[Review] The Essential Phone - but is it?

Update the price has dropped to just $650CDN

So... some long time ago a certain guy had helped within the Google team to develop an operating system that could be used on phones.  That guy was Andy "Android" Rubin, and hence the legend around how Android got its name.

Then after Android really had a good foothold in the market Andy had announced he was leaving the company to start a new project.  Then time passed ... then he tweeted a picture of him holding a phone.  People were a little excited.

Then it was announced.  The Essential.  A phone with nary any bezel, with a notch cut out of the top of the display for the front-facing camera, with a special connector for additional modules (which he is being sued for currently... hopefully just patent trolls).

It looked cool.  But was it essential?  Personally, I think no... it's awesome, but it's not essential that I have this.  But what was essential is that we continue to have some innovation in this sphere.  Not many companies are really straying out of the lines, and for that, I think Andy's got some real chance here... aside from the fact that the phone is pretty magnificent.

Okay, without further ado, let's dive into this review (PS, thank you to +Telus for providing the review unit - Telus is the only carrier where you can purchase the device in Canada currently). The Essential is currently $1050 $650 outright, but free when you sign a 2 year plan.

So first up... what is it with companies really nailing the boxing.  This was one slick package.

The phone compartment slides out from the side, there's the phone nestled in there nicely, a folded 'quick start guide' you pull out from between that tray and the tray holding the cables.  And these aren't just standard USB/headphone adapter cables.  They're made up of that braided nylon to really make it look like a premium product.

So, visually, from the start you're impressed.

Then you power it up.  Instantly the fact that it has an edge to edge display hits you.  I've had the G6 for some time now ... so I'm used to it, but maybe because it goes right to the top and there's that divot... it really sinks in.

Plus, this phone FEELS premium.  It's like a ceramic finish and it's just that right ratio of size to heft that it feels like an expensive model.  It's a sort of 'je ne sais quoi' feel to it.  Like how when you go from a basic watch to some fancy expensive one, it feels different on your wrist.  That's how this felt.

As for size, it's about the same as my LG G6 with about the same screen real estate.

The Essential is just slightly heavier and more 'squarish' than having subtle curves .  I like it.

With it powered on and set up complete, you'll notice that it's pretty bare bones.  This is Android... nothing really added (that we can see).  No 3rd party bulk (okay, Telus put their app on), the camera app isn't the Google one, but that's about the only change.

Very clean.

It's about this time that you start to dick around by putting your files and apps on and realize... HOLEEE FREAKING CRAP, 128GB!!!?!?!!!?


Here are the specs

  • 5.71" @ 2560x1312
  • Snapdragon 835 (2.45GHz x4 + 1.9GHz x4)
  • 4GB RAM
  • 128GB storage (no microSD)
  • 13MP (f/1.9, 1/3", 1.12um) x2 [second is monochrome]
  • 8MP (f/2.2)
  • 3040mAh

So, not a lot of different from other flagships out there.  Compare it at our databases.androidcoliseum.com page.

What's going to really differentiate this device is that it's a unique OEM and it's a premium build.

What I love is that it's damned near stock.  Everything but the camera is exactly as Google intended (something I'm sure that Andy was confident in).  

The only difference I could find was the camera.  This is where it really lacked anything.  But, more on that in a moment.

Performance wise, the processor had no noticeable lag, the battery lasted the same as my G6 for all intents and purposes... there was no real discernable difference between this phone and others out there performance wise.

What separates it will be the camera quality, the form factor (build quality) and the unique mod option.

We've talked already about the build quality.  I loved that.  Bang on, fantastic job Essential team.  

Let's talk about the camera.

So, the camera app is their own, no Pixel/Google Camera app for them.

As much as I love simple camera apps (I do, yet my favourite still is my overly complex G6), the camera app on the Essential was too simple.  Like empty warehouse feeling.  You know how some chic offices are made out of old warehouses ... they're simple, value form, but still make it seem comfy.  Well, this was the bare empty warehouse.  A little cold.

Camera quality was good... not great.  There was an update to improve it (thank god, for some reason whenever you exited the camera app and went back in the auto flash settings were put back in).  I'm not hating it, it was better than my Moto camera, so there's that.

What was neat about the camera was that the Essential has 2 lenses in the back.  Normally, 2 lenses mean one for normal shooting, one for wide.  Andy had a different idea here.

One was for normal shooting, one for monochrome.  Seemed pretty niche to have a dedicated camera just for B/W photos.  The purpose is that the software would take one photo, and use the 'contrast' or something from the B/W to help improve the quality of the colour.  My science may be off, but it makes sense.  It'll help with defined edges, improve HDR, contrast etc...

What was kind of fun was to switch between 'Auto' and 'B/W' mode and you can see the slight parallax difference in the framing on close up shots.

The quality is good overall.  I enjoyed it.  Here's a couple samples (but you can visit a Google Photos folder I made here:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/sbhLpiAE8t8VkxXg1 for more samples)

The big feature that the Essential has here is the 360 camera option.

Those who've followed me, have known how well that I love my 'mod life'.  I had big hopes for the LG modular system, but removing a hole 'butt plate'/chin was clunky.

Then Project Ara fell through... thankfully Moto showed there's some life in that dream.

The Essential's take was simplistic as well... just 2 little contacts, for prongs to touch and magnets to hold it in place.

So far the only accessory for it is the 360 camera mod.  Which is cool.  I just love 360 cameras and this makes it super easy.

Just 2 catches.

1 - it's a little hard to keep with you.  I can't keep it on the phone, then either it won't fit, or I'm afraid it'll get sheared off and lost forever.  When it was shipped to me, it came in just a bubble wrap bag.  Hopefully, there's some fancier case or something for it for those who buy it.

2 - it's slow.
So, yeah when working the display lags behind the camera movement (owing in part to image stabilization, plus it's only using 2 prongs... what kinda bandwidth would you get for that...), but also, it takes a few moments for it to power up once connected.  You can hear the fan whirring to life, and then the app launches (usually it doesn't so I click the app myself) ... and it starts to slowly come to life with a display.  It's got that weird green/pixelly look for a second or so too.  Doesn't instil a lot of confidence using it.

But it's running now... now time to take a photo.

Photos are alright.  What I did like was that I can move the preview around before snapping too... not just after.  So I can hold the camera, swipe the screen around to see what's all around me before I snap the picture.

The snap can be a little grainy, but again it'll be slow to load it up and then to go back to the camera... talk about a delay.

I'm not sure how to embed a 360 shot here, but if you look at the photos in the Google Photos folder it should change it over for you.

Videos were pretty low resolution (it says 4K, but maybe that's all sides considered).

Still, pretty cool.  I believe the camera module is still free when you buy via Telus (or it was $100 off or something).  Normally it's $200.

Overall, this is a great phone.

Why is it essential for you?  I can't really answer that.  It's unique as hell for sure.  It's premium as all get out.  For that reason, it might be worth the $1000 ... for the average person who probably will never buy the camera mod, it's just another expensive phone.

Will you disappointed with it?  Absolutely not... it performs admirably.  But is it differentiable enough from the others out there to say why this over that.  For me, that line comes in over the mods.    For you, it could be the build quality.

Some more photos of it, for you to go ooh and ahhh over.  It was a real shmexy phone, I'll admit that.