In 2014, Andy Rubin, the guy who created the Sidekick and later Android — now the world’s most popular mobile operating system — took some time off to start a bakery and run a start-up incubator. Now, three years later, he’s back with a brand-new hardware company, Essential, and its first phone, the Essential Phone, will be out next week. The big selling point, besides Rubin’s gadget pedigree, is Rubin’s claim that the Essential Phone will remove phone buyers from the endless upgrade cycle — buy the Essential Phone now, and it’ll stay good for years to come. Here’s what reviewers — most of whom seem to have only gotten a very short amount of time with the phone — are saying about the Essential Phone, available for $699 starting on September 1.
It a beautiful piece of hardware
A sleek slab of branding-free titanium and ceramic, the phone looks very good. “The phone is almost minimalist to a fault, but it’s done in a way that makes the design of other handsets look busy,” writes Gizmodo. And the bezel-free phone stands out. “It won’t be long now before we take edge-to-edge screens like the one on the Essential Phone for granted, but for the moment it’s still something special,” gushes the Verge. But the edge-to-edge screen is LCD, not OLED, meaning colors aren’t quite as punchy or bright as you’ll see in competing Samsung and Pixel phones.
The internal specs are solid, especially the large amount of onboard storage
Its Snapdragon 835 processor is top-of-the-line, its 3,040 mAh battery is good, it comes with a Bluetooth 5.0 antenna, and the 128 GB of internal storage is surprisingly generous. That said, it also only comes with 4 GB of RAM — totally fine for the apps available on Android now, but a point of concern for a phone that is ostensibly future-proofed.
But the camera is worrying
The Essential comes with dual rear cameras, one that shoots in color and one that shoots monochrome. But it hasn’t impressed reviewers. Engadget describes it as “a little behind the curve compared with other premium smartphones.” Most reviewers also noted a small but significant lag time between hitting the shutter button and the picture appearing on the screen. But Essential also pushed a software update shortly before reviews went up that seemed to change the picture quality drastically. Still, if this is a phone that you’re supposed to never need to upgrade, a camera that doesn’t immediately shine is a misstep; some problems can be fixed by software updates, but sometimes camera problems are more rooted in physics and lenses.
And its attachment “mods” are an unknown quantity
One of the central ways the Essential Phone aims to break users out of the endless upgrade cycle is by using modular bits of hardware that clip on to the back of the phone via magnetic connectors. But no reviewers got a chance to try the first mod released — a 360-degree camera — and it’s a complete unknown what else Essential has planned. The company also plans to allow other hardware manufacturers to build mods for the Essential Phone, but Essential will need to sell a lot of phones to make that worth anyone’s effort. And the recent history of smartphones is littered with failed attempts at making modular phone attachments.
Maybe it could use a 3.5-mm headphone mod?
The Essential ships without a headphone jack, which disappoints — especially when it doesn’t also include the water-resistance that has become standard in high-end phones (and would, perhaps, justify not having a headphone jack). It also doesn’t come with wireless headphones included, just a dongle to attach 3.5-mm headphones to the USB-C charger port — which means you can’t listen and charge at the same time.
Still, it’s a good Android phone …
The Essential ships with stock Android — the best version of Android — without bloatware. “Considering that even Google is unnecessarily bundling a load of its apps onto Pixel phones these days, it’s refreshing to see a phone that’s pure, simple, Android,” writes Mashable. Its complete lack of branding and stripped-down simplicity could appeal to those who want a phone they can customize (or not customize) as they see fit.
But it’s not essential
USA Today comes down hard, writing: “Naming the ‘Essential’ smartphone just that comes off as something of a dare, an insinuation that this new Android handset somehow is more essential than the phones that we already carry. It isn’t.” The BBC is similarly dubious: “Is the Essential Phone an essential purchase? Well, no. There’s nothing here that would tempt you to switch from what you currently use — especially if it means jumping from iOS to Android.” Says VentureBeat: “It still falls short when compared to its mass-market competitors.” Wired’s David Pierce is kinder, writing that it’s almost as good as the Pixel or Samsung S8, but “it has just enough imperfections to give me pause.”
Overall, while reviewers appreciate the design and the vision behind Rubin’s Essential Phone — the idea of breaking down walled gardens has real appeal for many — the phone as offered feels like a compromise in quality for the sake of an ideal. You may not love being stuck in the Apple or Samsung ecosystem, but they also currently make better phones than the Essential Phone. Time will tell if Rubin and Essential can offer up enough extras to change that.