At $499, the 128GB Essential Phone (PH-1) is competitive

Highs

  • Innovative, minimalist design
  • Pure Android experience
  • High-performance hardware, 128GB storage
  • New $499.99 price

Lows

  • Disappointing Camera performance and experience
  • No water immersion protection

Rating and Price

  • Rating: 8/10
  • Price: ~$435
  • Available on Amazon

Even before Essential shipped its first product, the hype was mile-high. As a company founded by Android creator Andy Rubin, it was normal that the expectations were through the roof. The Essential made its debuts in September, shortly after the Galaxy Note 8, and just ahead of the new iPhones. With a clearer vision of the smartphone landscape going into the Holiday season, we review the Essential Phone (model PH-1).

Context and History

Essential (the company) was founded to address a few things that were thought to be lacking in today’s industry. In Andy Rubin’s words, it is about bringing real passion and craftsmanship, make devices interact well with 3rd party products, among other things. If you read Andy’s blog, you will understand many aspects of this handset better.

The Essential PH-1 is the company’s first product and one that has been built by a relatively small team of engineers (the whole business is 150-200 people by now, I think). In this review, we will put it to the test and see if the product lives up to the world’s expectation. Note that we have started working on this review after the price change from $699 down to $499, a dramatic move that has shifted the value proposition considerably.

We usually use the price as the primary criteria to find worthy competitors. However, because of how the Essential PH-1 was initially marketed as a high-end device, people often compare it with the top $650+ phones. To answer these questions, we compare it the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Samsung Galaxy S8, Apple iPhone 8 and Nokia 8. The new $499 price, which makes it come closer to phones such as the Huawei Mate 9 and the LG G6 (and G6+ in particular).

Specs Highlights

  • 5.71” IPS LCD Display (2560×1312)
  • 13MP Camera, f/1.85 aperture, no OIS
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform 4 RAM, 128 GB of Storage
  • 3040 mAh battery capacity
  • Android 7.1.1

Industrial Design

The Essential PH-1 phone looks like nothing else. It brings a fresh take on smartphone design and was the first phone to come with a small camera notch at the top of the display. This move was followed by Apple’s much larger notch for their Face ID structured light apparatus. I don’t mind about the small notch, and I think that the extra display surface gained is worth it (compared to having a thick top bezel). It is certainly better than having the selfie cam at the bottom

Comfort

With a width of 71.1 mm (2.8 inches) and a thickness of 7.8 mm (0.31 inches), the smartphone feels very comfortable in hand. We use U.S M-size gloves for male hand-size reference, so this will vary from person to person. The device weighs 185 grams (6.53 oz) and we would consider that weight to be well above-average for its size.

The Galaxy Note 8 and its massive 6.3” display weighs 195g, while the Mate 9 and its very large 4000 mAh battery weighs 190g. Note that the upcoming Mate 10 has the same 4000 mAh capacity, but with a 180g weight. Some users love the extra weight because it makes the phone feels substantial. Others prefer something light for extra comfort. You decide.

Build Quality

The Essential PH-1 has a Titanium frame, a Ceramic back cover, and a hardened Gorilla Glass 5 at the front. Titanium has an excellent weight to durability ratio, and that’s why it is used in extreme projects such as rockets, fighter planes, and human bone replacement.

The ceramic back cover is attractive. Usually, Ceramic is very hard, but that makes it brittle at the same time. However, independent tests have shown that Essential’s ceramic back cover to be incredibly resilient to drop on hard surfaces. The extra cushioning material near it does help a bit.

"THE ESSENTIAL PHONE HAS A BEAUTIFUL AND ORIGINAL DESIGN"

I like the industrial design of the Essential Phone. Everything is neat, and the designers managed to make the camera bump go away completely. That is no small feat because phones are quite thin, and at 7.8mm, the Essential competes with the very best in the industry.

There is no 3.5mm audio connector, and that is a choice that is made more and more since the iPhone 7. This decision can be controversial, and I will leave it up to you to decide if living with the Adapter included in the box is good enough for you. The main downside is to forget/lose the adapter occasionally.

