Essential PH-1 Review – Not Very Essential

September 5, 2017 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Gorgeous hardware and incredible design are marred by unfinished software

Andy Rubin is a name that most Android enthusiasts are familiar with. As the co-founder of Android, it’s in Andy’s blood to design smartphones and the ecosystems surrounding them. With his new company, Essential, he’s launching a new phone for a new era; one that’s designed to bring together many technology trends into one killer device. Sporting a unique design, an ultra strong titanium frame, and a ceramic back, the near-zero bezel design of the Essential PH-1 is unique, and the semi-modular structure of its add-ons bring some interesting ideas to the table. At $699 it’s not a cheap device by any means, so does it have what it takes to set itself apart from the pack? Let’s take a look.

Specs

Essential sells its phone unlocked from its website for $699, which features spectrum support for all carriers worldwide, including those in the US. Sprint exclusively sells the Essential Phone in the US, but other carriers worldwide will likely have similar offerings. The phone comes in an array of colors, including the standard looking Black Moon, Pure White and Stellar Gray, as well as the more exotic looking Ocean Depths. The body is built upon a strong titanium frame, as opposed to the aluminum used in most phones. Between the lines sits smooth, shiny ceramic, which is less of a fingerprint magnet than glass. The phone is incredibly gorgeous to behold, and features a rather boxy style, with coarse chamfered edges all around.

The Essential Phone measures in at 141.5mm high, 71.1mm wide and  7.8mm thin, and weighs a rather hefty 185g, or about 40g heavier than the average smartphone. Part of the magic here though is that Essential has packed a large 5.71-inch display on the front of the small phone, making it even smaller than the LG G6, all while retaining the same size screen. This LTPS IPS LCD display features a Quad-HD+ resolution of 1312 x 2560, sporting 504 pixels per inch (PPI) and is covered in Gorilla Glass 5 for scratch and shatter protection. Under the hood sits a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, Adreno 540 GPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of Samsung KLUDG8V1EE-B0C1 UFS 2.1 speed internal storage. There is no removable storage (microSD card) support, and the non-removable battery under the back sports a 3,040mAh capacity.

Android 7.1 Nougat runs the show under the hood as of the phone’s launch, and you’ll find dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds here, as well as Bluetooth 5.0 support and NFC too. There’s only a USB Type-C port here, no 3.5mm audio jack, although an adapter is included in the box. On the front you’ll find a centered 8-megapixel front-facing camera with f/2.2 lens, and along the back sits a pair of 13-megapixel sensors, both featuring f/1.9 lenses. One sensor is monochrome, and both sensors feature phase detection autofocus (PDAF) as well as a laser autofocus module on one half of the split dual-LED flash module. Essential has also packed a pair of magnetic pins on the back for snapping in specific modules made for the phone, like the 360-degree camera.

In The Box

Essential certainly knows how to present their product, and everything in the box exudes the utmost premium of quality.  A powerful 9V/3A power brick is here, giving super fast charging while using this brick with the included cable.  This included USB Type-C to Type-C cable is gorgeously braided and feels incredibly high quality, and the included 3.5mm to USB Type-C cable features the same braiding and thick, quality cabling too.  Everything is presented nice and neatly too, and completes the feel of a well organized device.

Display

The most unique trait of the Essential Phone’s screen is of course the cutout up top for the front-facing camera. This cutout gives Essential the ability to bring the display all the way to the top of the front of the device, all while still keeping the front-facing camera in a location that’s not awkward, as some small bezel devices do. This cutout is not a significant percentage of the screen by any means, and in fact the way Essential has designed the cutout, it only overlays on top of part of the status bar up top. Since Android more heavily relies on pop-down notifications now instead of ticker notifications in the status bar, you’ll find that this cut-out is essentially never interferes with anything of real value.

Light bleed is among the worst we’ve seen

Outside of this unique cutout, the rest of the display is average at best in every single way. Sporting an IPS LCD panel measuring 5.7-inches, the 1312 x 2560 resolution comes out to about 504 pixels per inch, making things are sharp, well defined and clean. White balance is rather nice, sporting an ever-so-slightly warm hue to the whites in the display, keeping colors accurate. There are no real display adjustment settings, so there’s no upping the saturation or adjusting the white balance; it’s more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get affair. The rest of the properties are pretty disappointing to say the least too. Black levels are bad by any measurement, and even at lower brightness levels the black elements on screen look grey.

Viewing angles are equally poor, with immediate dimming at any angle, making the black levels even worse than they already are. There’s some significant light bleed coming from the sides of the panel too, and while it’s not as noticeable when lighter elements on screen, the moment a black background appears on the display, it’s unfortunately all too obvious. The lighting is terribly obvious from any angle too, and you can easily see the light bleeding through the panel at any angle. Motion resolution and pixel persistence are quite bad too, with significant trailing on the display any time there’s movement. Google’s built-in ambient display is supported of course, but since this is an LCD panel, it’s not the power savings tool that one would expect from an OLED panel, although it’s still nice to see the pulsing notifications without having to check the phone all the time.

Hardware and Build

If there’s one specific thing the Essential Phone absolutely nails, it’s the hardware design. This is easily one of the most premium feeling smartphones on the market, and it all starts with the titanium frame. Essential’s design here is unmatched in almost every way, and comparing this device with almost every other flagship out there shows just how ahead the design team at Essential is. The Essential Phone is smaller than the Google Pixel by several millimeters, which is impressive since the Pixel only sports a 5-inch screen. It even comes in smaller than the LG G6, which features small bezels as well and the same 5.7-inch size screen, yet is still taller than the Essential.

Running flat around all four sides, you’ll only find curves around the corners, with a very slight curve to the chamfered edges, which merge the front and back smoothly with the sides. The titanium frame makes this phone less destructible than most other smartphones, which are made of aluminum, and can dent easily when dropped. Essential has augmented this strong construction with ceramic instead of glass, providing a material that’s considerably stronger and more scratch and shatter resistant than glass could ever be.

It also features a uniquely smooth texture on just about every square inch of the body; one that’s unmistakably ceramic at every turn. Only on the antenna lines and chamfered edges will you feel a different texture, and it’s here where you’ll find a more rough, stone-like texture. This texture only adds to the feel of quality, and makes the phone feel like it’s made of unbreakable stone underneath. Choosing ceramic over glass helps to alleviate fingerprints too, but you’ll still find that the Essential Phone gathers enough fingerprints in a day to make it look less attractive. Ceramic also makes the phone heavier than usual, as was the case on the Xiaomi Mi MIX as well, but tends to reinforce the solid feel of the device.

The buttons on the right are the only real crux of the design, and while they’re textured to feel like the rest of the shiny ceramic all around, they are rather wobbly and feel out of place in such a sturdy body. These buttons are also difficult to tell apart, and regardless of the minute size difference between the power button and the two volume buttons, they are all shiny and feel identical on the skin. A single speaker, USB Type-C port and single nano-SIM card tray sit at the bottom, and only the back features any other markings at all. Along the back is a circular fingerprint scanner, which is recessed just slightly into the frame and marked around the edges with a smooth ring. Along the top is a row of nodes, from left to right housing the dual-LED flash, laser autofocus module, dual 13-megapixel cameras, microphone and two magnetic ports for modular accessories.

Of course on the front the only glaring piece you’ll find is the front-facing 8-megapixel camera, which is featured in a cut-out of the screen, centered at the very top. In fact the basic lack of ports, buttons, logos and other feature elements on the phone are part of what makes it so distinctive and unique looking among phones. Even the earpiece up top is camouflaged into the top bezel, residing just at the curve between the front and top bezel of the phone. Only the essentials are here, something that obviously goes hand-in-hand with the company’s name and vision, and completes the look for the phone.

Performance and Memory

With a Snapdragon 835, you’d expect top-tier performance from the Essential Phone at every turn. For the most part you’ll get that, with performance that’s zippy and quick in almost every application. The only time the phone struggles significantly is when using the camera, something that doesn’t get better with different camera software. This is a bit odd given that both the Snapdragon 835 and the internal UFS 2.1 storage have more than enough horsepower to deal with pictures from a 13-megapixel camera, but there’s obviously some ironing out of performance-based code to do here. Outside of this the only other weak spot was multi-tasking performance, and even then it was only when running a number of particularly memory-intensive applications at once. Switching back and forth between these types of things (games for example) will result in one having to be reloaded after just 2 or 3 other applications are opened. This scenario isn’t very typical though, and likely you won’t find yourself in this situation the majority of the time spent with the device.

Benchmarks

As far as benchmarks are concerned, the Essential PH-1 sits at the top of the top list of high performing devices, proving that Essential has packed the phone with only the utmost quality internal components.  We run 3DMark Slingshot, GeekBench 4 CPU and GPU tests, AnTuTu v6 and Futuremark’s PCMark internal storage speed test as well.  See the results below.

