Essential Phone Review
Interface and Functionality
Stock Android and no bloat
One of the core elements of Andy Rubin’s vision for Essential is not forcing its customers to endure unwanted software or services on their devices. It could be argued that it makes the decision to go with a stock Android build to be more fundamental, rather than “essential,” but the result is a clean, unobtrusive interface that delivers swift performance.
Android purists and general consumers alike will appreciate the no-frills approach. Google’s apps and services are more than capable to manage the fundamentals (there’s that word again) and provide a uniform experience.
The caveat in taking such a direction is that the feature set is much smaller than what may be found on competing premium smartphones from HTC, LG, or Samsung.
One conceivable advantage to using stock Android (except for the camera app) is being able to provide prompt updates. Whether that will prove to be the case remains to be seen. The Essential phone ships with Android 7.1.1. Now that Android 8.0 Oreo is just entering the stage, we will have to wait and see how soon the Essential phone receives system updates.
Unfortunately, with our retail unit, the high-end hardware and top-of-the-line specifications do not seem to be perfectly tuned to leverage the buttery-smooth performance of the Android UI or many of the popular Android apps. For whatever reason, our Essential phone would exhibit some stuttered performance, across multiple apps, then it would clear up as spontaneously as it began. We never could replicate it on demand.
Some of that performance may be attributed to the touch screen not being 100% responsive, a frustrating affair which also proved very hard to duplicate. We know that we are not the only ones experiencing the issue, but as of the time of this writing, no known root cause has been found, nor has there been any acknowledgment from Essential. Outside of that, however, there is something hampering performance, whether using popular social media apps like Facebook or Twitter, or the Essential’s own camera app – easily the worst offender out of the bunch.
Processor & Memory
It is a shame to see such performance hiccups too, because beneath the tidy dress of this Essential phone is the current crop of top-shelf specifications, including Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 835 CPU, and Adreno 540 GPU. Those components get by with 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of non-expandable storage.
During the periods of usage where we did not observe any jitters in performance, the Essential phone feels very fast, on par with the class leaders. Though, it does not run away from the pack in any particular performance area, as evidenced from our benchmark scores.
The Essential phone steps into the ring with a single USB Type-C port and a dual-power pin accessory port, designed for modular add-ons like Essential’s 360-degree camera. Those that want to use a corded set of headphones will not find a 3.5mm jack, and must instead use the included (and handsome) braided adapter. The adapter supports line-in microphone equipped headsets, so you can make and receive calls.
In terms of cellular connectivity, the Essential phone supports all the common GSM, CDMA, and LTE frequency bands, including those of Sprint, the only US carrier that sells the device. We used the Essential phone with AT&T’s network in Northern California and experienced no connectivity issues. Bluetooth 5.0 is along for the ride, as is 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi.