Essential Phone hands-on: Bold, beautiful, very first-gen

There’s so much to say about the big, brash experiment that is the Essential Phone, I almost don’t know where to begin.


Let’s start by saying that, based on the couple days I’ve spent with it so far, it’s a beautiful titanium and ceramic device that looks and feel very high-end. There’s a dual camera in the rear that’s performing well in my initial tests. It’s got mounds of storage and a bright, beautiful screen. It’ll cost $699, which converts to about £545 or AU$935.

But what makes the Essential Phone — officially the Essential Phone PH-1 — important are the two little cut-outs on the back that look like a vampire bite. These magnetic pins are the attachment point for the modular accessories that are the phone’s main reason for being. The connection is quick and wireless, and the phone can power the add-ons or vice versa.

Let’s back up for a quick minute, because this is important, too. The Essential Phone is the first device from a new company that’s spearheaded by Andy Rubin, the guy who co-created Android and, from 2005 to 2013, was the face of Android at Google. So a phone launched by Andy Rubin is a really big deal, particularly when you have a field stacked with talent from entrenched players like Samsung (Galaxy S8 ($669.88 at Amazon Marketplace) and soon, Note 8), Google (Pixel and soon, Pixel 2), LG (G6 and upcoming V30), Motorola (Z2 Force and Z2 Play) and Nokia (Nokia 8), just to name a few. How does it plan to pull this off?

essential-phone-6976-023

Rubin’s team thinks that the Essential Phone’s modular accessories will appeal to Android enthusiasts who want to customize a high-end Android with swappable add-ons that physically attach to the phone. Although there’s only one accessory so far, a 360-degree camera, Rubin and his team envision an ecosystem that includes a bunch of accessories and powerful software to support them. Essential also plans to launch an Essential Home speaker for the living room, which will work with the phone’s accessories.

What makes this experiment so risky is that it’s the industry’s fourth recent attempt to go modular, and the concept hasn’t caught on. Google and LG tried out modular phones and failed. Motorola is still hanging in there, but Essential’s two magnetic pins on the back form a novel approach that, unlike Moto’s Z phones, don’t take up the entire back of the phone’s body. So that paves the way for more flexible shapes and uses.

Overall, I’m finding this test unit really sleek and likable, but too stripped down in the camera department, with buggy software that makes the phone feel unpolished. Essential says that it’s already addressed most of the bugs I found in this prefinal version of the phone software, and will update buyers’ devices, especially the native camera and 360-degree camera attachment. Therefore, we’ll withhold our final assessment until the phone is completely ready — consider this a sneak peek, not the last word.

Scroll to the end to see how the specs compare to top Android phones.

The most important things you need to know about the Essential Phone’s…

fl-essential-phone

Construction

  • Gorgeous, but the materials make it a little heavy
  • Slim bezels
  • Extremely smudge-prone and reflective
  • Connector pins are small, conveniently-located and strongly magnetized
  • Good, central placement of the fingerprint reader on the rear of the phone
  • The front-facing camera in the middle of the screen does not cut off notifications
  • Phone gets warm, but not dangerously hot in our tests so far
  • No water resistance
  • No dedicated headphone jack

Screen

  • Very bright 5.7-inch LCD display with 2,560×1,312 pixels
  • Front-facing camera cuts a notch in the screen, but this doesn’t obstruct notifications
essential-phone-6903-010Enlarge Image

The Essential Phone accessories, left, snap on to two connector pins. Motorola’s Z phone Mods, right, attach to the length of the phone back.


