Essential? Maybe So

Posted on May 30, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 73 Comments

Essential? Maybe So

Android creator Andy Rubin has unveiled his first Essential phone and the start of an open ecosystem that he says will change the ways in which smartphones are made, sold, and used forever.

Yes, it sounds audacious. And yes, you can look over the phone he’s created and see little in the way of truly new or innovative ideas: Most of what Essential offers is already offered elsewhere.

And yet I feel that Mr. Rubin is on to something here. In fact, over the weekend I started—and may still complete—an editorial I’m calling And It Just Doesn’t Work that expresses some of the same frustrations that led him to create Essential in the first place.

“For all the good Android has done to help bring technology to nearly everyone, it has also helped create this weird new world where people are forced to fight with the very technology that was supposed to simplify their lives,” he writes in an introductory blog post. Was this what we had intended? Was this the best we could do? I decided I needed to start a new kind of company using 21st century methods to build products for the way people want to live in the 21st century.”

Looked at from a high level, the Essential PH-1 and its accessories are just more of the same. But it is in the details, I think, that these solutions set themselves apart.

Any discussion like this has simply has to mention Google’s now-dead Nexus family of devices, which provided customers with a pure Android experience and, with a few exceptions, with flagship-quality specs at reasonable prices. Google has abandoned this strategy—Pixel offers a unique Android experience and is expensive—so we must turn to others to provide the best of what Nexus once offered. And now Essential is a new option.

I mentioned some of these attributes in my Essential overview. But let’s list them out, because the sheer size of this list is what really makes the point.

Embrace the right modern features. Like other modern smartphones, Essential features a near-bezeless edge-to-edge display with a tall aspect ratio that lets them use way more screen on a smaller device. But unlike the Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+ however, the Essential screen doesn’t wrap around the edges, minimizing the chance that a random drop will result in screen damage.

Embrace the right materials. Where most modern phones sport the same combination of glass and aluminum, Essential uses stronger and more attractive titanium and ceramic materials (plus the latest Gorilla Glass on the front). These materials look great, but they’re also apparently a lot more rigid and strong. So much so that Essential says you don’t even need a case.

Provide choice. Essential comes in four fun colors: Black Moon, Stellar Gray, Pure White, and Ocean Depths. Yes, everyone wants the latter one, it’s beautiful.

Open ecosystem. Essential is based on Android, of course. “We will always play well with others,” Essential founder Andy Rubin explains. “Closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated.” He’s right.

Respectful of you and your privacy. In a surprisingly sharp rebuke of Google, Rubin notes that “devices are your personal property. We won’t force you to have anything on them you don’t want to have.” This should be interesting to anyone who likes the idea of Android but doesn’t trust Google. There aren’t even any logos on the phone. Because it’s your phone.

It will be kept up-to-date. Like Nexus and Pixel, Essential is sold unlocked directly to the consumer, so you will never miss out on feature or security updates. “Devices shouldn’t become outdated every year,” Rubin notes. “They should evolve with you.”

It is modular. Speaking of evolving with you, Essential features a Moto Mod-like magnetic connector for seamlessly adding peripherals like the 360-degree camera and wireless charging dock. I am curious to see which other peripherals appear over time.

A focus on photography. Like many people, a smartphone’s photography features rank among my biggest needs/wants. And Essential has a nice focus (ahem) here, with a dual-camera system and an optional 360-degree clip-on camera.

The right connectivity. The Essential PH-1 is universally compatible with wireless carriers and, as noted, comes unlocked. It will work everywhere, and it even comes with Bluetooth 5.0.

The right fingerprint reader. With the screen covering the entire front, putting the fingerprint reader on the back was the right move. I know from years of experience with Nexus and Pixel devices that this scheme works really well.

The right accessories in the box. It’s 2017, so Essential uses USB-C for everything, including the headphone jack. But the firm also includes a USB-C headphone adapter in the box, along with the normal USB-C cable and fast charger. Because they’re not dicks.

