Ready for another Android phone competitor? Well, you’re getting one anyway! You might have already heard about the Essential phone, which was revealed in late May exclusively by The Verge. Billed as a sturdier, modular premium Android phone, Essential was created by Android co-founder Andy Rubin. That’s a pretty good argument, but the Essential phone isn’t the easiest to like, and this might not help — it’s gone the exclusive route, and will appear only in Sprint stores.
The good news for anyone interested in Essential is that the phone can just as easily be purchased unlocked from the company, and it’ll work with any carrier. The exclusive agreement is only for retail, although it might make it harder for Essential to get a foothold in the market — especially because Sprint’s network is still so far behind in so many markets.
The phone itself is impressive technically, although there are some design annoyances. First, the good news — the Essential phone is definitely for anyone with the dropsies. Instead of the more malleable aluminum, the Essential phone is made of titanium, with a ceramic back and Gorilla Glass 5 on the front. Not only should it be able to survive drops, you should see fewer dings and dents if you do drop it.
The 5.7″ display on the front might represent the highest screen-to-body ratio we’ve ever seen on a phone. The bezels are super thin, even at the top — the display actually curves around a tiny nook at the top center for the front-facing camera. That’s a 2560 x 1312 resolution display — the numbers are odd because of the unusual 19:10 aspect ratio, but it’s a quad HD screen. 500 nits of brightness should ensure that the phone is readable in direct sunlight, too.
Inside, it’s all premium. It runs Android on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC and 4 GB of RAM. We’re also looking at 128 GB of storage, a 3,040 mAh battery, NFC, dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, and a USB Type-C connector. Even the recording equipment looks solid — the Essential phone uses a dual-camera array like Huawei’s, using 13 MP monochrome and color cameras together for more accurate lighting. With phase detect and laser IR autofocus and an f/1.85 lens, it should even be good in low-light conditions. That camera array can also take 4K video at 30 fps. On the front, there’s an 8 MP camera with an f/2.20 lens. For audio, they’e used four microphones that can work together to use beam forming to cut down on background noise. Playback leaves a bit to be desired, with just a mono loudspeaker on the bottom.
So far, that’s good on paper, but it’s just like a lot of other premium Android phones. The twist, like it was with the Moto Z last year, is modularity. The Essential phone has a couple of magnetic grooves on the back that let it work with accessories that Essential has prepared. One of those accessories will ship with the phone for $50 extra — a 360-degree camera that can be used to record 4K video for use with VR headsets. They’re also working on a magnetic docking station that will charge the phone without the need for cables.
So, where are the annoyances? You’ve probably been able to guess if you’ve been following phones the past couple years — there’s no 3.5 mm headphone port. This design decision continues to baffle, especially when it comes to Android, where users actually have their choice of phones. Forcing users to buy new gear just to listen to audio using your phone is still bad practice, and will continue to be bad practice. Bluetooth isn’t a true replacement yet — battery life always looms large, and interference and choppy connections continue to be problems in wind and in crowded areas.
The other annoyance is that the Essential phone is pretty expensive at $700. Even if it’s from the co-founder of Android, $700 is a lot to ask when you’re a first-timer in the market. That $700 price tag will get you the phone unlocked — Sprint hasn’t announced pricing and availability for their stores yet.
It probably doesn’t help that Essential’s only carrier retail presence will be in Sprint stores (it’ll be in Best Buy stores, too). Buying phones at carrier stores is still by far the main way U.S. consumers purchase phones, and Sprint’s network still lags in many parts of the nation. While it’s true that Sprint is uniquely well-positioned to thrive in the upcoming 5G era, that era won’t start in full until about 2020 — while consumers are starting to hang onto phones longer, three years is probably a stretch. Sprint might be a good argument for the Essential 2 or 3, but it doesn’t mean much right now.