device. This means they’re compact and easy to carry around. This also keeps future device styling open, as they won’t have to be the same size and shape to keep module compatibility.
The 360-degree camera is more than two 4K sensors in a housing; it actually has processing hardware inside to make sure your images and videos are viewable instantly. The slots around the sphere are vents for the internal fan. Unfortunately, I haven’t had more than a moment to use this accessory.
If good accessories are released, this is sure to be more useful than Moto Mods. Hopefully third-party accessories will also be allowed so it can gain some traction. A couple accessories aren’t going to do much for the device.
The Essential Phone doesn’t pack every feature of modern flagships, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a fresh, unique take on a flagship that puts a focus on experience rather than features.
With high-end specs and stock Android, the speed and usability is fantastic. The dual camera setup performs very well. The battery life is above average. The screen is beautiful. And best of all, it looks and feels special.
The phone stands out in the current market, which bodes well for a newcomer. People ask what it is when they see it; even strangers recognize that it’s not the usual smartphone you see every day.
I hope this pushes the industry further in this direction. Give us clean software, omit the big logos, and try something new. Despite its flaws, the Essential Phone is an absolute joy to use and I can’t help but wholeheartedly recommend it.