The Essential Phone – 6 Months Later

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The PH-1 is one hell of a first effort, Essential has almost hit it out of the park with their first offering. This is ETR’s Essential Phone review.

After a really long hiatus, I’m back, and better than ever! So what a better way to celebrate my return (to my own site) than review a truly unique device. For some reason, people, especially those that have never used the device, absolutely love to hate on the Essential phone. I think the first round of reviews and impressions really threw people off. But if I can recall correctly, the OnePlus One drew an awful lot of hatred during its initial outing, mostly for good reason. That phone was plagued with customer service issues, availability problems, and the dreaded “invite system”. So some of the hate was warranted. But I honestly don’t see where the hostility comes from with the PH-1. Sure, it’s had its fair share of problems and pricing miscues. But nothing that warrants the animosity I constantly see.

The Essential Phone is not perfect, it’s far from it, but it’s the most exciting phone I’ve owned since the OnePlus One. It’s exciting, because it’s new, it’s different, it feels more personal than owning another Samsung, HTC, or Moto device. You can actually talk to the developers, and the developers actually listen and support their growing community. It feels very similar to the early days of the OnePlus community forums, which became one of the most passionate, devoted, and dedicated communities I have experienced. So far, Essential’s communication and addressing of issues have been handled just about perfectly, updates have been timely and effective.

Essential Phone Specs

COLORBlack Moon, Pure White, Stellar Grey, Ocean Depths
DIMENSIONS & WEIGHTDimensions: 141.5 x 71.1 x 7.8 mm Weight: 185g
OPERATING SYSTEMAndroid 7.1.1 (Nougat)
CPUQualcomm Snapdragon 835
GPUAdreno 540
RAM4 GB RAM
STORAGE128GB (Non-expandable)
BATTERY3040mAh battery (non-removable)
CONNECTIVITY 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0 LE
NFC, GPS and GLONASS
Accessory power pins with 6 Gbps wireless data transfer
LTE Bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/11/12/13/17/20/21/25/26/28/29/30/66
TDD-LTE Bands 38/39/40/41/42/43
PORTSUSB Type-C
Audio: No 3.5 mm headset jack (USB-C adapter included)
Power Button
Volume Rocker
Rear Fingerprint Scanner
On-screen buttons
DISPLAY5.7-inch LCD, 2560x1312 (505 ppi)
Corning Gorilla Glass 5
CAMERASRear: Dual 13MP camera (color + monochrome) f/1.85 lens, phase-detect + laser auto focus
Front: 8MP with f/2.2 lens
AUDIOSpeakers: Single down-firing speaker

SIZE, BUILD QUALITY, & DESIGN 

Size

I’ll be talking A LOT about the display in this review. In the case of the PH-1, the display is so unique and one of a kind, that it influences virtually every aspect of the device, including its size and shape. The Essential Phone is smaller than most 5-inch smartphones but sports a screen size of 5.7 inches. In other words, it’s a big ass screen and not much else. It’s a phablet, with the footprint of a normal sized phone. After several years of using 5½ inch and larger phones, the PH-1 is truly a breath of fresh air and a welcome change. It’s as close to a one-handed phablet as we’re probably going to get.

Build Quality & Design

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Ohhhhhh fuck yeahhhhhh! feelsgood.gif. The build quality of the PH-1 is beyond outstanding, it’s exquisite. This is the finest hardware I have ever had the pleasure to molest touch. It’s astonishingly smooth, heavy (in a good way), and incredibly solid. It’s the kind of build quality that everyone else should strive for. From an industrial design perspective, it’s damn near perfection.

Currently, the Essential phone comes in two “standard” colors. White or black. Both are attractive, but you can’t go wrong with either variation, it’s strictly personal preference. Essential recently released three new colors variations for the PH-1, Ocean Depths, Stellar Gray, and Copper Black. All of which are “limited releases” and are all $100 more than your standard white or black variants ($599 vs $499 respectively). The new colors look amazing, but the $100 premium puts me off a bit. I’m perfectly content with the incredibly sexy, standard, “Black Moon” PH-1.

The PH-1 is void of any logos whatsoever, in the case of the black moon variant, it’s just a sleek and shiny black slab. Essential didn’t even put their own logo on the device, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen that before.

