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Essential Phone, five months later

The father of Android made a gorgeous phone with a crummy camera. Has it improved enough?

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We wanted to see just how far the Essential Phone's camera had come. So we pit an original launch Essential Phone against a brand-new one with lots of software updates.

Josh Miller/CNET

I think it's safe to say: The Essential Phone was a flop. Even ignoring the phone's missed ship dates and broken durability promises, it simply wasn't competitive at $700 (roughly £500, AU$900). Review after review panned the camera, one of the most important parts of a modern phone. I called the camera app "a smoldering dumpster fire."

But here's the thing: The Essential Phone doesn't cost $700 anymore. Just two months after launch, Essential cut the price to $500 (roughly £360 or AU$635) -- and we've seen it as low as $400 on sale. Nearly as important, the phone's camera has received a barrage of software updates since day one. 

So I decided to give Essential another shot. 

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This simple rig made for some great comparo photos. (The screens aren't lined up, but the camera modules are.) 

Josh Miller/CNET

Weeks ago, I unwrapped a brand-new, glistening white Essential Phone with the latest software updates, and decided to compare it to my original black-backed Essential Phone, which I'd purposefully never updated since my initial review. 

One phone with the phone's original launch software. One phone with loads of updates. Mano a mano. I made these phones my daily drivers, and used both of them to take an awful lot of pictures and video. I even gave Essential's 360-degree camera attachment another go.

So: Is the Essential Phone worth buying at $500? Here's what I found. 

The camera is better -- but maybe not that much better

Eleven. That's how many times Essential has updated its Camera app in the past five months. It's impressive -- even considering most of them fix things that should have been fixed before the phone came out.

Regardless, I'm happy to say that in these ways, the camera has legitimately improved:

  • Far less shutter lag in good light. When I hit the shutter button, the camera captures the image notably quicker with my updated Essential Phone than it does with my original. That means fewer missed photo ops. 
  • Pictures no longer get deleted if you shoot too quickly or open the gallery while they're still processing. Kind of important.
  • HDR images process much faster. Originally, I would never use the HDR mode because it was so slow and buggy. HDR images still aren't great, but the feature is usable.
  • A manual exposure slider means you can quickly correct when the camera thinks a scene should look darker or lighter than it is in real life, which is pretty often.
  • A new portrait mode lets you take photos of people with a nice buttery background blur (bokeh). It's not the best portrait mode we've used, but it's impressive to have a portrait mode at all on a phone this inexpensive. Plus, it has a nifty slider you can drag to change the depth of field! 

We shot these pics of CNET photographer Josh Miller with three different Portrait Mode-capable phones. The Essential's camera makes his face look a bit distorted here, but it can also be slimming from the right angle.

Patrick Holland/CNET

And yet, the camera is still my number one annoyance when using an Essential Phone. Even after all those updates, it's a poor performer in low light or anywhere speedy autofocus is key. I'm always the guy struggling to take clear, nonblurry photos of my daughter (or my food) while my friends with iPhones, Galaxies and Pixels get the shot right away.

You might be wondering: Isn't it unfair to ask that much from a now-$500 phone? Yes and no. Because when I put the Essential side by side with my personal $500 Motorola Moto Z2 Play, the Essential still couldn't meet that bar.

Take a peek at this zoomed-out image: 

All you'll probably see here is that the Moto Z2 Play's HDR photo has fewer blown highlights (whites aren't too bright) and more shadow detail (blacks aren't too dark).   

But zoom in close with these 100 percent crops, below...

Click to enlarge, then look at all the noise and splotchy artifacting around the Ford GoBike logo.

Sean Hollister/CNET

...and you can see the Z2 Play's photo has more detail and less noise, period. Essential's camera is totally outclassed. 

Though my Z2 Play isn't particularly good at low-light situations, it's sure as heck better than the Essential there as well:

Sean Hollister/CNET

My daughter looks like she's got a touch of yellow jaundice in the Essential shot, but that's not the point -- the Z2 Play's photo has more detail, particularly in her hair, if you click to enlarge.

How is the Essential Phone still losing to a fairly inexpensive Motorola handset, even after five months and 11 updates? Here's the hard truth: Over the past five months, the Essential Phone's image quality hasn't meaningfully improved. When I compared 50+ photos taken side-by-side with my original Essential Phone and a new one with updates, the pictures were barely distinguishable even when I peeped pixels.

Can you tell the difference between these photos, for instance -- aside from a slight perspective shift?

One has a slightly colder (bluer) color temperature, but that's about it from this distance. 

And if you zoom in close, I found that the pictures shot on my fully updated Essential Phone can even be worse in some small ways. Here's an example:

There's less noise -- which is nice -- but also a bit less detail in the 100 percent crop. (Pay close attention to the edges of the yellow bow, and the faded sign on the building behind it.)

But on average, I wouldn't say the photos and video I took with the updated Essential Phone looked worse. They looked pretty much the same, only sometimes with a teensy bit more dynamic range and a little less noise. Looking at the pictures' EXIF metadata, it was pretty clear each camera, presented with the same scene, was making the same decisions each time.

You can definitely take great photos with the Essential Phone, as you can with any modern phone if you get lucky or work hard. (I like this photo a lot.) But it should be way easier, even when your phone costs just $500.

Good news: The 360 cam works now

"Sometimes it won't connect to the phone. Sometimes it'll mysteriously disconnect miduse. Sometimes the camera app will crash. Sometimes it'll crash the entire phone." 

That's how I originally described Essential's 360-degree camera, the first (and so far only) product that uses the snap-on magnetic accessory port on the back of the Essential Phone.

