Essential Phone Review: No one said hardware was easy

Essential's first smartphone gets a lot right, so it's a shame it's not the complete package

Essential Phone concrete display

The Pros

  • Minimalist design that eschews branding
  • Stunning bezel-less display
  • Stock Android experience
  • 128GB of internal storage base

The Cons

  • No headphone jack
  • Incomplete camera experience
  • No waterproofing
  • Expensive and available only at one national carrier

If you visit Essential’s website, you can see a picture of every single person (and dog) that helped make the company’s first phone what it is. Everyone from CEO and co-founder Andy Rubin to Cosmo — the cutest head of security you’ll ever lay your eyes on — is represented.

That web page is the Essential Phone in a nutshell.

Photo of Andy Rubin

In the high-stakes world of smartphones, where the likes of Apple and Samsung have teams of thousands of engineers and designers working on their company’s latest device, Andy Rubin’s first Android smartphone post-Google is an absolute outlier.

More so than any other recent high-end consumer device, this is a product that feels like a passion project created by a small group of like-minded individuals. And it is.

For the most part, the Essential Phone’s origins help make it one of the most interesting and compelling phones I’ve used in a long time, but it also struggles under the pressures of having been created by such a small team.

Readers who checked out my pre-review, “24 hours with the Essential Phone,” will notice some overlap with what I wrote there. Where applicable, I’ve expanded what I wrote previously to add further context or to note something new.

A new take on the high-end Android smartphone

Back of Essential Phone

At 185g, the Essential Phone feels heavier than most smartphones. Thanks to a titanium frame and ceramic back, it also feels more substantial and sturdier than phones like the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S8. In fact, Essential claims its first phone is more durable than most other consumer-facing phones.

I didn’t attempt to put the company’s claims to the test, but I did watch several Essential employees drop a couple of demo units multiple times in a row. Each phone came out of the experience no worse for wear. It’s safe to say the Essential Phone is a durable device, at least until it meets a body of water.

Unlike its main competitors, the Essential Phone is neither IP67 nor IP68 certified for water and dust resistance. Waterproofing is one of those features that’s easy to overlook until it becomes the most important feature of a device — just ask anyone whose phone has taken an unscheduled dive into a toilet bowl and survived the ordeal.

Another feature you won’t find on the Essential Phone is wireless charging. I think it’s a fair trade off given the phone’s tank-like construction, but some will definitely feel its absence.

Thankfully, the phone’s battery life is excellent.

I’ve seen the Essential Phone’s 3,040mAh battery routinely get through a full day of moderate to heavy use without any issues. Once the Essential Phone does require a top up, the included Quick Charger is able to get the phone back to almost 100 percent charge in less than an hour.

In any case, despite some missing features, the Essential Phone feels built to last in a way that its competitors don’t. Though, more so than almost any other phone I’ve used, it’s prone to attracting fingerprints and smudges.

On the nature of Essential design

Front of Essential Phone

The Essential Phone’s most notable feature is its 5.71-inch 2560 x 1312 pixel resolution LCD screen.

In short, the screen is stunning. Its resolution makes text and icons look tack sharp. It also doesn’t feature the oversaturated colours common to the AMOLED screens found on a lot of other Android smartphones.

At 500 nits, the Essential Phone’s screen isn’t the brightest display on the market, but it’s still legible, even in direct sunlight. One thing I will note is that Android’s adaptive brightness feature — which automatically adjusts screen brightness to suit ambient lighting conditions — is a little buggy in the phone’s current firmware version, so any brightness adjustments need to be done manually.

I have a preference for smaller phones like the iPhone 6, so in spite of its large screen, the Essential Phone feels like the perfect size to me. The almost non-existent side bezels and minimal bottom bezel help make the phone svelte and compact, which in turn helps make it much easier to use with one hand. The phone is also not as tall as some of the other bezel-less devices we’ve seen come to market recently, so reaching the top of the display with just one thumb is a non-issue. In that sense, the Essential Phone is almost ergonomically perfect, except for the fact that its edges make it uncomfortable to hold up against one’s ear.

The one quirk of the Essential Phone’s almost completely bezel-less screen is that it features a small cut out around its front-facing camera. The camera cutout has already been the subject of a lot of discussion; visit any MobileSyrup article on the Essential Phone and you’ll find at least one person calling the cutout ugly.

In my experience, the cutout — whatever your opinion of it — is a small price to pay for what is an excellent display. That said, it’s worth describing how Android and apps in general adapt to the Essential Phone’s unique screen.

