Essential Phone (PH-1) Review | Digital Trends

The Essential Phone, also named the Essential PH-1, is the new kid on the block. Much of the hype surrounding the phone’s launch is tied to Andy Rubin, the company’s founder who is also the creator of the Android mobile operating system. But the Essential PH-1 is shipping in a particularly challenging period: The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is here; the LG V30 launches next week; the highly-anticipated iPhone is mere weeks away; and Google’s successor to the critically acclaimed Pixel is also on the way. Can the creator of Android build the perfect Android phone and chip away Samsung and Apple’s loyal fan base? In our Essential Phone review, we found the PH-1 comes close — but parts of it still feels like a work in progress.

Gorgeous design, brilliant display

Without a doubt, the Essential Phone is the most beautiful smartphone of 2017 so far. The body is made of titanium; the rear utilizes ceramic, which is soft and cool to the touch, and it eliminates the need for ugly antenna lines. There isn’t a logo anywhere on the phone, and the back is minimal and sleek.

There’s a dual-camera system on the back, but it doesn’t stick out of the phone, unlike the iPhone 7 Plus. The fingerprint sensor is centered below, in an easy-to-access position, and to the right you’ll find two silver pins — more on this later. The ceramic on the back does mean it’s a fingerprint magnet, though it’s not as bad as phones with glass backs. We still recommend carrying a microfiber cloth with you to keep it shiny.

The elegant mixture of titanium and ceramic certainly makes for a heavier-than-usual phone. Think of it like this: The Essential Phone is ever-so-slightly larger than a regular iPhone 7, but it weighs a little under 185 grams. The iPhone 7 weighs 138 grams. It’s not bulky or thick, but you will notice the phone’s weight.

We liked the added heft because it makes the phone feel more high-end. The titanium, coupled with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5 on the front, means it should fare much better in drop tests over aluminum and all-glass phones.

The front is even more beautiful. Like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and now the Note 8, the Essential Phone goes for a “bezel-less” design with skimpy edges around the screen. There’s still a small chin on the bottom, but the top houses a little notch for the front-facing camera. We were initially skeptical of this design, thinking the front-camera notch would be distracting. It isn’t. In fact, it’s easy to forget it’s there. Software ensures the notch never covers anything important, and the Android status bar utilizes the space well. We think it’s a gorgeous implementation, and we can’t stop staring at the screen.

The Essential Phone is the most beautiful smartphone of 2017 so far.

The edge-to-edge design means you get far more screen real-estate within a reasonably sized frame. The Essential Phone is just a hair taller and a little wider than the regular iPhone 7, but you get a 5.7-inch screen instead of the iPhone’s 4.7-inch display. It feels compact, and comfortable in the hand.

Before diving into the screen, the Essential Phone’s power button and volume rocker are on the right edge, and they’re clicky and responsive. The SIM card slot is on the bottom, next to the USB Type-C charging port and speaker grill. Sadly, there is no headphone jack, but a 3.5mm to USB Type-C adapter is included in the box.

The 5.71-inch screen features a 2,560 × 1,312-pixel resolution and a 19:10 aspect ratio. We would have liked to see an AMOLED screen for inkier blacks, but the LCD screen (more specifically CGS / LTPS) is incredibly vibrant and colorful. It doesn’t look overly saturated. The screen easily gets bright enough outdoors in direct sunlight, though some viewing angles are dim.

You’ll have a difficult time putting the Essential Phone down. Its crisp, large screen will make you want to keep using your phone, and the device is compact enough to not feel cumbersome. Essential got the build materials, design, and the screen right on its first try.

Top-notch specs, pure Android

The Essential Phone has to have specifications that match other phones in its flagship category. You’ll find Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor powering the phone — it’s the same chipset in phones like the Galaxy S8, the Note 8, and the HTC U11.

It’s paired with 4GB of RAM, which should be plenty for multitasking, and there’s only one choice of storage: 128GB. There’s no MicroSD card slot, but 128GB should be plenty for most people.

