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Essential Phone PH-1 review:

We deserve more than this unfinished phone

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MSRP: $699.00
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The Good The stunning Essential Phone PH-1 feels brilliant in the hand and it’s one of the fastest phones we’ve tested. There's no bloatware or unsightly logos, and its premium materials survived a six-foot drop. Compatible with all major US carriers.

The Bad Essential’s camera app is terrible. Battery life is merely OK. No photo or video stabilization. No headphone jack. Essential’s modular accessories aren’t ready for primetime.

The Bottom Line We can't recommend the Essential Phone over competitors, but it’s a mostly competent handset that’ll definitely turn heads.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.3 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 9.0
  • Camera 6.0
  • Battery 7.0

Review Sections

The moment I picked up the Essential Phone, I fell in love.

That pleasingly hefty titanium body. Those slim bezels. The conspicuous lack of ugly branding. That mirror finish. It immediately reminded me of the monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey." I just had to touch it.

But after nearly two weeks with the Essential PH-1 as my primary phone, the honeymoon is over. While the PH-1 is a worthy first effort, it has some serious flaws that keep it from fulfilling its promise to die-hard Android enthusiasts.

The short version: Essential rushed, and some of the phone's most essential features are in shambles. In its hurry, Essential failed to give its bleeding-edge customers much to brag about, or many reasons to buy it over another phone. It's hard to get behind it today. I'm hoping Essential can fix it tomorrow.

But don't despair. Despite it all, today's Essential Phone has its charms.

The Essential Phone's all-screen front is stunning.

Josh Miller/CNET

What's an Essential Phone, and how much does it cost?

Essential is the brainchild of Andy Rubin, the man widely recognized as the father of the Android operating system. A former Zeiss and Apple engineer, Rubin co-founded Android in 2003, sold it to Google in 2005 and ran the division until 2013, around the time Android finished shipping its first billion devices around the globe. So he's kind of a big deal.

Rubin went dark for years, but when he resurfaced, it was with manifesto in hand -- and a plan for a phone unlike any we've seen. No logos. No bloatware. Any cellular carrier. Guaranteed Android updates for two years. A modular phone with accessories -- such as a 360-degree camera -- that attach in an snap. A hybrid dual camera that promised better pictures in low light and a titanium frame that meant the phone wouldn't need a case.

20824310-2-440-overview-1.gif

Remember the T-Mobile Sidekick? It was originally known as the Danger Hiptop, and Danger was Andy Rubin's company. This isn't his first rodeo.

CNET

To me, it sounded like a Google Pixel on steroids, and maybe the phone of my dreams.

But when the Essential Phone arrived in reviewers' hands without final software and the company missed two promised ship dates in a row, we began to wonder what was up. And in the end, we decided to postpone our review until our phone was the same as the ones shipping to buyers like you.

That time has now come. The Essential Phone is now shipping for $699, which is roughly £545 or AU$935. It's compatible with all major US carriers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. For now, it's only on sale in North America at Essential.com, Best Buy, Sprint and Telus in Canada, but it'll eventually be available globally.

Sprint will also let you lease the Essential Phone for half its purchase price: $14.58 a month for 18 months of use.  

What works: Design, Screen, Performance

Here's the good news: With three key exceptions and a few wrinkles -- I'll explain each in turn -- the Essential PH-1 is a remarkable phone. Here are the highlights from my two-week whirlwind romance:

  • I can't get over how good the PH-1 feels in my hand. The titanium frame is just rounded enough, the ceramic back just tacky enough, the phone just tall and narrow enough to provide a fantastic grip for my average-sized hands, and the buttons and rear-mounted fingerprint sensor divot feel perfectly placed, unlike Samsung's latest phones.
  • The edge-to-edge 5.7-inch, 2,560x1,312-pixel resolution LCD screen is beautifully vibrant, and makes any phone without an all-screen front look antiquated. It's tough to go back.
essential-phone-6951-017

The Essential Phone's ceramic back looks like metal -- but feels like glass. 

