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The Essential Phone is a remarkable product released as a beta

It's not uncommon for people to accuse Google of treating its users as beta testers, but that notion — release fast and broken, and fix problems later on — is, in fact, an entrenched part of the startup culture as a whole. It just looks unbecoming of a company with a market cap approaching $650 billion USD.

But year after year, Google gets away with it because it releases dozens of pieces of software for various platforms and ecosystems, and usually, over time, improves the reliability and performance of each one. It also gets away with it because Google as a company is an indelible part of our culture's fabric, and its core products — search, Android, Docs, and increasingly hardware like the Pixel, Home, and Chromecast — are used by millions of people every day. The occasional buggy software release stings, but does not linger.

The Essential Phone is not finished. It shouldn't have been released until later this year.

Other companies don't have the luxury of such inconsistency. Essential, the nascent hardware startup run by former head of Android, Andy Rubin, has been embroiled in this kind of controversy — if you can call it that — over the past couple of weeks. Essential committed the worst sin a new company can make: it released a product before it was ready.

The Essential Phone is a remarkable achievement. It's dense and compact and beautifully made. Its screen goes right up to the edges, and the camera cutout forms a cyclops that, to me, enhances its visual appeal, mainly because in every other way it is the quintessence of minimalism.

But the hardware was finished long before the software. And Rubin, after announcing the product in May to enormous support and an uncharacteristic amount of anticipation from an industry cynical of new entrants and their ability to compete, likely felt a disproportionate amount of pressure to put this thing out into the world, to give the people, few as they may be, what they want.

After three big software updates, the phone has gone from almost unusable to almost amazing.

That was Rubin's biggest folly. The Essential Phone is not finished; it should have been kept under wraps until the late summer, and released in October or November — yes, later than he would have liked — so the team could iron out the enormous number of issues with the software. To the degree that public availability has given Essential's software engineers additional vectors to find and quash bugs, it has also marred what could have been a flawless release from a company that had 10 years of missteps by other manufacturers to use as guidance.

I've been using the Essential Phone for the better part of two weeks, and after three sizeable software updates peppered throughout the testing period, it has gone from unreliable to unbelievable. After the most recent (and largest) update, I have yet to experience a single hangup within the software itself — an approximation of "pure" (not stock) Android that wastes no time on extraneous features or bloat. There are features from other phones I miss, like the ability to pull down the notification shade with a swipe of my finger over the rear fingerprint sensor, but overall I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with the device.

That wasn't the case for the first few days with the Essential Phone, and that metronomic leap between frequent slowdowns and seamless performance shouldn't have taken place at all. Given that these updates are being pushed on a fairly regular basis not just to the press but to buyers (early adopters, natch) of the phone is what gives me pause; this is an egregious overstep of the trust placed demanded from a company selling a $700 computer that one relies on all day, every day.

But here we are — we're over the hump. If you're a Sprint customer or just late to the party and are just picking up the phone today, all of this drama merely passed you by on the way to smartphone bliss. But the disproportionate amount of press coverage for a company this small speaks to the influence Rubin has over the wireless industry in general, and it doesn't look good for the Father of Android. This, however, will pass.

So that brings us to the Essential Phone of today. For a company of its tiny size, it has done a tremendous job fixing the majority of the phone's software problems. Using it today is largely like using any other phone running mature software, except it's doing so in a body covered tightly with titanium and ceramic. The white version I have, which isn't widely available yet, is eye-catching and tasteful.

That brings me to the single remaining sore spot of the Essential Phone, and one that Rubin says his team is furiously working to fix: the camera. It's been stated and restated that the Essential Phone's camera hardware is top-notch and that the company is trying to figure out how to improve photo quality on the software level. To this, I will say, "sure, that could happen," but more realistic is that this generation of Essential Phone will be remembered, once the dust settles, as the first-generation phone with the terrible camera.

It takes three or so of these...

...to produce one of these (which isn't even that good).

