Essential’s first phone, the PH-1 (aka the Essential Phone), hasn’t had the smoothest entrance into the smartphone market. But then again, it’s never easy for a startup. It’s not that it has been a buggy experience or anything (on the contrary, its performance is solid for the most part), but its top-end starting price of $700 was too ambitious. It’s a good phone, but compared to more established flagships at that price range, the PH-1’s disadvantages came to light. Namely, its camera and software performance left to be desired.
But that evokes a common question: Is it hardware or software? Because if it’s software issue, it can be drastically improved. Well, Essential seems to think so. The team has been hard at work improving the camera output over the past few months. They’ve also shot out a major update to the latest Android 8.1 (Oreo) software, incorporating touch lag fixes that users have complained about. And over this time, the price of the PH-1 has been steadily dropping. So with all these positives converged, are we looking at a really different offering today, and something that may really be worth the money? This Synopsis sums up what the Essential Phone experience looks like today.
In a nutshell, the PH-1 is a decently-sized 5.7″ smartphone focused on cutting bezels (85% body-to-screen ratio) and durability, having a chassis reinforced with a titanium frame and ceramic back panel. “Essential” isn’t just a name here, as the ideal for a simple, straightforward smartphone experience resonates throughout the smartphone – from the bare-bones software to the clean, unbranded exterior.
- Affordable price – currently at $450
- Superb build quality
- Large base storage capacity
- Commendable battery life
- Stock Android experience
- Potential for add-on accessories
- Average screen quality
- Camera performance still not there
- Notch cutout and iffy status bar
- Software response still needs work
- No headphone jack
- No microSD card slot
- No water/dust-proofing
What it’s like to use
- The PH-1’s flat sides and sweet-spot footprint make it feel great in the hand. The power button and rear-centered fingerprint scanner are situated perfectly, at least for the size of our hand.
- The build is simple. No fancy curves here – flat sides meet flat front and back panels. The in-hand feel is refreshing for a user used to Samsung’s curved screen smartphones.
- While grip is certainly better than the Samsung alternative, we do wish that Essential didn’t give the sides of the phone a glossy finish. The PH-1 is a manageable size, but it’s hefty for that size (at 185 grams). And it’s slippery due to being completely flanked by glossy panels. A matte finish on the titanium rails would’ve gone a long way in providing the user a confident grip. This also means that the sides will also be covered with clear finger smudges. It’s bad enough that the super reflective ceramic back panel displays them so well.
- Essentially, Essential’s use of more durable materials (titanium on the frame and ceramic for the back panel) is somewhat undermined by the fragile feeling the glossy surfaces give off. And the purpose of clean and pretty phone is defeated when it quickly becomes engulfed by finger smudges.
- Essential nicely makes up for the lack of a microSD card slot by having a large base storage capacity of 128GB. However, a justification can’t be said for the lack of water/dust-proofing.
- The absence of a headphone jack will be a point of contention for a while, but at least you can get the capability via a dongle that Essential includes in the box. You just have to remember to carry the dongle around with you, which can actually be a lot to ask for. The good thing here is that Essential packed a pretty good DAC into the dongle. Compared to our Note 8, we noticed clearer, more distinct/articulated, and better defined sounds.
- The PH-1 uses an LCD screen as opposed to the most current OLED tech in a lot of today’s flagship smartphones (and even mid-rangers too). That said, it’s not a bad screen by any means. It’s just that there’s nothing outstanding or top-notch about it, just decent quality.
- Many of the mediocre qualities of LCD panels are present here: the overall picture is slightly washed-out (compared to deep blacks and vibrant colors of OLED screens) and viewing angles exhibit a slight brightness shift. But these effects are minimal here; it’s pretty good for an LCD and far from the worst we’ve seen in the past.
- We would’ve thought, being an LCD, that the screen would fare better with outdoor visibility. It’s just average.
And then there’s the infamous notch atop. Fortunately, Essential’s implementation is the most minimal on the market – only cutting a very small area into the screen for the front-facing camera. Some users will tune it out, but the OCD type like myself will have a tougher time. It’s never stopped by an eye sore to me.
- Unfortunately, the notch isn’t just aesthetic. Essential had to custom code the Android status bar around it. It’s twice as wide as the stock bar, which isn’t the end of the world, but a couple bugs came with it. The trigger to pull down the notification shade is lower, and that can conflict with something you’re trying to tap in the vicinity. Also, the width of the bar isn’t supported in some apps. In Feedly, for example, the extra width of the bar overshoots the content in that area. It doesn’t render anything unusable, it’s just an annoyance.
- The camera performance was the biggest con of the PH-1 at launch. Not only did quality not stand up with the best (namely, in contrast and clarity), but capture was slow and Auto HDR was not supported. Since then, Essential has rolled out a couple “major” updates, one of which being Auto HDR.