Simple. While you can choose between four fun color choices, there is only one hardware configuration—Snapdragon 835, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of internal storage—and I think that’s smart. There’s no reason for multiple SKUs here.

OK pricing. This one isn’t a total win, but Essential is about $70 less expensive than a comparable iPhone 7 Plus. That said, at $700, it’s still pretty expensive and doesn’t quite hit the same value point as did the Nexus 6P and 5X. (OnePlus does a much better job here.) Perhaps the firm will release a mid-market device in the future as well.

If you look over that list, there’s no one item that would trigger a switch. But I think the way it adds up, so to speak, warrants your attention. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S8+ is amazing, and innovative. But that stupid fingerprint reader was so vexing to make the device annoying to use. That one thing just ruined it. So close.

We’ll see how well Essential performs in the real world … at some point. Because the big negative right now, frankly, is the schedule vagueness. But I wasn’t convinced we needed yet another smartphone. And now Essential is making me wonder if these guys aren’t in fact on to something.

 

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Comments (73)

73 responses to “Essential? Maybe So”

  1. Avatar

    obarthelemy

    I'm very unclear about how we are "forced to fight with the very technology that was supposed to simplify [our] lives" with our current phones. That's concerning if that's Essential's core premise ?

    The one thing I'm most fighting with is battery life, what's their deal on that ?

    • Avatar

      skane2600

      In reply to obarthelemy:

      You reminded me that while I've seen a lot of sale pitches for smartphones, I don't recall any that said "This phone will simplify your life".

      • Avatar

        Chris Payne

        In reply to skane2600:

        Windows Phone ads took that tack for a bit. The whole, "seriously" campaign that showed people dropping their phones in urinals. Windows phone was supposed to help you focus on the real world by getting what you need done quickly and easily.

    • Avatar

      Ugur

      In reply to obarthelemy: Yeah, exactly, that's what i wondered about, too.
      I mean the quote sounds great on paper, and the device itself has various neat aspects to it, but i don't see where/how they present to tackle making it simpler to use.
      Just like you, my main concern with Android is that the battery depletes way quicker when the screen is turned off than on iOS.
      I'd like it if a company tackles that (without reduced functionality, just by being more clever about how background tasks/services are handled).
      Or hey, maybe they make the homescreens/app drawers combined.
      Or well, anything that sounds like making it more simple/intuitive/pleasurable to use.
      Well, maybe he'll elaborate on that at the recode conference or something.


  2. Avatar

    wshwe

    The OnePlus 5 will reportedly be priced higher than the 3T. Paul references the OnePlus 3T as being affordable, but OnePlus keeps raising their prices.

  3. Avatar

    robincapper

    Mostly very nice but no SD slot or dual sim is a hugely limiting in most parts of the world

  4. Avatar

    PincasX

    The fingerprint reader is about security and connivence. Putting it on the back doesn't impact security but convenience? Yes. You have to pick up the phone to use it. I use my phone a bit while it sits on my desk and counter having to pick it up just to unlock it is goofy and a step backward.

    • Avatar

      SvenJ

      In reply to PincasX: Nothing wrong with the fingerprint reader on the back. I typically do pick up my phone to use it, so my index finger is naturally where the reader is. Only time it is an issue is when the phone is in a cradle, in which case I can always use the alternate sign in, PIN or pattern. Having both a Pixel and an iPhone, I get to experience both options, and I tend to prefer the rear placement. I tend to hold my phone with the thumb on one side, fingers on the other. To unlock an iPhone, I need move my thumb off the side to get to the reader, or use the other hand index to unlock. Makes one handed use a bit more awkward on the iPhone.


    • Avatar

      Waethorn

      In reply to PincasX:

      Most people use their phone in their hand. Having a fingerprint reader on the front is just silly.

      • Avatar

        PincasX

        In reply to Waethorn:

        The entire interface that you use by touching with your fingers is on the front. So, no, having the fingerprint reader on the front isn't silly, it is consistent with how you interact with the phone. Moving to the back limits how you can interact with the phone, that is silly. It should be integrated into the screen.

