The good: Long battery life, clean and easy-to-use software, beautiful design
The bad: Camera isn't as good as the competition, fingerprint sensor doesn't always work, expensive
Who should buy: Android fans that want long battery life and are tired of dealing with bloatware
In the early 2000s, mobile phones could do little more than make calls and run simple games. That's why many considered the iPhone to be revolutionary in 2007: it marked the beginning of an era in which our phones have come to function as miniature computers in addition to communication devices. But while Apple is largely credited with inventing the modern smartphone, it's Android co-creator Andy Rubin's mobile operating system that powers 85% of all smartphones being used around the world.
Rubin wants to move the smartphone industry needle once more, if on a smaller scale. The first product to come from his new company, Essential, is an Android phone that aims to solve big industry problems, like bloatware (unnecessary apps loaded on phones by carriers) and accessories that become obsolete too soon. With the Essential Phone, which began shipping August 25 for $699, the company hopes to make inroads on Samsung and Apple's turf. It's available through Essential's website and via Sprint, which is offering the device for $29.17 per month.
Essential's phone has many of the ingredients necessary for making a stellar smartphone, especially in its gorgeous yet durable build and long battery life. But neither of those characteristics are what impressed me most. It's the Essential Phone's interface — or lack thereof — that really caught my attention. Most Android phones are filled with apps and widgets from the carrier or phone manufacturer preinstalled on a phone. More often than not, these apps just clog up the home screen and app menu and add little or no value to the overall experience. The T-Mobile version of my Galaxy S8 review unit, for example, has three separate folders for apps from T-Mobile, Samsung and Google.
The Essential Phone doesn't have that problem (save for one Sprint app that was present on my review unit). The basic layout is so clean that the home screen doesn't even have the time and weather widget found on most Android phones — it's just a blank space, with Google's search bar at the top. The result is a lightweight, easy-to-navigate interface that makes the Essential Phone feel snappy and smooth. The layout couldn't be easier to learn, too. Swipe from the right to see recently downloaded apps, swipe down from the top for settings shortcuts and notifications, swipe from left to right for the Google Feed, and tap the arrow at the bottom of the screen to access the app drawer. It's that simple.
If there's one trend that's come to define smartphones this year, it's the way their screens have changed. An increasing number of smartphone makers, from LG to Samsung and now Essential, have decreased the size of the borders that surround the phone's screen. This makes it possible to increase screen size without having to make the phone physically larger.
Each company has their own tactic for doing so: Samsung uses curved glass on its Galaxy S8 and S8+ to subtly bend the screen over the edges of the phone. The larger screen on the LG G6 occupies nearly the entire face of the phone. But both Samsung and LG include a thin black strip across the top of the screen where the front-facing camera sits. That's a crucial area where the Essential Phone differs: there's no strip across the top, just a small divot in the display top. I was apprehensive about this — in photos, the camera cutout looked awkward. But now that I've been using the phone, I can tell what a difference it makes. This design choice makes it feel more like you're holding a sheet of glass than a phone.
The Essential Phone's titanium frame also feels sturdier than those found on many competitors. Its design may be my favorite thing about the phone, in fact. But there are a few imperfections: the fingerprint scanner located on the back of the phone rarely works on the first try. And the glossy back, while attractive, sometimes make the phone difficult to grip, and gets easily smudged with fingerprints. There's also no headphone jack on Essential's phone, meaning you'll have to use the included adapter to connect wired headphones.
But the Essential phone's potentially most interesting feature is one I have yet to try. The device includes an accessory connection port that consists of two dots situated on the back of the device. The idea is to include a simple, economically viable port on the company's future phones so that any accessories you buy today will continue to work with future phones. Essential's first such add-on in a miniature 360-degree camera that attaches to the back of the phone. Motorola added a similar feature to its flagship smartphones in 2016. Since Motorola had an earlier lead, there's already a wide array of available add-ons for its phones, such as a 360-degree camera, projector, camera grip, battery booster and speaker. Essential, by comparison, only offers a 360-degree camera at this point, and plans to launch a charging dock in the future.
For taking pictures, the Essential Phone is decent but not as great as its competition. I found that both the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S8 offered more vibrant color, and were better at zooming and shooting in low-light conditions. Apple and Samsung's phones also offer extra features that the Essential Phone doesn't, such as the iPhone 7's Portrait Mode and the ability to take panoramic shots, which is available on both Apple and Samsung's phones. Essential's phone does offer a monochrome shooting mode since it has two cameras (one color, one black and white), but it's not notably better than simply using a black-and-white filter in a photo editing app. Essential also says it will add new features like Portrait Mode and other improvements involving the camera's image processing speed on an ongoing basis. In the photo samples below, you'll notice that the flower's pink color looks a bit washed-out in the Essential Phone's photo, compared to the pictures taken on the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 Plus.
iPhone 7 Plus
Samsung Galaxy S8
Essential's phone is one of the longest-lasting smartphones I've tested to date when it comes to battery life. After using the phone for more than 10 hours, I still had 61% of battery life left, allowing me to get through nearly two full workdays without having to charge. That's more juice than I typically get out of the iPhone 7 Plus and Galaxy S8, which last more than a full day, but never two. It's worth noting that battery life will vary depending on how you use your phone, since certain apps and features tend to be more power-hungry. During this review period, I mostly used Essential's phone for checking email, sending messages, taking photos, browsing social media, and streaming Netflix. Those who leave their phone brightness turned up, frequently connect to Bluetooth devices, and record a lot of video will probably get less mileage out of the device.
The Essential Phone's simplicity is what makes it great. The company didn't cram in new features for the sake of trying to be clever or innovative. Android loyalists that just want Google's clean Android interface without any bloatware will appreciate the Essential phone's minimalist software. And the fact that it managed to pack a large, colorful screen and long-lasting battery into such a compact device is an engineering marvel. I just wish more of that innovation had been applied to the Essential Phone's camera, which falls behind its competitors. If I'm shelling out $700, I don't think expecting a more sophisticated camera is asking too much.
3.5 out of 5