The Essential Phone has a beautiful and original design which is in-line with what it stands for: a great-looking handset with a minimalist approach to user experience. The industrial design team nailed it.

Durability

The PH-1 smartphone has an IP-rating, which means that it has “some” protection from dust and/or water. Here’s what the IP55 rating means: Prevents moderate amount of dust from entering but is not Dust tight. Water jets (~6.3mm nozzle) won’t harm the device. 3mn test at 100L/mn at 30 kPa, 3 meters away (no water immersion). Basically, A little rain is OK, but the phone should never be submerged.

A lot of high-end phones now come with an IP67 or IP68 rating, which means that they would survive a trip into the bathtub, shower or swimming pool – this is something that everyone would want.

The Titanium frame and Ceramic back were both impressive in all the tests that I looked at, and neither got significant damages when dropped on concrete. It is worth noting that Ceramic is also more resistant to scratches than the display Gorilla Glass, which is already impressive.

Just like any other phone, the front glass is likely where cracks would occur after a drop. After considering how the smartphone is designed, we estimate that the odds of breaking during a fall on a hard surface to be below average when compared to all-glass phones such as the new iPhone 8 and X, and the Galaxy Series 8 phones. You can refer to our LG V20 durability reference article about how phones could be designed to avoid cracks upon drops.

Ingenuity

The Essential PH-1’s industrial design packs a lot of (compute) performance for its size, thanks to the integration of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 platform (more on that later). From another angle, the amount of battery capacity the customer gets is very good for a phone of this size. The screen display-to-body ratio of 85.3% is the best of all the phones being compared in this review, with the Galaxy S8 being at 84.8%.  The essential engineers did an outstanding job.

Modularity

Essential made a point in building a phone that could be extended with accessories. Even better, that system would be open and play nice with 3rd party companies. And it shows: the module design seems like it could turn out into something great.

A lot of people love the idea of having modules, and a general longer lifespan for their phones. However, the implementation isn’t smooth. Google’s modular project Ara has never seen the light of day, The LG G5 modules were not a commercial success and Motorola is probably the biggest proponent of modules today.

Modules typically require that the phone vendor commits to a form-factor (connector, and possibly chassis) so that accessories would fit across generations (iPhones keep the same design for a while partly for this reason). Essential tries to improve this situation with a 2-pin magnetic connector placed in the back. Depending on the accessory design, this could provide more leeway for future compatibility. Essential’s 360 camera is an excellent example since it only relies on the distance between the top edge and the pins.

The magnets are small but incredibly strong for their size. Some people wondered if the connectors would wear out over time. Even with wear and tear, I think that things would still work because you only need a partial contact for power to be transmitted. By the way, the connector provides electricity to the modules and data transit through a 6 Gbps wireless link. That’s much faster than USB 2.0, which still powers most phones.

Modularity’s real success should be measured by the number of accessories available, and whether or not people buy and use them. For now, this is at least technical win.

Misc

The first unit that we got was the Black Moon version. It looks great, but it does catch fingerprints quickly, much more so than Galaxy or LG phones, just for a reference. If that’s something that bothers you, I would recommend the Pure White version of the Essential PH-1. The prints would be much less visible. The green-ish Ocean Depth color looks stunning as well, and if you would rather keep things low-key, there’s a Stellar Grey version, which seems all-business like.

Overall product rating: 8/10

Filed in Cellphones >Reviews. Read more about Editorspick, Essential, Essential Phone, Essential Phone (PH-1) and Smartphone Reviews.

Display
5.71"
2560x1312
IPS LCD
504 PPI
Price
~$435 - Amazon
Camera
13 MP
F1.85 Aperture F-Stop
Weight
185 g
Battery
3040 mAh
Removable
No Wireless Charg.
Launched in
2017-05-01
System
4GB RAM
Snapdragon 835 + None
Storage (GB)
128
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