Essential Phone hands-on

Yesterday Essential brought its first officially released hardware to New York City for a “first look” event. About two years in the making, the Essential phone and 360-degree camera accessory were launched only a few days ago. A labor of love, and sometimes turmoil, Android creator Andy Rubin has finally brought us his vision, and we couldn’t wait to see it up close. Was it a thing of beauty? Or is it an awkward nightmare? Let’s take a look and see.



The Essential phone came to fruition in about two years’ time since the inception of the company. In that time engineers, developers, and designers labored over one main theme: making a bezel-less phone. True to its mission, the Essential phone has very little surface area without pixels. While the company flirted with the idea of axing the front-facing camera entirely, ultimately, they realized it was indispensable, and instead made the camera as small as possible and built the display around it. Surprisingly, the existence of this protrusion into the display drew very little attention while using the phone. While there is a slight chin at the bottom of the phone, where pixels are not, the company is expressing every intention to do away with this in the future.


The sides of the phone are constructed of solid titanium, while the backing is ceramic. After many iterations and attempts, these proved to be the best materials to maintain connectivity, as well as looks, and durability. The shiny back was made to fit the devices miniature (in size, not in function) dual-camera setup without creating a camera bump. Running your hands along the backing you’ll feel the smooth surface, fingerprint sensor, and two magnetic pin connectors, used for connecting the 360-degree camera, and other accessories in the future. It seems as though Essential thinks Lenovo and Motorola may be on to something. More on this later, though.




The bezel-less screen doesn’t give way to a curve which unites the front and back of the phone, like on Samsung’s Galaxy S8. Instead, the thicker, more squared – yet still slightly rounded – edges give the phone a grip reminiscent of the first click-wheel era iPods. The 5.7-inch display itself shows great color and clarity, producing a resolution of 1312 x 2560 pixels and 504 ppi.



Essential’s aimed to keep their phones camera useful and simple. Rocking a dual-13-megapixel setup, both cameras have the same f/1.85 aperture with one focused on black and white capture (monochrome) and the other capturing Dual RGB. This set up is engineered to take the most relevant details from both sensors and merge them into the highest quality photo possible, at least in auto mode. Slide over and you’ll get an option to shoot in monochrome for true black and white, and swipe left one more time to enter the camcorder’s slo-mo option. Along the top (or side, depending on orientation) you’ll have toggles for video resolution, flash, HDR, self-timer, and the front-facing camera. There’s also a toggle for settings, but this only gives you a small, two-switch menu to toggle shutter sounds or location tagging. Otherwise all your camera and video settings are laid out in toggles – not menus – within the composite camera and camcorder interface. Essential wants to keep things simple, and they certainly have. While no option currently exists for a manual “pro” mode, they say they’ve not ruled it out for the future, but as of right now, their priority is competent point-and-shoot function that’s easy to use.


After effects are also kept to a minimum, allowing the user only the ability to stabilize, but not trim videos, and nothing else, for now. Photos have the option to crop, or add effects, but otherwise, editing options are limited there as well. The camera is capable of capturing RAW photos though, and while the user cannot currently access these, the option to do so hasn’t been ruled out for future updates either.


The selfie camera, despite its diminutive physical size, packs some decent specs as well. 8-megapixel resolution, f/2.2 aperture, and video recording in up to 4K quality rounds out the front-facer’s feature list.

UI, Performance, and Connectivity


As one would expect, the user interface is kept clean and up to date, almost as though it were birthed by the maker of Android himself. Non-carrier versions of the Essential phone will come with an unlocked bootloader, though all versions will receive timely updates and be packed with the necessary antennas and bands for full compatibility worldwide.


Running on a Snapdragon 835 with 4 GB of RAM, the Essential phone comes with 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage; no corners were cut here, so we expect top-tier performance. Paired with an essentially stock Android experience, the device showed snappiness and prompt responses to our every touch and direction. The essentials of an Android phone were the focal point for this device – as it relates to both software and hardware – and delivering on this helps this phone float easily through tasks.


360 Camera


Essential’s vision for its products is the same as the biggest hardware players in the game: get as many devices as possible into people’s lives. Yes, Essential is aiming to live the creed of IoT with its product line, as evidenced by upcoming devices like the Essential Home. This is why it was important to the company to launch not just their phone, but a high-functioning peripheral device simultaneously; enter the 360-degree camera.


Another carefully crafted, ground-up design brings users a dual-12-megapixel camera with f/1.8 aperture for low-light performance and the ability to shoot 360-degree 4K videos at 30 frames per second. As has become par for the course, four microphones accompany the camera setup, aiding in the 360-degree playback experience. Not par for the course, is the inclusion of a miniature fan embedded within the device, vents surrounding it, making sure the device is cool under heavy use. Claiming the crown as the world’s smallest 360-degree camera, the device latches on magnetically to the phone, docking with two small connectors. Data, however, is transmitted wirelessly through a Wi-Fi accessory bus protocol, similar to NFC, but is capable of 5 gigabit per second transfer speeds – equivalent to USB 3.0. This design endeavors to keep phones and accessories like this compatible throughout multiples generations.