First-party Google apps tend to look best on the Essential Phone. With Google Maps, for instance, the main map screen wraps around the camera cutout.

With third-party apps like Transit, meanwhile, there’s a black bar at the top of the screen that provides a cushion between the main window and the camera cutout.

In other third-party apps, the black bar takes on a complimentary shade. When using Facebook, for instance, the secondary bar is a slightly different shade of blue.

I would have preferred that Essential stick with the black bar approach across all apps, if only for the sake of UI consistency. That said, in the situations where an app wraps around the front-facing camera in the way I describe in the first scenario, the Essential Phone feels like a peek into the future of smartphones.

Essential screenshot

I will also mention that while it’s easy to be pessimistic about the prospect of developers supporting the Essential Phone’s longer screen, Google recently encouraged developers to do just that in a blog post detailing how third-party app developers can adapt their apps to smartphones with taller screens.

Moving past the screen, I found the simple and sparse design of the Essential Phone, with its emphasis on utility and functionality, really appealing.

That said, it is by no means a perfect design. One issue is the location of the SIM tray.

The SIM tray is located at the bottom of the phone, with a microphone port next to it. When I first tried to insert my SIM into the Essential Phone, I accidentally put my SIM key into the microphone port. To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t cause any damage to the phone, but that doesn’t change the fact that some separation between the two elements would have been a good idea.

Bottom of Essential phone

The location of the SIM tray also means the Essential Phone forgoes stereo speakers — this, despite the fact it doesn’t have a headphone jack. To make matters worse, the sound that comes out from the one bottom-facing speaker is thin and twangy. The top speaker, which is used exclusively during calls, doesn’t produce great sound either.

On the subject of the Essential Phone’s missing headphone jack, I’m still dismayed by the fact that so many companies think they’re doing consumers a favour by getting rid of it.

Not to overstate a point, but given the price of this phone in Canada, it would have been nice to see Essential or Telus step up and provide a complimentary pair of USB-C headphones to offset the inconvenience of not being able to use whatever pair of headphones one wants.

A great camera, maybe one day

To say the Essential Phone’s camera is a work-in-progress is an understatement.

Ahead of the Essential Phone’s official release in Canada, the camera software that comes pre-installed with the phone is simply not finished.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the hardware first.

Like several other high-end phones to come out this year, the Essential Phone ships with two rear-facing cameras. We’ve seen different manufacturers use the second camera on their phones in a variety of different ways.

The iPhone 7 Plus, for instance, features a medium focal length second lens and specialized software that allows it to emulate, with some success, the shallow depth of field photography that’s traditionally been associated with dedicated DSLR and mirrorless cameras. The LG G6, meanwhile, uses its second lens to allow users to snap wide-angle photos.

The Essential takes yet another approach with its second rear camera.

Closeup of Essential Phone cameras

Like the Huawei P10, the Essential Phone features one colour sensor and one monochromatic sensor. Each time you go to snap a picture with the Essential Phone it takes two photos, one in colour and another in black and white. It then fuses those two images together (it’s also possible to take black and white photos using only the second sensor) to create a final colour image.

In theory, the advantage of this approach is that the final composite image is supposed to feature less digital noise and more detail.

In practice, I found that the low light photos the Essential Phone took weren’t better than the shots I’ve seen snapped with other smartphones. I’m almost positive that the inclusion of optical image stabilization (OIS) would have lead to better low-light shots — as well as sharper images overall and steadier video footage.

For what it’s worth, the Essential Phone can take atmospheric black and white shots with its second camera, but I’m hesitant to call that a standout feature given how easy it is to turn a colour image into a black and white one with a small amount of post-processing. While it won’t look as detailed as a shot taken with a dedicated monochrome sensor, the other advantage of the post-processing approach is that you can always go back to using colour if you don’t like what the photo looks like in black and white; the same is not true the other way around.

Then there’s the moment-to-moment experience of using the current version of the Essential Phone’s camera app.

The camera app that comes pre-installed on the phone is about as simple as smartphone camera apps come in 2017. In the time I’ve had the phone, Essential has issued two over-the-air updates, with more updates likely to come post-release.

When I first received my review unit two weeks ago, the app didn’t have a high dynamic range (HDR) capture mode. Today, it’s still missing features that have become commonplace in other camera apps. For example, there’s no pro mode that allows the user to manually adjust settings like shutter speed and ISO.

It’s a shame too, because I can’t think of any other phone that would have benefited more from a pro mode than the Essential Phone.