That's really unfortunate because the camera is actually quite good in many environments. I've taken some stupendous shots, both still and action, in the light of day — photos that would stand up to most other high-end cameras on the market right now. Given those results, I was shocked by how bad the camera performed in poor lighting. It's abysmal.

I'd wager that Essential will get it from abysmal to just plain bad at some point down the line, but that improvement is also going to have to mirror improvements to the camera app itself, which, as Andrew pointed out in his review, feels like "a programmer's first camera app."

The same is true of the 360 camera accessory, which slickly attaches to the two magnetic power ports on the back of the phone. The accessory works most of the time, but its quality is pretty low, even compared to comparably-sized competitors like Motorola's 360-degree attachment for the Moto Z. Essential likely deserves credit for the audaciousness of its gamble, but credit doesn't sell phones.

At the end of the day, Essential built a beautiful phone with a lot of great ideas without the engineering talent to reinforce its vision. It's clear that many entities, perhaps even Essential itself, underestimated what went into building and optimizing a "pure" version of Android that resembles Google's own vision for the platform.

Perhaps Google, with its tendency to release software that, too, always seems to be one step away from stable, shouldn't have been the model for Essential's house of cards.

But no phone is perfect, and the Essential Phone is a fundamentally solid and approachable piece of hardware that, while expensive, does a lot of things really well. I actively and enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who doesn't need to take great photos in every lighting condition, because once you get past that, there's a hell of a lot to like here.

I've been using the phone on TELUS's network (which is helpful, because it's a TELUS exclusive) and while there's no VoLTE yet, it performed beautifully in all network-related affairs, from calls to big downloads.