        • Avatar

          skane2600

          In reply to PincasX:

          Different people see this issue in different ways, but consistency and simplicity don't always go hand-and-hand. Consistency argues that taking a photo should be performed by touching the screen, but it's awkward to hold the phone steady while touching the screen. With a button on the side, you can use both hands to grip the phone securely and still push the button.

          • Avatar

            PincasX

            In reply to skane2600:

            There may be a phone that has removed the sofware camera button in favor of a hardware one but heck if I know which one it is. It certainly isn't of the big sellers. What phone makers have done is add different ways to control the camera other than via the primary interface. That is different than what is being done here. I also fail to see how putting the reader on the back and limiting how the device can be used creates a simpler solution for the user than integrating it into the screen.

        • Avatar

          Waethorn

          In reply to PincasX:

          I don't know too many people that use their index finger on their phone. Most people interact with a phone with their thumbs. The only time that deviates is when you see hand models doing product demos.

  5. Avatar

    chrisrut

    Look forward to your review - MS may have a future in mobile - but barring a miracle my personal mobile future has Android written all over it - and something non-mainstream and well-thought out like this Essential would fit my non-trendy take on trends to a t.

  6. Avatar

    MacLiam

    The features I know it doesn't have don't kill my interest in it, so even though I have questions about what it may not have, I put my name on the interest list. I can cancel when they ask for payment info if it turns out not to include what I think I want.

    I don't see why Essential would be privileged by Google to enroll their devices in Project Fi, but I'm hopeful. Absence of Project Fi would probably kill it for me, since that has become one of my favorite features on my aging Nexus 6P. It would also be nice to have access to the whole Daydream VR thing, which sort of works with a 6P even though it is not supposed to. That requirement may go away if I decide to go with a VR/MR headset instead of just using a cradle that hangs my cell phone in front of my face.

    Definitely an eyecatcher and heart-beat elevator. The Pixel 2 might still be in the running for a 6P replacement depending on features and price point.

  7. Avatar

    Daekar

    I want more details, but the more I look at this the more I like it, especially since I won't be buying another Samsung if they continue with this fragile "wrap the screen around things" nonsense. I want to know more about the materials (why not quality plastic?), waterproofing, the battery life, and the OS. The computing hardware is more than I need, so it's on the merit of those other things that they'll sell to me.

  8. Avatar

    Simard57

    is it supported by Google FI?

  9. Avatar

    Luka Pribanić

    Ticks all the right boxes, but the price. And since there probably will be no (or little) carriers selling it - it loses a lot of custo.ers. Too bad, right idea, but at least 2x outside my usual price range

  10. Avatar

    Tony Barrett

    Good ideas and sensible logic, but I really don't think the consumer cares about most of those things when they go hunting for a new phone. If you love Apple, you'll always buy Apple. If you're in camp Android you have a world of choice at all different price points. As it runs Android, it'll always 'fit in', but at that price, for an unknown vendor, it won't stand a chance. Sounds like a bit of a personal project from Mr. Rubin, but then I guess he's got the money to lose on something like this.

  11. Avatar

    RickEveleigh

    'Fun colours' -- black, white, grey and another grey. Hmmm.

  12. Avatar

    rth314

    I don't get it. The Nexus is dead. Pixel is too expensive. So now Essential is... too expensive also. So this solves nothing. Paul loves the "sheer size" of the list of attributes. But the list is bloated with common features like "it comes in different colors" and "it has Gorilla Glass" and "it has a USB-C charger" and "it runs Android, so it is open". Take out all the fluff, and the list is quite short and uninspiring, especially for $700.

  13. Avatar

    Bluesman57

    You keep talking about how expensive the Pixel is. It's the same price as an iPhone. iPhones still seem to be selling rather well, and the Pixel has a pure Android experience (especially on Project Fi) and has a better camera.


    BTW thanks for the skinny Pixel XL case tip, I got one, big improvement.

  14. Avatar

    Matthias Kraßnitzer

    I think that a man with that much recources and experience in mobile is coming out with a device like this, is very underwhelming and it clearly shows that the whole smartphone marked is pretty much unexciting.