In the time I’ve had the Essential Phone, I’ve yet to see it really nail an exposure on its first try. Almost every time I’ve gone to take a photo with its camera, I’ve had to use the tap to meter function to adjust how bright a photo comes out, which in itself is another issue.

Unlike the iPhone’s camera app, there’s no way to further adjust the brightness of a photo once you tap on a point by swiping up or down. There’s also no exposure compensation setting. As such, it becomes really hard to get a photo to come out just right. More often than not, when I tried to use the tap to meter function, the Essential Phone either completely overexposed or underexposed the image.

Then there’s the issue of how slow it is to just use the Essential Phone’s camera. In almost every instance, I noticed a significant delay between when I told the camera to do something and when it finally did what I asked it to do. While the two OTA updates have helped, the Essential’s camera is slow to start up, slow to focus and meter, slow to trigger the shutter and slow to save an image.

 

All of that’s not to say that the Essential Phone can’t take nice photos — it can. Generally, however, the entire experience of trying to snap a photo with the Essential Phone, in its current state, is more trouble than it’s worth.

I wish I had more to say about the 360 Camera that Essential plans to ship alongside the Essential Phone. Unfortunately, the company did not provide MobileSyrup with a review unit, nor is the accessory currently available in Canada.

One further note on Essential’s magnetic accessories: at this point, it’s hard to say how the company’s accessories plan will work out with so few accessories announced.

Stock Android fans rejoice

Essential Phone

Camera app issues aside, the software experience on the Essential Phone is excellent. There’s no bloatware to speak of — the only non-Google app that comes pre-installed on the device is Essential’s camera app. Inserting a Telus SIM installs the Telus My Account app, but it’s possible to uninstall it.

Minus the adaptive brightness issue I mentioned above, I’ve not experienced any other bugs in my time with the Essential Phone. When I first got the phone, I was unable to use Android Pay — the app said the phone was running a custom or rooted ROM — but Essential has since fixed that issue.

Moreover, with 4GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 835 processor, everything is smooth and responsive.

In a blog post published on August 16th, Andy Rubin said his company will support the Essential Phone with software updates for two years after launch, and security updates for three years after launch. That’s the same commitment Google promises with Nexus and Pixel devices. During MobileSyrup’s visit to Playground, Rubin also said the company is committed to issuing updates faster than the competition.

We’ll see how that plays out. To its credit, however, Essential has already issued updates at a quick cadence.

Not just for Telus subscribers

Essential Phone

At launch, the Essential Phone is available in Canada exclusively through Telus.

In addition to selling the device for $290 on a two-year Premium Plus plan and $490 on a regular two-year plan, the carrier is selling the phone unlocked for $1,050 off-contract.

The smartphone supports all major Canadian carrier bands and frequencies, including Band 66, which is the frequency through which Freedom Mobile delivers its AWS LTE network in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario.

That said, that doesn’t mean the Essential Phone will work with Freedom’s LTE network. In an emailed statement, a Freedom Mobile spokesperson said the carrier “cannot guarantee the Essential Phone’s compatibility” with its network. This is more or less the same statement Freedom issued when some OnePlus 5 owners couldn’t get their new phone to work properly with the carrier’s LTE network.

Testing the Essential Phone on both Telus and Rogers’ networks, the Essential Phone performed admirably. I did not experience any dropped calls, nor poor call quality. Using the Telus SIM that was provided to me by the carrier, I was able to consistently get around 60 Mbps while at MobileSyrup’s downtown Toronto office. One thing to note is that the Essential Phone does not currently support VoLTE calling over Telus.

Despite its seemingly major flaws, the Essential Phone is one of my favourite Android phones to date. Minus a missing headphone jack, it checks off so many of the features I look for in an Android phone: superlative performance, a crisp, colour accurate display, all-day battery life and unobtrusive software.

I'm willing to forgive the camera issues I mention above, because I typically don’t take a lot of photos with my smartphone. If I ever want to take something more than a snapshot, I almost always have one of my two Sony cameras with me.

That said, I can’t really recommend this phone over other currently available high-end Android phones. For the same amount of money, Canadian consumers can get the more complete Galaxy S8 or LG G6. While their Android skins leave something to be desired, both phones feature excellent cameras, great performance and stunning displays.

They also have the advantage of their greater availability. As I mentioned above, unless you’re a Telus subscriber or planning to switch, the Essential Phone is an expensive proposition. Most people don’t have $1,000 to spare on an unlocked phone. $200 on a subsidized phone, even if means paying more down the line, makes more sense to a lot of people.

