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Review #MWC18 4 min read 5 comments

Essential Phone (PH-1) hands-on review: has its time come?

Andy Rubin, formerly head of the Android project at Google, decided to launch his own smartphone company, Essential. The first smartphone called Essential PH-1 (ph-one, geddit?) is an impressive device, with a refined design, quality materials and an interesting front camera. We got our hands on one of Rubin's babies at MWC 2018, and find it to be a compelling option for your new smartphone this year.

Design and build quality

Despite all this though, the Android expert's ideal phone has remained a somewhat niche device with disappointing sales 2017. Now, at a reduced price and with more color options, is the Essential Phone a valid choice this year? 

At first glance, the smartphone impresses with its minimalist design. The body is made of shiny ceramic: it captures fingerprints like glass but it is colder and more pleasant to the touch. Unlike the back, the smartphone's structure is made of titanium. According to the company, the phone is able to withstand falls, scratches and other damage and much more than aluminum smartphones.

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The titanium body is unique. / © AndroidPIT by Irina Efremova

Bezel-less display? Essential kicked off the trend

If you think Apple was the first to introduce a smartphone with a notch, you're wrong. The Essential PH-1 display has one in the center of its 5.71" LCD display (19:10, 2560 x 1312 format) containing the front camera. The recess is very small and gives the smartphone a unique look, even if some find any kind of notch useless and unsightly.

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The smartphone has already been updated to Oreo. / © AndroidPIT by Irina Efremova

The Essential Phone screen covers 84% of the frontal surface and extends as far as possible to the edges on three sides. The effect is aesthetically pleasing.

Dual camera and 360-degree photo module

As mentioned above, the front camera is located in the notch at the top of the display. The sensor is 8MP with f/2.2 and fixed focus. On the back we find a double 13MP camera that uses a system similar to the Huawei smartphones with a monochrome sensor and an RGB.

Lenses have a focal length of f/1.85. To complete the photo module we find a hybrid PDAF and laser autofocus as well as a double LED flash.

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No visible logo on your smartphone. / © AndroidPIT by Irina Efremova

To the right of the camera module there are two pins for connecting accessories. The first module presented by the company aims to revolutionize the photographic experience, in fact it is a 360-degree camera that Essential defines as the smallest in the world. The module connects magnetically and gets power through the pins on your smartphone. The data is passed wirelessly.

Essential Phone PH-1: technical specifications

 
  Essential Phone PH-1
Display 5.71", 19:10,
2560x1312 pixel, QHD
OS Android Oreo 8.1 (with update)
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
RAM / Internal Memory 4GB / 128GB UFS 2.1
Micro SD No
Front Camera

8MP

Rear camera Dual sensor (RGB + BW) 13MP, f/1,85 
Battery 3,040 mAh
Extra USB Type-C, IP54

A reduced price makes the Essential Phone an attractive one

The Essential PH-1 launched with a price of $699. Not too high given the high-end specifications and unique features such as ultra premium materials and three-sided bezel-less display, but still a tall order for a new company's entry into a very competitive market, Android founder or not.

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The SIM card slot is on the bottom of the device. / © AndroidPIT by Irina Efremova

In October, Essential lowered the price to $499 for Black Moon and Pure White colors, making this smartphone even more attractive. New colors recently launched (Ocean Depths, Stellar Grey and Copper Black) and have a list price of $599.

Essential still only sells PH-1 in the USA and Canada, so if you live outside these regions, unless you have a personal contact to bring one over for you, the additional import costs will likely offset its new value for money. 

Early Verdict

Although it hasn't been all sunshine and roses for Andy Rubin's company so far, Essential Phone remains a very valid smartphone and with the price drop the deal becomes even more interesting.

As far as performance and image quality are concerned, we are awaiting a review unit in the office that we can examine in detail and over a longer period of time.

What do you think of the Essential Phone? Is it still competitive with its new price in 2018?

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  • I’ve had my Ph-1 for about 2 weeks. I find it to be an awesome phone. It’s fast. The screen is excellent. It’s beautifully built. The price was very attractive. Stock Android is a refreshing change from the iOS I had been using for years. Software works flawlessly. Updates are occur frequently. The only possible issue is the camera that I keep reading about. The pictures that I’ve taken, both in bright and dim light, have been good even when I enlarge them. I haven’t put them on a 24 inch monitor or looked at them in Adobe Lightroon. But for me a cell phone is an emergency camera, so I’m more than satisfied with what I’ve seen so far. I’m very pleased with my Ph-1.


  • I really really wanted to buy this phone. I watched and read everything that I could. The initial price was too high and of course it has come down quite a bit. HOWEVER, a couple of things discouraged me from buying this beautiful phone. The ceramic back, they have said on their site that it's complicated to manufacture because the ceramic shrinks ever so slightly when baked. Also, while ceramic is used in the space shuttle and is great for the antenna to send and receive signals, ceramic is inherently brittle. It can withstand lots of heat, but can break easily. The Gorilla Glass 5. There is a drop test video out there that unfortunately shows the glass on the phone breaking on the first drop. There could be several reasons for that. I have read that earlier versions of Gorilla Glass are more durable. China, which produces it, could have cheapened it up as they have done to other products shipped to the USA. The titanium band around it could actually be binding it ever so slightly especially if the ceramic back is a fraction of a millimeter off. For those reasons I have decided not to purchase one, at least this first version. I will wait to see Essential 2.0 and see how that goes. I wish Mr. Rubin nothing but good luck with his venture and do hope that it eventually revolutionizes the phone industry.


  • I have the PH-1 currently, (having transitioned from the iPhone 7 plus) and I can honestly say that the android experience is so refreshing through this phone. I got rid of my iPhone because the price increases through apple were getting ridiculous and not offering anything new so I looked at a lot of 'mid range phone' or what I call phones that do what phones need to do when you're not trying to make them a laptop I had to determine between Oneplus and essential and eventually essential won out due to their commitment to their members as well as their commitment to building a quality product and not just a yearly placeholder. hopefully they continue to make good on their promise of caring about their customers.


  • I think it was a bit ahead of where the market was and they were early with the software issues. It's now a solid device and Apple and others now have legitimized the "notch".

    If Essential keeps to the same design elements/style with the Essential PH-2, I'll buy another Essential phone.

    For now, I like my PH-1.
    I just wish Poetic would make the Affinity case.


    • It was a good first try. The delayed release and the launch price hurt it. Plus the camera was just ok. But the ceramic & titanium design is very good. The ph-2, improve the camera & keep the price down. Plus add a few more premium features!

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