See at TELUS

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

94 Comments
  • Hopefully the second generation will be better. Will be getting another Galaxy unless Pixel can change my mind in October.
  • Love the hardware. Kinda wish this was the new Pixel. Add Google's camera app, Project Fi and I'm sold.
  • We already have the Pixel camera APK. Little clearer, colors little more vibrant than stock app. That said, stock keeps improving with app upgrades via Playstore. BTW: I dig this PH-1... even more so than when I received 2 weeks ago.
  • Hey they have produced a very decent phone on their first go. Hardware looks fantastic and sounds like it is a pleasure to hold. Camera aside, my main problem is how this company has treated their first customers. I don't trust them and I don't trust Rubin. This perception can be changed and I'm looking to see how they handle updates and other promises. It's good to have another high end US phone manufacturer. That makes me proud.
  • Agree. Along with iPhone X.
  • Rubin should be embarrassed for releasing a device with such terrible cameras and no IPXX rating for $700. I'd rather spend a couple of hundred more on a better device, and I did in the Note 8.
  • What he should really be embarrassed about is the software, given that's where he made his name. Plus the fact you can get a better device for a couple of hundred dollars LESS let alone more.
  • Exactly
  • Ditto that!
  • I spent several years as a Windows phone enthusiast so getting something new that still needs work is something I'm used to. At least Essential is fixing stuff and doing it pretty quickly. Microsoft could run out a dozen updates with no discernable improvements.
  • Ditto, ms messed up a fine camera on the lumia icon with win10 mobile. Never took as good of pics under 10 as it did under 8.1 with the denim update. What a loss.
  • 1520 camera suffered the same fate.
  • Brings back fond memories of my Lumia 920. Still one of the best phones I ever owned.
  • Agreed, I enjoyed my Lumia 925. Took great shots. In a way, it foreshadowed my Galaxy S8 plus.
  • I returned mine. Great idea but you could tell it was released too early. Small things like touches not being registered, screen jitters, camera software, etc. Just does not warrant the price. They should of given the first buyers of the phones drastic discounts to do a live beta like this.
  • The PH-1 works fine on my end, no jitters, no scrolling issues, no touch screen issues, no random rebooting, even before the latest software update. I set it up as a new device. This is not a beta test phone, it looks like Android Central has it in for this phone.
  • You must have a special phone because all these problems existed on my phone and many others
  • Yes my PH1 is special.
  • My Essential has no issues either. I think while this issue is affecting people it is being blown out of proportion.
  • This^
  • I had the same problems and returned mine.
  • After this last update I have yet to have any issues with the phone or performance.. the camera is just ok but with gcam it's quite good. I'm pretty happy with this purchase coming from the S8+
  • You're like the only person who hasn't issues with the device.
  • Or maybe we've hit on the real problem with this phone: inconsistent quality control. Some users are reporting no problems, others are dealing with serious software and hardware issues. According to Reddit, Andy had stated that some phones have shipped out with the wrong earpiece grill material--how does that even happen? It's becoming increasingly evident to me that the PH-1 is a lotto, you might get a flawless unit or one with serious hardware and software issues. Just another notch against Essential.
  • It happens because of the manufacturer. I'm not giving Essential a free pass, but they didn't build the phone in their office. It was built by a company in Asia with the lowest quote. I'm sure their in house quality control isn't where we'd all like. And I'm betting Essential doesn't get the level of inspection and quality assurance as bigger companies would get.
  • I would be one of those users, I'm on my second essential phone (arrived today) with the SAME f*king issue. Missing speaker grill AND gaps beside the screen large enough to collect lint/dust/fabric fibres. Unbelievable. I think I'm done with essential.
  • Well AC definitely isn't the only publication talking about the Essential Phone's struggles.
  • So, this review keeps saying it's a great phone, even "unbelievable" minus the camera, minus the 360 camera and minus the high price. But other than you liking the looks & feel, and being minimalistic software-wise, all you've said in explanation is that it was great at calls and big downloads. There must be more to why it's unbelievable and a high recommendation. I don't get it...
  • Agreed. Does the author really know what "unbelievable" means? Unbelievably bad or good?
  • I got it about a week ago and I may be able to throw my hat in on this one. Just a precursor, I don't use cameras, at all. I hate photography. After that though, I listen to music and podcasts, I do a lot of emailing and texting, I also consume a lot of video. There is nothing truly amazing about this phone other than the build quality. With that said, this is my favorite phone to this day. The feel in hand is perfect, the simplicity is amazing. This is the first phone I've just been happy with. No customization wanted. I've had high end Samsung's, LGs, Nokia's, HTCs, and iPhones, and this easily takes the Cake. It's all in the feel of it. No way to explain it.
