We were quite underwhelmed by the Essential Phone when we reviewed it back in September 2017. Its software was bare — almost to a fault — and its camera didn’t even come close to the competition at the time.
Andy Rubin and his new smartphone company didn’t take any of those criticisms lying down. Over the past few months, the Essential Phone has received countless camera updates, new features, and stability improvements to make this phone what it was first meant to be.
I’m calling it right now: this phone wins our unofficial “Most Improved Smartphone Since Launch” award.
With that prestigious new title in mind, let’s see if the Essential Phone is actually worth buying in 2018, or if you should hold off for the Essential Phone 2.
Essential Phone in 2018: The bad
I’m going to start off with all the bad things about the Essential Phone, because honestly there isn’t a lot to say here.
Even after dozens of updates, the camera is still by far the worst part of this phone. Photos with the right lighting can be impressive, but everything else — especially low-light shots — are bad. They’re grainy and lack detail. Taking a photo in low light is still very slow too, even after the recent update to address this very issue.
The camera app is still too bare bones for my liking too. If it were able to take great shots in automatic mode like the Pixel 2, I wouldn’t care. This camera needs as much help as it can get on the software side, and a lack of features in the camera app really isn’t helping.
I get it. The phone’s supposed to have nothing but “the essentials.” Shipping the most bare-bones version of Android possible is all well and good. Sometimes users actually want features — especially when they add a real benefit in everyday use.
Many of my gripes might be fixed with the Essential Phone 2, though. Head of Industrial Design at Essential Linda Jiang recently admitted the phone’s camera needed work:
In general, one thing that we got hit hard with was the quality of our camera, and we’re really looking forward to improving that with our next-gen, making sure that we’re listening to our customers and their pain points. We’re going to make it better for you.
I still run into a fair amount of performance- and touch-related issues on a daily basis. The biggest offender by far is touch latency, which I’m still experiencing even after Essential’s promised fix with the Android 8.1 update. Whether scrolling through Twitter or simply pulling down the notification shade, the phone struggles to keep up with my touches.
This doesn’t have anything to do with the hardware. The Snapdragon 835 chipset and 4GB of RAM is more than enough power to handle multitasking and heavy gameplay, but unfortunately touch issues still hold the Essential Phone back from offering a seamless, smooth experience.
Essential Phone in 2018: The good
I like everything else about this phone.
What hasn’t changed over the past eight months is the hardware, and that’s a good thing. The Essential Phone has some of the best hardware on any smartphone to date, rivaling the likes of the Galaxy S9 and Huawei P20 Pro. It just feels different from other phones.
The Essential Phone has some of the best hardware on any smartphone to date.
It’s a bit heavier than other phones. It even weighs 10 grams more than the Pixel 2 XL. That makes it feel better — almost like it was machined out of a single chunk of titanium. I know it wasn’t, but it feels like it.
The lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack is still annoying — and ironic, considering this phone’s name — but that’s one of the only downsides to the PH-1’s hardware.
When the Essential Phone first launched, it did not have many apps installed out of the box, nor did it come with many extra features. No night mode. No always-on display. There’s a case to be made for shipping a bare version of Android, sure, but those two features were becoming standard on most Android phones.
Essential has since added both features (well, it added an ambient display mode, not an always-on display mode), and then some. Bluetooth 5 support, new camera modes, and plenty of useful new features are now baked into the PH-1’s software suite, and you can bet the Essential Phone 2 will have these as well.
Throughout its time on the market, Essential has been clear about listening to its users, which is more than we can say for some OEMs.
The Essential Phone receives quick updates. Like, really quick. Essential rolled out the May 2018 security patch minutes after Google posted the factory images. That’s pretty much been the case for the entirety of the PH-1’s lifespan, and it has me hopeful for future phones from the company.
If you own a Huawei or a Samsung phone and are tired of not receiving software updates, you should check out Essential’s next phone.
This is the entire reason we’re re-reviewing this phone.
The Essential Phone first went on sale for $700. It was not worth $700. Its price has dropped significantly since then — you can now find it on Amazon for only $475.
Now that it costs less than $500, it’s in the same playing field as the OnePlus 5T (which will soon be succeeded by a more expensive smartphone), the Moto Z2 Play, and the Honor View 10. None of those other phones feel quite like this one.
Should you buy the Essential Phone in 2018? If you’re in the market for an Android phone under $500 with a design that truly stands out, I’d have no problem recommending the Essential Phone. However, it’s been almost a full year since it was first announced, so we may not have much longer until the Essential Phone 2 (PH-2?) arrives. The new phone will probably cost more, have a better camera, and be an all-around better device.
Those looking to save some dough on an Android device might not want to overlook this phone.