Essential PH-1 Phone: Everything you need to know

(Update: deal expired) The Essential Phone is on sale for a bargain price of $224

Essential phone review top angle
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Andy Rubin co-created Android, the smartphone operating system that powers 2 billion devices around the world. After leaving Google, he launched a new project: The Essential PH-1. It’s an Android smartphone, unsurprisingly, but one with an edge-to-edge screen, innovative accessories, and high-end materials that set it apart from the crowd. Read our Essential Phone review to hear our thoughts on the smartphone.

Updates

Halo Gray model available for limited time for just $224 on Amazon

The Essential Phone may not have set the world on fire, but it’s still a great phone, especially at the same price as a budget handset. The Amazon exclusive Halo Gray model of the Essential Phone was available for a limited on Amazon for just $224, down from its usual price of $345,

Equipped with the Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB hard drive, and made from ceramic, the Essential Phone is an absolute steal at this price. Since it’s confirmed to be receiving Android 9.0 Pie, it’s also one of the cheapest ways to experience the newest version of Android when it updates.

Android 9.0 Pie confirmed

best and worst features android 9 pie icons
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends.com

In its July 2018 AMA on Reddit, Essential announced the phone will definitely receive the Android 9.0 Pie update, and will likely get the update to Android Q in 2019. When asked if an Android Q update would happen a spokesperson for the company replied “I don’t have any information about when Q would drop, and obviously that would have an effect on this answer. Assuming the schedule for Q is like the schedule for P we plan to do it.”

Boosted sound and new updates

Essential is adding an Audio Adapter HD, which will be available in summer 2018 and basically delivers full MQA rendering coupled with what the company calls an “audiophile-grade” amp. It also adds a headphone jack — so if you miss that feature, you’ll be able to get one back with the new adapter.

Essential has announced that it will bring three new updates to the Essential Phone to improve the audio experience. First of all, the device is now MQA-certified. What that means is that the device will support the MQA audio codec aimed at delivering the highest-quality audio possible.

Android 8.1 Oreo update released

In March 2018 Essential released its Android 8.1 update with support for Project Treble. The first sales figures for the Essential Phone were revealed in a tweet by the International Data Corporation’s (IDC) research director Francisco Jeronimo, and they were not good. The company project Essential shipped less than 90,000 handsets within its first six months.

Project Treble confirmed

In its December 2017 Reddit AMA, Essential announced Project Treble would arrive with the Android 8.1 update. The company also announced it would add a double-tap-to-wake gesture to the phone but did not provide an ETA.

Accessories still in development

In a Reddit Q&A session on September 14 2017, the Essential engineering team confirmed that two new Essential Phone accessories were in active development: A charging dock and a “high end [sic] audio accessory” that supports a 3.5mm jack.

“We are under development on a number of Click Connector accessories. The first available should be the charging dock,” an Essential team member wrote. “We are also actively developing a high-end audio accessory to support a 3.5mm jack.”

Camera updates continue

Essential phone review camera app
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

A November 2017 update for the Essential Phone brought portrait mode to the rear-facing camera, a feature available on the iPhone X, Pixel 2, and several other Android flagships. The update also offers stability updates and improves image quality by reducing JPEG compression. The latest update for the app (via Trusted Reviews) introduced much-needed auto-HDR, better dynamic HDR, and improved general performance and scene rendering.

Essential released an update to its camera app in September 2017, with several improvements. You’ll have to first install the latest system build (NMI81C) and then update the camera app through Google Play. The changes include boosted capture speed in regular and low light to below 1 second, countdown timer when in 360 camera mode, improved brightness and performance in low light, spatial sound when shooting in 360, the ability to use volume up and down keys as shutter buttons in 360 camera mode, and bug fixes.

Amazon Prime Exclusive Halo Gray launched

Shortly after the Essential Phone was launched, a Halo Gray version of the phone was announced as part of the Amazon Prime Exclusive Phones program. The Halo Gray handset ships with Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, installed right out of the box. According to Essential, you can uninstall Alexa if you so choose. The Halo Gray edition is available through Amazon for $500.

Design and display

essential ph 1 vs apple iphone 7 plus white

The Xiaomi Mi Mix arguably got the edge-to-edge screen trend rolling, but the Essential PH-1 may have one of the most impressive implementations yet. The 5.71-inch, QHD (2,560 x 1,312 pixels) screen — which Essential calls the Full Display — extends from the bottom of the phone’s thin bezel to the top. And unusually, the screen curves around the phone’s selfie camera, obscuring part of the Android status bar.