    I also don't really agree with your points:

    • Having four color options is not really new in that market and I wouldn't call that CHOICE when there is only one storage option.
    • modular also seem a bit overrated for a charging dock and a camera accessory of which both devices cant make a real case for the pins over wireless connection. (I can connect my Sony alpha wirelessly to my lumia but don't call it a module)
    • right connectivity . I don't know its the entrance to the dongle live. no headphone jack. Bluetooth 5 should be a given in the next few month


    Im sure this will be a solid device .....like so many others


  15. Avatar

    Matt Lohr

    I pardon your French.


    The OnePlus One was a similar idea 3 years ago, and that was fun while it lasted, but it didn't last very long. It's one thing to be left holding a $300 bag, but $700?

  16. Avatar

    Rob_Wade

    To start with, I hate Android, no matter what "flavor" it is. As for the hardware, I hate metal bodied phones and I consider them insanely ugly and boring. This is why the earlier Lumia lines were so attractive to me, and one of the reasons my 1020 remains my daily driver. The "edge" displays are repulsive to me for much the same reasoning Paul described. And if a display simply has no bezel then you're stuck with no options as for having a case to protect your investment since a completely glass front WILL break, edge or no. So, I agree with what some others have said that this device is one person's solution.

  17. Avatar

    unitedtaps

    This phone will absolutely fail in the marketplace. Andy essentially built it for himself (listen to his recode interview). It solves the problems that are most important to him but not to 99% of phone buyers. Are you really bothered by a Samsung logo on your phone? Are you really bothered by aluminum and glass construction? Do you really want your front facing camera to impede on your screen no matter what the reason? Do you really care about attaching modules?


    I didn't think so. My guess is that you want the same thing we all want:


    A Pixel or Galaxy S8 level device for $400 or less.


    Build that and we will come.

  18. Avatar

    fishnet37222

    Does it have a USB-C splitter so you can charge and listen at the same time?

  19. Avatar

    James Wilson

    Be interesting to see the sales figures for brand names that have switched to Android. How is Nokia doing? Blackberry? Are they making more on android than they did before? Enough to make it worthwhile? I say this in a very saturated market. Will this new phone work because of the name behind it? Are one plus really making any money?


    On another note, how is this phone going to protect you from google? One you sign in with your Google account( which you have to, to use the store) isn't it then game over?

  20. Avatar

    siko

    Somehow I can't really get excited by another smartphone announcement.

  21. Avatar

    Roger Ramjet

    You should have started the list out with the pricing. No phone costing $700 is "Essential", sorry.

    That said, there are some good ideas there. The promoter should go back to the board and see what needs to go to get to $400, $300, $200, maybe the bezelless thing first. Then, you get to begin changing something profound. Become sorta the Dell of smartphones. Otherwise it's just the constant hot air coming out of the Valley, designed to solely enrich the smart guys while they chant "don't be evil" etc, and people are starting to catch on.

  22. Avatar

    dcdevito

    Yawn. Just another one off Android phone with nice hardware, unknown Android OS it's shipped with, unknown update cycle, and unknown customer support.

    Funny how Frankenstein doesn't seem to like how the monster has grown up.

  23. Avatar

    Mark from CO

    Paul:

    And what is so enticing about this? What does this have that other phones don't? I'm missing something... It doesn't seem revolutionary, just the same take as everyone else, but with the marketing line we do it better.

    Mark from CO

  24. Avatar

    awesmdiver

    No dual-sim, already not an option for me.

  25. Avatar

    Deathbob

    Focus on privacy, no mention of Google services, and the screenshots only seem to include Chrome.


    Does this exclude the Play Store and the bundle of apps that Google requires?

    • Avatar

      skane2600

      In reply to Deathbob:

      Yes, that's the big question. Can it access the Play Store? Will it be able to run all Android apps as well as other Android phones do? Will it support additional APIs that if used by an app, would preclude those apps from running on standard Android phones?

