Essential Phone review – Essential Phone hands on – A forefather of Android has brought a new smartphone vision to life – the Essential Phone – and we have been able to use this latest creation for the last few days: a phone with basically no branding, high-end specifications, supposed future-proofing, and a laundry list of possibilities. A phone that begs the question posed in its own name: what is truly essential?
As one of the most anticipated phones of the year, it is interesting to see that a device with such hype is actually quite understated. Our time at the Playground – where the phone was conceived and developed – wasn’t full of fanfare or grandiose presentations, but rather a deeper look into the philosophy that birthed the Essential brand and phone.
After a number of demos showcasing the phone’s various features, we were greeted with what will be the sales kiosks for the Essential Phone – eye catching, to be sure, but not in your face. And the device itself continues this projection.
Essential’s smartphone comes in black or white, glossy and matted in texture, respectively. None of the devices have any sort of branding on them, despite the exclusive carrier rights currently afforded to Sprint. And with the screen off, first glances at the Essential show a slab of tech just waiting to show what it can do.
The essential Phone has a 5.7-inch QHD display with a 19:10 aspect ratio and some of the most minimal bezels we’ve ever seen.
So let’s get straight to the marquee feature, as powering up the phone makes it clear off the bat – this phone is different. A 5.7-inch QHD display is sprawled out as much as it can possibly be on the Essential, making for a 19:10 aspect ratio and some of the most minimal bezels we’ve ever seen on a smartphone.
Besides a bit of chin, it truly feels like you’re holding something that is all screen, all the time with this phone. All that really breaks the immersion is the 8 MP front facing camera, which has been given its own cutout at the top that peeks through the top of the screen. But that little bit of interruption in this very pleasing display only adds some more uniqueness to the Essential.
The body of the Essential Phone is made of titanium, with ceramic as the backing for at least our Moon Black unit. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen a phone tackle a similar design element before, from Xiaomi. The Xiaomi Mi Mix (and the Essential, for that matter) is not the first phone to attempt to go bezelless, but it is the first one to garner a ton of attention for doing so. In my review of Xiaomi’s attempt, I languished over the large size of the handset, wishing for a smaller version of it. That is, essentially, what we get with the Essential Phone.
Ceramic is a very slippery material but the titanium build doesn’t dent or scratch as easily as aluminium.
And the titanium/ceramic combination seems to be holding up quite well to everyday wear and tear – ceramic is a very slippery material that can slide easily off pretty much any surface, and this has resulted in a few very small accidental drops. As Essential has touted, their build doesn’t dent or scratch as easily as aluminium – this seems to be the case so far.
What I might possibly like the most about the phone though is how it manages to make handling quite easy despite the 5.7-inch display. This is a feat that has already been achieved by the likes of Samsung and LG, but the Essential manages to do so without going too narrow or too tall in form. And there is a bit of a throwback vibe to the Essential thanks to the thicker, flatter sides. This phone doesn’t shy away from being a bit blocky – in fact, it plays in its favor as this phone is easier to handle in one hand than similarly sized competitors.
The intriguing display design requires a little bit of creativity on the part of app developers.
The display is, naturally, one of the main draws and so far has been performing really well. The intriguing design aspect where the notification bar goes all the way up to the very top of the device requires a little bit of creativity on the part of app developers. Some applications take to it just fine while others (like Facebook) don’t move their top bars all the way up.
For any applications that don’t try to change UI colors throughout, the notification area just goes black. This change can be a tiny bit disappointing – we were excited to see how the screen would handle media like YouTube but found that pillar-boxing was still the practical solution. Still, we have had no issues with this display, even in broad daylight where it was plenty visible at its highest brightness levels.
Underneath that are all the proper high end specs – the Snapdragon 835 with 4 GB of RAM. One interesting development was the move to 128 GB of internal storage throughout, which is good because users cannot expand the storage with SD cards. Though Sprint will have the Essential Phone available on their network, unlocked versions are available if you aren’t using their services.
Despite the high-end specs, there is no headphone jack on this device, a feature most users still believe is essential.
A semantic argument can be made at this point regarding the term ‘essential,’ as there is no headphone jack on this device. One could argue that leaving it out is contrary to what most users believe is required in their devices; on the other hand, it is possible that the company is trying to redefine the term.
Nonetheless, a USB Type-C adapter for headphones is included in the box and in our short testing thus far it does seem that the Essential can power headphones pretty well. We will see what the output and sound is like on higher end headphones for our full review. Speaking of sound, the built-in speaker is so far a low point on the phone, as it gets tinny and piercing at its admittedly very loud maximums.
That USB Type-C port supports fast charging for the 3,040m Ah battery unit that we will be testing further for our full review.
Charging might not require the charging cable all the time for much longer, however, as Essential is planning on using those two connector dots near the camera combo for numerous accessories, including a secondary charging method.
For now, the unfortunately delayed Essential 360 modular camera add-on is the current Essential accessory. It will take 360 photos and video, processing data in and out of the connector area that the company says will be part of future Essential devices, too. We’re excited to see what the possibilities are with Essential’s take on modularity.
Related: Are modular phones the next big thing?
Without the 360 camera, there is still the built-in dual 13MP cameras. This dual combination puts together a RGB and monochrome sensor for getting more detail out of any given scene. It is possible to take fully monochrome pictures using just the mono sensor, and so far that has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the camera experience.
More camera testing will be done for the full review, especially since we were sent an OTA just before the release of this article that added HDR support. On that note, the camera app does need these updates, as the app can run a bit slow when changing between sensors and is lacking in extra features, like a manual mode.
With Andy Rubin’s name part of the Essential’s being, it should come as no surprise that the company has put some real thought into what the Android iteration would look like in this phone. As simplicity, minimalism, and honestly essentialism are all part of the philosophy here, I was really happy to see one of the lightest versions of Android ever.
As simplicity, minimalism, and essentialism are all part of the philosophy here, the Essential Phone ships with one of the lightest versions of Android ever.
Representatives at Essential posited that aside from Android’s intrinsic applications, only about half a dozen extra are further added. And so far the result in this Nougat build have been speedy, smooth, and consistent. Even when throwing in a Sprint SIM card forced installation of three Sprint apps, it didn’t bog down the experience one bit. If there is one ‘essential’ piece of the puzzle, the lightweight but totally functional Android software in this phone nails it.
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The Essential Phone feels like a phone trying to cater to many people at once, all of whom have different definitions of the word. Essential could mean everyday specifications and features that no one can live without; or, these visions of modularity, easy to harness 360 media, and a screen that won’t quit could become essentials.
Reaching for both makes the Essential a continuously intriguing phone to use. It is unassuming at first but then bursts with capability, but we will see where the lines are drawn in our testing of the ‘essentials’ for our full review. Stay tuned for that and let us know your thoughts on the Essential Phone in the comments below.
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