We had no issues with performance whatsoever. Apps opened quickly, scrolling through social media and the web didn’t pose any stutters or issues, and multitasking felt fluid. Here are a few benchmark results:

  • AnTuTu: 157,705
  • Geekbench 4: 1,904 single core, 6,250 multi-core
  • 3DMark Slingshot Extreme: 3,037

For reference, the Samsung Galaxy S8’s AnTuTu score is 155,253, and the HTC U11 scored 175,748. Benchmarks aren’t the be-all end-all of performance, but expect the same speedy performance as other flagship Android phones.

Essential phone review shortcutsThe Essential Phone runs pure Android, offering almost the same software experience found on the Google Pixel. It’s currently on Android 7.1.1 Nougat, but we have already confirmed it will soon be receiving the recently-launched Android 8.0 Oreo. This barebones OS, without an onslaught of gimmicky features or bloatware, is likely why we’re seeing such smooth performance.

The Snapdragon 835 chipset is no slouch either. Graphically-intensive games like NASCAR Heat and Burrito Bison performed flawlessly without a hitch. You won’t have problems with performance on this phone.

Near Field Communication (NFC) is on-board, which means you can make contactless payments with Android Pay, or even share content between two Android phones via Android Beam. The phone also uses the new Bluetooth 5 standard, which offers faster data transfer speeds and improved range. There’s support for lot of networks and bands, so wherever you are the in the world the phone should automatically attempt to use the fastest network available.

Sadly, the Essential Phone only has IP54 water- and dust-resistance, which means it’s protected from “water spray from any direction.” The Galaxy S8 and Note 8, LG G6, iPhone 7, Sony Xperia XZ Premium, and plenty of other phones in this price range feature IP67 or IP68 dust- and water-resistance. This should have been a feature on the PH-1. The lack of a MicroSD card is a shame, but there are plenty of other phones that do not feature one and offer less storage; and while the 3.5mm to USB-C adapter is handy, we still mourn the loss of the headphone jack.

A modular system

Like Motorola’s Moto Z smartphone series, the Essential PH-1 is also a modular phone. It’s why there are two silver pins on the back of the phone. Motorola’s approach uses 16 pogo pins on the back of its Moto Z smartphones, and Moto Mods, like a 360-degree camera, magnetically snap onto the back of the phone. Mods can enhance the capabilities of your phone. Data is transferred through these pogo pins, and they are powered by the phone.

The only mod available at launch is an incredibly small 360-degree camera.

The problem? Motorola has to maintain the same design and size of the smartphone so it can ensure these Moto Mods will continue to work at least for a few years. It’s why the Moto Z2 Force has almost the same dimensions as the original Moto Z Force. The Moto Mods are also very large, taking up the same size as the phone, and it can be cumbersome to carry more than one.

The two pins on the Essential Phone are not for transferring data. Mods connect magnetically and will draw power through the pins, but data is transferred wirelessly. The mods are not large, and the use of two pins means the company can continue using the same mods but still change the design and size of future phones.

The only mod available at launch is an incredibly small 360-degree camera. We haven’t had a chance to test it yet, but Essential’s implementation looks far better than Motorola’s approach. A wireless charging mod will be coming later on, and the company expects to launch a mod per quarter. We’ll have to wait and see if it can deliver.

A frustrating camera

Dual rear camera setups aren’t new with high-end smartphones, and the Essential Phone doesn’t have any original features to shout about. Like Huawei’s Leica-branded P10 smartphone, one lens shoots in true black and white, while the other shoots in color. Essential said photographs are captured using both lenses as they “can capture up to 200 percent more light” than traditional phone cameras.

Both cameras have 13-megapixels each, with apertures of f/1.85. The results are surprisingly detailed, with great color accuracy. The Mono mode lets you shoot exclusively in black and white, and it’s a lot of fun. We’ve had no problems with photos in good lighting, but low-light environments mean your photos will look really grainy. The camera can feel too barebones, because its only main features are the Mono mode and recently-added HDR. Essential says it will add a Portrait Mode later on, but there’s no manual, exposure slider, or burst mode.

While the results can be great, the camera experience is not good at all. Shutter lag is the main problem. When you tap the shutter icon the photo doesn’t capture instantaneously … it takes a second. There’s no optical image stabilization, so this makes photos incredibly blurry. You need to stay perfectly still, even after tapping the shutter icon, to make sure the photo is crisp.

