Let’s forget for a moment that the Essential Phone has a crazy edge-to-edge display. When the screen is off, the Essential Phone looks very basic, but not in a bad way. It’s the quintessential flat black slab, but you can tell something is different when you pick it up. This device doesn’t use the same materials you find in other phones. The frame is machined from a block of titanium, and the rear panel is ceramic. These should both be more durable than the aluminum and glass other phones use. The display is still covered with Gorilla Glass, of course.
It’s nice to see someone pushing the materials when we see so many phones with the same basic elements of construction. The titanium frame has a mirror polish, which is broken up by several antenna bands and the buttons on the right edge. These too are made of titanium and have a crisp tactile feel when pressed. There’s also a thin strip of plastic that joins the glass front and titanium. The shiny metal transitions smoothly into the shiny ceramic back panel. I don’t know about you, but the image I have in my head of ceramic isn’t quite this glass-like. It’s even more reflective than most glass phones, with HTC’s new round of devices being the exception. It also picks up fingerprints amazingly well, and something about the ceramic makes them harder to wipe away compared to glass. Just a few minutes of using this phone, and it starts to look a bit gross. Fingerprint-y back panels are by no means a problem only for Essential, but it’s still an annoyance.
All these exotic materials add up to a phone that’s something of a brick. I mean, it’s shaped like a brick sort of, but I’m referring to its mass. This phone clocks in at 185g, which is more than phones that are physically larger like the Galaxy S8 Plus (173g) and Pixel XL (168g). There aren’t any design niceties intended to make the Essential Phone more comfortable to hold, but the narrow bezels have kept the device small enough that it’s not unwieldy.
Also on the back of this phone are the accessory connectors and dual camera module, both of which I’ll cover in greater detail later, but these components are flush with the back surface (no camera hump here). Let’s talk about the fingerprint sensor, though. It’s in what I would consider the perfect spot, about one inch down from the top of the phone. That’s exactly where your index finger falls when you hold the phone. It gives you something to stabilize the phone in your hand, although the subtle rim around the sensor can make it difficult to find by touch. It’s not like Essential had a lot of options for fingerprint sensor placement with this screen design, but it still gets credit. As for functionality, the sensor is both fast and accurate. It’s quicker than the Pixel, but not as fast as the OnePlus 5. The Essential Phone wipes the floor with the Galaxy S8 in this respect. but so do very cheap phones like the Moto G5 Plus.
As we move around to the bottom of the device, there’s one other interesting aspect—a USB Type-C is the only port. There’s no headphone jack on the Essential Phone, but you do get a Type-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box. Yeah, I’m not happy about it either, but we are going to increasingly see phones launch without this port. One of the arguments for losing the headphone jack is that it’s easier to make a phone water-resistant. But the Essential Phone? Nope, it’s not water-resistant. For the asking price, it really should be.
This is what it all comes down to with the Essential Phone. Its crazy bezel-free design is what first stoked the fires of desire among phone nerds, but it’s also one of the most divisive elements. Essential managed to design a 5.71-inch LCD that comes right up to the edge at the top of the phone, with rounded corners that track along the same radial as the phone itself. It’s a very cool effect similar to what you get on the Galaxy S8, but even more visually striking.
However, the team at essential haven’t exactly worked miracles here. There are drawbacks to shaving off so much bezel at the top. A prominent chunk of the display is just missing at the top to provide a home for the front-facing camera. There’s also a larger piece of bezel at the bottom of the phone.
I think the question most people will ask themselves is,”Can I get used to the cutout?” Based on my experience with the phone, yes, you can get used to it. Part of that is simply because the camera cutout doesn’t interrupt the UI very often. Most apps just stop at the bottom of the camera cutout—all you get in the top section is a black void with the status icons. A selection of Google apps feel slightly more “aware” of the display by stretching their status bar all the way to the top. This mega status bar does make the cutout more visible, but it doesn’t interfere with using the phone. Any app that’s running in full-screen mode will simply stop at the cutout. So, the Essential Phone has a smaller effective screen area than the 5.71-inch measurement would lead you to believe.
Most apps render with blank space at the top (right), but some Google apps have colored (giant) status bars (left)
Because this is an LCD, it won’t be fast enough for Daydream VR. It also means brightness is going to fall short of many AMOLED-based phones; it maxes out around 500 nits, which is respectable but only around half of the GS8’s max brightness. The Essential Phone can be hard to use outdoors because of this, and even inside it’s sometimes too dim for my liking. I ended up pushing the brightness higher manually, which I very rarely need to do. I don’t have anything bad to say about the viewing angles, which are perfect, or the crispness at 2560×1312.
The Essential Phone’s display ends up feeling more like a novelty right now. It could lead to some awesome things, but I don’t know if it’ll be Essential that comes up with them.
The Essential Phone is part of the growing crowd of dual camera smartphones. OEMs have come up with a few uses for the secondary module like shooting wide-angle and telephoto images. The Essential Phone uses an approach we’ve seen in the past on phones like the Mate 9 to sharpen photos with a secondary monochrome sensor.
Both the main camera and the monochrome one are 13MP with an f/1.9 aperture, but neither one has optical stabilization. They have phase detection and laser autofocus, though. Essential took something of a beating before the phone even came out when an executive at the company posted a photo on Twitter that looked barely mediocre. I wish I could say that was an outlier and the Essential Phone camera is sorted out now, but it’s not.
