Essential Phone review: Lovely titanium and ceramic with potential for greatness

  • Editors' rating
    8.4 Excellent
  • $499.00

Pros

  • Titanium and ceramic feel wonderful in the hand
  • Compact size for 5.71 inch display
  • Long battery life
  • Fast, stock Android experience
  • Second camera is monochrome
  • New $499 price is great

Cons

  • Basic camera software, no manual capability yet
  • No headphone jack or wireless charging

After two months on the market, the Essential Phone has dropped nearly 30 percent in price to just $499.

Android co-founder Andy Rubin announced the Essential Phone at the end of May. It finally started shipping in August, a couple months after the stated date, at a price of $699.

I couldn't get a review unit from Essential, but a Twitter follower, Casey Sims, kindly reached out to me and offered to loan me his for testing. He sent along his Black Moon Essential Phone and the 360 Camera attachment and I've been using it with my primary T-Mobile SIM for the past week.

He was possibly interested in selling it if I wanted to buy it, but after yesterday's massive price cut to $499 I am going to buy my own in Pure White (or possibly Ocean Depths if it launches in time).

Specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 octa-core
  • Display: 5.71 inch 2560x1312 pixels 19:10 resolution LCD
  • Operating system: Android 7.1.2 Nougat with September security patch
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 128GB internal
  • Water and dust resistance: IP54 rating
  • Cameras: Dual rear 13 megapixel f/1.85, cameras with one dual RGB + mono and the otehr true monochrome. Front 8 megapixel f/2.2 camera
  • Battery: 3,040 mAh with fast charging technology
  • Dimensions: 141.5 x 71.1 x 7.8 mm and 185 grams

The Essential Phone is a heavy phone at 185 grams, but I personally love the heft of it in the compact form factor. My Note 8 is 195 grams, but it is also 21 mm taller and 3.7 mm wider. The Essential Phone is one of the more compact modern phones.

Hardware

When I first pulled the Essential Phone from the retail package, I was immediately impressed by the rock solid feel of the titanium sides, ceramic back, and Gorilla Glass 5 front panel. The Essential Phone feels like a very expensive phone and looks fantastic.

Top ZDNET Reviews

Essential advertises that the titanium and ceramic design makes the phone more durable and able to withstand drops. I'm not testing this on a buddy's phone and hope to never drop the phone to test its durability. The ceramic back feels similar to glass and is a serious fingerprint magnet on the black model. I also see some minor surface scratching in way of the two gold attachments where the 360 camera connect.

Starting on the front, the Essential Phone display beat Apple to the "notch" with a small central part of the display missing where the front-facing camera is positioned. You can see the notch out of the display on the home screen and in some apps, but most apps tend to cut off the top in line with the notch like we see on other phones.

Honestly, the notch doesn't bother me at all and I find it a bit unique. I think people will likely adapt to the notch on the iPhone X as well and will appreciate the additional screen space. The front has minimal top, bottom, and side bezels so you get a large display in a rather small form factor. I've been very pleased with everything about this LCD display, but you cannot use it with a Google Daydream VR headset so there is that to consider.

On the bottom you will find the mono speaker, USB Type-C port, nanoSIM card slot, and a microphone. Don't put your SIM removal tool into the mic opening that is close to the SIM card slot.

The power and volume buttons are on the right side. There is nothing on the left side and the top, which actually gives it a minimalist appeal to me. There are some antenna breaks around the edges, but these do not extend along the back.

The fingerprint scanner is properly positioned on the upper center back of the phone and works like a champ. There are two gold connectors for accessories on the right uppers side while the dual camera and flash is on the left of the back. There is no branding of any sort anywhere on the phone.

When the Essential Phone was first reviewed by the press a couple of months ago, the camera was lamented. Essential provided a few updates since it first launched and I am honestly seeing solid performance in good lighting conditions. In low light, it can't match the HTC U11 or Galaxy Note 8, but I personally don't take many low light photos so that doesn't concern me too much.

The camera software is very basic and currently there is no manual mode, but Essential has stated that is coming. It is also planning to launch portrait mode functionality with a future software update. I am a fan of monochrome photos and so far we have really only seen Huawei offering this on the dual camera phones. Since Huawei phones rarely hit US shelves, the Essential Phone may be the best option for monochrome lovers like me.

