The news that Samsung and Apple have a new competitor in the smartphone space wouldn’t normally cause much reaction in each of the companies’ respective offices. After all, they already have plenty of competition from the likes of HTC, LG, Sony, Huawei, OnePlus, Microsoft, Lenovo, Xiaomi, Oppo and Nokia (again), so what’s one more competitor?
This one is particularly interesting though. It comes from Andy Rubin’s company Essential – and if you didn’t know, Rubin was one of the fathers of the Android operating system, before Google bought it up and made it all consuming. He left Google in 2014 to set up a technology investment company called Playground, which in turn funds Essential.
Unsurprisingly, the first Essential phone (named simply “The Essential Phone” or PH-1) runs Android – like approximately 80% of the world’s smartphones – and the handset is targeting the top end of the market. In terms of looks, it’s certainly hit the right notes with the bezel appearing even thinner than the edge display recently debuted in the Samsung Galaxy S8 – although, the gap in the screen for the front facing camera is a bit of a design misstep in my eyes. That 5.7in screen has a 19:10 aspect ratio, with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,312.
In terms of specifications, it should be no slouch. It’s packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor (last seen in the HTC U11), backed by 4GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage. The front camera blocking out the top of the screen is eight megapixels, while the rear facing camera packs 13.
It may be the company’s first phone, but they’ve certainly got the usual smartphone marketing tropes down to a tee, right down to the ridiculously artsy names for the colour of the case. Essential Phone comes in “Black Moon”, “Stellar Grey”, “Pure White” or “Ocean Depths.”
The main trick up the Essential Phone’s sleeve though? It’s modular. Project Ara may be dead, and LG may have given up on their modular dream, but Essential joins Lenovo in keeping the dream alive. And like Lenovo’s Moto Z and Moto Z Play, the handset uses magnetic connectors to plug in its extras. The first one available is a 360 degree camera that Essential offer in a bundle with the handset for $50 extra.
Speaking of which – how much does it cost? Essential’s website lets you reserve the handset right now for $699, which is roughly £545. That may sound like a huge bargain in a world where flagships from LG and HTC are now starting at £650, but do bear in mind that that won’t include tax, so in all likelihood, should we see the handset in Britain, it’ll come at a similar price point.
When Rubin announced the Essential Phone, he explained that the company was aiming to be a big brand with several products, so it’s possible that while the first handset is aimed at the top end, there is space for a budget version too. However, it won’t be the second product – that will be the Essential Home: a virtual assistant looking to take on Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Little is up on the site about it right now, barring a few renders, but it looks a bit like an Echo Dot with a screen. The company says it can be activated by asking a question, tapping it, or “even a glance,” but maintains that privacy will be at its core, adding that “we designed Essential Home to directly talk to your devices over your in-home network as much as possible in order to limit sending data to the cloud.” How well that works in practice remains to be seen, given both Google Home and Amazon Alexa rely so heavily on cloud servers.
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