The materials are as premium as it gets. The PH-1 sports a titanium frame, Gorilla Glass 5 display with 2.5D glass, and a ceramic back. All of these elements combine to make for one of the best looking and feeling phones ever produced. There is no camera bump on the rear (yay!) adding to the phones sleek appearance. The power and volume buttons also have a very nice tactile feel to them and are quite enjoyable to press.

If I could complain nitpick about one thing, it would probably be the fingerprint sensor. Not because it doesn’t work well, it does, but if you were to use your PH-1 without a case (be careful, it is slick AF) you may have trouble locating the fingerprint reader. The phone is so damn smooth, sometimes it’s hard to find, everything back there feels the same. But a phone case easily solves this “problem”. Like I said before this is just nitpicking, it’s personal opinion more than anything and might not bother most people. The phone is simply gorgeous and must be seen in person to appreciate. The next Essential phone (yes, Essential is planning on an follow up to the PH-1) is going to have its handsful trying to top the original.

SOFTWARE AND PERFORMANCE

Performance has been a bit of a mixed bag, but I’d say that most of the time performance is top-notch. It’s significantly better than it was on day one, but still lacks the smoothness and polish you’ll find in most of today’s mid to high-end smartphones. Essential is on the right track. But it’s not there quite yet. Any performance issues you may experience are almost certainly software related, and will likely be patched given Essential’s stellar update history thus far. But the PH-1’s occasional sluggishness is certainly not the fault of the PH-1’s beefy hardware.

The essential phone sports a top of the line Snapdragon 835 processor, the same processor powering almost all of 2017 flagship smartphones. Pair that with a modest 4GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard storage and you have just about everything you need to make for a great smartphone experience.

The Essential phone runs probably the most stock Android experience you can get nowadays (now that the Nexus brand is no longer be a thing). The PH-1 comes with virtually no bloatware and just a few normal stock Google apps. There are a few nice Android customization features, such as reducing the screens pixel density, but most of Essentials customizations and gestures are just about par for the course and aren’t all that exciting. But, they are certainly nice to have, and I use most of them often. Double tap the power button to open the camera should be a stock gesture for every Android phone.

Essential has been absolutely on point when it comes to updates. Monthly security updates (for unlocked devices) have been equal to or faster than Google in some cases.

DISPLAY

The large 5.7 inch QHD LCD display is what makes the Essential phone truly unique. Essential is the first Android phone, as far as I know, to place their front-facing camera inside of the actual display panel. This cyclops like “eye” allows the PH-1 to dominate almost the entire front surface with nothing but it’s beautiful QHD display (84.9% screen-to-body ratio). Most people seem to either love the “eye” or hate it. Personally, I think it adds to the PH-1 uniqueness. But if you are concerned, I have found that you get used to it really quickly, and you really don’t notice it after you have been using the phone for awhile.

The display itself is quite nice. The PH-1 packs a 5.7-inch QHD (2560 x 1312, 503 ppi) IPS LCD panel. Details are super sharp, and colors look great. It’s not the brightest phone ever, but as with most phones, it is still useable outdoors. I would have preferred to have seen an AMOLED screen, as I have found that transitioning from AMOLED to LCD is kind of a stunning transition (takes some getting used to). The differences are hard to describe, but can easily be seen when you compare the two side-by-side. But this is more of a technology comparison rather than a device-specific issue. But, for an LCD panel, the display is pretty damn good.

CAMERA

If the PH-1 had an Achilles heel, the camera would certainly be it. If you’ve read anything about the PH-1, you’ve almost certainly read about its camera issues. Though very much improved, and despite being capable of taking some really good photos, the camera still needs some work.

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Photos with decent lighting tend to come out pretty good. Take away that light, and that where we begin to experience problems. Poorly lit photos can take a while to shoot and tend to come out a bit grainy. These types of photos tend to look pretty good from a distance, but it gets kinda gross once you zoom in a bit. But it all depends on everything. I’m sure that decent low light photos can be had, but its going to take some trail and error to figure out how to do it.

Despite all of the above, great photos can still be had with the PH-1. I’ve taken some fantastic looking photos using the PH-1’s portrait mode setting.