At the moment, the Essential Phone represents a promise. It will be exciting to see what the team that built this phone goes on to do next, especially since they got so much right, but when it comes to consumer electronics, it rarely makes sense to buy a promise.

"I can’t really recommend this phone over other currently available high-end Android phones. For the same amount of money, Canadian consumers can get the more complete Galaxy S8 or LG G6."

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Comments

  • TomsDisqusted

    To me, this is huge…

    “There’s no bloatware to speak of — the only non-Google app that comes pre-installed on the device is Essential’s camera app. Inserting a Telus SIM installs the Telus My Account app, but it’s possible to uninstall it.

    Not only does it suggest a greater likelihood of OS updates, but it also gives me more confidence that the company will take its’ customers’ side where it is important.

    • gommer strike

      Yes, this is good – and it reminds me of when you buy an iPhone and stick a TELUS SIM in. It then installs the Telus My Account app – which can then be immediately uninstalled.

    • Magic18

      Except iPhone is old news

    • John Lofwire

      And way more overpriced and use cheap material compared.

    • Elky64

      So why do you think the Essential Phone’s build quality is the end all be all and above the rest? I’ll admit it does look nice yet the last time I looked, there’s much more to a phone than the materials it is made of.

      I’ve had many cheap phones that performed admirably and some that did not, it had absolutely nothing to with the materials they were made. Bet if you looked inside an Essential Phone there’d be little to differentiate it from those “cheaply” made ones. And sure, its titanium and ceramic shell “might” withstand more abuse but it is not immune from breaking, And there’s a cost to that durability, just wait until something needs fixing/replacing internally such as the battery, it’ll be nearly impossible without destroying many of the other components in the process… Just check out IFixit’s teardown and let me know what you think, it’s not pretty.

    • John Lofwire

      Did you handle the phone? I did.
      Did you see real life drop test right in your face? I did.

      The phone dont get damaged at all not even a mark when drop on ceramic tiles. Only thing I would need to recommend to protect is the screen just in case.

      The phone felt more stable and way faster than s8 or note 8.

      Had countless phone over the years and only had to repair 2 an iphone 5s and a Samsung s3 so that not something I am afraid off.

    • Elky64

      Well, if you get yourself an Essential Phone hope you enjoy. Not my forte so I’ll be staying on the “cheap” side of the fence since they’ve proven their worth to me.

    • John Lofwire

      Thats good and i have nothing against that.

    • Bill Patrick

      ANOTHER disturbing trend with Android phones. Forget the advantages and unique features. Let’s just streamline ALL Android phones with the iPhones.

    • gommer strike

      See you on Sept 12.

    • Bill Patrick

      Given that Google only supports their Pixel phones with OS updates, you are still dependent on Essential for OS updates and support. Let’s hope they stick around and provide that important customer service to their users.

  • John Lofwire

    The camera is amazing if you use the google camera app with HDR+ ( easy to find the apk on xda )
    or camera FV 5.

    Its the software not the hardware the issue and its quite easy to fix by using the third party camera apps.

    I also take a titanium body that i can leave naked ( beside putting a tempered glass protector for the screen ) than a glass and aluminium body that will break easy if not covered by a protector.

    PS: Beside rugged OEM Sonim no others OEM cover water damage to your waterproof phone… had several clients with samsung device as well as iphone 7 user that water got in even if they put the phone in 1 feet of water… guess what happened?

    • Marshall Davidson

      More overpriced Android crap. Yay!

    • John Lofwire

      At least its wont break after one drop like those crap overpriced aluminium and glass phone (yep looking at both cr4pple and shamesungs) i agree the essential is still overpriced but at least I get real premium material.

    • Elky64

      Don’t know why you’re all over Apple and Samsung. Titanium and ceramic may be tough but is it repairable?

    • John Lofwire

      I saw real life drop test of a demo unit right in the place i work. Drop from all angle at 5 freely high even front drop and no damage not even a mark on it. Its was ceramic tiles as well.

      So I take a phone hard to break and repair over one easy to break and easy to repair with a high repair cost.

      I am all over shamesung and cr4ple because they got the highest ratio of failure per unit sold of ALL the oem.

    • Elky64

      Of course they have the highest ratio of failure when you factor in the amount sold, break it down in real world figures and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts the percentage is quite low.

    • John Lofwire

      I am talking of ratio per unit sold.
      Hard to understand?

      10 samsung sold.
      3 come back same years with issues.
      About the same for iphone.

      so nearly 30% faillure rate is bad 😉

      Even alcatel has under 10% lol

    • Rev0lver

      Sad comment troll.

