Essential Phone with Android 8.1 and mid-range price – Great value? (Review)

The Essential Phone (PH-1) made waves in the Android community at its debut. It sounded like a true contender and boasted a rad, minimal-bezel design to peak interest. But that doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing out the gate. It’s always tough for a startup to strike success in the crowded smartphone market, and even one backed by an Android co-founder proved to be no exception, as the company has only moved around 100K devices over several months.

It wasn’t that the phone came with malfunctions or questionable quality. On the contrary, it’s probably the most solidly built original phone ever. But it launched top-end pricing ($700), and that put it in an arena with stiff competition. There were some crucial aspects where the Essential Phone couldn’t compete, like screen quality and camera performance. It also didn’t help that there’s no water resistance and that the software wasn’t as snappy as other Snapdragon 835 devices.

But the Essential team has been hard at work since then to address some of those “beta” issues. They have pushed some lofty camera updates and the latest Android build: 8.1 (Oreo). In that time, the price of the phone has also been dropping. So today, we’re seeing if these two factors have converged into making the PH-1 one of the most compelling smartphone choices right now. This is our review of the updated Essential Phone.

Design

We won’t dwell too much on the design of the Essential Phone. The phone isn’t “new” and chances are you know the deal here. But it is worth mentioning that the titanium frame and ceramic rear panel do hold up well over time.

Because the phone is glossy all over, it feels fragile like competitive phones built with aluminum and glass, but our unit has maintained its pristine, like-new appearance. That doesn’t mean it’s impervious to breaking, but something must be said for how well it holds up against the daily grind.

That said, this is probably the most smudge-prone smartphone we’ve ever used. The back panel is so reflective and easily becomes a smudge feast.

Essential Phone PH-1
This is what the phone really looks like in real-world use.

We also feel that the glossy perimeter was a mistake – the phone is already slippery as it is (and it becomes a gross, smudgy mess too). Having a matte, grippier material would’ve gone a long way to help the user feel a more secure grip and manageability. Its weighty 185g doesn’t help here either. Basically, it would’ve been fantastic if Essential just expanded that ceramic-like trim on the edges of the frame.

Performance

Coming from popular flagships like the Note 8, LG V30, and Pixel 2 XL, upon receiving the Essential Phone I immediately noticed that its software was noticeably slow to respond. Not that it lagged or took time to execute actions – on the contrary, it was (and continues to be) consistently functional.

But it wasn’t as snappy as other Snapdragon 835 driven devices. For instance, there was consistently a very short but noticeable delay from when you would tap an app icon or hyperlink and when it would act. Also, when scrolling, it was obvious the frame rate was fluctuating, and not silky smooth like on the competition. These things are far from deal breakers, but one has to question why this was happening with a chipset that should devour common processes.

This is something that Essential sought to address in the Android 8.1 update, referring to it as a fix to the “display touch scrolling jitteriness”. So did the update take care of it? Well, it is certainly better but still noticeable, at least to a picky user like myself.

Essential Phone PH-1
Example of our battery results on T-Mobile‘s network.

This is in comparison with my daily driver Note 8, which is immediate to respond to a tap, and scrolling in apps like Chrome and Google+ is seamless (and it’s even better on the Pixel 2). On the PH-1, I just don’t feel as enabled to tap, tap, tap as quick as I can on the Note 8. This is surprising, because Samsung’s software sports a heavy UI, whereas the PH-1 is a bare-bones “essential” version of Android. But this could be a personal gripe. I’m quick with my phone navigation and feel like the Essential Phone makes me work slower.

The same goes for scrolling. It’s definitely better than pre-8.1, but I can still see the frame rate drop. But we reiterate – it’s far from unusable and definitely a nit-picky thing, and certainly acceptable at the PH-1’s now lower price.

Speaking of battery life, it’s been a good experience for me. The 3,040 mAh battery seems to punch above its weight, and I think it’s due to Essential’s software optimization. I observed consistent drainage with a multitude of average tasks. It, of course, wasn’t until I ran videos in high brightness or did some gaming where I saw the results significantly drop.

Display

Another downside of the PH-1 is its decision of an LCD panel in an OLED world. Fortunately, it’s a pretty good LCD panel. As a long time user of OLED panels, this aspect of the PH-1 surprisingly wasn’t a contention for me. Sure, I can notice the slightly washed-out quality and brightness shift when tilting the view. But these drawbacks happen to be really slight on this phone. Outdoor visibility leaves some to be desired, though.

