Around a year ago the public was teased with rumours of a handset launch from a brand new company headed up by one of the co-founders of Android themselves: Andy Rubin. The thought of a handset blending the exact features that one of the fathers of Android envisions was an exciting prospect, and with the death of the Nexus line, this may provide hardcore fans of vanilla Android the rebirth of a platform for them to enjoy Android as it was meant to be, as far as they are concerned.
The Essential phone launched in August 2017. Whilst the phone garnered generally positive reviews, it launched with quite a high price tag of $699 (the phone is only sold in the U.S., but can of course be imported, as I did). That price meant that the phone had a very similar asking price to the flagship Galaxy S8, and even close to the iPhone 8, thus consumers were reluctant to drop the same amount of cash on a phone from a completely new, unheard of an unproven company. As such, sales were slow.
That price has dropped substantially since then, and I managed to pick one up during Prime Day last month for $249. This is a much more agressive price, way lower than Samsung’s equivalent offering and even lower than OnePlus charge for the 6, which has similar specs, which should now at least put the PH-1 onto comparison tables when consumers are trying to decide what their next handset is to be!
Enough about history though, and on to the handset itself! The PH-1 is a dense black block of a phone. It’s not that it’s particularly bulky or cumbersome – quite the opposite in fact, and feels good in the hand – but rather it has an obeliskian look and feel to it: dark, imposing and sharp with no camera protrusions or otherwise. It rather reminds me of early Sony Xperia handsets in its design.
The PH-1 uses titanium as it’s material of choice, as it’s is meant to provide excellent durability and protection from drops onto concrete and other hard surfaces when compared to other materials such as aluminum (the most common metal used for phones these days). You might be surprised to hear that I haven’t gone to the lengths of throwing around the phone around a car park to test this theory so I’ll give Essential the benefit of the doubt on this one. It certainly feels solid in the hand!
All buttons on the Essential phone are on the right hand side when looking at the screen. The volume up, down and power buttons are all identical in size, and have a nice clickly feel to them. It might have been nice for the power button to have a textured feel to it to differentiate it from the other, but they are all in logical places.
On the bottom of the phone we have all the usual bits and bobs: USB C port, speaker and microphone, but also the SIM slot, which was certainly an unuaul place to find it, and resulted in me confusingly searching the sides and top of the phone for much longer than would be deemed sane for it before finding it here to my surprise. This means, sadly, we have no headphone jack, boo!
Around back we have a dual camera system, which Essential says will rival the best cameras out there (more on this later). It’s a colour/monochrome sensor combo, both at 13MP and f/1.85, and is apparently the world’s thinnest camera module built for a smartphone, hence how it sits flush with the body when most camera systems on phones these days prodrude out the back.
Just to the left of the lens system is a circle split in two. One half of this contains the flash for the camera and the other half a laser auto focus system for the camera; I remember this tech on my LG G3 in 2014 so it’s not particularly new, though that may have been the first phone to use it.
At the opposite side from the camera, we have two small metal depressions in the body of the device. These form the new magnetic accessory connection that I believe Essential plan to pad out with a range of difference accessory options for the phone. At the minute there’s only one option: a $49 360 camera which snaps onto the back of the phone and communicates through the magnetic connectors.
The star of the show for the PH-1 is definitely the screen on the front. It’s the closest I’ve seen in person to a bezel-less screen, with one of the best examples of a notch. The notch is barely any wider than the selfie camera at the top of the screen, which means almost all of the status bar is free for icons. The speaker has been squished in above the camera in a slit along the top edge of the phone. They’ve even managed to squeeze a notification light on the left side of the speaker which is impressive!
One downside of this setup though is that the notch is a little taller than some examples on other phones. For this reason, the status bar has been widened as well to make it match the distance that the notch protudes into the screen. This means that sometimes the status bar feels a bit like wasted space as the icons haven’t been increased in size any to take advantage of the extra space – in fact sometimes they look a little silly floating around in the middle of a large gap.
The screen uses LCD tech instead of the usual OLED that you might have found on most flagship notched handsets (especially when you consider that this phone initially debuted at $699, I would have expected OLED at that price point, but it is more excusable at it’s now lower price). That being said, I don’t feel that the use of LCD has comprimised the quality any – it’s a good high resolution, albeit slightly strange at 2560 x 1312, and is bright and clear.
The phone is running Android 9.0 Pie, which Essential miraculously managed to release on day 1 of the software being released – absolute nirvana when it comes to Android software updates, which are notoriously bad for getting onto handsets within a reasonable time after being released by Google. I won’t go into Pie itself (feel free to read my review of it over here – in fact, I insist!), but the phone runs it without a hitch thanks to the Snapdragon 835 processor.
The specs aren’t flagship level at this point in 2018, (though neither now is the price of the handset), however I believe that processor performance is beginning to plataeu at this point anyway, so performance gaps between generations isn’t as apparent as it once was. Still the phone is quick with no noticable slowdown in Android menus or when opening or switching between apps.
The camera is definitely the area that can set one phone apart from another nowadays. After all, apart from the design, most Android phones are pretty similar beyond that! Essential pride itself with the “world’s thinnest dual camera system built for a phone”. Indeed, this makes for a pleasing look with no protruding camera lenses on the back of the phone making the phone rock about when placed on a desk.
However, I’m not totally enamoured by the pictures this system produces. Essential has gone for a dual 13MP sensor setup, one monochrome and one colour. This is a similar setup to what Huawei did with last year’s P10, whereas most other dual camera phones have two colour sensors but one being telephoto for zoomed images.
In the above picture for example, the colour of the brickwork in the background of the photo is very yellow in comparison to its true colour, which the OnePlus 6 manages to handle and produce well. There’s also very little in way of bokeh on the photo, with the background being quite sharp, meaning that things in the foreground aren’t displayed as prominantly.
Essential have managed to do something with the PH-1 that no other major manufacturer has managed so far, produce a flagship level phone that gets the most recent and up to date Android updates as soon as they are released by Google. WIth the release of Pie, it was proved they have realised this. However, they priced themselves out of the market for too long before dropping to a more reasonable and competitive level.
By this time, the other bigger manufacturers with their superior manpower and manufacturing assets have already moved on and are already producing newer handsets with superior specs whilst Essential lag behind.
For the PH-2, Essential need to look at getting a handset out with good specs at a competitive price, in order to compete with the Xiaomis and OnePluses out there. Addidionally, the magnetic accessory attachment could be an interesting way into padding out a nice accessory business similar to Motorola’s Moto Mods. Building on these two ideas, I’d be interested in seeing what’s in store for round 2!