Andy Rubin, one of the fathers of Android, returned to the spotlight this week to lift the veil off his latest venture. Rubin’s company, Essential, introduced its long-awaited phone, aptly named the Essential Phone, along with a Google Home and Amazon Echo competitor, the Essential Home.
A new hardware venture is always exciting, even if the odds are stacked against it to compete with the behemoth duopoly that is Apple and Samsung. Essential has a long way to go to change the status quo of the smartphone market, but its first effort has people talking. The handset is undoubtedly premium, and comes with a price to match. Starting at $699, the Essential Phone is competing in the same price bracket as the top-tier offerings from Samsung, Apple and Google. In that playing field, it will certainly have to prove itself to have a chance at success.
Here are the 5 best features of the Essential Phone:
Essential’s first foray into the phone market is already on trend with its edge-to-edge display. Unlike the Galaxy S8 and LG G6, the Essential runs its screen all the way to the top of the phone, leaving just a small chin on the bottom. This means the display actually wraps around the front-facing selfie camera, a design choice that has already proven polarizing among consumers. Rubin noted that the camera sits in an unused portion of the traditional Android status bar, but how distracting it will be remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, The Verge’s Dieter Bohn said that after some time with the phone, his eyes adjusted and he hardly noticed the camera from there on.
At 5.7-inches, the Essential’s display is on the larger side, and the handset’s hardware doesn’t take as aggressive a route in slimming down its footprint. It’s not curved like the S8, nor long and thin. Instead, it is almost emphatically blocky, in a way that makes it stand apart from the current crop of Android smartphones. Though the slim bezels will help, it is still likely to feel larger in the hand than the S8 or G6. As to the quality of the display, not much can be said on that front yet. Only pre-production models have been used by certain tech journalists in person, but the phone is expected to begin shipping in June, so we’ll have a better idea soon.
One of the biggest claims the fledgling company made about its inaugural smartphone is how durable it will be. Essential states that, thanks to the phone’s titanium band, as opposed to aluminum that most OEMs employ, and ceramic back, it will be far more damage resistant than other phones currently on the market. The website even shows a comparative drop test it conducted, pitting its phone against Samsung and Apple devices. Further, Essential isn’t selling cases to pair with its new gadget, and unequivocally states on the site that choice is intentional. It fully believes the phone will be able to withstand the rigors of daily use thanks to its materials.
Modular was the buzzword surrounding smartphones in 2016. Both LG and Motorola hedged their bets on modularity as the future of smartphones, and a way for them to make waves in a scene that has, frankly, been decided. For most consumers, the choice is either an iPhone or a Galaxy, with the occasional outlier thrown in. Google shook up that duopoly somewhat with the introduction of the Pixel, but its continued struggles to ship the phone to consumers has left the market much the same as it was in the fall of 2016. LG and Motorola tried to shake things up with their takes on modularity, but both quickly discovered that idea, seemingly, didn’t matter much to consumers.
Essential is taking that modular idea and employing it in the lightest sense possible. You won’t change the individual components of the phone, but instead the company plans to have a host of accessories that seamlessly work with the device through the magnetic connector, with wireless data transfer, found on the phone’s back. Similar to the Moto Mods concept, the accessories, like the 360 degree camera and docking station, will magnetically snap to the back of the phone. As with LG and Motorola in 2016, the biggest questions are about price and variety of accessories. After dropping $700 on a phone, consumers aren’t terribly likely to throw down even more cash for accessories, unless they view them as imperative, like a case. Essential will have to learn from Motorola and LG if it wants its modular ideas to pan out.
Another trend Essential is not taking lightly is dual-cameras. On the rear of the Essential are two 13-megapixels lenses, one of which utilizes a monochrome sensor. Unlike the usual take on the dual-camera idea, which tends to employ the second lens in a telephoto fashion, as a way to create more distinct depth-of-field, Essential is taking a page from Huawei, which has used the monochrome sensor concept with the P9 and P10. In the end, what having a color and monochrome sensor should do is provide photos with better color and detail, particularly in low light, as monochrome sensors can capture up to 200 percent more light than traditional sensors. How it all pans out, whether the Essential can actually rival the best smartphone cameras in the world today, remains to be seen.
Though it may seem minor, the biggest hurdle for a new phone is availability. If it’s not usable on all four major carriers, it can forget about succeeding. Luckily, Essential understood this and its first phone will have support from all major U.S. carriers. That doesn’t mean the hill gets any harder to climb. Just because you can use the phone on nearly any network you want, doesn’t mean the phone will sell well. It still needs significant marketing and a presence in retail stores to catch on with the wider public. How Essential plans to approach those secondary hurdles is unclear.
One trend that Essential could have passed by is the removal of the headphone jack. Even Samsung didn’t follow Apple’s footsteps in that regard, and Samsung loves to follow in Apple’s footsteps. If you’re a heavy user of the 3.5mm jack, the Essential may not be so essential for you, after all.