The market for a flagship smartphone in 2017 is almost entirely dominated by Apple and Samsung. Apple has sold over 1 billion iPhones over the last decade, and Samsung’s devices are the most popular in the world, with designs that are starting to approach Apple’s quality. And yet, other than rumblings from Google, the rest of the smartphone market has been divvied up between companies trying to make the best, cheapest phones they can. Unlike most other upstart smartphone manufactures, Essential thinks its newest device can go toe-to-toe with these heavyweights.
Earlier this summer, the startup launched by Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android operating system, unveiled his vision for the modern smartphone. It’s one that focuses heavily on design and modularity.
Quartz spent the last few weeks with the Essential phone, to get an understanding of what living with it is like, and whether it’s different enough to make Apple or Samsung acolytes abandon their paths and think different. here’s what we found:
It’s really pretty. In a world of indiscernible black rectangles, the Essential phone somehow manages to (slightly) stand out. Aesthetically, it’s sort of like the platonic ideal of a smartphone: There’s a sharp, high-resolution screen that wraps around almost the entirety of the front of the device; polished strips of titanium cover the sides; and has a shiny ceramic back that can easily double as a mirror. Every aspect of the design feels considered, including the fabric-wrapped cables that ship with the phone.
It’s adaptable. On the back of the phone are two magnetic dots that can connect to a series of external gadgets that Essential is developing. Right now, the only one that’s rolled out so far is a 360° camera, which costs $50. It’s one of the smallest and easiest-to-use cameras of its ilk on the market; you just snap it onto the back of the phone, and start recording in 360° video.
It’s pure Android. Essential is the brainchild of Rubin, the original creator of Android, which was acquired by Google in 2005. There’s no junk or bloatware on this phone, just the stock operating system as Google builds it.
Decent battery life. The phone’s battery could last for the better part of a workday with no problem. Even when we left it on, unplugged, from Friday night to Monday morning, the battery life held up impressively, dropping from 95% to 44%.
What’s not so good
It’s heavy and boxy. Although the design of the phone looks good from a distance, it’s not so great when actually using it. The phone weighs about 0.41 lbs—roughly 0.1 lbs heavier than an iPhone 7—and its corners make the device relatively clunky and uncomfortable to hold in the hand or in a pocket, especially when compared to the more rounded design approach that companies like Apple and Samsung have taken in recent years. Also the ceramic back is a fingerprint magnet that needs to be wiped off after every use to maintain its sheen.
The camera is just fine. The 13-megapixel back-facing camera takes sharp and vivid photos, but the phone is missing many of the functions that its competitors have, including a portrait mode, panoramic shots, or time-lapses.
Both the newest iPhones and Samsungs have two cameras on the back that allow them to perceive depth to create photos that seem as if they were shot on a professional camera with a shallow depth of field. The Essential also has two cameras, but, curiously, one is just for shooting monochrome photos. Perhaps in a later software release Essential could bring the iPhone’s killer feature of 2016 to its phone. The 8-megapixel front-facing camera, however, takes some pretty decent selfies, and is sharper than the one on the new iPhone 8.
The fingerprint scanner isn’t reliable. It didn’t recognize my fingerprint more than half of the times I attempted to use it, and even when it did, it was slower at unlocking my phone than many of the other scanners I’ve used this year.
Many apps don’t make use of the full screen. The phone has a brilliant screen that is, much like Apple’s forthcoming iPhone X, hampered by a “notch” at the top. Many apps use the area around the front camera as a status bar area, or letterbox their app around the area, leaving an awkward black area hanging off the screen. (Check out the long black rectangle hanging off the left side of the screenshot below, and then compare it to how the home screen looks above.)
It’s expensive for what it is. The phone does not have many of the features its competition touts. There are the shortcomings of the camera that we already mentioned. It also is not as water-resistant as an iPhone or a Galaxy S8, nor does it have an OLED HD display, or wireless charging. And the phone costs $700; if you’re after a no-frills Android, consider the the OnePlus 5, which has similar features to the Essential phone, but only costs $479.
Should you get one?
If, at any given moment, you know whether it’s quicker to take your Model S P100D on the 101 or 280 to get from your meeting on Sand Hill Road to the Blue Bottle in SOMA, this is the phone for you. If none of those words mean anything to you, get an iPhone or a Samsung.
The Essential phone is like so many things in Silicon Valley in 2017. It’s different for the sake of it, and expensive enough that it’s still exclusive. It’s like owning a Tesla or like Apple’s new campus: A beautiful work of art that’s ultimately just an empty status symbol. At $700, the Essential phone doesn’t offer anything that the Samsung Galaxy S8 or an iPhone 8 doesn’t offer for roughly the same price, other than a better screen-to-phone ratio, and overall, it offers less than its competitors.
Silicon Valley loves to disrupt things, and the smartphone industry is ripe for disruption—every black rectangle is about as good as every other one, and they’re all slightly better than the ones that were released the year before—but this really feels like a refinement of ideas that have likely been banging around in Rubin and his designers’ heads for a few years, rather than a step-change in the mobile industry.