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Essential Phone PH-1 review: We deserve more than this unfinished phone

This phone from the father of Android is fast, stunning… and merely OK.

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Sean Hollister
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Sean Hollister

Senior Editor / Reviews

When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.

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12 min read

Update, May 24, 2018: Essential is reportedly scrapping the sequel to the Essential Phone reviewed here, and the company is said to be exploring a sale. 

essential-phone-6946-015
7.5

Essential Phone PH-1

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

Even with welcome updates, Essential's camera still isn't competitive. T-Mobile reception can be problematic. Battery life is merely OK. No photo or video stabilization. No headphone jack. Essential’s modular camera is a battery hog.

The Bottom Line

At a new low price, the Essential Phone offers serious bang-for-the-buck -- but only patient power users should bite.

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 feels 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.

Update, February 2018: We've taken a second look at the Essential Phone now that it's had five months to mature -- not to mention a $200 price cut which brings the total to just $500 (roughly £360 or AU$635). The good news? The phone's camera app is totally usable, and it's much better value for money now that it's no longer competing with flagship phones. We've bumped its score slightly from 7.3 to 7.5 as a result.

The bad news: The Essential Phone's camera still isn't great -- and there are still a number of glitches the company has yet to work out. That's why we're keeping this review mostly intact, although you'll see some places where we correct sentences that are no longer accurate. You'll want to read both this review and our new story to get the full picture before you consider one yourself.

Warning, May 24, 2018: Before buying, you should know there's a credible report that Essential is in trouble -- the company has reportedly canceled its second phone, and may put itself up for sale.

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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.

See the Essential Phone in its titanium flesh

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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.

Update: Two months after launch, Essential cut the price to $499 -- roughly £360 or AU$635. 

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.
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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. 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. 

Update, Feb. 2018: After extensive testing, we and the Essential community on Reddit are seeing issues with the Essential Phone on T-Mobile specifically. We can't currently recommend an Essential Phone for T-Mobile customers. Also, I can confirm my Essential Phone does survive a brief shower.

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.

Essential Phone vs. Google Pixel camera shootout

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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:

Update, Feb. 2018: Essential has drastically improved the performance of its camera app with a host of software updates, in addition to adding exposure control and a portrait mode. It's still not a competitive camera, but we've crossed off a number of its initial failings in the list below.  

  • 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.

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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.

Update, Feb. 2018: They've made quite a few fixes. Click here to read more.

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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.

Essential's modular future is blurry

There's no great way to say this: The Essential Phone's modular accessories aren't ready for primetime, to the point it makes me worry.

In theory, it's fantastic. Strong magnets snap the accessory into the perfect position, two copper pins provide power from the phone, and the data transfers wirelessly. Compared to Motorola's Mods or Google's long-defunct Ara prototypes, both of which required devices to adopt very specific shapes, it's an elegant design. (Essential is creating a hardware development kit for other companies to contribute accessories, too.)

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Essential's 360-degree camera snaps right onto the back, and takes photos and video where you can look in any direction, or view in a VR headset. It still has bugs, though.

Josh Miller/CNET

But over the course of nearly two weeks, I've never been able to reliably use the company's first accessory, a 360-degree camera. It costs $200, which roughly converts to £150 or AU$250. Or it's just $50 (about £35 or AU$60) if you buy it with the phone.

Sometimes it won't connect to the phone. Sometimes it'll mysteriously disconnect mid-use. Sometimes the camera app will crash. Sometimes it'll crash the entire phone.

Mind you, these could all be problems specific to the 360-degree camera, whose software is still being finalized. (That's why I'm not formally reviewing it now: Essential says it'll have better image quality, fewer bugs and possibly drain the phone's battery less later this fall.) But it's the only example I have to go on, and it's worrying that basic tick boxes like "a rock-solid connection" and "doesn't ever crash the phone" have yet to be checked off.

Update, Feb. 2018: The 360-degree camera works now, though we still have concerns about its power consumption.   