- But do these software improvements do the trick? Well, halfway. Performance is better, but it’s still a step behind the competition. You can check out our camera samples further down the article.
- The shutter button is still far from the quickest out there, and the auto-focus can be finicky at times. It really struggles at close-ups; macro-like shots are more miss than hit, even at reasonable focus distances where other flagship smartphones we’ve reviewed had no problem.
- Auto HDR is nice to have now, but the performance isn’t consistent. Many times is over-exposes. And when it’s not triggered, dark areas in images are a bit too dark. Don’t get us wrong. The camera can pump out some decent pics, and even in tricky lighting, the shots aren’t poor per-se. It’s just that many in the competition are a good bit ahead. For example in the comparison below, the Note 8 shot has richer colors and better details.
- Like most smartphones with a secondary camera sensor to assist with quality, the system also enables the bokeh effect (aka Portrait mode). The results are decent on the PH-1 – distinct subject isolation and good background blur. Sometimes the boundary around the subject is fuzzy, but nothing generally outstanding.
- The Android experience on the Essential Phone is very similar to that of a Google phone. The resemblance to the Pixel 2 is now closer than ever being that they both now sport Android 8.1 (aka Oreo) – not a claim most Android phones can make.
- This means that you’ll see minimal functions atop the bare-bones build of Android, and no bloatware. Actually, the only extras you’ll see is a small spot in the Settings menu labeled “Essential” that is just a switch to allow Essential to collect usage and diagnostics data, and a couple gestures (swipe fingerprint scanner to bring down notification shade, double-press camera button to launch camera, and lift the phone when it’s off to show ambient display notification information). That’s it.
- As far as if the responsiveness issue was addressed with the 8.1 update – like the camera, it’s better but not quite to the level it should be for a device with a Snapdragon 835. The touch response is certainly snappier and less distracting from the update, but scroll speed is still an issue. Micro-stuttering and dropped framerates are still aplenty. We’re not sure why a bare version of Android would exhibit these issues; usually this occurs with heavy UI’s. Maybe it has to do with the way Essential optimized the phone.
- Of course, Android 8.1 features are present, like Picture-in-Picture Mode, Google Lens, more efficient notification layout, and app icon actions. Check out our Pixel 2 XL Synopsis for more details on these new features.
- The battery capacity of the PH-1 isn’t noteworthy (at 3,040 mAh), but the phone actually churns out some decent endurance. In particular, the drainage was consistent for us – no abrupt drops in even demanding tasks (unless we’re talking gaming in high brightness). We suspect this is why the phone doesn’t function like a speed demon. Essential probably has optimizations in place that prioritize battery life. You should expect reliably day-lasting battery with moderate-to-heavy usage.
- A standout feature of the PH-1 is magnetic pins on the back to clip on add-on mods, not unlike we’ve seen from Motorola and its Moto Z line. Except, Motorola has way more to offer with its numerous selection of Moto Mods. Essential has only had a 360-degree camera accessory to offer, even months after the phone’s release. So we wouldn’t hold our breaths on this one.
- That said, the 360 camera capability and function is pretty sweet. It’s compact and effortlessly clips onto the corner of the phone with a very strong magnetic connection. It is made of back-to-back 12MP fish-eye lenses, and when you attach it, you’ll hear a fan inside spool up and the custom 360 camera interface toggle on the phone. You just tap the shutter button and that’s it for a complete 360-degree capture. It can take in 4K and can record video. Though, you’ll have to be mindful of the significant battery usage it sucks up. Here’s a sample I took in a forest:
- Cellular reception of the phone isn’t the best you’ll get. In general, you won’t notice any issues, and we connected to T-Mobile’s network and got reception just fine. But the signal can quickly go downhill when you’re in a building. This isn’t uncommon in cell phones, but we noticed the Essential Phone didn’t fare as well as competitor phones we’ve used recently (Samsung Note 8, LG V30, Google Pixel 2 XL).
The Camera Samples
There’s a lot to consider when thinking about the Essential Phone today. At its launch price, there’s no way we would’ve recommended it. Not because it’s a bad phone, but because of a few ways it was a step behind the direct competition. However, things change when it’s now priced at a mid-range $450. It is certainly of the best you can choose from in the mid-range price point.
The significant updates the PH-1 has undergone reinforce this sentiment. This is of the few smartphones you can get right now with the latest Android 8.1 build, and one that has a stock, no-frills experience. The software responsiveness and camera performance are now at satisfactory levels, leaving the gripes of this phone only on minor and non-deal-breaking ones. We feel that the PH-1 would’ve had a better chance of success being priced at this range from the bat. Essential has just launched some new, compelling colors, but it may be that this ship has sailed in the mind of the market. We’re left with high hopes for the Essential Phone 2.
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