You aren’t buying the Essential phone for its amazing, robust camera. If camera quality is paramount in your decision to purchase one phone over another, you’re better off getting something like a Pixel or Pixel 2.

Video

Video is just about par for the course. The PH-1 sports similar video recording settings you find in most of today’s mid-high end smartphones, including 1080P 60FPS and 4K. Again, noting exceptional, but video quality is more than acceptable.

Interface & Performance

My main problem with the camera is the camera interface itself. The camera app can be a bit sluggish. Launching the camera app, and snapping a quick photo, can sometimes take several seconds depending on lighting conditions. I often take photos in uncontrolled environments. So the ability to snap a quick photo is pretty important. I have two young kids, and they aren’t too great at holding poses or recreating that cute thing they just did a second ago. Most of the time, if you missed the opportunity, that photo isn’t going to happen.

SOUND & CALL QUALITY

Great news! When I call people, they can hear me, and vice versa! Okay, I’ll go a bit more in-depth here. The PH-1 does support VoLTE, which allows for HD calling. On T-Mobiles network I have found HD calling to be quite stellar. If I am calling another phone that supports VoLTE, the voice on the other end is crystal clear. The Essential phone also supports WiFi calling. Though I rarely use this feature and don’t use it by default, it’s still nice to have for those that are on a limited data plan and/or live or work in an area with poor reception.

BATTERY LIFE & CHARGING

Battery

The PH-1 sports a modest 3040mAh battery. Which is very respectable when you consider the phones big screen/little body profile. When I first picked up the Essential Phone, battery life was just kinda so-so. It got me through most days, but I would almost always be running on empty buy about 9PM. But I am glad to say that battery life has slowly gotten better with each major software update. I’ve noticed a significant bump in battery life ever since I installed the Beta build of Android Oreo for the PH-1. Ever since upgrading to the Oreo Beta build, battery life has been fantastic. I have no problems getting through a typical day, with plenty of room to spare.

My GSam Battery Monitor app tells me that my average screen on time hovers right around 4 hours per charge cycle (usually once per day). I’ve gone up to 5 hours SOT in a single day (mixed usage all day). I find four hours SOT to be perfectly acceptable, and like I said, it get’s through a typical day without issue.

Charging

The PH-1 charges fast enough for my liking, it probably falls into the “better than average” category. It’s not quite as fast as the OnePlus 5 or 5T, but should be perfectly adequate for most peoples needs. The Essential phone does not support any Qualcomm’s quick charging standards, but the PH-1 does support USB-C PowerDelivery (USB-C PD / USB PD) which is a standard rather than a proprietary technology like Qualcomm’s quick charge.

PRICE & CONCLUSION

The Essential Phone launched with a sticker price of $699, which would have been a decent price for a phone with premium build quality, a great camera, and great OS. But, unfortunately, the Essential phone lacked two of those three key features at launch. Essential dropped the price of the PH-1 down to $499 a couple of months after launch, and currently stands at $499. The PH-1 can often be had for $400-450 if there is a sale going on.

So, is the Essential phone a good value among the extremely competitive sub $500 mid-range smartphone market? As the phone currently stands today, I would say, probably. It greatly depends on what’s important to you. If the PH-1 had a fantastic camera, it would be a no-brainer. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. But, smartphone camera quality and performance are huge factors to a large percentage of prospective buyers, so it can’t just be glanced over. Buyers expecting greatness from their camera will likely come away disappointed.

What about everyone else, those of you that can look past the camera faults? I would say absolutely. The PH-1 has been my daily driver for about six months now. I have experienced my fair share of bugs, freezes, and software issues, but nothing I would consider to be a deal breaker, a simple reboot fixed most issues when they occurred. I am currently on Android 8.1, and it’s the smoothest the PH-1 has ever felt. Updates have almost always been a step forward rather than a step backward.

As you can probably tell, I really like the Essential Phone. It’s (almost) my perfect phone. I am in love with every physical aspect of the device. The software keeps getting better with each iteration, but the camera is likely never going to be on the same level as other higher-end smartphones. Essential is putting a lot of (post-launch) effort into making the PH-1 awesome, and they are succeeding. At $499, the Essential phone is a very good value, but if you can pick it up for under $499, it is an absolute steal.