There have been several moments the camera said it’s unable to take a photo, and I’ve had to force close the camera app and restart it. Even after successfully taking a photo, accessing it from the camera app can be laggy, and sluggish. There’s no automatic HDR function, so you always have to remember to turn it on if you want to use it. If it’s on, it will turn off if you switch between mono and color modes. The flash often doesn’t remember that I want it turned off at all times. I’ve been surprised two times by the flash because it refused to stay off.

We informed Essential about the camera issues we’ve had, and the company said a software update is on the way to fix these issues. No timeline was shared.

Essential phone review camera appThe 8-megapixel front camera is solid and can take good selfies, but it’s nothing notable.

Again, the output of the rear camera is solid. We’ll continue to test it, especially if the overall camera experience becomes a little less frustrating.

Daylong battery life

While the results can be great, the camera experience is not good at all.

Initially, we saw poor battery life with the PH-1. The phone frequently was around 17 percent or less around 6 p.m., which is not satisfactory. After some digging, I found the culprit was Nokia Home Cam, a companion app to my Nokia security camera. It was draining the battery far more than anything else, so I uninstalled it.

Battery life has since improved significantly. The Essential Phone has a 3,040mAh battery capacity, and it lasts no more than a day. Starting at 8 a.m., with medium to heavy usage including browsing the web, taking lots of photos, watching a few YouTube videos, and playing a game, the battery reached 30 percent by 6 p.m. Thankfully, the phone supports fast-charging so it doesn’t take long to get fully recharged.

Warranty, pricing and availability

Essential offers a limited warranty, where the company will replace or refund the cost of the phone if it suffers any manufacturing defects one year from the date of purchase. It does not cover damage from accidental drops or water damage.

The Essential Phone comes unlocked and is compatible with all U.S. carriers, but it will set you back $700 (for 128GB of storage). The only carrier that’s selling the device is Sprint. Essential is running a limited time promotion where you can get the phone and the 360-degree camera mod for $750 (the camera mod costs $200 separately). Only the black model is currently available, as the white version is still listed as “coming soon.”

Essential Phone (PH-1) Compared To

Our Take

The Essential Phone is a great first phone from Andy Rubin’s company. It nails design, performance, and software, but falls short with the camera. There’s a lot unproven, too. We don’t know how good the company’s customer support will be, how reliably it will ship units, and whether or not it will indeed follow through with more mods. Essential announced it will also launch a Home product that works with its phone and accessories, but we haven’t heard much about it since the original announcement.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes, plenty. While the Essential Phone performs well in certain categories, it doesn’t have all the features you may expect in a phone of its price. There is no IP-rated waterproofing, for starters, nor do the cameras feature optical image stabilization. Phones from Samsung and LG offer MicroSD card slots and headphone jacks, but you’ll find neither here.

For a similar $700 price tag, the Galaxy S8 is a great alternative as it has many of the same hardware specifications. The Google Pixel is still one of our favorite Android smartphones, and it comes in a little cheaper at $650 — do note, a successor is on the way. Finally, there’s always the OnePlus 5, which offers equally strong performance and a great camera for just $480. Check out our guide to the best smartphones for more.

How long will it last?

The Essential Phone runs pure Android, and the fact that the creator of Android founded the company, we expect the phone to get fast version and security updates. Essential has already been confirmed by Google to get Android 8.0 Oreo soon. Expect the phone to receive version updates for two years, and security updates for a little longer. The device itself should continue to perform well for three to four years.

In terms of durability, the titanium body should protect the phone’s edges from accidental drops. While the screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 5, it can still shatter just like any other smartphone. The Essential Phone is only IP54 water- and dust-resistant, so be careful not to drop it in the pool.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Essential Phone gets so much right, but most importantly it’s a joy to use. Our biggest gripe with it right now is the camera experience, but if a promised software update fixes it, then we’ll update our score. Buy this phone if you care about fast Android version and security updates, and a pure Android experience. You also get a phone with an excellent build quality and materials, with super-fast performance and decent battery life. If you’re looking for more camera features and overall a more reliable smartphone camera, we recommend either waiting to see if the software update from Essential delivers, or purchasing another smartphone such as the Google Pixel or Galaxy S8.

Update: Added official IP54 rating.

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