Survives a six-foot drop, but breaks a promise

The Essential PH-1 is one of the first top-tier phones with a titanium frame protecting its guts -- not to mention a ceramic back. That's no mean feat: Traditionally, those strong, lightweight materials aren't just more expensive than aluminum and glass, they're also harder to machine.

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Watch this: We destroyed the Essential Phone
We destroyed the Essential Phone
4:36

The good news: We dropped the Essential Phone twice onto solid concrete, from 3 feet and from 6 feet, and neither the ceramic back nor the Gorilla Glass 5-covered screen shattered upon impact. We can't say the same for the Samsung Galaxy S8's glass back.

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Part of Essential's claim.

Essential

The bad: After two drops, we still wound up with dings and scratches on both the Essential's titanium frame and the rim around the screen, even though Essential specifically claims the titanium should survive that test "without blemish."

"Unlike aluminum, which is what most phones are made of, titanium doesn't scratch, dent or bend. That's why you won't find an area for phone cases on our site," reads Essential's website.

Essential doesn't promise a shatterproof screen, so it wasn't surprising or disappointing when we broke it, too, after a couple fumbles down a flight of stairs. But the company's suggestion that you won't need a case seems misleading at best.

(Essential followed up with us to clarify that it conducted its drop tests from 3 feet onto smooth concrete and granite, and that it stands by its claims.)

Other wrinkles you should know about

None of these are dealbreakers, but I do have some other nits to pick with the Essential Phone. I figure you'll want to know:

  • It's a fingerprint magnet. The mirror finish, front and back, mean I'm constantly wiping away smudges. They show up more prominently on the black version than the upcoming white one, though, and you can literally use the black back as a mirror to take selfies or look around corners.
  • The screen is glossy enough that it's tough to see in bright light outdoors. It could really use a better anti-glare filter, or a mode that boosts the backlight.
  • Since the screen is LCD, not AMOLED, it doesn't have perfect blacks in a dark room, so it's not the best for reading in bed.
  • No AMOLED screen also means it won't work with VR headsets like Google's Daydream.
  • The single external speaker can get quite loud, but it's rather tinny. I wouldn't listen to music that way.
  • There's no headphone jack. Or SD card slot. (The phone does ship with a 3.5mm to USB-C audio dongle, and a generous 128GB of onboard storage.)
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Your pick: Pair some Bluetooth wireless 'buds, or carry around the included 3.5mm to USB-C dongle.

Josh Miller/CNET
  • One of our two units has unsightly holes in the earpiece. Essential says a few were shipped missing a grille -- so if you see that too, you can get it fixed under warranty.
  • I'd like the power button to have more texture and a slightly more satisfying press. It's a little shallow and stiff.
  • The plastic rim around the edge of the screen can scuff easily, unlike the ceramic or titanium.
  • The SIM tray isn't perfectly aligned with other ports on the bottom of the phone, and the bottom mic hole can be confused with the SIM one if you're not careful. Don't stick your SIM tool in there.
  • Twice, the Essential Phone wouldn't recognize a cell network until I fully rebooted it.
  • My Dell laptop wouldn't recognize the Essential Phone using the included USB-C cable. It worked fine with a different cable.
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How does Essential keep the phone label- and logo-free? It hides some of them on this pull-out tab. It's inside the slot with the SIM tray. 

Sean Hollister/CNET

The verdict

I can't recommend the Essential Phone with a clean conscience. Despite having two extra months to work on it, the phone I'm holding still feels unfinished in too many ways, and too many of the reasons you'd buy an Essential Phone -- a wide variety of modular accessories, quick Android updates, seamless interaction with all your smart home devices -- are based on promises the company has made.

(Speaking of which, Essential tells us the phone should get updated to Android Oreo within the next couple of months.)

Update, Feb. 2018: We're still waiting for Android Oreo, but the company says it's just a few weeks out.

But we've already seen too many broken promises from this company. And worse: Promises broken with no explanation. At the time of writing, Essential hasn't even acknowledged the shipping delays. The company's website still brags about the dual camera's low-light performance and the fact that the phone can survive being dropped without so much as a scuff.

