Essential PH-1: Just a little too bare-boned but full of potential

Essentials are things that you can’t live without. The must-have items to get through the day to day grind. Android pioneering force Andy Rubin has a vision of what such a device would look like in the smartphone landscape. With it, we get a first generation Android slab with some unique design choices and some questionable omissions. But how does the Essential PH-1 perform as my daily driver? Let’s find out!

Design

Let’s get something out of the way. I love smartphones and have owned what feels like hundreds of them at this point. The Essential is one of the most well-designed phones I’ve ever held. It’s simply beautiful. From the ceramic back cover to the choice of titanium around the sides, this phone is just a notch above the competition in many areas. The phone is easily held in one hand, has a great heftiness to it, and feels super premium. Overall, it reminds me a lot of the classic Lumia line that Nokia produced in the Windows Phone world a few years back.

Hardware

The right side is flanked with the traditional layout of volume rockers and power button. The left and top of the phone are completely naked with the exception of antenna bands. The bottom of the phone houses the USB-C port, a single speaker, and SIM tray. Sorry, I’ll get the pun out of the way. The 3.5mm headphone jack wasn’t deemed to be Essential. You’ll need Bluetooth, USB-C, or the dreaded dongle adapter to listen to audio on the PH-1 (and there is an adapter included, complete with a braided cable).



Around the rear of the phone is a dual lens 13-megapixel camera offering both a monochrome and color option. More on the results later, but if you hate camera bumps then have no fear. The back of this phone including the camera is almost completely flush. You’ll also find a fingerprint scanner in the familiar Nexus rear location. Another 8MP shooter is on the front for your selfie delight at the top of the screen. Yes, I said the top of the screen.

The other two copper pins in the top right? Those are a modular addon system similar to those released by Moto. In the same fashion, they provide expandable options for accessories via a magnetic connection. Currently, you only have a 360 camera addon to choose from while the company has promised a docking station in the coming months. I did not have the camera mod available, but it’s an interesting niche for Essential to jump on the mod bandwagon on their first release.

The 5.7 inch 2560 x 1312 QHD is one of the biggest talking points of this phone. It has next to zero bezels and it’s gorgeous! The Essential looks like the future of phones and certain other phones have a similar new styling. You might be turned off by the cyclops eyed camera at the top, but I personally grew to like the quirkiness of it. Aside from the aesthetics, the camera offers full-screen real estate without getting in the way. Apps that support the layout mold the around the lens and offer a true bezel-less experience. It also sits comfortably in the middle of the notification shade using the space with no UI elements. It’s another notch in the belt for a high-quality design effort by Andy Rubin’s team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Internally, the Essential looks like most of the other modern flagship smartphones on the market. There’s a combination of a Qualcomm 835 and 4GB of RAM fueling the fire that powers the PH-1. Alongside the CPU and RAM, you’ll find 128GB of storage to house all your apps and media. That should give you ample horsepower and storage to satisfy almost any user’s needs.

Two worthwhile ommissions from the base hardware are water resistance and wireless charging. While the dock will solve one with a proprietary alternative to Qi and Powermat, it would have been nice to see this included. And water resistance for accidentally puddle dunking is the new standard for smartphones this year. It should have been here on the PH-1 and I’m confident it will make an appearance on the successor.

Software

Ever had a Nexus? If the answer is yes, then the Essential will look pretty familiar. If not, then just know that this is the most stock version of Android I’ve ever used on a commercially release device. There were a total of 17 apps installed. All but the camera are default offerings by Google. It is a stripped down core version of Android with no added tweaks. The only added section of any kind is an optional setting to allow Essential to collect user data and diagnostics on how you use the phone.

While it’s refreshing to see an unadulterated Android phone, one could make the argument that it’s a little too bare. OEMs like Motorola and Samsung have shown that certain tweaks can be done well and add value to the user experience. I still try to use the Moto camera twist to launch the camera on every phone I use. One negative on the software side is that for something that truly flies due to having nothing in the way simply bogs down too much for my taste. I’ve had numerous instances where the phone stutters and comes to crawl. This is disappointing for a phone with the internals of the Essential. Another downside is the camera…

Camera

The PH-1 has all the right checkboxes when it comes to the camera. Dual lens. Check. Good megapixel count. Check. But something is just off here when translated into performance and results. While it can take some decent shots at times, it’s far too inconsistent for a “flagship” device. Good lighting can produce average to above average shots, but low light struggles significantly. Sometimes it’s just bad. I shouldn’t be able to pick up a $100 phone like the Moto E4 and feel like a get a better photo under certain conditions.

I truly believe the hardware is there to make for a good photo experience, but again, the software in the camera app and post-processing just aren’t up to the task. Installing the tweaked Google Pixel from over at XDA does offer better results, but this is a hack that the average consumer will never attempt. And honestly, they shouldn’t need to. Essential’s camera just feels half-baked and rushed. I will add that I’ve received two updates while using the phone and both have helped the camera. It’s much faster to focus and process photos while the resulting photo also looks sharper.

Battery Life

I’ve always found this one a hard thing to review. Battery life is extremely subjective. No two people will have the same exact results. Battery performance is dependent on numerous factors like network strength, WiFi, and Bluetooth. Overall, I think most people would be comfortable with the drain time on the PH-1. I personally found I was getting around 3 hours of screen time and 12-13 hrs of mixed use. However, it’s worth noting that an 8 hour workday for me is inside a steel warehouse that is very hard and a battery due to signal strain. The phone does support fast charging, so if this doesn’t make it through your day you can at least top off with a capable USB C charger like the one included.

Final Thoughts

The Essential PH-1 is a dream device in that it offers what many of us have been screaming for years in the Android marketplace. Give me a stock device with premium hardware and get out of the way! For the most part, the first run by the company accomplishes this with only a few caveats. The camera needs work. Period. It’s not as good as it can be. Despite its shortcomings, the PH-1 is a very good phone that was originally overpriced at $699, but the company has actively solved this by discounting it below $500 over the last few weeks. At this new price point, it makes the Essential a much better value for the money and could even make it a steal over mid-range devices from Moto and ZTE.

Purchase the Essential PH-1
  • GMAD

    I was rooting for this phone. Hopefully they learn from their rookie year.