Everything you need to know about the Essential Phone (PH-1)

Andy Boxall
Essential phone review top angle

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Andy Rubin co-created Android, the smartphone operating system that powers two billion devices around the world. After leaving Google, he launched a new project: the Essential PH-1. It’s an Android smartphone, unsurprisingly, but one with an edge-to-edge screen, innovative accessories, and high-end materials that set it apart from the crowd. Read our Essential Phone review to hear our thoughts on the smartphone.

Release and price

While the launch of the Essential Phone was a bit rough, things seem to have calmed down a little now — at least enough for the company to offer a significant price reduction, as well as the long-awaited white color option. The Essential Phone will now cost $500, a $200 cut from its original retail price. If you bought the device early on for the original $700 price, Essential is offering a “friends and family code” you can use to get $200 in credit for the Essential store. It can be used to buy another Essential Phone, or a mod like the 360 camera. The company said the reason for the price drop was to make it more accessible for everyone.

“We could have created a massive TV campaign to capture your attention, but we think making it easier for people to get their hands on our first products is a better way to get to know us,” the company wrote in a blog post.

Essential confirmed availability of the white version in a tweet, noting that it would be available from Amazon, Best Buy, and Sprint, as well as the Essential website. On top of that, Sprint has announced that it will be selling the Pure White Essential PH-1 for 50 percent off, which equates to about $14.58 per month. Head here to take advantage of that offer. We actually got our hands on the Pure White version of the phone and it looks great.

The Essential Phone’s initial release was anything but smooth. Phones began shipping on August 25, with confirmation emails going out just a day later. Unfortunately, things soon took a strange and dismal turn. Some customers received emails earlier in the week requesting a photo ID — specifically a “driver’s license, state ID, or passport” — to verify against “unauthorized use of payment information.” The source was a legitimate Essential address, but due to an internal error, recipients were CC’d on each other’s emails — resulting in a flood of personal information freely circulating among people who bought the device.

Initially, it was assumed the company had suffered a security breach, and the email was an elaborate phishing scheme. A day later, founder Andy Rubin set the record straight, chalking the incident up to a “misconfigured account.”

“Yesterday, we made an error in our customer care function that resulted in personal information from approximately 70 customers being shared with a small group of other customers,” Rubin wrote in a blog entry on Essential’s website. “We have disabled the misconfigured account and have taken steps internally to add safeguards against this happening again in the future. We sincerely apologize for our error and will be offering the impacted customers one year of LifeLock. We will also continue to invest more in our infrastructure and customer care, which will only be more important as we grow.”

Essential played it surprisingly cool on social media immediately following the reports, simply commenting that an investigation was underway. It never urged customers to ignore the email, nor did it instruct them not to share their personal data.

The phone — which comes in black and white — costs $500.

All four major U.S. carriers will support the Essential Phone when it launches later this year. But only Sprint will sell it directly. Verizon certification is on the way.

  • Sprint will go beyond simply supporting the Essential PH-1. Its retail stores will be the place one needs to visit to get some hands-on time with the device, after Essential’s president, Niccolo de Masi, confirmed an exclusive partnership with the network in an interview with USA Today. The device is currently available for order from the carrier.

Essential accessories

The Essential phone is joined by a Moto Mod-style range of modular accessories, which attach using a combination of magnetic pins and a 60GHz wireless USB adapter on the device’s back. A couple of modules (which Essential calls “Click Connectors”) have been announced so far: A 360-degree camera, and a dock that charges the phone when it’s not in use.

Essential Charging Dock and High-End Audio

In a Reddit Q&A session on September 14, the Essential engineering team confirmed that two new Essential Phone accessories were in active development: A charging dock and a “high end [sic] audio accessory” that supports a 3.5mm jack.

“We are under development on a number of Click Connector accessories. The first available should be the charging dock,” and Essential team member wrote. “We are also actively developing a high end audio accessory to support a 3.5mm jack.”

A charging dock seems like a given, but the nature of the “audio accessory” isn’t entirely clear — the Essential Phone ships with a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle. And Essential didn’t volunteer a release date for either of the two upcoming accessories. But the team said it’s “continuing to look at supporting ideas,” and that it’s actively testing prototypes.

Essential Camera

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The Essential Camera, which Essential claims is the “world’s smallest” 360-degree camera, attaches to magnets at the top of the phone’s body, allowing it to poke its “head” over the top of the phone. It weighs just 35 grams, and has two 12-megapixel lenses that can shoot 4K resolution, 30fps video, as well as four microphones that capture sound in 3D. Following a tease that support for live-streaming would soon also be included, the Essential Camera has now made good on its promise.