  • Does the Google camera posted on XDA developers work on this phone? And if so, does it solve any of the camera problems?
  • The camera on the phone is just fine with the latest update, and the Google pixel camera works just fine with the PH1, but it does not use the monochrome sensor.
  • I think that's kind of the issue, if you could call it that. I'd say the camera on the PH-1 is "just fine" — which isn't fitting for a $700 phone. The one area at this point where it isn't even up to "just fine" status is low light; that's just bad.
  • Yep. It sure does and if you get the settings proper it takes fast and sharp photos where as the stock *might* once it's not a 0.1.x release which it is. The Google Cam from XDA doesn't do the monochrome though.
  • A post on Reddit Was going to cancel until I held it in my hand. https://www.reddit.com/r/essential/comments/6z61sm/was_going_to_cancel_u...
  • I was so hyped for this phone, but I'm in no position to be a $700 beta tester. Pixel XL 2 has my attention.
  • What's with this beta testing nonsense.
  • Definitely not nonsense.
  • It's nonsense.
  • Not ready for primetime = beta
  • This is the same thing I'm asking..
  • The software is stable on mine and the camera works better than most phones I've owned. Beta test is a major over exaggeration.
  • I got where yall are coming from, but what other option do they have? I believe that even with an additional couple of months in house, they couldn't have found and fixed all the issues possible. It's like video games. There's a reason we are seeing an increase in beta versions, to get it to as many people as possible and fix what they can find. Though, without sending this phone for free to everyone that wants one, there's no way they can replicate the infinite possibilities of how people use their phone.
  • This phone underscores a lot of the problem with a new an android phone. Every phone is pretty much a custom device. Stock android has to be made to work on hardware that can vary using wildly different chipset. I can build a pc and Windows will work with every thing I attach to the motherboard as long as there are drivers out there. Standardization. Intel or AMD define the chipset, everything works off that. But with a phone its all a big crap shoot. There are only a relative few makers of top notch phone camera chips and lenses. After that you need a good camera algorithm person to extract a quality picture for the hardware. No excuse not to have this nailed from the start. Given the importance attached to having a great camera this should be the very first thing you should attend to right after the screen.
  • Do you own this phone^
  • Do you own stock in the company?
  • No, it's not offered yet.
  • He is right to be more than a little skeptical of all this hate. I own the phone too and it has given me no problems.
  • But it HAS given a lot of people problems. The article even states it's taken 3 major software updates since launch (less than a month) to get the phone to even be usable. I can appreciate anyone's opinion, but to act as though the phone has had zero problems for a lot of users is just inaccurate.
  • Yeah, and that means nothing. Under a 70 Fireball 7's had issues out of almost 3.5 million .. that thing still went into the dustbin of history due to overhyped hysteria. But it is what it is, eh?
  • Anyone who has owned a Nexus/Pixel, can relate to some glitches upon initial release...or getting a new "Letter" OTA update. Can feel like a beta for sure. I knew being a new startup early adopter, would require an extra level of customer commitment/patience on my end. The first week was a little rough, but the current seems to have smoothed quite a bit. Not a fanboy, just a consumer that isn't second guessing his investment.
  • Only buy this phone if you're a fan of stock Android. Otherwise, this phone has nothing good to offer. No headphone jack and no real audio upgrade to replace it. Built in camera is absolutely horrible. Beautiful looking phone, but that's all you're really getting. Probably great to own as a novelty item.
  • Says the guy who never touched or used the phone.
  • The camera is actually not as bad as people say. Not the very best but way better than mid range.
  • FTFY. The built in camera works just fine .. the STOCK camera software that manipulates what the camera sees ... is horrible but fixable.
  • Props to you Daniel for not just writing the company off in the first round of attention span like many . Yes , the camera can and will be fixed with software. Btw, I like you much better here than mobilesyrup. This is the populist culture we live in that surrounds us all with sheep. Don't become one to be accepted .
  • There is a lot of uniqueness about this phone and supposedly where it is going - that I can really appreciate it. I still want to see how this plays out.
  • I will not purchase so called "flagships" anymore, being a Nexus user for 3 models and then jumping to LG and Samsung, the results were disappointing. The cost to value ratio is not there. I'm now on a OnePlus 5 and couldn't be happier, small bugs and gripes, yes, but if I had a more expensive phone it wouldn't be small in my mind. Is it a Google Android problem, manufacturer's with big marketing and too many bells and whistles, or users with big egos for the latest and greatest, probably a little bit of each. Keep it simple, it's just a phone that should not cost you a full paycheck (whatever that might be) and be old and outdated next year with no updates or carrier support, even worse, now 1/2 the price you paid for it or less and now forgotten to the next "flagship".