That notch for the selfie cam is a bit of an eyesore for me, but I recognize that it’s a personal taste. Many people are able to tune it out – I’m just not one of those people. At least it’s the smallest notch on the market.

Essential Phone PH-1
The hard notch life.

But from an objective standpoint, the notch does cause a minor problem. The top status bar is custom tweaked to suit it. It’s wider than usual, so its touch response to toggle the notification shade is therein wider. This can conflict with content underneath it, that doesn’t adjust to the different size. Sometimes when I go to click something that’s close to the boundary, like a link in Chrome, it annoying pulls down the notification bar. It can also overlay incorrectly in some apps. For instance, in Feedly, you see a gray bar atop that spills over its boundary.

Camera

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Essential Phone camera interface.

So probably the biggest con of the Essential Phone at launch was its camera performance. Not just in quality, but in speed too. It also didn’t help that it lacked Auto HDR support – something that has become a requirement of top-end smartphones as of late. Essential acknowledged the complaint and improving it through software has been one of the team’s biggest efforts since launch.

And they’ve done a pretty good job. Auto HDR is now in there, and the overall performance is at satisfactory levels. Though, it still can’t really stand with the best out there. At times, the cameras can pull off some impressive shots, but it takes just the right lighting. In dark situations (like indoors) or wide range of lighting, the HDR processing often overdoes it and makes the image look washed out (overexposed). And when HDR isn’t applied, we can sometimes end up with dark spots.

The sharpness is overall good when looking at the big picture, but when you zoom in you see more artifacting then we would like. Here’s an image comparison with the Note 8 in a shot with dynamic range:

One last complaint is that the camera is a good step behind the competition in macro shots. We don’t remember when we had such a hard time getting a smartphone camera to focus on something like a flower. This is even when specifically targeting the focus subject on the screen. It struggles so much.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re far from a terrible camera here; it definitely gets the job done and can pull off some terrific and dramatic shots.

Essential Phone PH-1
Shot of my collie using Portrait mode.

But it’s certainly a hit or miss situation, where more established manufacturers have well refined past that point in their lives. We commend Essential in doing something about it, and the improvements are significant, but we’re not quite there yet.

Essential Phone Camera Samples:

Essential was kind enough to also lend us the phone’s modular accessory. One might forget that there’s two pin connectors on the back to magnetically clip on mods. This is because, well, there has been only one available – a 360-degree camera. But for what it’s worth, it’s a really nice option.

It’s compact and effortless to use. Just line up the pins and it will magically magnetically fasten. The phone powers the device (no need to charge it separately). It’s comprised of two very wide fisheye, 12MP lenses. You’ll hear a fan inside spool up and a custom 360 camera interface launches on the phone. This is an instant way to capture a 360-degree image, just with a press of a button. And it can do 4K and record video.

Software

After the 8.1 Oreo update, the Essential Phone aesthetically keeps things…essential. It’s a really close experience with the Pixel 2, which is a great thing. Not many phones have a stock-like, no-frills experience.

It’s not exactly the same as the Pixel 2. Essential has a couple of its own things, but they’re very minimal. For instance, some colorings are different, like in some icons and the dark quick settings menu. The app drawer is also transparent, and you can move the persistent Google search bar to your liking (what’s up with this, Google!?). But again, minimal differences.

Of course, many of the newer Android 8.1 features are here, like Picture-in-Picture (PnP) mode (lets you overlay a small window to keep playing a video atop everything), Google Lens (Google’s own image subject query tool), better consolidation of notifications, and custom app icon long-press actions/shortcuts. But you won’t get the Now Playing feature (displays track info of music the phone hears when the screen is off) because the Essential Phone doesn’t have an Always-On display.

Final Thoughts

Essential Phone PH-1

So back to the original question: Do the updates and the lower price make the Essential Phone a bargain now? Definitely yes. No, the updates didn’t do something magical and fix all the concerns – they just made them less…concerning. What really helps is that the phone is now at a sub-$500 price. The Essential Phone easily pulls ahead of the mid-range smartphone competition. None are built like this, have an 85% screen-to-body ratio, and an up-to-date, stock Android experience. The gripes we have are now minor in the grand scheme of things.

…and it comes in pretty colors now.