Essential is a new Android phone company. And right out of the gate, its first phone does probably a better job than any at capturing the look of the iPhone X – no doubt the most coveted handset of 2017. And hey, unlike the iPhone 10, you can actually buy the Essential right now ... if you care to.
I really like the Essential Phone design. It's pretty! Like the upcoming iPhone X, it takes its screen – 5.7 inches here – all the way up the front of the phone, leaving only a notch at the top. This is smaller than the iPhone’s “bat ears” notch, because it accommodates just a selfie camera lens, not a bunch of face detection sensors. But, on the bottom of the phone, the Essential does have a bit of a chin bezel, so it’s not quite as all-screen as the iPhone X.
Its glass-titanium-and-ceramic body is very classy and premium feeling. And since I prefer a squared body to a rounded one, I like its looks more than almost anything you’ll be able to buy this year – including those very popular phones by Apple and Samsung.
And, on the topic of looks, I do really care about the fact that Essential is built with the real version of Android, the one that comes on Google’s Pixel phones. That means no hacky, brand-specific home screen modifications you typically find on Galaxy or LG phones. It’s just simple, elegant Google software, minus all the stuff you don’t need and hate to look at.
Don't Care: Missing features
In 2017, if you’re releasing an Android phone that doesn’t have wireless charging, water resistance, or any kind of an always-on screen – all things the Essential Phone lacks – you’re starting at a disadvantage.
I’ve realized that I do care about sending an occasional email from the shower, and that I can’t do that with the merely “splash-resistant” Essential doesn’t really work for me.
Also, I know the iPhone these also doesn’t have a headphone jack, but at least it comes with headphones that fit its port. The Essential, only comes with an adapter to connect a standard set of headphones. Not a great touch.
Don't Care: Poor performance
Inside of the Essential Phone, you’ll find a lot of the same guts as its 2017 smartphone competitors, but it doesn’t always feel that way to use it.
I ran into lots of hiccups and stutters during my time using the phone, which can be occasional with devices like the Galaxy S8 and LG G6, but really aren’t with a Note 8 or even Apple’s new iPhone 8, I’ve found.
My biggest beef with the performance of the Essential comes with its camera. It’s super-laggy. And what it spits out is typically a noticeably worse picture than almost any other premium smartphone you can buy today would produce.
Don't Care: Peripherals
Essential’s smart idea for bringing peripherals to the smartphone is admirable. There are two magnetic pins on the back of the phone that attach and power wireless USB accessories, like Essential’s 360 camera. But beyond that and a dock for charging the phone, two add-ons I wasn’t able to test (but also don’t have much use for), there aren’t any other peripherals you can get right now.
The idea is for Essential to eventually get other companies to build cool things for this accessory system. Of course, the chances of any of those coming to market while this particular phone is still relevant seems unlikely, so maybe I’ll care about this feature on Essential Phone 2?
Don't Care: The Essential Phone
In fact, that’s kind of the deal here: Essential Phone is just the first product – prototype, even – from a new company that wants to make many things – from smart home devices to, yes, other better phones down the road. And that’s nice, but in the immediate, if I’m looking to buy a phone this season, I don’t care about any of that.
The Essential feels like it wants to go after the iPhone 10, and even though it’s priced like the what’s-now-considered-to-be-modest-iPhone 8, it falls beneath both of those phones on features. And – though I haven’t had the chance to try the iPhone 10 yet – I believe it’s safe to say it falls short of both of them on performance, too.
The cheaper Galaxy S8 and LG G6 would also be better 2017 phone choices than the Essential, which, don’t get me wrong, is definitely beautiful enough to get another look ... when a more developed second version comes out.