Wireless Connectivity

Essential has gone to great lengths to create a single phone that works worldwide without issue. Sporting a single nano-SIM card in its slot, the Essential PH-1 is designed to work with all carriers without exception. In this US this even means Verizon and Sprint, among their MVNO’s, which often times require specially designed phones to support their spectrum of choice. Even specialty pieces like WiFi calling are supported here, and there’s full Voice over LTE support (VoLTE) for carriers that support it. I did see a bit lower signal strength when indoors versus some other flagship phones out there with T-Mobile though, presumably due to the titanium build or placement of the antennas in the phone. This didn’t happen all the time, but it was enough to be noticeable. Essential also supports dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Bluetooth 5.0 is supported for the latest in wireless audio and peripheral communications, and NFC gives easy access to mobile payments via Android Pay as well.

Battery Life

While the first day was less than impressive, subsequent days with the Essential Phone have proven battery life to be quite good in general. On average I saw a full day’s worth of usage, including some significant time with battery-draining games like Pokemon Go, and the battery still lasted until the end of the day. On average I’ll get between 3 and 4 hours of on-screen time with the average smartphone, and I hit right in-between that mark everyday with the Essential PH-1. The phone ships with a power brick that supports 5v/3a and 9v/3a charging. This should coincide with Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 standard, however I found that the phone “charges slowly” when connected to a QC 3.0 power brick, and that it would only charge quickly with the brick included in the box.  A full charge can be achieved in just under an hour with the included brick though, which is definitely faster than most phones.

Sound

Following the trend set in early 2016, the 3.5mm audio jack is completely missing, instead replaced by a single USB Type-C port at the bottom, and support for Bluetooth 5.0.  Essential includes a USB Type-C to 3.5mm jack adapter in the box, but as is the case with any of these adapters, if you need to use them you won’t be able to charge the phone at the same time.  Since there’s no wireless charging support you’ll need to stick with wireless Bluetooth headphones if you ever need to listen and charge at the same time, which isn’t all that bad in general.  While the Essential Phone supports Bluetooth 5.0, which focuses more on range and connection reliability, it doesn’t support the higher quality audio streams brought by aptX or LDAC.

Of course once the phone receives its Android 8.0 Oreo update, LDAC will be supported by default since it’s a new standard within Android itself, giving the phone an immediate quality upgrade on streaming devices that support it. There’s also no high-res audio support for those that prefer this higher quality sound. Audio quality coming from the phone is good, with absolutely nothing to complain about, and the phone delivers well balanced sound that comes out great in any audio system I tried.  It’s average overall, with no real frills or extras, but in a world where many manufacturers artificially apply audio profiles that can’t be edited, it’s refreshing to get output that sounds like it should.

Software

Part of the beauty of the Essential Phone is in the simplicity of the experience overall. Essential seems to have worked to make something like a Pixel or Nexus competitor more than anything, and because of this you’ll find compatibility and operability to be better than most Android-powered phones out there.  In fact many things that ship with the Essential Phone are stock, including the Google launcher, which looks and functions identically to the Pixel in every way, including the swipe up for app drawer, and swipe to the left screen for Google Now.  Google Assistant works exactly as you would expect by long-pressing the home button, and everything else Google seems to have built specifically for the Pixel experience works just as well here.  Even Google Camera works beautifully, and that special version of the software with HDR+ abilities functions just as it does on the Pixel too.

The Essential Phone launches with Android 7.1.1 Nougat with the August 2017 security patch, and it’s likely we’ll see an official Android 8.0 Oreo update in the very near future too.  There’s absolutely zero bloatware on this phone, and it seems like the only piece of custom user-facing software Essential has included with the phone is the camera app.  Even system settings are identical to the Pixel, with the exception of Google’s dedicated support tab or unlimited full-sized photo backup of course, since those are Pixel-specific services.  Visually the only real obvious modification to the system is in the size of the status bar up top, which has been elongated to fit within the space of the cutout in the display.  This elongated status bar can tend to look a little funny at times, but I actually came to love the way it looked after just a day or two.  Since Android colors the status bar depending on the app in question, this extra bit of color added a little bit of added immersion to every app, and in general is a good visual stimulus of sorts.

Camera Software

Just about the only real user-facing piece of software that’s included with the Essential PH-1 is the camera app. This app mixes a number of different visual styles and layouts together, but overall comes out looking unique for the most part. The transparent camera shutter button on the bottom sits next to a dedicated record button, which is always the best design you can have for a smartphone camera app. This allows users to immediately take a picture or record video without having to switch modes, and provides the easiest, most reliable experience.

