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

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.

Display

The Essential PH-1 display has an IPS LCD panel which is nearly bezel-less. That term refers to very thin bezels on all sides, although the left and right bezels are usually the thinnest. The left, top and right bezels are less than 2mm wide, and the bottom bezel is ~10mm. The bezels compare very favorably against the leading designs on the market: the LG V30, the Galaxy Series 8 and now the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.

IPS/PLS LCD technology made displays so good, first on mobile, then on laptops as well. IPS/PLS can reproduce more colors than basic LCD, with higher color saturation and wider view angles. Within the swath of IPS LCD displays there are still some differences, but usually IPS/PLS are above basic LCD displays found in less expensive phones.

However, LCD IPS/PLS LCD displays as a group are not as technologically advanced as OLED panels. While it is possible to design excellent LCD displays that compete at a near-equal level to some OLED, these LCD panels should be seen as the exceptions, and they may not have any of the normal positive points associated with LCD (vs. OLED). You can read our complete LCD vs. OLED article to learn more. In the high-end segment, phones are fast switching to OLED displays. However, at $499, it would be very unusual to see a QHD OLED display.

Display Image quality

The Essential’s theoretical display brightness is ~500 NITs, and we measured our unit display at ~550 NITs at maximum brightness. For comparison, the LG V30 can be measured at ~600 NIT. We consider that regular phones get around ~300 NIT but can feel a bit uncomfortable on a sunny day. At around 500 NIT and more, things are always readable, even with sunglasses.

In general, a brighter display is great to watch the screen content on a sunny day (or bright environment). Higher brightness leads directly to better image quality in very common situations. The general image quality is very good. The colors are well saturated, and the black levels are deep.

Camera

The PH-1’s camera aperture of f/1.85 is average at the high-end, and the sensor surface area of 16.45 mm2 is significantly smaller than the ones on phones such as the Galaxy S8 (+43%). That said, sensor size is only one part of a complex chain that leads to the final photo. It is possible that the sensor choice and size was largely influenced by the desire to have a camera module flush with the back cover.

Handsets’ cameras have become amazingly good over the years. But, it is clear that there is an enormous delta between them based on price, but also depending on technology and expertise of the handset maker.

It is critical to understand that mobile photo has two pillars of great importance: Software and Hardware. The software is usually very hush-hush, and it is very hard to get reliable information to determine its quality with an unbiased process. Also, photography is not just science. It is also art.

OpinonWhat’s a Great Mobile Camera Experience?

The camera hardware is the other area which is more measurable. Camera hardware is potentially a high limiting factor to mobile photo performance. Even if you use the best algorithms on it, the quality of the input image data still plays a significant role in the final image outcome.

The sensor’s 13 Megapixel number should never be used as a default indicator of photo quality. In dark scenes situations, the high Megapixel count (>12) does not sway the outcome.

With higher megapixel counts, sensing pixels (sensels) may have to be smaller. Each obtains less light information, and in low-light scenes, it is better for the overall image quality to get more light with fewer (but bigger) sensels than the opposite. It is a balance that needs to be achieved. Today, 12 Megapixel seem to be the best sensor trade-off between sharpness, low-light and autofocus performance.

On a sunny day or in very bright light situations, Megapixel could be a useful metric for photographic detail and sharpness. For example, on a sunny day, a cityscape photo with a higher megapixel count could capture finer details. Between 12 MP, 16 MP and 21 MP differences in small details can be quite noticeable, if printed or viewed on a large and/or high-PPI display.

The PH-1’s camera does NOT have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) on the primary camera module. The lack of OIS support will slightly lower the chances to snap great photos, especially in dim situations.

OIS helps to achieve better image clarity and higher low-light performance by offsetting tiny hand-shaking motion. OIS makes it possible to leave the shutter open longer to gather more light (more prolonged exposure). Optical and digital stabilization are entirely different, with digital stabilization suitable to help video recording smoothness.

"IT CANNOT MATCH THE CAMERA EXPERIENCE FROM TODAY'S TOP PHONES"

Learn more: What is Image Stabilization?

The auto-focus of the PH-1 camera is based on Phase Detection technology. Phase-detection AF started in a discrete AF sensor chips in the DSLR days. Then it got integrated into the camera image sensor. It works by having specialized AF pixels sensors that would tell if specific points in the image were in-focus. This method is very fast and the AF capabilities work well in most cases. AF performance is somewhat proportional to the number of hardware AF sensels. Typically this number can go from dozens to hundreds of Phase-Detection AF points. Phase detection AF is an excellent system, which is only inferior to Dual-Pixel AF.

