Andy Rubin, the creator of Android (which now runs on about 2 billion devices worldwide) and the Sidekick (which was featured in about 2 billion paparazzi pictures of Paris Hilton in 2004), is back with a new phone and a new company, debuting the Essential Phone today in a blitz of media coverage, including full-page ads in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
But if you’re saving up for a Samsung S8, or waiting for the launch of the Pixel 2 or iPhone 8, is this a phone worth getting worked up about? Some reasons why you should — and shouldn’t — consider making your next phone the Essential.
Pro: It’s got premium hardware, with some features you won’t find anywhere else.
The Phone itself has some whizbang features that — depending on when it’s released — should place it near the top of Android devices. (And, yes, per Wired, while Rubin’s company is called Essential, the handset itself, while having the technical specification of PH-1, is just named Phone. Which, depending on your generosity of spirit, is either admirably simple or “I love lamp” goofy.)
It will continue the trend of disappearing bezels, with a 5.7-inch display that has no side bezels; no top bezel, save a small divot for a front camera; and only a small bezel at the bottom. It’ll come with a top-end Snapdragon 835 processor, a generous 128 GB of internal storage, dual-lens 13 MP rear cameras, an 8 MP front-facing camera, and a relatively decent 3,040 mAh battery.
Unlike nearly every other phone on the market that uses an aluminium or plastic case, the Phone is built out of titanium and ceramic, notably tough materials that are a first on the smartphone market. Essential says titanium and ceramic perform better in drop tests, though that just means the corner of the case won’t scuff — you could still crack the screen, which is semi-standard Corning Gorilla Glass 5. The phone also isn’t waterproof, so even if it can survive a drop, it can’t survive a swim.
It also has rear corner magnetic “pogo port,” where you can snap on modular attachments, though the only one announced so far is a 360-degree camera. (It’ll also allow you to snap the phone onto a charging dock easily, though details about the dock haven’t been revealed.)
The Phone is available for preorder now for $699, or with the 360-degree camera for $749, and it’ll work across all four major carriers.
Con: The software is still a bit of a mystery.
The Phone ships Android Nougat version 7.1.1 (though the latest version of Android is 7.1.2). While Rubin promised in a blog post introducing the Phone that it would be free of bloatware, we don’t know what kind of skin — if any — it’ll put on top of the Android OS. It’s possible it’ll run vanilla Android, which is frankly the best version of Android, but some screenshots seem to show a slightly different bottom row of icons than you’d see in vanilla Android. And most handset-makers put their own skin on top of Android, and that skin can make a huge difference in how the phone feels — an LG phone feels much different from a Samsung phone, even though both run nearly the same version of Android.
Furthermore, this is Andy Rubin, the guy who invented Android, but was eventually kinda shoved out the door at Google. Is he 100 percent satisfied with the work the new head of Android development, Hiroshi Lockheimer, has done on Android in the meantime? Or does he see room for improvement? If so, what does that improvement look like?
Pro: It’ll ostensibly remove the most annoying parts of the upgrade cycle.
Part of Essential’s pitch, as laid out by Rubin, is that the modular snap-ons will help “future-proof” the phone. There won’t be a future version where the attachments or chargers don’t work (think of all the 30-pin iPhone chargers that were thrown out when the Lightning charger hit the market). Furthermore, modular attachments mean you can get new features for your phone (e.g., a sensor for gauging the 3-D space around, allowing for augmented reality) without actually buying a new phone.
Con: If you’re willing to pay $699 for a phone, you’ll probably want a new phone within a year regardless.
I’ve heard from phone-industry execs that there are essentially two kinds of consumers in the smartphone market now: those who want premium phones and upgrade about every 12 months, and those who buy midrange phones and keep them for two to three years. If you’re the type of person who is going to be lusting after the iPhone 8 when it hits, or is already jealous of the Samsung S8’s Infinity Screen, will snap-on attachments really be enough to keep you sated? And if you’re someone who has happily bopped along on a Motorola, are you willing to jump to a higher price point and also keep shelling out for more snap-on attachments?
Pro: Andy Rubin is a smart guy and seems to want to break down walled gardens.
Rubin is no dummy, and he obviously hates the current idea that you need to stick to one technology stack to get the most out of your stuff. If you use an Android phone, a Mac computer, and an Amazon Fire streaming stick, those things don’t really work together. And the biggest walled garden, Apple’s ecosystem, has increasingly felt overgrown — there may be people out there who can use iCloud without any headaches across every device, but I haven’t met them yet. Google isn’t much better — using Android without using a Google account is nearly impossible.
Essential’s Phone and its Home system (basically an Amazon Echo with a screen) promise to work across a lot of different tech systems. As Rubin puts it in his blog post, Essential hardware will “[make] all devices, even those we don’t make ourselves, play well together,” because “closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated.” Which sounds appealing! How much they can deliver on that promise, however, is an open question.
Con: There’s no headphone jack.
Hope you like dongles!
The bottom line
Essential’s Phone is intriguing, but most of the hype today is due to a mixture of savvy PR and tech journalists desperate for an actually interesting new smartphone (and interesting new hardware competitor to Apple). The idea of the guy who invented Android putting his full weight behind a new consumer hardware company, starting with a new smartphone, is enough to build up plenty of media hype.
But while the Phone itself looks very good (all that screen!) and its ability to snap on attachments could be intriguing, at this point it’s also not significantly different from most other high-end Android handsets out there. Andy Rubin’s Essential may turn out to be a game changer in the hardware business — a manufacturer that bucks enough trends (the constant upgrade cycle, the walled garden) to offer consumers more appealing choices than currently on offer from other hardware manufacturers. But unless you’re the earliest of early adopters, I’d say avoid the preorder and wait on the Phone for now.