    • Avatar

      Darmok N Jalad

      In reply to Deathbob:

      Considering the way Play Services work and the direction Google is taking them, I don't see how privacy can be guaranteed unless you just don't want to use Play Store, Google Maps, etc. Google has been pulling more of Android's functionality into those services.

  26. Avatar

    Richard Orme

    These essential attributes are a good list. I would also add that for me, a phone needs to be waterproof.

  27. Avatar

    crfonseca

    It's based on Android, but does it support Google Play?

    Thing is, while Android is pretty open, Google Play isn't...

  28. Avatar

    Ugur

    This device looks pretty promising, though regarding the expandability with addons have to see how many come out over time.

    Regarding the S8+ though, i find it funny how overblown the placement of the fingerprint sensor got on the internet.

    I have the phone and yes, i would have preferred it if the fingerprint sensor was behind the (invisible) home button, but where it is now has not annoyed me a single time.

    It is actually positioned at a place which i can reach easily when i hold the phone one handed. And that is actually a position that is more natural to touch with a long phone than if the sensor was in the center of the height.

    I understand if some people accidentally hit the camera area with the finger while wanting to hit the finger print sensor, but i have the alcantara case which allows one to feel pretty nicely where the sensor is thanks to the indentation.

    But yeah, that's the internet for us, there's one thing to moan about if one wants to moan, so all moan about it like as if it was the end of the world =)

    Sorry Paul, but come on, it's really not anywhere as bad as you make the positioning out to be =)

    • Avatar

      SvenJ

      In reply to Ugur: I think the placement to one side is bad depending on which hand you use the phone in. In one hand you may tend to hit the sensor before the camera first, but in the other hand I think you will typically hit the camera first, looking for the sensor. Didn't need to be dead center, but below the camera would have made more sense, and not been dependent on handedness. Might not be an OMG issue, but it does present some more of an issue that others and could have been avoided. IMHO


  29. Avatar

    skane2600

    IMO, you can't successfully enter the smartphone business today by servicing solely the high end (if you can succeed at all). The failure of MS's app store might actually hurt Essential because it's illustrated to devs the difficulty of getting traction with a new ecosystem.

    • Avatar

      Chris

      In reply to skane2600:

      Except that Essential is using Android, not creating a new OS, and new ecosystem. They are leveraging off the existing Android ecosystem. They are essentially doing to mobile phones what MS did for the PCs/Laptops and creating a "Signature" phone, one devoid of the bloatware...

      • Avatar

        skane2600

        In reply to Chris:

        Well, some of the details are vague, but from what I read Essential will run Android apps but will also add new functionality that isn't strictly Android. If it's just another customization of the Android UI like many other phones use, then you're right. But if that's all it is, it really isn't much of an innovation.

  30. Avatar

    mmcpher

    Until recently, I had been thinking of this time as a real lull in smartphone development. Maybe I'm just a hopeless hype-sucker, but suddenly I have real interest in real phones (apart from the Mythic Surface Phone), the Samsung Note 8, the Blackberry KeyOne and now the Essential. I really like the idea of doing without a case and potentially not regretting it. When it came to these bullet points I wanted to stand up and cheer:


    • Devices are your personal property. We won’t force you to have anything on them you don’t want to have.
    • We will always play well with others. Closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated.


    But just what do they mean by this: "Devices shouldn’t become outdated every year. They should evolve with you."


    Every two years? Does this thing even have a micro sd slot? Am I going to be able to somehow upgrade it?



    • Avatar

      Nonmoi

      In reply to mmcpher:
      • "Devices are your personal property. We won’t force you to have anything on them you don’t want to have."

      Okay, but think about what it really means- the phone will not come with play store pre-installed, and if you want Google Play Service than you has to agree to install all that Google stuffs you may or may not want, and if you buy it from an ISP, the ISP software will still be there from the beginning.


      • "We will always play well with others. Closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated."

      Oaky, but think what that really mean: you can get Play or Amazon App store, but most of the Android phones outside of China can get both anyway. Will Essential plays nice with Apple get it to run iOS apps? Or will Microsoft be so nice to let it run UWP on Android? The answer is still no.