Recording video or taking photos in 360 is easy and intuitive. 360 photos work much in the same way as Motorola’s own 360-degree camera Moto Mod, where scrolling on the phones screen moves the viewfinder. Video capture is unique, though, as neither scrolling nor moving the camera physically is necessary to capture specific areas of your surroundings. Instead, simply hit record and stay still. When recording is finished, the user is able to open the video in the gallery, and scroll around inside of the video to see the various parts of ones’ surroundings captured within the 360-degree video.


Essential’s first pieces of hardware are well-thought out, and soundly executed. While many will still give the Galaxy S8 the crown of best-looking bezel-less design, the Essential phone offers an interesting take on the concept; it serves its purpose well and certainly will have its own fans. Taking care to tweak the size of important components like the camera’s and the display, gave the team at Essential more room for the things that matter – like international compatibility, a unique and beautiful screen, and premium materials – inside and out. Selling for $699.99 or $749.99 with the 360 camera accessory, the Essential phone aims to compete with the best out there. The 360 camera also has some high aspirations, innovative features, and a competitive price tag. $199.99 gets you the device as a standalone accessory, but of course the bundled deal with the phone takes that tag down to $50. The team behind these devices seems not to have cut any corners, and we’re excited to see how a new contender with deep roots in the industry fairs in our testing and in the market.

Related phones

  • Display 5.7" 1312 x 2560 pixels
  • Camera 13 MP / 8 MP front
  • Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, Octa-core, 2450 MHz
  • Storage 128 GB
  • Battery 3040 mAh



1. makhilteja

Posts: 4; Member since: Apr 25, 2017

Essentially it wasn't an essential phone..

2. scarface21173

Posts: 690; Member since: Aug 17, 2014

Looking forward to the full review, very promising.

4. Frogger

Posts: 49; Member since: Jan 16, 2017

I think it's gonna get 8.5 - 8.7

5. trojan_horse

Posts: 5868; Member since: May 06, 2016

PA's review scores doesn't matter to me, man. I just focus on the review alone, because most of the time, the Pros and Cons stated in PA's reviews make no sense whatsoever. Just have a look at the Pros and Cons of this HTC U11 review: SMH

6. Frogger

Posts: 49; Member since: Jan 16, 2017

Totally agree, but still feels annoying when other brands constantly get 9+. Cripples the tech advancement. Why should anybody try something new when tech sites is gonna butcher it.

8. truthbetold

Posts: 42; Member since: Oct 16, 2015

Ratings given out by tech sites don't affect tech advancement - they are personal opinions that either serve as marketing, or to fuel flame wars. The average Joe will always go for the most advertised & recognizable brands and devices. Tech sites will always rate established brands higher, as they don't want to lose the privilege of getting invited to events, free test devices, news scoops, etc.

14. TeriusRose

Posts: 108; Member since: May 12, 2017

It isn't really something that limited to any particular industry. Once a core group of brands become known for offering reliable products within their respective fields, smaller/lesser competition often begins to die off. That is not to say the new entrants can't ever succeed in an established industry, but that's usually only when they are really disruptive. Like Tesla for example, or One Plus. In theory you can have unlimited competition in a particular field, in reality people will always consolidate around a couple of options. As you noted, a lot of it has to do with popularity and brand perception.

3. Highside

Posts: 197; Member since: Jan 31, 2017

No MicroSD = FAIL No Removable battery = FAIL

7. IronTech

Posts: 153; Member since: May 27, 2016

2015 = Fail

10. Plasticsh1t

Posts: 3106; Member since: Sep 01, 2014

Are you that user with the name "qwerty strike" or "quick strike" or something like that? Just asking.

12. TeriusRose

Posts: 108; Member since: May 12, 2017

I'm going to guess that LG is the only brand you buy from if you are honestly concerned about having a removable battery.

13. Nathan_ingx

Posts: 4769; Member since: Mar 07, 2012

Are you going to install windows 10 on it that 128GB isn't sufficient?

15. lyndon420

Posts: 6790; Member since: Jul 11, 2012

I agree. Maybe their next version will deliver.

19. haydenb

Posts: 133; Member since: Nov 24, 2011

128gb of internal memory isnt enough for you?

9. Cat97

Posts: 1893; Member since: Mar 02, 2017

From the first reviews, I am really surprised on how good this phone is considering it's made by a startup company. I really like it, especially the screen and lack of camera hump (and it has a notification LED - great !), and if the LG V30 is not exceptional (Note 8 is just too ugly and elongated) I think I will buy this phone instead. Hopefully the battery life is also good, considering it has pure Android and no bloatware.

11. MarmiteTheDog

Posts: 191; Member since: Jul 31, 2017

You really should get a native speaker to edit your articles before posting them.

16. CoreyG

Posts: 19; Member since: Jul 04, 2017

I am a native speaker. Any part in particular you'd like to scrutinize?

18. haydenb

Posts: 133; Member since: Nov 24, 2011

The phone looks very promising but other reviews i have read is that the camera is a bit more of a mixed bag

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