When I wrapped up reviewing the Essential Phone back in early September, I told you guys that even though it had some pretty critical flaws and you probably shouldn’t buy it, that it was a phone I didn’t want to put down. That’s a first me, as someone who reviews phones for a living and typically can’t wait to move onto the next one, especially when the phone I’ve finished talking about hasn’t reviewed all that well. You see, the Essential Phone, even with its poor performance and below-average camera, might have the best hardware and design in the business right now. It’s a phone that feels incredible in hand and clearly tricked me into needing more of it in my life, flaws and all.
Since that review, though, Essential has issued multiple updates to both the camera and software, plus the company dropped the price by $200, from $699 to $499. Because of those happenings dramatically changing this phone’s story, we decided it was time to get it back in hand and take it for another spin. After all, I’ll never say no to a chance to play with this hardware some more, but the thought of having better software and camera is something we needed to explore further.
Here are some fresh thoughts on the Essential Phone.
It’s still as good as ever. The titanium body and ceramic back, coupled with this unique all-display front design really do make for an attractive phone. I’m sure some of you still hate that front camera notch at the top, but it has never really bothered me. While there is a solid black block of bezel at the bottom of the phone, the way the display carries all of the way up to the top front curved corners offers a uniqueness that no other phone really does. This is one of those phones that just looks cooler than everyone else’s.
As I mentioned in my review, there is a nice weight to this phone that almost makes it feel heavier than you would expect. It’s not that it’s a bad weight, just for the size of the phone, you don’t expect this heft when you grab it. But there really is a dense feel when you pick it up, pull it out of your pocket, whatever. It’s a constant reminder of the luxurious nature that Essential was trying to evoke when they slapped the original $700 price on it. Samsung and LG and Google phones all have a lightness to them, thanks to their aluminum bodies. They don’t feel cheap by any means, but when held side by side with the Essential Phone, there is a difference that is noticeable that I really appreciate.
I’d also point out that this phone has somewhat of a retro vibe to its body. It’s a rectangle with flat edges all around. In a way, it reminds of the iPhone 4 and 5 period of time, where the goal wasn’t yet to make the most curvaceous phone around. This is the opposite of what Samsung and LG are doing, where they are trying to mold glass and metal together to create a seamless design experience. Essential purposely made this have edges and I kind of really like it. I don’t even know why, because it is in no way as comfortable to hold as the Galaxy S8. Maybe, again, it’s just because it’s different. Be together, not the same, right?
So the software, now that the phone has received multiple updates, is much better. I’d love to be able to tell you that it is flawless and the experience rivals that of the OnePlus 5 or Motorola’s phones or the Pixel devices, but it’s not on that level yet. A lot of the touch responsiveness, scrolling lag, and overall jitters have been reduced or greatly improved, though. The Essential Phone is no longer frustrating to use.
I’m still seeing slowdowns throughout a day, where I have to clear all running apps from the app switcher, plus I experienced at least one full freeze-up that required a reboot over the weekend. Again, these issues have been improved upon, but they are still present a couple of months later.
I’d also point out that on the white Essential Phone I have here, I thought the fingerprint reader died on it after having been out of the box for all of 10 hours. I say that because the fingerprint reader just stopped working and all software related to it disappeared from the phone, almost as if it no longer registered the component. After talking with support, they told me that this was a known bug from the latest software build and that they are working on a fix. While that’s great that Essential is already working on a fix, we’re talking about the fingerprint reader completely dying after a software update and a fix potentially weeks away. That’s kind of bad. Couple that with the fact that Smart Lock almost never works on the phone and I’m stuck in 2009 entering in PINs and passwords to unlock my phone.
Overall, I do enjoy the software here because it is bare-bones, stock Android without any fluff at all. To this date, Essential is still customizing none of it and only includes their camera app. If you like the purist form of Android, this is it. It uses Ambient Display, a launcher that looks like the old Google Now Launcher with access to Google Now off to the side, and notifications that haven’t been messed with. It should get Oreo pretty quick here too, at least in the form of a beta.
So yeah, the software has gotten a lot better in terms of performance and stability, but it still has a few bugs and Essential is clearly still finding their groove in squashing them all. The experience has come a long way.
Alright, camera time. Has Essential been able to improve the camera’s photo taking abilities and camera experience? Without a doubt, the camera app that Essential includes has been improved enormously. That’s not saying much since the app used to crash, freeze, miss touches on the shutter button, and overall perform like an app created by a 7th grader learning to code.
Now, it opens pretty quickly, can snap multiple photos without much of a hiccup, and hasn’t crashed on me since I started re-testing it. It’s still a pretty weak app, though. The HDR mode is super slow since it takes its time snapping two photos to process together, there are hardly any other settings to adjust (definitely no manual mode), and it still won’t remember that you turned flash off as you switch back and forth between regular mode and HDR. It’s a poorly made camera app, what else is there to say? Oh, you should just use Google’s Camera app that can be found over at XDA.
What about the photos it takes? Uhh, I think it certainly can take a decent picture from time to time. In fact, most of the photos you see below (that I hand selected), are pretty solid. The problem is that the camera is pretty slow to focus, often times doesn’t focus on the correct object without you touching-to-focus, and is mostly terrible in low light. In other words, I’m here to tell you that the camera is still the weakest part of the phone and I’m not sure it’s ever going to get much better. If you use the Google Camera app I suggested above, your results will probably be much better than if you use the Essential camera app, that’s for sure.
Here are some recent samples. Honestly, I can’t remember which was taken with which camera app, but most were with the Essential app to give it the fairest shake, since that’s the camera app Essential ships on it. You’ll see solid shots in good lighting, but an instant deterioration of image quality once I tried to take anything indoors. Also, keep in mind that I often had to take multiple shots in order to get one that was in focus.
Essential Phone: Now worth it?
Is the Essential Phone now worth considering? It really is at $500 (or $450 at the time of this post). You are competing with OnePlus at this price point, rather than Samsung and LG and Google, which makes sense since the total package doesn’t really add up to what those companies are offering. I’d argue that the hardware and design are better than OnePlus’, but that the camera is a touch below that of the OnePlus 5 and the software experience similar, though it hasn’t been quite as fine-tuned as OnePlus’ phones nor does it have the extra customizations. Would I choose this phone over something like the OnePlus 5? Probably, and that’s because I love the hardware and design so much, plus I appreciate the ultra-bare-bones software. It also works on Verizon, unlike OnePlus phones. But I’d do so knowing that the camera experience is going to be somewhat frustrating, probably forever.
In the end, the Essential Phone is now a really solid phone, thanks to updates, at a heck of a price that has to be on your shortlist if your budget tops out at $500. Do I think you should choose this over the Pixel 2 or Note 8 or V30? Eh, probably not if you care about taking great photos. This might not be the worst camera in a smartphone, but it is no where near the top. If hardware is what you care about, then sure, you’ll be happy with your decision.