The making of Andy Rubin's 'Essential' phone

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Heck, it took a privacy scandal, with the potential for serious identity theft, before Essential apologized to its first wave of customers at all. Yes, it's a small 100-person company that lost its heads of marketing and PR in July, but the hubris still feels astounding.

Essential has secured $300 million in funding, so I'm not too worried the company will disappear overnight and leave buyers out in the cold. It's not the Nextbit Robin. But I'm not really sure I'd take a chance on this company's first phone, either. Essential reminds me more of OnePlus, which eventually began making excellent phones, but owners of the original dealt with a variety of hardware and software quirks.

Update, Feb. 2018: Sure enough, software quirks still affect the Essential Phone five months later -- but the company has done a pretty decent job turning around its reputation for acknowledging and interacting with its customers. It's shipped over a dozen software updates, held multiple Reddit AMAs ("Ask me anything") and its employees can be found answering a la carte concerns as well.

There are just so many better choices right now if you're attracted to the Essential, including the Motorola Z2 Force (which also boast modular accessories and wide carrier compatibility), the OnePlus 5, the HTC U11, and of course Google's Pixel, Samsung's Galaxy S8 and the iPhone. But you also might simply want to wait, since we're expecting a new iPhone next week and a new Pixel in October, as well as the LG V30 and beautiful Nokia 8.

Update, Feb. 2018: Also check out the new OnePlus 5T, or the Moto X4 if you're on a budget. The Nokia 8 was eh.

All that said, I still like the Essential Phone's standout design, and it's functional. If you do buy one with low expectations -- an above-average phone with great performance and decent battery life -- I don't think you'll be disappointed. Just swap out that camera app straight away.

And hey, companies: Stop shipping unfinished products. Good things are worth the wait.

Essential Phone specs versus Moto Z2 Force, OnePlus 5, Galaxy S8


Essential Phone PH-1Motorola Moto Z2 ForceOnePlus 5Samsung Galaxy S8
Display  5.7-inch LCD; 2,560x1,312 pixels5.5-inch OLED; 2,560x1,440 with ShatterShield5.5-inch OLED; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.8-inch OLED; 2960x1440 pixels
Pixel density 504ppi534ppi401ppi570ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.6x2.8x0.31 in6.1x3x0.24 in6.1x2.92x0.29 in5.9x2.9x0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 142x71x7.8 mm156x76x6 mm154.2x74.1x7.3 mm148.9x68.1x8 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.5 oz; 185 g5 oz; 143 g5.4 oz; 153 g5.5 oz; 155 g
Mobile software Android 7.1.1 NougatAndroid 7.1.1 NougatAndroid 7.1.1 NougatAndroid 7.0 Nougat
Camera 13-megapixel camera (RGB), 13-megapixel (monochrome)Dual 12-megapixel16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel5-megapixel16-megapixel8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.4GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8352.35GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 2.45GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)
Storage 128GB64GB, 128GB (varies)64GB, 128GB64GB
RAM 4GB4GB, 6GB (varies)6GB, 8GB4GB
Expandable storage NoneUp to 2TBNoneUp to 2TB
Battery 3,040mAh2,730mAh3,300mAh3,000mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back coverBeneath screenHome buttonBack cover
Connectors USB-CUSB-CUSB-C, 3.5mmUSB-C, 3.5mm
Special features Magnetic pin connector for accessoriesSplash-resistant; Gigabit LTE-readyPortrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash ChargingWater-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready
Price off-contract (USD) $699$730-$810, depending on carrier$479 (64GB), $539 (128GB)AT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; US Cellular: $675
Price (GBP) Converts to about £545Converts to about £615£449 (64GB), £499 (128GB)£689
Price (AUD) Converts to about AU$935Converts to about AU$1,005Converts to about AU$635 (64GB), AU$715 (128GB) AU$1,199

First published Sept. 8, 4 a.m. PT
Update Sept. 9, 2 p.m.: Adds Essential's new claim that the phone is water resistant, which we will test.

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7.5

Essential Phone PH-1

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7.5Performance 9Camera 6Battery 7