  • I think the top selling models are about to change in a big way - especially with Android One and Trebble coming. I'm a big fan of frequent updates and will always support that.
  • I am one who will be going the mid-range route. I don't want a 2:1 curved screen with rounded corners or cutouts for the camera. I want a flat 16:9 display. I also want a headphone jack. Pretty much every mid-range device fits what I want now. Thankfully performance isn't much different than the flagships anymore. I'll leave the weird, expensive style experiments to other people.
  • I'll more than likely get the new Pixel 2 XL this year. Waiting 170+ days to get Nougat on my 7 Edge - told me what Samsung and AT&T thought of my family (it's a phone with personal data on it - not a washer or a refrigerator that you can ignore...). I am hedging the new Pixel 2 XL will have everything that I will need. I agree - the new 660 processor with 4 gigs and all of the amenities and Android One - is - highly - drawing my attention. Put a great camera on it - plus. Put unlimited photo backup on it - plus. But I do love the drama and the challenges while riding on the cutting edge of technology. And what Andy Rubin can possibly bring to the table. His team has some of those challenges - and how they resolve those - will keep me and I suppose others interested. Respect is earned.
  • I absolutely LOVE my OnePlus 5!
  • People are lost in the the flagship arena, OnePlus 5 is great phone for the price. OnePlus's mistake is having made the "flagship" killer motto, if you understand what you have, it just can't be beat for the price. I've been in the electronics field since the early 80's, passion does not change or the mis-under standing of performance for the price. If I have a flagship, it should be almost perfect, I don't feel any Android phone fits that's description in a 6 month time frame regardless of it's price.
  • I agree. I owned the Nexus 5, and 6P and have been spoiled. I can't justify spending over $600 for a phone. I also don't like mass market phones produced by LG and Samsung. I will give Essential time to polish themselves before I consider buying one of their phones. I felt one in my hands and it is second to none in the hardware department. But for me to buy a "flagship" I want most of the kinks to be worked out. Not say it will be perfect because no phone perfect. I recently decided to give OnePlus 5 a try even after hating on its design. The user experience has surprised me and I am sold thus far. It user experience reminds me of my old Nexus 5. Personally I think OnePlus philosophy is similar to Nexus line. I think Essential will have the same philosophy but cater to the more premium market. Just give Essential some time to polish themselves.
  • They have a lot of potential, but have missed the mark as they say. Time will tell how they handle it in the future, I would think they will make smart decisions either way or fade away.
  • That's why I bought a Moto G5 Plus (coming from an iPhone 6). I absolutely love it and it does everything fast and without fuss. As a bonus, I'm getting Oreo this year but Project Treble will have to wait until my next phone.
  • This is the worst "high end" phone of the year, it can't go toe to toe with last year high-end phones and not the newly released phones, very poor try in my opinion.
  • Says the guy who never touched or used the phone.
  • Well your the expert then. How about giving us your thoughts on the phone rather than 2 sentence retorts that mean very little.
  • The phone is fantastic.
  • Since the other user didn't, I'll provide you with my view.
    The essential phone looks and feels fantastic in the hand, and I honestly can say that it feels like it's a durable product that won't shatter on first drop.
    The camera really isn't that big of a deal to me currently, the photos it's currently able to take with the latest update are fine for my needs. I haven't ran into any of the problems that other users have with the app failing to open or anything like that, although I've only taken a dozen photos with the phone.
    The software experience is actually pretty nice. While I haven't gotten any of the touch issues on my unit, the device has a rather random issue where it won't show my data connection or wifi connection in the status bar, but the phone continues to function fine.
    The headphone jack isn't that big of a lose for me, frankly I only listen to music through my bose headphones at work and they are Bluetooth, so I don't personally care.
    Does the phone feel like it's worth $700, the answer is yes. Software bugs are able to be fixed, and updates are happening at a good clip. Comparing this device to other flagship phones that are 128gb it's actually fairly cheap. The one thing I would say I truly miss with the Essential phone is waterproofing just so I don't have to worry about it, other than that everything I need my phone to do is here.
  • Thank you