Fortunately, the 360-degree cam is much better now. It's almost totally usable! Moments after you satisfyingly snap it into place, it's ready for action -- capturing spherical photos and video that let your Facebook or YouTube followers virtually step into your shoes to experience a precious moment of your life.

What 360-degree video can do for you.

Sean Hollister/CNET

I say "almost" because the 360-cam is also a tremendous battery hog. It pulls power directly from the phone, and I've drained 17 percent of my phone's battery with a single 10-minute recording. (On average, it seems to drain about 1 percent a minute, but I've definitely seen worse.) 

Plus, the camera seems to overheat and shut down at the 15-minute mark, even in an air-conditioned room. It's got a tiny fan inside that tries to keep it cool, but the fan turns off when you start recording to avoid spoiling your audio.

Video quality is actually impressive given the camera module's tiny size -- the 4K footage looks clearer and less noisy than either the Moto 360 Camera add-on (for Motorola's Moto Z phones) or the standalone Ricoh Theta V, particularly indoors. 

Unfortunately, the Essential 360's washed-out colors are a bit of a turn-off, and without any controls to adjust the exposure or orient the image (if you're not holding it perfectly vertically, for example), it's more of a toy than a tool. 

Other quirks

Having spent a lot more time with the Essential Phone and surveying Reddit's Essential group now, I should warn you there are a few extra quirks I didn't identify in my original review.

T-Mobile: I can't speak for everyone, but a lot of Redditors and my personal experience in the San Francisco Bay Area seem to agree -- the Essential Phone appears to have notably worse reception and download speeds than other T-Mobile compatible phones. I wouldn't buy an Essential Phone for T-Mobile today.

Anecdotally, I sometimes find I have no working data in places where other phones can still download email and surf the web. Slightly more scientifically, when I swapped SIMs between an iPhone 8 Plus, Moto Z2 Play and Essential PH-1 in a few specific locations around the bay, I saw slower T-Mobile speeds with Essential than with other handsets. (AT&T and Verizon speeds were fine regardless of phone.) 

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Sean Hollister/CNET

Missed touches: A few times a day, I'll tap a button on the Essential Phone's screen and nothing will happen. As best as I can tell, it's happening because the phone's screen bezels are so thin, it's easy for my palm or fingertips to accidentally brush the edge of the screen and confuse the phone's touch sensors. I don't think it's a dealbreaker, but nearly 100 Reddit users told me it was among their biggest complaints.

App crashes and app launch lag: Occasionally, I'll tap on an app, and it won't launch right away. It takes a beat. Or it'll launch, but I'll be greeted with a blank, non-responsive window instead of a working app, and I'll need to force-close it and open it again. It doesn't happen often enough that I find it a big deal in everyday use -- maybe once a day -- but it's certainly a little annoying. 

In my Reddit survey, almost a quarter of respondants said they see app launch lag, and nearly a third have had apps crash -- but it doesn't always happen every day. Fewer than 100 respondants (roughly 14 percent) said they saw those issues more than once a week, and fewer than 60 saw them daily.

Jittery scrolling: I've noticed this less and less as Essential pushes out updates, but I'd definitely say it's true that scrolling down webpages with the Essential Phone can sometimes occur in tiny stops and starts instead of one smooth motion. It's a little distracting, but practically every phone does it to some degree. That's why the Razer Phone's screen looks so incredible

A full third of those who responded to my survey said they've experienced jittery scrolling on their Essential Phone, so it's definitely not just me, but it also sounds like it doesn't bother everybody.

More fixes inbound?

When I spoke to Essential VP of Software Rebecca Zavin about these issues, she told me the company's well aware and working hard to address them as soon as possible, but doesn't necessarily have clear-cut fixes. For instance, though Zavin says Essential has verified settings with T-Mobile engineers and will be pushing hundreds of fixes to the cellular radio when it upgrades phones to Android 8.1, she can't guarantee they'll solve connectivity for any particular customer.

"We haven't stopped pursuing issues with touch, issues with performance, issues with throughput and camera quality ... but I can't tell you there's something coming that'll be a huge revolutionary change [for T-Mobile network connectivity]," she told me.  

For jittery scrolling and missed touches, Zavin says an improved touchscreen filtering algorithm and a modified palm rejection scheme are currently in the works, and more camera improvements are on the way as well. 

Zavin says that for Essential's next device, the company hopes to nail touch performance and camera quality right out of the box.

When I ask her why her team at Essential is still pushing out update after update for the PH-1 instead of focusing efforts on a sequel, she says it's not just about this one phone: 

"My heart and soul is in this company ... I believe in this device. This is what I do. It's in our DNA to do the best we can and be invested in it, not to throw things over the wall to our users. It's brand value for us. We're trying to maximize performance and experience across the board, and I think you'll see that in everything we build."

The final word (for now)

In most ways, I feel the same about the Essential Phone as I did in my original review. I like holding it. I like its small size in my pocket. It's still a remarkably handsome phone with excellent build quality, a top-tier processor and enough battery that I always make it to bedtime without fear. 

That's a strong showing for any phone, much less one you can buy for $500, and it's why I feel comfortable raising our review score slightly to reflect the new price. When you look at the Essential Phone as a bargain instead of a flagship, it makes a lot more sense than it did at launch.

But this still isn't an easy phone to recommend to just anyone -- only Android power users looking for a bargain, ones who can forgive an iffy camera, and perhaps ones who aren't using T-Mobile. And at this point, I don't think that'll change.

For everyone else, there's the Moto X4 or better yet -- if you're on a GSM network -- the OnePlus 5T.

Essential Phone review: Our full, updated test.

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