Along the top sits a row of icons, which from left to right are Settings, Flash toggle, HDR toggle, Video resolution, Timer and a button for switching between front and rear cameras. Mono and Slow-Mo modes are located in what appears to be swipeable paged sections, with labels just above the shutter button, however swiping left or right doesn’t move between these. Instead you need to click on the labels to choose the mode you want, and there’s practically no other options and no other modes to choose from either. 

Perhaps the biggest thing missing is a complete lack of any purpose for the dual camera module on the back.  While there’s a monochrome mode that appears to take advantage of the second sensor here, there’s no portrait mode or other depth-style type effects that we saw on the original dual camera phones from 2 or 3 years ago. What’s more is that having two cameras on the back doesn’t seem to have made focusing any faster, as it takes significantly longer than many other flagships to focus on a subject. Perhaps these modes will be added later, but for now it’s pretty sparse.

Camera Performance and Results

The Essential Phone’s camera can be described in two short words: slow and unreliable. This isn’t to say that quality photos or videos aren’t achievable in any manner, but the software is severely lacking not just in modes, as described above, but also in performance and general reliability as a whole. Launching the camera is often quick enough, but it’s not consistent by any means, and in fact the entire phone becomes unresponsive quite often after taking pictures.

Essential’s built-in camera app is a mess in almost every way, from the processing of the photos to the speed of the capture and background processing, almost nothing about the camera experience here can be considered flagship-level. There’s no image stabilization of any kind; that or it’s just not very good. There’s no automatic HDR, or really many modes to speak of in any fashion, and the end results are pretty average at best by any metric. Low light performance is poor in most scenarios, resulting in photos that are not only darker and less visible than the competition, but also remaining soft because of overly aggressive denoise algorithms.

The worst offender of all is the performance as a whole though, as the system often becomes unresponsive after taking a single shot. This scenario was wildly inconsistent, but no matter if I used the stock camera app or another camera app on the Play Store, the phone often locked up for many seconds at a time after taking any kind of photo. There were even times where I would press the shutter button to take a photo, yet the phone would just sit there as if I had not asked it to do anything at all.

Video taking is about the same quality, with acceptable quality during the day, and poor performance in darker situations, even if those situations were just being indoors during the day. The front-facing camera does a good job overall though, and pretty consistently produces good selfie shots when requested.  Dynamic range of the sensor is less than the rear cameras, and lack of automatic HDR in the software doesn’t help things much.

The entire situation feels like the software just isn’t finished, and that feeling is only furthered by the fact that the Google Camera app fixes almost all of the problems the phones’ stock camera app has.  There are still performance issues while using the modified Google Camera app with HDR+ enabled, but the quality of the photos and videos increases significantly.  Gone are the dynamic range issues, the problems with soft zoom detail, and even the extra noise or dark conditions in low light scenarios, and instead are photos the generally look great.  There’s a ton of promise to the camera situation on this phone, without a doubt, but serious issues on the software side of the house are holding back greatness in any form.

The Good

Gorgeous design

Incredible bezel sizes

Small phone with a huge screen

Bluetooth 5.0

Support for worldwide carrier spectrum

Top-tier specs

Optional modular accessories are cool

The Bad

Mediocre screen quality

Not IP-rated for water and dust resistance

No 3.5mm audio jack

Phone performance can be hit or miss

Ultra slow camera performance

Camera software is very basic, missing some obvious modes

Software feels very unfinished as a whole

No high quality audio streaming support (hi-res, aptX, etc.)

Expensive for what you get

Conclusion

On paper, the Essential PH-1 seems like it would be a winner in almost every category. From the gorgeous and stylish build, to the extensive care that has gone into the design and material choices for the phone, there’s little on the outside to make you think this would be a bad experience. Even the benchmark results and internal components fit within the frame of a $700 phone, however this facade breaks down once the phone is used. You’ll find little to justify the high price tag, no matter if we’re talking features or the overall experience, and the whole package feels more like it was sent out unfinished rather than a careless mistake in the design process. There’s so much promise locked up in this little phone, yet the execution falls short of expectations in many ways. The bright side is that the vast majority of the issues we experienced are software related, and can easily be fixed with updates. As it stands at launch, however, this phone is simply not part of the list of essential tech to buy in 2017.

Buy The Essential PH-1