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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