The PH-1 is compact and light, clocking in at a weight of less than 185 grams and a thickness of 7.8mm. It’s durable, too, thanks to a combination of titanium, ceramic material, and Gorilla Glass 5. But those design choices necessitated compromise — just like the iPhone 7 and HTC U11, the PH-1 doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone socket.

“Headphone jacks are pretty big components and they don’t play nice with all-screen Phone architectures,” said an Essential engineer in a Reddit Q&A. “We studied it very seriously, but fitting a headphone jack into our Phone required tradeoffs we were uncomfortable with. We’d have grow a huge “chin” in the display and reduce the battery capacity by 10 percent, or we’d need a huge headphone bump! We decided it was more important to have a beautiful full-screen display in a thin device with solid battery life. Then we made sure we to build ya’ll [sic] a high-quality DAC in a tiny adapter that can elegantly live on your headphones. – Dave”

Specs and battery

Under the PH-1’s hood lies a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, an Adreno 540 GPU, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage. The two camera lenses on the phone’s rear, a 13-megapixel dual RGB color lens with hybrid autofocus (combining contrast, phase detect, and IR laser assist) and a second f/1.85 monochrome lens, can shoot videos at 4K 30fps (or 1080p 60fps/720p 120fps) and capture 200 percent more light than the average sensor. And the 8-megapixel, f/2.2 selfie camera can record video at 4K resolution.

The PH-1’s other highlights include four microphones in a three-dimensional arrangement that filters out background noise, a 3,040mAh battery with rapid charging technology, a barometer, a USB Type-C port, and a rear fingerprint sensor that Essential claims is the “fastest available technology.”

You’ll find a 3,040mAh battery in the Essential Phone which should be enough to power the phone through a day of heavy use. And luckily the phone supports fast-charging so it replenishes the battery quickly.

Software and special features

The Essential Phone ships with Android 7.1.1 Nougat, but can be updated to Android 8.1 Oreo.  We expect to see an Android P update for the Essential Phone shortly after its launched, and the company said it’s likely the phone will also receive an Android Q update in 2019.

When it comes to special features, Essential phone is joined by a Moto Mod-style range of modular accessories, which attach using a combination of magnetic pins and a 60GHz wireless USB adapter on the device’s back. A couple of modules (which Essential calls “Click Connectors”) have been announced so far: A 360-degree camera, and a dock that charges the phone when it’s not in use.

Camera

essential phone reviews roundup magnetic camera 360 1496149277820

The Essential Phone features a dual camera module with a 13-megapixel lenses. Both lenses have an f/1.85 aperture. The primary lens on the Essential Phone shoots in color while the secondary lens shoots in black and white. You’ll find an 8-megapixel shooter on the front of the phone.

When the Essential Phone was first released, many were underwhelmed with its camera. However, Essential has released a number of camera updates over the past year that vastly improve its performance.

In addition to the built-in camera modules on the Essential Phone, there’s also the Essential Camera, which the company claims is the “world’s smallest” 360-degree camera. It attaches to magnets at the top of the phone’s body, allowing it to poke its “head” over the top of the phone. The camera comes in at just 35 grams, and has two 12-megapixel lenses that can shoot 4K resolution, 30 fps video, as well as four microphones that capture sound in 3D. Following a tease that support for livestreaming would soon also be included, the Essential Camera has now made good on its promise.

Release and price

After a rocky start, the Essential Phone began shipping on August 25, 2017. And while some early buyers paid $700 for the handset, Essential quickly lowered the price to $500 and temporarily offered a $200 credit for the Essential Store for those early purchasers.

All four major U.S. carriers support the Essential Phone. Sprint is the only carrier that carries the phone and accessories in-store.

For those who don’t live in the United States, the Essential Phone is available on the company’s website for customers in Canada, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Essential Home

Essential is also planning to release a smart speaker with an intelligent assistant — the Essential Home. It’s similar to Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, the main difference being a circular screen that shows exactly what tasks the Essential Home is performing.

Essential Home’s round “auto-display” can be activated with a tap, a glance, or a question. Just like Amazon’s Echo speakers, Microsoft’s Cortana Assistant, and Google Home, it lets you control music, set timers, and more. There’s no word on a release date at this time, but it has been promised that it will work with smart home platforms like SmartThings, HomeKit, and Nest.

Essential Home runs a new operating system called Ambient OS, which Essential describes as a “proactive life manager.” It will notify you when you need to leave early to make an important meeting, or if you appear to have forgotten about an upcoming appointment. And it will secure your data by storing it locally, on your in-home network, rather than on a remote server like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa.

Updated on August 20: The Essential Phone is available for $224 on Amazon, for a limited time.

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