Essential Phone hands-on

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.



Initial Renders of the Phone and 360 Camera
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.


Essential Phone hands-on
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.




Essential Phone hands-on
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 Phone hands-on
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


Essential Phone hands-on
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 Phone hands-on

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.


360 Camera Prototypes
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 Phone hands-on

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.


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