On the Essential PH-1, the Laser-assisted AF  work on the principle that a lot of photos subjects are either quite far from the camera (infinity), or are very nearby (macro). By projecting an infrared pattern (structured light) and looking at how it bounced back to the camera, it is possible to very quickly determine if we need to focus far or bear. This is important because unneeded forward/backward focus-motor motion is avoided, thus making AF faster, which makes general photography faster. The system can also handle many in-between situations, but not all. Laser-AF is faster than contrast-AF but is inferior to Phase Detection AF and Dual-Pixel Phase Detection AF.

Dual-camera setup

Like many other high-powered phones, the Essential PH-1 has a dual-camera 13 MP camera setup. There are a few variants when it comes to dual-camera. Essential’s is closest to Huawei’s configuration with a Color sensor, and a Black and White sensor, working hand in hand. This is probably based on, or close to the Qualcomm Clear Sight solution.

The theory is that both sensors can shoot at the same time, to “gather up to 100% more light”. It is somewhat true, but our experience with these systems has shown that there are other ways to gather more light, including taking several pictures in quick succession or simply having a large sensor.

Dual-cameras is typically best to help compute the “Bokeh” (Blur) in areas that are not in-focus. This is often called Portrait Mode since the technique is often used for portrait shots, although it can really be applied to anything. Unfortunately, Essential has not added this mode yet, so the potential of the camera is not fully realized.

You can read our detailed article about Dual Cameras and how they compare to Single-Camera phones.

Image Quality

Of course, in broad daylight, the camera did quite well. This is now true for almost all cameras in phones priced at $300+.

In low-light situations, or in high-contrast situations, the Essential PH-1 has difficulties taking sharp and well-balanced pictures. Also, the images are often grainy and/or blurry. It cannot match the camera experience from today’s top phones. Bluntly, the camera experience of the Essential Phone does not hold up against the best, and that is unfortunate because the Photo Experience ranks at the top of customers concerns.

For some odd reason, the High Dynamic Range (HDR) functionality is not ON by default. This means that most people will not use HDR, which is a key image quality feature. Every phone app should have this turned ON or enable it automatically. I cannot say this enough.

Even in the $499 price range, it is not easy for the Essential Phone to compete well, not only against new phones at the same price levels but also against the last-gen high-end phones such as the Pixel, Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7.

Camera performance is an arduous task, and the small team of engineers at essential have to build something new and compete with established players that sometimes have many times their size. Unfortunately, even if the customer empathizes with the situation, he or she will have plenty of other options with a better camera experience.

Camera experience

Talking about experience, we would like to see a faster, more responsive camera as well. The shutter action and speed of capture feels slow in low-light but also somewhat in daylight. For example, on a Google Pixel, Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone high-end handset, the shutter action is almost instantaneous, even in low light. That is not the case for the Essential PH-1 handset. Users just expect the shortest possible lag when the shot is taken.

I think that this is mostly due to the camera software, so there’s hope that it could be improved with future updates. However, I’m not sure how much it might improve, so it is up to you to decide if you want to take a leap of faith on this one.

Battery Life

The battery capacity of the PH-1 is 3040 mAh, which is very good in general, and well within range within its category where most phones have similar battery size. The PH-1 shows its very efficient design because the capacity/phone size numbers put it at the same level as the 3300 mAh LG G6, and 5% above the Galaxy S8.

Battery life is one of the most critical features of a smartphone. A key metric is undoubtedly the battery capacity — especially within the same ecosystem (Android, iOS or other). Battery life can be affected by many factors, but the main ones are the main processor, display and wireless radios (broadband, WiFi, the cell towers location and more). It is not possible to precisely pinpoint through benchmarks how much energy drain YOUR unique needs will create. However, two things are without a doubt always good:

  • A larger battery capacity
  • Very fast charging

It is impossible to predict realistic battery life by running synthetic tests. Things such as display brightness, (LTE/WiFi) radio usage and distance to access points will vary too much. Also, the number of apps installed and their usage cannot be estimated. Battery capacity is the most crucial battery-life indicator for YOUR usage.

This handset does not come with integrated wireless charging, but a module will come later (no timeline for now). We expect the module to work with common standards, in case you already have chargers.

This device has a very high resolution display (2560×1312). This is great to display extremely crisp images, but handling 1.29M pixels more than a 1080p/FHD (2M pixels) screen will require a bit more power from the battery.

Also, the internal display resolution (the interface resolution) cannot be lowered to 1080p to save extra battery. Some phones do offer this option. Although the native screen resolution cannot be changed, reducing the internal resolution cuts down on the number of pixels that have to be processed. The final image is not as sharp as the native resolution but is visually comparable to a 1080p display.

Software

Essential is a “pure Android” phone, which means that no proprietary layer redefines or modifies the original Android user interface. Essential also will limit the number of preloaded apps, and maybe the Camera app is the most important thing that is not from Google (Google now uses its camera apps only on its Pixel and Nexus phones).

OpinionWhy do Phone Makers Create Custom Android Skins?