The biggest issue with this shooter is speed. The shutter lag is totally unacceptable for a phone that costs $700, or even for a phone that costs half as much. Capturing action is tough as a result, and even focusing is slow. After taking a picture, I often find myself waiting several seconds before the camera app is ready to take another. There have been a few instances where the phone completely fails to save the photo I just took for reasons unknown.
Image quality has occasionally been passable but overall disappointing. In bright outdoor light, the Essential Phone has trouble keeping exposure even, so you tend to get blown out areas even when HDR is enabled. Colors are flatter than they should be as well. Frankly, I don’t think this phone’s HDR makes any discernable difference. There’s no auto mode for HDR, either, and it (annoyingly) toggles the flash from “off” to “auto” every single time HDR turned on. This feels like a bug because it makes no sense whatsoever.
Image quality is fine with good indoor light or on an overcast day, but the shutter speed starts to tick upward, making the lag even more noticeable. The ISO doesn’t get out of hand, probably to limit noise. Even without high ISO, there’s visible noise in darker areas of photos. Still, photos taken as light begins to look too dark. In very low light situations, the Essential Phone is useless whereas a Pixel or Galaxy S8 can capture a usable snapshot. I will grant that photos taken in better light do retain a good amount of detail without the excessive sharpening you see on some phones.
I think this gets the point across
Part of the problem here is processing—Essential rolled out an OTA update during the review process that improved the camera, but it still has a way to go. I also hope Essential beefs up its camera app, which is among the most barebones I’ve seen on a phone lately. There’s no manual mode, no option for a viewfinder grid, and no RAW capture.
You can take some okay pictures with the Essential Phone, but it’s more likely to spit out something mediocre—photos I’d expect from a budget phone. The barely-there camera app doesn’t help.
Note: There is an update to the Essential camera rolling out. We’ll update if that changes anything.
On the back of the Essential phone are two small metal divots. These supply power to what will apparently be a whole ecosystem of modular accessories. Right now, there’s only the 360 camera attachment, which Essential discounted to $50 from $200 for anyone who pre-ordered the phone.
The camera (and other accessories when they exist) attaches with powerful magnets, and communicates with the phone over a dedicated 60GHz wireless connection—those pins are only for power. The camera has two 12MP image sensors with f/1.8 apertures and a wide enough field-of-view to get a full panorama image. It’s a compact and rather handsome little device.
Something unexpected happens when you connect the 360 Camera module—the fan spins up. Yes, this camera has its own cooling fan that runs anytime the camera is active (recording or just with the app open). The camera has a Qualcomm APQ8053 SoC (a Snapdragon 625, basically), a 60GHz wireless radio, and two 4K sensors inside; it’s not surprising it generates a lot of heat. Still, the fan is loud enough to be annoying.
The image quality for stills has been generally disappointing. Capture times are long, and whatever processing Essential does makes the final product (6080×3040) look muddy. There just isn’t enough detail that I’d want to go out of my way to take photos with this accessory. The video is more successful, but it’s still not ideal. The default 4K recordings take up a ton of space. The 38-second sample video below was almost 400MB with a resolution of 3840×1920. Even a few minutes of full-resolution video will result in files that are a pain to manage, but I will grant these videos look better than I expected. Although, Essential needs to work on the stitching algorithm—there’s a clear demarcation in certain lighting conditions where the two sensors are blended together.
If you believe that modular accessories are going to be successful, I think Essential’s approach is better than either LG’s or Motorola’s. The entire design of the phone is not given over to the modular system, which frees Essential up to make more significant changes to its hardware in the future. For now, however, the lone accessory isn’t very compelling.
Performance and battery
The Essential Phone packs a Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM, so it’s up there with phones like the Galaxy S8 and LG V30. Just going by the spec sheet, it’s in a better place than the Pixel, which is coming up on a year old. The Essential Phone can be a great experience at times, but it’s also plagued by random slowdowns and bugs.
One moment, the Essential Phone will be blazing fast, and then it just stops for a few seconds. Taps and swipes go unregistered, and then the phone comes back from whatever timeless void it was in, and all those interactions are processed in an instant. This phone has the hardware to be a reliably fast experience, but the performance changes so quickly it’s giving me whiplash.
Battery life on the Essential Phone has been about average for a phone with these specs. Remember, everyone’s usage is different, and the battery life I experience may be different from what you experience. I used the Essential Phone for a lot of email management, messaging, and browsing. I also took some phone calls, played a few games, and listened to music (over Bluetooth because of the lack of headphone jack). The 3,040mAh battery easily lasted a full day, but I doubt this phone will make it through multiple days without a recharge. Over the course of a day and a half with moderate usage, I see around 4 hours of screen time. With heavy usage over a single day, it’s closer to four and a half hours. That’s not amazing, but it’s nothing to complain about either.
It comes with a charger that can output 3A and 9V for a total of 27W. That’s one of the fastest stock chargers you can get now that Motorola isn’t even supporting the 30W Turbo Power charger on the Z2 Force. This device will also fast charge (but not as fast) with a Pixel-compatible 3A/5V charger.
The Essential Phone ships with Android 7.1.1 Nougat, and there’s surprisingly little to say about the software. There are no Essential apps on this device aside from the camera and the launcher (based on the AOSP app). There’s no gallery, no file manager, and no note app. Many of the other apps are stock Google experiences like the dialer and Messages. The app drawer looks positively barren when you first boot up this device, which many people would consider an advantage. The home screen is close in functionality to the Pixel Launcher. There’s a swipe-up app drawer, translucent search widget, and Google feed integration to the left of the main panel.