The Essential Phone, brought to us by the person who created Android, is finally ready for the spotlight. It’s an incredibly audacious and ambitious project, with an outlandish screen and the beginnings of a modular ecosystem.
First, the Android phone basics: the Essential Phone costs $699 with top-of-the-line specs and features. It prominently features an edge-to-edge display that one-ups even the Samsung Galaxy S8 by bringing it all the way to the the top of the phone, wrapping around the front-facing selfie camera.
It’s a unique take on a big screen that makes the phone stand out — and it’s smart, too. Often, the status bar at the top of an Android phone doesn’t fill that middle space with icons, so it’s efficient. The screen does leave some bezel at the bottom of the phone, but nevertheless it’s as close to the whole front of a phone being display.
Essential is launching the phone in the US to start, and it’s filled the phone with radios that should make it work on all major carriers, alongside usual Android flagship internals like a Qualcomm 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. And because Essential seems to be hanging its hat on the idea of shipping phones without extraneous junk (the designers don’t even put a logo on the exterior), chances seem good that there won’t be a ton of extraneous software laded on to slow the phone down.
Essential is clearly planning on releasing a very well-made phone: the screen looks promising, it has no annoying logos, and it is built with a combination of titanium and ceramic so it can survive a drop test “without blemish, unlike the aluminum competitor devices.”
But nice hardware isn’t all that hard to come by on Android phones, so the company is aiming to build an ecosystem of accessories. It starts with a magnetic connector and wireless data transfer. Essential will ship a 360-degree camera that can click in to the top of the phone, and the company will also offer a charging dock. Both connect to the phone with small metal pogo pins. They won’t entirely replace USB-C for most people, but Essential is clearly hoping that they could someday.
Speaking of ports, there is no traditional 3.5mm headphone jack — which is a bummer. We’re told that it will ship with a headphone dongle in the box. It’s possible that other audio accessories could be made that could clip on to the magnetic accessory port.
The Essential Phone also has a good take on the dual-camera systems we’ve seen on other phones. Rather than use the second lens for telephoto or bokeh, it’s using it for a monochrome sensor, just like Huawei has been doing with the P9 and P10. That second sensor will be able to take in more light than a traditional color camera, meaning it can be combined with the regular 13-megapixel for better low-light shots. The front-facing camera is in line with current expectations, too: an 8-megapixel sensor that can also capture 4K video.
All that sounds great, but it ignores some key facts in the smartphone space: Apple and Samsung have it pretty locked up right now. The pessimist might say that although this phone looks incredible, it is also likely to break upon the shoals of the phone market, the same rocks that have cracked every Android phone that doesn’t have the Samsung logo emblazoned on it: carrier support, consumer interest, and lack of true differentiation.
But when it comes to cracking on the rocks, Andy Rubin claims that the Essential phone’s titanium and ceramic build is better able to withstand a drop test. Presumably, Essential’s grander ambitions are equally durable — it’s impossible to look at just this phone outside the context of Essential’s other announcements: the Essential Home speaker and its Ambient OS.
Even if those ambitions don’t bear out, the Essential Phone itself is exciting on its own. It’s a simple, straightforward Android device that respects the user: it’s powerful, clean, and not entirely beholden to the business whims of the giant companies that currently control the mobile and smart home markets.
If nothing else, it deserves our attention because it’s coming from Andy Rubin, who knows a thing or two about doing the right thing in the smartphone world.