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Essential Phone review: Maximum hardware, minimum software

Essential Phone review: Maximum hardware, minimum software

by Joshua VergaraSeptember 1, 2017

It’s a question that will inevitably be asked by just about everyone, so we’re here to give our perspective on whether or not the Andy Rubin backed Essential Phone is actually, well, essential. (I’ll try my best to keep the ‘essential’ puns to a minimum.)

A great build and a really lean software experience bring a lot to any first glance at this phone, but what else does it bring to the table?

We’re taking a closer look in our Essential Phone review.

Design

Essential Phone review

The movement of minimalism – relinquishing all of one’s possessions in favor of a life without a ton of frivolity – is strong with the Essential, as easily seen at first glance and in first hold.

There is no questioning the premium nature of this device

The blocky design of the phone forgoes overture and fancy curves in favor of an easy to hold, accessible build. And with the heft afforded the device thanks to the titanium frame and ceramic shell, there is no questioning the premium nature of this device. Though the highly glossy materials make the phone easily overrun with fingerprints – especially in the dark edition – the sheen and symmetry definitely help keep the phone eye catching without trying too hard.

Essential Phone review

The symmetrical quality comes down to the lack of bits and pieces strewn about the body. A dual camera lens sits directly opposite the modular connector pins, but underneath that it’s just the fingerprint reader and basically nothing else. Essential wanted to make a phone without branding whatsoever, and it has definitely succeeded – this might be one of the cleanest phones we’ve ever seen, design-wise.

Design-wise, this might be one of the cleanest phones we’ve ever seen

Display

Essential Phone review

And the biggest reason for that design is because the whole phone was made with the screen in mind – not only did Essential want the screen to be the focal point, they wanted users to feel like they’re basically just holding a display.

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They’ve achieved this with a Quad HD 19:10 aspect ratio screen that sprawls throughout the majority of the front, cut by only a respectable chin and a small dip at the top for the front facing camera. The feeling of having all this screen available is pretty great and hasn’t gotten old yet – it is definitely one of the biggest draws of the Essential.

Essential Phone review

The only real gripe with the display is its IPS LCD nature – AMOLED would have been a great step up, but that’s not to say the IPS doesn’t do the job. In fact, its colors have been dialed in fairly well and the display is pretty visible when cranked up under sunlight.

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There are a few quirks to the display

There are a few quirks to the display, however – elements have to reach all the way to the top and sometimes it doesn’t quite blend in. This is most noticeable with the heads-up notifications that have a lot of white space until it reaches below the camera. In other cases, it’s likely just a matter of time before applications update to accommodate – one such example is in Snapchat, where the Text tool is basically impossible to tap on at the top when it’s tucked behind the notification area.

Further reading: AMOLED vs LCD: differences explained

Performance & hardware

Essential Phone review

The Essential Phone is no slouch under the hood

Overall, using the screen for jumping around the spartan software has been great, thanks to plenty of other essentials that have been kept in mind. The Snapdragon 835 keeps the phone up to date, and it includes 4 GB of RAM. Although there is no microSD card, 128 GB of internal storage is standard across the board. If this phone is trying to redefine what is considered essential to users, I wouldn’t be upset if this detail became the norm.

Every other connection and capability is part of the package here, including a phone speaker that might seem questionable given the screen’s top portion. Unlike the Xiaomi Mi MIX that tried to replace the speaker with bone induction, an actual phone speaker is tucked into a very small slit in the top bezel. And it works well enough for calls, providing good-enough sound and volume.

Essential Phone review

There’s one big sacrifice here: no headphone jack

Here’s where things get iffy – look around the minimalistic build and you’ll notice one sacrifice: the headphone jack. I don’t blame anyone for calling out the name “Essential” for this, as the company opts for a USB Type-C adapter in order to plug in your favorite wired headphones or earbuds. My usual advice in this regard is to just keep the adapter connected to the headphones. That said, the USB-C audio experience is above average – this phone can drive headphones pretty well, leading to some of the fuller and louder listening experiences I’ve had recently. It doesn’t beat a third-party DAC or a dialed-up AMP, but it gets about halfway there and that’s saying something.

Unfortunately, this positivity can’t be applied to the speaker. It gets really loud but is almost piercing at its highest levels. I would be happier with a lower volume unit that provided a richer sound.

Essential Phone review

The battery is a 3,040 mAh unit, which seems fairly standard for a phone of this size these days. Though my tests are mostly based on quite heavy usage (i.e. using the camera for vlogging), I was able to still get three and a half hours of screen-on time during those days, which puts the phone at a pretty solid average. With some frugality, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t be able to get another hour of screen-on time out of the Essential. And charging the phone is easy and kind of cool with a high-quality braided cable and high wattage output from the included charger.

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The connector pins are, so far, an unrealized part of the Essential package, as the 360 camera is not quite here yet. However, Essential promises that the pins are going to be backwards compatible and included in their products moving forward. We’ll bring a review of the 360 camera once we get our hands on it.

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Camera

Essential Phone review

Speaking of cameras, Essential made sure to be part of the pack when it comes to dual lens setups. For their first smartphone, a combination of RGB and monochrome sensors are utilized to bring what should be highly detailed photos. Meanwhile, the front-facing camera is an 8 MP shooter that is actually capable of 4K video recording. And all of this is supported by a camera app that is decidedly barebones and has been updated three times since we got our hands on our review unit. Those updates added an HDR mode – which was a bit odd – and a bit more speed when taking pictures.

Essential Phone review

Shooting with the Essential has gotten better in terms of shutter to file speed, but changing between the different lenses can still be slightly delayed and getting the right focus can take a bit.

Furthermore, the updates still don’t address the issue that the camera app doesn’t have too much to offer other than the basics. Aside from a slow-motion mode, there is little else by way of extra shooting modes or even a manual mode. This isn’t a bad thing when the camera is a good automatic shooter, but unfortunately, the results have been less than stellar.

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Photos from the Essential seem to lack a lot of proper processing, as pictures are rather flat and pale in comparison to other shooters like the Google Pixel. Dynamic range is lacking even when HDR is turned on, and it’s not even HDR Auto – even then, pressing HDR for some reason turns the flash back on auto. While pictures are certainly decent in really bright conditions, quality tapers off pretty quickly as the light dims. Colors don’t really get a big punch in or out of HDR, which is evident in the pictures compared to the Pixel.

Photos from the Essential seem to lack a lot of proper processing and dynamic range

If you’d like to go in-depth with the Essential Phone’s camera, be sure to watch the review video attached at the top of this article.

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I even used the Essential as my vlogging camera for a couple days while in New York City, but it didn’t take long for me to see that the videos are also flat and lacking in contrast because of poor dynamic range.

Essential Phone camera samples