  • Great review, I dont see how this phone is any worse than the Moto Z2 Force which apparently has great software surrounded by crappy hardware....C'mon Lenovo, you put a 2730mAh battery in a modern day flagship, all to sell your Moto mods. Add to that, the shatter shield screen layer isnt replaceable this time around and scratches very easily. I wish, T-Mob sold this phone, I'd buy it. Software can be improved upon. Poor hardware decisions cant.
  • You.... are a Fanboy..... Assuming anyone who has anything negative to say about the phone has never tried it
  • Bro the phone may be awesome to you but in comparison to what? They g5? Galaxy j prime? Op3t? Because it's damn sure not on the level of any of the major players Period.
  • If you had held the Essential Phone in your hand you wouldn't be talking about it being comparable to a Galaxy J Prime. The hardware is seriously good.
  • Google likes to release beta phones as well. I'm using one now called the Pixel.
  • As much as people are rushing to defend the phone, the photos speak for themselves. I would have to TRY to get results that bad. Last week I saw a car we used to own, and I whipped out my phone and grabbed a one-handed shot as it flew by at 70 MPH. The photo looks like the car is parked, with no motion blur even at the top of the wheels. Yet the PH1 struggles with getting a clear shot of a still scene. I hope they fix it as well, but it clearly was not ready for the release date.
  • Of course the car looked like it was standing still while flying by you at 70 mph, and pigs have wings.
    Did you check out the pictures posted in the Reddit post.
  • Yes, I checked out the pictures on Reddit. They're serviceable.. I notice every one is of a still idyllic scene though.
    And, apparently pigs can now fly. Below is a link to a compressed version of the photo I mentioned, which you said I lied about:
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/PbT5zdmvmATRn0Wh1
  • There is also another glaring issue.
    The thermal-engine.conf file located in /system/etc is a bad implementation:
    The range for throttling is 4 degrees C (39-43C) (102-09F) and the clock speed drops to 50% of maximum. This means that in a warm environment, this phone performs worse than most Snapdragon 821 devices. If you plug in the phone and start to charge in, you will find the Antutu scores drop to the 114K range.
    If you unplug the phone and cool it, either by putting it in the freeze for 10 minutes or on a baggy full of ice; you can get Antutu scores in the 177K range. I'm sending mine back and I'll think about a V2 devices along with an iPhone X in a V2.
  • I never had the phone go past 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Here is a cool video with the 360 camera, unfortunately it flew off the phone, the camera snaps on tight, I think his hand accidently pushed it off.
    PSA: Don't try to use the 360 camera on a rollercoaster https://www.reddit.com/r/essential/comments/70jpbu/psa_dont_try_to_use_t...
  • No one should ever be allowed to charge money for ANYTHING and declare it beta. That just screams it is a production device, but we don't want to be responsible for it's reliability as a product.
  • Almost all technology companies to date have launched a service or product labeled as a beta. Apple, Samsung, LG, Google, everyone does this on a regular basis.
  • "the phone has gone from almost unusable" Except for the camera, i didn't remember the AC review to be as negative! AND no article about the fzct that Essential asked for personnal infos that they shouldn't have and thzt those dataswas publicly send because of a bug!
  • Sorry but it looks absolutely ridiculous with the front camera covering part of the screen like that. Any phone like that would be an immediate non buy from me. I'd rather have a small bezel at the top where the camera can go. This is wrong, just wrong
  • Says the guy who never touched or used the phone. Have encountered a plethora of people like you on the www.
  • SO what if I've never used it? I look at something, if it doesn't look 'right' or 'good' I walk away. Phones, cars, whatever. It needs to look right before I even start considering it. The design of this phone looks pathetic, that won't change whether I've used it or not
  • Don't take offense. Highfidelity can't ever say anything except: "Says the guy who never used the phone." I bet he responds to me saying the same thing. Watch for it.
  • I've heard that complaint a lot on these articles, but honestly from no one that actually owns the phone. Any app that isn't made to work with the camera cutout simply creates a bezel similar to the Galaxy S8 and it's taller screen, the apps that can use the entire display is controlled by Essential.
  • Have to wait to see how well it does hopeful it's ask around well balanced
  • All the crap on Twitter posted by the Essentials creator and android daddy never said the phone was being released in Beta.
    I almost ordered one, i'd be so pissed if I paid all that money to be this guys beta tester.
    If he pays me and gives a phone I'll beta test it for him.
    If I like it after all testing is complete I'll give him his phone back and if I really like it I'd buy one but I'm not about to "beta" test anything for free or be tricked into it!
    The entire idea of such a thing makes me angry.
    He can keep his flubby phone!!
  • This will end up being a solid phone with good camera by time they work out all of the kinks, the problem is they are taking way too long for me to stay with the device. Will be moving to the Pixel or Pixel 2 in a few weeks.