The main advantage of a pure Android phone is that it should enable Essential to roll out OS updates faster. As OEMs add more code on top of Google’s the complexity increases, and changes required with each update needs to be tracked and addressed. All of this would contribute to delaying the roll-out of new Firmware updates.

Although Google is trying to make it easier for its partners to update the code, a pure Android handset would not need changes, and could simply roll out an update which is identical to Google’s. The theory is sound, and we will watch if Essential turns this into practice, which we expect it to.

Performance

You can look at detailed scores below, but in our estimation, this smartphone’s performance puts it in the high-end class of smartphones. The Essential PH-1 is built on the Snapdragon 835 platform (learn everything about Snapdragon 835), which is currently the most popular one, and arguably the best, for high-end Android devices.

Qualcomm often emphasizes that Snapdragon is not merely a chip, but a platform. That is understandable because the level of software and tuning that comes with using Snapdragon is so high that it is one of the main reasons why Qualcomm is so successful in the first place. Qualcomm can provide so much software and “ready to go” technologies that I suspect that it is key to a small company like Essential to be successful.

OpinionAre benchmarks important? What do they mean?

Before you look at the charts, it is important to understand that most benchmarks are only loose pointers, usually for CPU (Geekbench) or graphics performance. It is possible to see sharp performance deltas between different classes of devices (entry-evel, mid-range vs. high-end), but it is much harder to do so within phones of the same class. Benchmarks alone should NOT lead to a smartphone purchase decision.

Gaming performance benchmarks (GFXBench) apply mainly to heavy games using 3D graphics. Casual apps such as puzzles and 2D games do not need this kind of performance and can run virtually on any recent device.

As you can see, the Essential PH-1 is firmly in the 2017 high-end performers. Although there are differences among Snapdragon 835 phones, the generational gap with the LG G6 (Snapdragon 821) is much more pronounced, especially when it comes to CPU performance.

Modem performance

A less talked about aspect of speed is the modem. Snapdragon 835 integrated the Qualcomm X16 LTE modem, which is capable of Gigabit-class LTE, if the carrier and OEM implement its full features. We have yet to confirm with Essential if it, and carrier partners will support the highest speeds, but in any case, this phone packs one of the most advanced LTE connectivity available.

Value proposition: very good (at $499)

Looking at the different qualities of a phone from the perspective of pricing tells you how much technology you are getting for your money. That said, you need to keep in mind that things like aesthetics, user experience, and customer support cannot be measured.

"AT $499 , THE ESSENTIAL PH-1 IS POSITIONED TO BE COMPETITIVE"

With the new $499 MSRP price, the Essential PH-1 is positioned to be competitive. It is clear to me that the original price $699 price would have made it difficult in the current market. Essential understood that promptly and repositioned its phone to bring much better value.

The Snapdragon 835 processor (4GB RAM), 128GB, 3040 mAh of battery of internal storage and an exquisite Titanium/Ceramic design are great technical and unbiased reasons to consider this handset. In fact, the value-proposition is pretty much on par with OnePlus, another formidable player in the $500 phones.

Conclusion: fresh, innovative

Essential has taken upon itself to compete in one of the most challenging endeavors in the tech industry. Becoming a successful hardware company is extremely difficult, but smartphone design (and marketing) is unbelievably hard.

The work that was done with the Essential PH-1 is impressive, especially if you look at the small size of the company and possibly the time frame from design to production. I do not doubt that much more is coming from this company, and it’s exciting to have a serious new player.

However, this was a bumpy entrance into a smartphone market that has very strong leaders. Looking back at my experience with the Essential PH-1, the Camera experience was its main weakness (the lack of 3.5mm audio didn’t help either, but it is passable). Other people may want specific features here and there that were not deemed “essential enough” to be integrated.

Is it a good buy? Yes, but…

The pricing move is great because at $499 I feel like some issues won’t weigh as much. People don’t expect to have the “best” camera in that price range, and the features, speed and overall build quality of the handset could sway potential buyers.

For heavy media users who have a ton of photos and videos, the 128GB is a great deal because getting a 128GB high-end phone can be a particularly expensive proposition. The Essential PH-1 is also probably the most aggressively-priced “bezel-less” design with this performance profile.

Alternatives

If you need the best camera experience and don’t mind the extra cost, there are other Android competitors you can look at: the Galaxy S8/S8+/Galaxy Note 8 (follow the links for reviews), the LG V30 (read our V30 review). I’ll finish the Huawei Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro camera tests soon; then I might get to the Google Pixel 2 later.

Overall product rating: 8/10

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

Display
5.71"
2560x1312 IPS LCD
Price (approximative)
~$499 - Amazon
Camera
13 MP
F1.85 Aperture Size
Weight
185 g
Battery
3040 mAh
Removable Battery
Launched in
2017/05/01
System
4GB RAM
Snapdragon 835 + None
Storage (GB)
128
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