You can stream in 360 degrees, first with Facebook Live, and soon, with Twitter Periscope. In order to take advantage of this new functionality, record live from the 360 Degree app, then log into your Facebook account to begin the stream. The camera also boasts spatial audio, which is to say that you can turn in different angles in order to hear different levels of sound coming from various directions. Streaming can either be in 4K or 2K, which you’ll decide upon before going live. You can read more about the ways to upload 360-degree content on an Essential blog post.

Essential previously released an update to its camera app with several improvements. You’ll have to first install the latest system build (NMI81C) and then update the camera app through Google Play. The changes include boosted capture speed in regular and low light to below 1 second, countdown timer when in 360 camera mode, improved brightness and performance in low light, spatial sound when shooting in 360, the ability to use volume up and down keys as shutter buttons in 360 camera mode, and bug fixes. There will also be several improvements released in the future such as Portrait Mode and Pro Mode, along with 360 stills and filters.

Essential Home

Essential will release a smart speaker with an intelligent assistant — Essential Home — alongside the PH-1. It’s similar to Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, the main difference being a circular screen that shows exactly what tasks the Essential Home is performing.

Essential Home’s round “auto-display” can be activated with a tap, a glance, or a question. Just like Amazon’s Echo speakers, Microsoft’s Cortana Assistant, and Google Home, it lets you control music, set timers, and more. And when it ships later this year, it will work with smart home platforms like SmartThings, HomeKit, and Nest.

Essential Home runs a new operating system called Ambient OS, which Essential describes as a “proactive life manager.” It will notify you when you need to leave early to make an important meeting, or if you appear to have forgotten about an upcoming appointment. And it will secure your data by storing it locally, on your in-home network, rather than on a remote server like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa.

The Essential Phone

Specs

Under the PH-1’s hood lies a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, an Adreno 540 GPU, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage. The two camera lenses on the phone’s rear, a 13-megapixel dual RGB color lens with hybrid autofocus (combining contrast, phase detect, and IR laser assist) and a second f/1.85 monochrome lens, can shoot videos at 4K 30fps (or 1080p 60fps/720p 120fps) and capture 200 percent more light than the average sensor. And the 8-megapixel, f/2.2 selfie camera can record video at 4K resolution.

Although the recently published FCC documents don’t reveal anything major in the way of unknown features, they do mention the presence of Bluetooth 5.0. The new version of the wireless standard debuted in Samsung’s Galaxy S8 released this past spring, and supports data transfers twice as fast as the previous 4.2 version, while working at significantly greater distances. However, you’ll likely have to wait until 2018 before Bluetooth 5.0 speakers, headphones, and the like actually hit the market to take advantage of the added benefits.

The PH-1’s other highlights include four microphones in a three-dimensional arrangement that filters out background noise, a 3,040mAh battery with rapid charging technology, a barometer, a USB Type-C port, and a rear fingerprint sensor that Essential claims is the “fastest available technology.”

The PH-1 is compatible with every major carrier in the U.S., thanks to an abundance of radios and wireless chips. At a minimum, it will be able to place calls, send texts, and use wireless data on Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, U.S. Cellular, and others.

Design

essential ph 1 vs apple iphone 7 plus white

The Xiaomi Mi Mix arguably got the edge-to-edge screen trend rolling, but the Essential PH-1 may have one of the most impressive implementations yet. The 5.71-inch, QHD (2,560 x 1,312 pixels) screen — which Essential calls the Full Display — extends from the bottom of the phone’s thin bezel to the top. And unusually, the screen curves around the phone’s selfie camera, obscuring part of the Android status bar.

The PH-1 is compact and light, clocking in at a weight of less than 185 grams and a thickness of 7.8mm. It’s durable, too, thanks to a combination of titanium, ceramic material, and Gorilla Glass 5. But those design choices necessitated compromise — just like the iPhone 7 and HTC U11, the PH-1 doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone socket.

“Headphone jacks are pretty big components and they don’t play nice with all-screen Phone architectures,” said an Essential engineer in a Reddit Q&A. “We studied it very seriously, but fitting a headphone jack into our Phone required tradeoffs we were uncomfortable with. We’d have grow a huge “chin” in the display and reduce the battery capacity by 10%, or we’d need a huge headphone bump! We decided it was more important to have a beautiful full-screen display in a thin device with solid battery life. Then we made sure we to build ya’ll a high-quality DAC in a tiny adapter that can elegantly live on your headphones. – Dave

Software

The Essential Phone ships running Android 7.1.1 Nougat, but the newest version of Android — 8.0 Oreo — is on the way. That’s according to the company’s engineers, who said in a mid-September Q&A on Reddit that an Android O “will be coming in the next month or so.”

Update: Essential Camera now supports 360-degree live-streaming.