      So, all in all, it is nice to say these, but they are largely muted, as empty statements.


      and the device should be evolve with you thing, is an empty promise of accessories to come if they last that long. I can see a first party battery pack you can "elegantly" stick on, or a memory expansion sleeve (which probably need to be wireless, since the expansion port does not seem to carry data, and that means you probably won't be able to use it as android with sd expansions.). The accessories will be overpriced by nature, since only certain percentage of Essential users will buy them, but you still have the basic cost of design, test, fix production costs, and everyone other than pure battery pack will need to go through FCC individually as they need wireless data transfer. So what people will end up with is a very old phone and bunch expensive accessories that they maybe able to use on their New gen Essential phone... if they are lucky, that is.



  31. Avatar

    Waethorn

    Looks like a Mi Mix 2. But at 3.5x the price.

  32. Avatar

    fourbadcats

    Will definitely be on my list when it's time to move to a new phone. Ticks the boxes I have.

  33. Avatar

    Jules Wombat

    Nope way too expensive if he wants to change the approach on smartphones. At that price he is only attracting gadget beavers crowd.

  34. Avatar

    F4IL

    I think i agree with with the points displayed here. Maybe Rubin is up to something.

  35. Avatar

    Darmok N Jalad

    I would be ok with more than one SKU for storage. I've never needed more than 32GB, and cloud services and unlimited data have further alleviated the storage problem. Heck, I have just a 16GB iPhone 6S, and I don't feel any storage pressure because of the way iCloud syncs and manages photos.

    I get that many people might want 128GB, but I think others would rather save about $100 on a feature they would never use.

    • Avatar

      Waethorn

      In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

      iCloud is THE WORST cloud photo backup system. Apple keeps zero backups, and customers have had their iCloud photos entirely corrupted, as was reported on CTV News a couple months ago. Apple, as in due course, blamed the user for not having proper backups.

      • Avatar

        Darmok N Jalad

        In reply to Waethorn:

        Isn't that the rule for cloud services, not to depend on them alone as backups? I have offline copies and backups of my stuff. I will certainly not depend on my phone to carry all this data and keep it safe. A phone is easily lost, stolen, or broken, so it's storage should only be viewed as a convenience, not a safe place to keep all your pics.

  36. Avatar

    YouWereWarned

    Sounds reasonable. But he missed the chance to implement a chassis that protects the screen from face-plant drops natively, without having to resort to cases that cover the entire phone. Four tiny Sorbothane-like bumpers on each corner would do it. Gorilla Glass is hard (scratch-resistant) but is brittle as a result. Every phone owner with a cracked screen knows this.

    Do they include a "drops can't break it" warranty to back up the "you don't need a case" claim?

    Of course they don't.

    That we continue to make and buy glass-face phones (and glass on the back, too!) without this protection is crazy.

  37. Avatar

    dcbCreative

    The Essential website requires Adobe Flash to view... ...Adobe Flash should not be essential, ever.

  38. Avatar

    Maelstrom

    These materials look great, but they’re also apparently a lot more rigid and strong.

    Much like within the confines of a car, rigidity is quite welcome, not sturdiness. Indeed, the latter makes it more fragile when what you do need is a more flexible and shock-absorbant material. Here, metal is certainly worse than polymers!

  39. Avatar

    sharpsone

    I'm intrigued...the specs look good and I like the idea of privacy/owner first.

  40. Avatar

    Chris_Kez

    This all sounds like a lot of marketing puffery surrounding a nice flagship phone that could have just as easily come from any other OEM.

  41. Avatar

    TEAMSWITCHER

    So very easy to achieve perfection in a press release. Using actual hardware ... not so much.

  42. Avatar

    Chris_Kez

    Allow me to briefly summarize Essential thus far:

    The right bullet-points

  43. Avatar

    Jorge Garcia

    Google is re-building Android from scratch, so they will eventually be solving many of these same concerns.

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