    • Elky64

      “Its the software not the hardware the issue and its quite easy to fix by using the third party camera apps.”

      Just curious then why it didn’t come out of the box fixed rather than putting the onus on the buyer to try and resolve?

    • John Lofwire

      Tested the Camera its far from bad lol.
      You make it sound like its unusable wich its not the case.
      Hell even my LG G6 take better pictures using the side loaded camera app from the pixel.

      Superior software with good hardware is a win to me.
      Software can be fixed over the air hardware cannot.

  • AppleBerrySandwich

    Given this has no headphone jack – not being waterproof is inexcusable.

  • gommer strike

    This is from the father – nay, the Don Corleone of Android – and well…

    Given all their troubles with the camera software, they should just cut a deal with Google and install the Pixel camera software and be done with it. This has already been tried on XDA and the pictures that come out are night and day.

    So it’s been proven that well – the problem is all software. It doesn’t mean the problem is solved. It just means that there is some way to resolve this, even if it means using camera software from someone else. But not good for a first impression, out-of-the-box experience.

  • Sebastien Dicaire

    So what’s the point of having no bezel if the status bar is 2x the size of the original

  • Lion5

    Seems like this underwhelming, boring phone is beginning to generate its own fan boys. SMH. We have fanboys for Apple, Nexus/Pixel, OnePlus, and now “Essential”. I guess I will get flamed for speaking the truth.

    • TheFloppyBeaver

      You’re not exactly wrong, but it certainly doesn’t help your case that you sound like a typical troll.

  • Bill Patrick

    Seriously, how hard is it to create a good Android phone?? It’s always the same story. Some interesting features, but a lot of negatives as well. And why isn’t micro SD being offered?? Probably has a sealed “non-removable” battery as well.

    As much as I love stock Android, sadly I see NO reason to give up the iPhone and switch.

    Can’t wait for the next big “Android”.

    • Elky64

      Personally, not finding the innovations coinciding with pricing. They keep giving us less options – expandable storage, headphone jack, removable battery, etc. – yet we pay a higher premium. Guess no different than Apple but that was where Android differentiated itself a year or so ago.

      See no reason to give up my S7 & S7 Edge either, at least their cameras gets the job done and have from day-1. And these two phones still handle themselves quite well in regards to today’s standards.

      Interested to see what’s new come next year but not anticipating anything earth-shattering, hopefully I’m proven wrong.

    • Bill Patrick

      I couldn’t agree more. It’s a disturbing trend with Android phones. All the features that made it stand out from the iPhone are gone (or soon to be) and becoming more streamlined with the iPhone. Where is the logic in this thinking?

    • John Lofwire

      humm there is much more features unique to android still existing but its okay you can stay with your ios device its your right 🙂

    • John Lofwire

      lets see…

      you use an iphone and complain about sd card and non removable battery?

      Hypocrisy at its best.

    • Bill Patrick

      I’m not being hypocritical.

      I prefer the Android OS and I’m looking for a reason to switch. But since more and more Android phones are being streamlined with the iPhones (ie: non-removable batteries, no micro SD support, etc), I may as well stick with the one that offers the best customer service and the most easily updated OS.

    • John Lofwire

      OS update after 2 years make your phone run worst not better as proven several times with various os and OEM including apple.

      On android you can plug the security hole using security software.
      Google update the API directly ( google play service ) so phone from almost any OS version can run almost every apps that exist.

      Customer service? every carrier now offer an amazing customer service my client never have to contact any phone OEM ever.

      But its your choice and i respect it.
      I will stick with android for 1 major reason.
      I can switch to any android OEM and keep all my purchase something i cannot do with iphone because its iphone or nothing with ios.

  • Brad Fortin

    It also doesn’t feature the oversaturated colours common to the AMOLED screens found on a lot of other Android smartphones.

    However, when actually reviewing those oversaturated AMOLED screens MobileSyrup will say:

    [The oversaturated AMOLED screen is] one of the most impressive smartphone screens I’ve ever seen. Colours are vibrant, bright[…]

    So… MobileSyrup both likes and dislikes oversaturated AMOLED screens?

    it would have been nice to see Essential or Telus step up and provide a complimentary pair of USB-C headphones

    Why do so many reviewers keep trying to replace one type of wired headphone with a different type of wired headphone when it’s painfully obvious these companies want people to go wireless? That’s like using a USB-C-to-ethernet adapter to get your phone online instead of just using WiFi, or like using an OTG adapter to manually plug your phone into a TV instead of just Casting it.

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