Josh Miller/CNET
  • While most apps don't make use of the entire screen, that never bugged me in practice. Your notifications live there, so it frees up "normal" screen real estate for other things. Plus, the unused portions are dark enough that they simply look like normal bezels when they're not in use.
  • This phone is seriously fast. I expected top-tier performance from the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor and near-stock Android software, but even adding my typical dozens of apps, two push email accounts, four busy social networks and a couple background games didn't stop the Essential from feeling buttery smooth. I got top tier results in benchmarks, too, neck-and-neck with Samsung's Note 8.
  • Swapping mobile networks was a breeze. I popped out the Sprint SIM for T-Mobile and AT&T, and had no trouble with calls or data. (Update, September 15: The phone has now been certified for Verizon too.) Generally, I saw slightly better reception than my Galaxy S7.
  • While the battery doesn't fare well with lengthy sustained use -- about 10 hours in our looping video tests -- the phone barely sips electricity when idle. I saw it last nearly two hours when it had just 1 percent remaining, and even on days with periods of heavy use I never had to charge before bedtime. I'd like more, but I'm happy with that.
  • Despite not mentioning it previously, Essential told CNET that the phone boasts water-resistance of IP54 (it should withstand a 5-minute shower and splashes but not actual immersion). We still have to test it, but that's certainly a plus if it holds true.

Essential's camera app is plain awful

If you read early reviews around the web, the verdict was nearly unanimous: The Essential Phone's 13-megapixel dual camera is terrible.

That's not quite true. I shot dozens of photos and a bunch of 4K and 1080p videos side by side with a fully-updated Essential PH-1 and a Google Pixel -- a phone lauded for image quality -- and there's more nuance to the matter than you might have read. Essential's app is terrible, but the camera is actually pretty decent. Can you see a big difference between these two photos?

It also turns out you can simply use another camera app, such as OpenCamera or Footej Camera. And you can remap the Essential's double-tap-power-button shortcut to open those third-party camera apps, too, the way you might on other Android phones.

If you get this phone, I would highly recommend downloading a separate camera app, because Essential's app is a smouldering dumpster fire by comparison. Here's a shortlist of the issues I saw:

  • Shutter lag (the phone sometimes takes the picture late)
  • A laggy viewfinder, particularly in low light
  • Huge delays after saving a photo
  • Slow and sometimes poor autofocus
  • Lots of blotchy image noise in low light
  • Slow shutter speeds + no optical image stabilization = blurry photos in low light
  • Slow and buggy HDR mode
  • No exposure control to brighten or darken a scene
  • No white balance adjustment to ensure colors are correct
  • No portrait mode, which is rapidly becoming a standard for today's dual-camera phones
  • No video stabilization means shaky videos
  • No microphone wind noise reduction means noisy videos outdoors
  • Sometimes, the phone completely freezes and requires reset (it's rare)

If you're a photographer, you probably took one look at this list and began laughing out loud. If not, all you need to know is these things are often the difference between taking a beautiful picture of exactly what you see the moment you see it, or not.

Essential's barebones camera app tends to take dark, comparatively noisy and/or blurry images in low light. See how the Google Pixel compares in our shootout.

Sean Hollister/CNET

To Essential's credit, it may be able to fix a number of these issues, and it intends to try, both through over-the-air updates to the phone and automatic app updates you'll receive through the Google Play store.

The company plans to improve shot-to-shot speed, fix instability, add a portrait mode and manual exposure controls, slightly improve dynamic range and HDR lag, and reduce noise as much as it can. And Essential has been quick with bug fixes so far.

Essential's dual RGB and monochrome cameras were supposed to capture more detail than a color camera alone. But you can still get that enhanced detail by taking black-and-white photos.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Even so, don't expect magic. Even the best color photos I took with the Essential's camera didn't have as much detail, or as quick and reliable autofocus, as those I shot with a Pixel. Based on our previous tests, you can probably expect recent iPhones and Samsung Galaxy cameras to outperform the Essential's camera as well, though each has their own look.

In case you're wondering, Essential's 8-megapixel front-facing camera is perfectly competent and reasonably sharp -- just don't expect any smoothing or filters to make your skin look more attractive.

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