After months of alluding to what’s coming next and an essentially leak-proof operation, Andy Rubin has finally announced what his new company “Essential” is simply calling the Essential Phone, or the PH-1. It has been hard to miss the hype surrounding its announcement day, since virtually every media outlet has been covering this device, including XDA, giving nearly as much headline space for the name of Andy Rubin as they do the name of the device.
In the early leaks of what many expected to be a mainstream flagship device, we already had good indications that the phone would feature a premium build along with a nearly edge-to-edge display. Being that Andy Rubin, responsible for Android’s inception (and the reason most of us are here at XDA), was bringing this device to market we also expected a fairly unadulterated version of the OS, making the entire package fairly compelling. Unfortunately though, what we got was pretty much what should have been expected; an ultra premium device, matching price tag and “in-depth” coverage from all the media outlets that will pop-up on your parents’ news feeds.
With a name like “Essential” and some outlets touting it as the “Anti-iPhone”, what is it exactly that the PH-1 brings to the table that makes it so special, so essential? For starters, the phone isn’t powered by an all-new in-house processor making what is in your pocket obsolete; it is powered by the same package that the Galaxy S8 and HTC U11 have, that being the Snapdragon 835 with 4GB of RAM. It also does not have some super special camera tech; it uses the same dual color and monochrome sensor setup that Huawei has been essentially using for over a year now, and that is increasingly being adopted by others too. It also has an extensibility function that is a more flexible version of what Moto has been doing with Moto mods, albeit so far it looks to be watered down in terms of offerings and support. Speaking of watered down, if you take your phone swimming with you, you will essentially kill it. The display is one of the stand-out features of the phone offering a not-quite edge to edge display that is more like the Mi Mix in execution than the Galaxy S8, except it has a huge notch in the top that in all actuality will in all likelihood break fullscreen applications on the phone, or force a large but unobtrusive and permanent status bar. Oh, the one thing that was not essential was the headphone port, for some reason.
For some reason, the Essential Phone is being dubbed the “anti-iPhone”, and Andy Rubin is treated like a new Steve Jobs
If you have been following along, the Essential Phone is little more than a grab bag of ideas borrowed from other OEMs’, though with different implementations (for better or worse) . So what is there to be excited for that others can’t match? For starters the Essential Phone offers a titanium injection body, which differs from other metal devices which are milled from a block; we will have to wait for people like Zach at JerryRigsEverything to find out if there is a trade-off in durability, but Andy Rubin’s reasoning for the choice makes sense on the surface — it follows that Titanium allows the thin phone with a narrow edge-to-edge display to not bend like an aluminum build would. It is also being offered unlocked and available for nearly all networks, at least in the US in terms of CDMA and GSM support. Andy Rubin and his team also have a vision for the future that differs greatly from our present, and should Essential take off, we could see some real innovation in the market.
But those are things they hope for the brand’s future, and today the Essential Phone is simply yet another rectangle with some major tradeoffs in usability and an outrageous price for such an unproven brand. And that is, I think, what we shouldn’t ignore. Pretty flagships are a dime a dozen in today’s market, premium phones with new materials pop-up every cycle, and the trend towards infinitesimal bezels permeates the industry as a whole. With no outstanding hardware features outside of the modular functionality, which is neither essential nor too affordable (though, by the looks of it, cheaper than Moto’s), what’s making the internet go crazy about this phone? You know it and have known it since the headlines of the original rumors: Andy Rubin’s name. You’ll be hard-pressed to find coverage on an news portal that doesn’t put Andy Rubin’s name in the title of Essential Phone articles (we are guilty, too). If the Essential Phone is dubbed the anti-iPhone, Andy Rubin is implicitly being treated like a new Steve Jobs, and the way he has been presenting the device online, on stage and on interviews, only adds to such optics.
Going back to the Essential Phone itself — it looks like a modest flagship with everything we’d expect, and so far we really can pinpoint any crucial flaws or compromises outside of the lack of a headphone jack and, perhaps, the front-camera design (though that’s more subjective). Indeed, because of the very slim hands-on coverage, we can’t tell if the device’s day-to-day experience will live up to the hype, and because this is a new release, we have no track record to base (or ground) or expectations. It might have, for example, sub-par speakers (as some similarly-bezeless phones before it have had), or durability, or what have you. The core specification points are certainly there, but a pretty face and the promise of features not included in the box, with no actual reputation or brand history, is a tough sell in today’s market.
Of course, we want to get some hands-on coverage before we take our assertions any further. And, to be honest, the device does look gorgeous, and we have no reason to believe that the software experience at least, will be anything short of stellar, given the philosophy giving birth to this device, plus its emphasis on basics and openness. Yet after all of this, I can’t shake off the feeling this this is, at the moment and from everything we’ve seen so far, another beautiful flagship with small bezel that’s taking on a lot of popular features, and asking for a high entry price. This isn’t a rarity in today’s market, which is (thankfully) full of stellar options, with most in 2017 sharing nearly identical underlying hardware. What is most certainly unfair is prematurely overhyping this release merely due to the name attached to the company. Android has been trying to build an “anti-iPhone” of its own for years — many companies have tried and fail, proven companies that dwarf Essential in track record and execution. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and let’s not treat it differently up until we see what it’s truly capable of.
What do you think about the Essential Phone? Would you be as interested if it was offered by a no-name Chinese OEM, for example? Sound off in the comments!