Impressive Essential PH-1 not essential yet — but could be in the future
Essential PH-1. (Supplied)
Available at Telus: $290 (two-year plan); $1,050 (no term)
Is your cellphone essential? Andy Rubin thinks his is.
Rubin, for those not in the know, was one of the founders of Android Inc., and went on to serve as Google's senior vice-president of mobile and digital content after the search giant bought his company in 2005. While he moved onto other Google projects in 2013 and left the company entirely in 2014, the smartphone business is clearly on his mind as he recently released a new phone through his company Essential Products.
Rubin wrote in a blog post on the company's site that he aimed to create a “simple” mobile device that “play(s) well with others,” isn't loaded with apps users don't want and wouldn't become outdated within a year.
The Essential Phone (or PH-1) has impressive hardware under the hood and it runs a pared down operating system. Much like one of Google's own phone, the Essential runs a stock version of Android Nougat (7.1.1) without any manufacturer or wireless provider apps that can bog down user experience.
It runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 CPU, which is the latest mobile processor from the company and puts it on par with other flagship phones, such as the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, the OnePlusFive and Samsung's Galaxy S8 and soon-to-be-released Galaxy Note8. It's an octa-core mobile platform (with one quad-core operating at up to 2.45 GHz and the other with a clockspeed of up to 1.9 GHz). It comes with a 3,040 mAh battery and offers fast charging through USB-C.
The Essential PH-1 has 4 GB of RAM, which also puts it on the premium end of smartphones. It doesn't have a card slot but has 128 GB of internal storage, which is more than most people would need.
In practice, the phone is fast, responsive to touch and, with a clean Android install, easy to navigate.
With its flat sides, sharp corners and titanium body, the 141.5 mm x 71.1 mm x 7.88 mm device has a slightly industrial look to it, as if it were unconsciously trying to tout function over form. And at around 185 g, the Essential PH-1 is a little heavier than a lot of its competitors' phone, giving it a sturdy feel.
Yet, at the same time, it is still elegant. It has an edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass screen with no physical buttons on the front. (The fingerprint sensor is on its shiny ceramic back.) The 5.71-inch 2,560 x 1,312-pixel QHD display (a 19:10 aspect ratio). It has rich colours and offers vivid video playback. The built-in speakers also provide good audio.
The Essential has a 13 MP main camera, using a dual-camera system (one lens captures the image in colour, the other in black-and-white) which allows it to pull in more more light. The front-facing camera is 8 MP. They both shoot 4K video as well. The camera app is pretty stripped down and doesn't offer many options in terms of control, so this may put off some amateur photogs. And with these default settings, the cameras don't always provide the most vivid of pictures shot in daytime. You might need to touch them up in a photo editing program – even just a mobile one.
As far as I can tell, it's a software issue, not a hardware one as the cameras actually do fairly well in low light – so maybe an app update in the future will fix that.
Also, if you want to upgrade the cameras, there's a 360-degree camera accessory available. Billed as the world's thinnest 360-degree camera, it is less than 67 mm tall and 32 mm wide. Powered by the phone, it attaches magnetically to two pins on the back and peeks out overtop. The 12 MP attachment consists of two 210-degree lenses and four microphones and it can shoot 3D video in 4K.
But I was having problems using it. Sometimes the app would launch properly into 360 mode with the camera attached but other times it wouldn't. The 360 camera also makes a bit of a hissing sound when attached but, oddly, it stops when you're actually shooting in 3D - so if you hear it when recording, you're in the wrong mode.
When the 360 camera works, it works well. You can even smoothly scroll the video around while shooting the video so you can see what is being captured behind you. But because it is attached to the phone, it limits what you can do with it. That is, unless you're willing to attach your phone to a drone.
Personally, I found the accessory a little frivolous. And since 360 cameras are still a little niche, you'd probably be better off buying a standalone device if you're going to be using one.
The other annoying thing about the Essential PH-1 is that it doesn't have a headphone jack. It has an adapter you can plug in to the USB-C port, but still, it means you can't use wired headphones to listen to music and charge the phone at the same time.
So in the end, is the phone essential? Not yet. But, overall, it's a good phone and if Rubin is honest in this post that he wants the phone to “evolve with you,” presumably through software and firmware updates, it's a good investment.
You can buy it from Telus on one of its two-year plans for $290 or without a contract for $1,050. The 360 camera accessory will be coming later to the provider and will sell for $270.