Josh Miller/CNET

Camera

  • 13-megapixel dual camera lenses are color (RGB) and monochrome
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera — the center placement is good for selfies
  • You can take a black and white shot through the monochrome camera
  • No portrait mode or HDR yet but Essential says it’ll add HDR by the time the phone goes on sale, and a version of portrait mode later
  • No manual controls or filters — Essential says it’s avoiding gimmicks, but may add more features in response to buyer demand
  • Photos aren’t as bright or colorful as they are on Samsung’s Galaxy S8, but they’re a smidgen more detailed
  • No burst mode, and focus and processing take longer than the Galaxy S8

360-degree camera attachment

  • Sold separately for $199 — it’s $749 when you buy it alongside the Essential Phone
  • Extremely easy to attach to the right spot
  • There’s a whirring, whining fan inside to cool the components — it turns off while you record video so the sound won’t pick up in the recording
  • The camera uses the phone’s battery, storage and internet connection

Android software

  • Runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat at launch with guaranteed Android updates for two years and monthly security updates for three years
  • Clean installation with almost no bloatware even on the Sprint version I tried — purists will like that
  • Not every app looks its best while working around the camera cutout. Essential says it’ll reach out to the top 100 Android app makers to help them optimize for the phone’s screen layout. In our tests, apps didn’t look completely cut off

Where can you buy the Essential Phone and for how much?

The Essential Phone will sell globally, but it starts in North America before rolling out to other regions. In the US, it sells at Essential.com, Best Buy and Sprint. If you buy it unlocked (that is, not through a carrier) it’ll work with all US networks. You can also buy it from Telus in Canada. Essentials promises to ship devices sold on Essential.com within seven days of purchase.

Sprint’s preorder deal is pretty sweet, though. It offer customers half off by paying $14.58 a month over a year and a half — this applies to the black color only.

Essential Phone specs versus Moto Z2 Force, OnePlus 5, Galaxy S8

Essential Phone PH-1

Motorola Moto Z2 Force

OnePlus 5

Samsung Galaxy S8

Display size, resolution

5.7-inch; 2,560×1,312 pixels

5.5-inch; 2,560×1,440 with ShatterShield

5.5-inch; 1,920×1,080 pixels

5.8-inch; 2960×1440 pixels

Pixel density

504ppi

534ppi

401ppi

570ppi

Dimensions (Inches)

5.6×2.8×0.31 in

6.1x3x0.24 in

6.1×2.92×0.29 in

5.9×2.9×0.31 in

Dimensions (Millimeters)

142x71x7.8 mm

156x76x6 mm

154.2×74.1×7.3 mm

148.9×68.1×8 mm

Weight (Ounces, Grams)

6.5 oz; 185 g

5 oz; 143 g

5.4 oz; 153 g

5.5 oz; 155 g

Mobile software

Android 7.1.1 Nougat

Android 7.1.1 Nougat

Android 7.1.1 Nougat

Android 7.0 Nougat

Camera

13-megapixel camera (RGB), 13-megapixel (Monochrome)

Dual 12-megapixel

16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto

12-megapixel

Front-facing camera

8-megapixel

5-megapixel

16-megapixel

8-megapixel

Video capture

4K

4K

4K

4K

Processor

2.4GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835

2.35GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835

2.45GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835

Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)

Storage

128GB

64GB, 128GB (varies)

64GB, 128GB

64GB

RAM

4GB

4GB, 6GB (varies)

6GB, 8GB

4GB

Expandable storage

None

Up to 2TB

None

Up to 2TB

Battery

3,040mAh

2,730mAh

3,300mAh

3,000mAh

Fingerprint sensor

Back

Beneath screen

Home button

Back cover

Connector

USB-C

USB-C

USB-C

USB-C

Special features

Magnetic pin connector for accessories

Splash-resistant; Gigabit LTE-ready

Portrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging

Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready

Price off-contract (USD)

$699

$730-$810, depending on carrier

$479 (64GB), $539 (128GB)

ATT: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; US Cellular: $675

Price (GBP)

Converts to about £545

Converts to about £615

£449 (64GB), £499 (128GB)

£689

Price (AUD)

Converts to about AU$935

Converts to about AU$1,005

Converts to about AU$635 (64GB), AU$715 (128GB)

AU$1,199


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