You can check out several sample photographs in full resolution in this Flickr album and judge the performance for yourself. I think the Essential Phone beat out others in some shots and am satisfied with its current performance.

360 Camera accessory

Casey included his 360 Camera accessory so I took it for a spin. It attaches via strong magnets to the back of the Essential Phone, mating up the two gold connectors on the camera to the phone. Data is transmitted wirelessly between the phone and camera with the default camera app switching into 360 mode.

The 360 camera software is very basic with buttons for video or still capture. There is no ability to switch to a bunch of unique modes like we see on the 2017 Samsung Gear 360 camera, but it gets the job done quickly and easily.

The 360 Camera is compact and using it could not be any simpler. It weighs only 35 grams and has 4 microphones. There are dual 12 megapixel sensors on the camera with 3840 x 1920 resolution video capture at 30 fps. The 360 Camera is currently priced at $179. It is an interesting way to capture your world, but I'm not sure enough of us are ready to start capturing 360 all the time. Sharing is getting better, but is still a bit of a challenge.

Software

Andy Rubin launched the Essential Phone as a stock Android device that can compete with the Pixel phones from Google. There is no bloatware anywhere on the phone and it flies with the Snapdragon 835 processor. The device I am testing currently has Android 7.1.1 with the September 2017 Android security patch. Essential stated that Android 8 Oreo will be coming as a beta in the next few weeks.

There is the potential that the Essential Phone will get very timely updates for security and major releases, but there is also a risk that this may not happen since it is a startup company. It currently has solid funding and I am hopeful that it will succeed in the mobile space.

There is an ambient display that shows the time, date, and notifications when a notification comes in. It also seems to activate when you lift up the device and before you unlock the display. There is no double tap to wake the phone.

You can double press the power button to launch the camera. Then, just like HTC does when you wake up your device after leaving the camera app it will start up in the camera again. This is great for dedicated photo sessions.

The camera software is very basic with auto, monochrome, and slow motion options along the bottom and video or still capture buttons. You can toggle shutter sounds, HDR mode, and timer settings.

The Google Launcher is the default and all of the Google apps are used for messaging, web browsing, music, and more. It is more stock than the new Pixel 2 phones.

Price and competition

The Essential Phone is now priced at $499 with only one configuration of 128GB available. It is currently available in Black Moon and Pure White with Stellar Grey and Ocean Depths stated to be available soon. I would love to have that green and gold Ocean Depths, but if it doesn't launch soon I am planning to purchase a Pure White model.

Sprint customers can also purchase the Essential Phone through different plan options. The Sprint site still shows the $699.99 price, as of the time of this review.

The Essential Phone has flagship specs and is now priced where we see mid-level Android phones. The HTC U11 also has flagship internals with a current price of $649. The Google Pixel 2 XL starts out at $849 and even the smaller 5 inch display Pixel 2 starts at $649. At $699, it was tough to recommend the Essential Phone, but at $499 it is tough to pass up.

Daily usage experiences and conclusion

I have a thing for the underdogs and have stuck with Windows Phone for a long time, still buy HTC phones, and even bought a Nextbit Robin on Kickstarter. I considered buying an Essential Phone when it launched, but the $699 price was just a bit too much for me to make the jump. At $499, it is no question and I will be ordering one soon.

While I have rather big hands and can get along fine with big phones like the iPhone 7 Plus or Galaxy Note 8, it is still easier to slip a more compact phone in my front pants pocket. The Essential Phone brings a big screen experience in a rather compact form factor. The Essential Phone is hefty and some may be turned off by the 185 gram weight. It feels expensive to me and I love dense phones.

Battery life has been solid and gotten me through typical days of work and play. The camera has performed better than I thought it would and I look forward to continued improvements in the software.

I am unable to use my Samsung Gear S3 Frontier smartwatch on the Essential Phone because of some unsupported element in the software of the phone. Casey Sims, the guy who loaned me the phone, also said there are Android Auto issues. It sounds like the Essential folks have some work to do on the software, but hopefully these things can get ironed out.

The Essential Phone holds a lot of promise and at $499 it is worth taking a chance with them.

Top ZDNET Reviews

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All