Should you be excited about the Essential Phone from the co-creator of Android?

When the co-creator of the Android operating system announces a smartphone, you pay attention. Andy Rubin recently introduced the Essential Phone, a bid to give the iterative smartphone market as much of a jolt as Android itself did.

It’s touted a bold vision for a modular phone that can futureproof your next purchase. The father of Android is onto something when he says he wants the Essential Phone to evolve with you over years.

The ex-Google executive could pick up the modular pieces of Google’s failed Project Ara phone, and give us a flagship-level device that doesn’t need to be fully upgraded every other year. Rubin’s could do for hardware with mods what he did for software with Android customizations a decade ago.

But the Essential Phone could also easily become another also-ran handset, one with trendy idea masked by a recognizable name. It’s hard to go up against the likes of Apple, Samsung and Google, even for Rubin.

Let’s take a closer look at the Essential Phone and its chances of actually becoming essential.

Specced like your average flagship

On paper, the Essential Phone specs impress, but fail to set themselves apart. It has 4GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 835 chipset, 3040mAh battery with fast charging, and a standard 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage. 

Everything here is good, especially when crammed inside an impressively low-profile body. But being thin has been in vogue forever, and the Snapdragon 835 chipset has now become a must for a new flagship Android phone. 

You don’t have to look far to find a half-dozen other flagship phones boasting nearly the same innards. It even omits a 3.5mm headphone jack to show how perfectly in line it is with today’s most controversial smartphone design trend.

So, it’s not a flagship killer, it’s just a flagship. That doesn’t read as ‘essential’, and it’s probably better that Essential not try to copy OnePlus’s schtick. 

It attempts to show that it’s a leader in a few ways, like with its unique accessory pins and the nearly bezel-free design. But if those features don’t matter to you, it’s just another member of the herd of powerful, premium phones.

The nearly special screen

The Essential Phone’s screen stands out – almost. A year ago, the 19:10 display on the Essential Phone would have blown people away. Bezels were abound on smartphones, and every company was competing to hide them, either by making theirs narrower or more elegant. 

In true 2017-style, the Essential Phone comes very close to being completely bezel-free. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first phone to sport a screen that occupied the majority of the phone’s face. The Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6 and Xiaomi Mi Mix already beat it to the punch.

Even so, the Essential Phone’s screen has a resolution of 2,560 x 1,312 and is covered with Corning Gorilla Glass 5, so it should stand proudly among the pack of 2017 flagship phones. The problem is, it just seems to be checking off the aspects of a flagship that other smartphone manufacturers have already deemed to be essential.

Bloatware beware?

In a blog post, Andy Rubin described why he started Essential, and one reason in particular stood out as it related to bloatware. His post says, “devices are your personal property. We won’t force you to have anything on them you don’t want to have.”  Reading into this a little, it sounds like the phones are going to come with stock Android installed, or something close to it.

Funny enough, Rubin then mentioned that an Essential-specific virtual assistant -- much like Siri, Bixby, Alexa, or Google Assistant -- would arrive with the phone. Details on that are limited, but some might see that as bloatware if it comes pre-installed. 

In an interview, Rubin expressed some concerns about partnering with mobile network carriers, as they often load their own bloatware into the phones they sell. However, Rubin also hopes to distribute the phone through brick and mortar retailers, which could mean retail versions of the Essential Phone loaded with mobile carriers’ software or even carrier-locked models.

It remains to be seen how Rubin’s software principles manifest, but a lack of bloatware and freedom to delete any pre-installed apps could set the Essential Phone apart from a lot of the pack, making it more similar to a Google Pixel or a rooted Android experience in some regards. 

Tougher than the competition

One thing the Essential Phone seems to be declaring as essential is durability. The company proudly points out that its phone has a frame is made of titanium. Many smartphone manufacturers are turning to aluminum frames to give their phones a solid body and a premium feel while keeping the price down. 

Titanium is harder and less bendable than aluminum, so it will show less damage from falls and handle more stress before getting twisted out of shape. The above image shows the Essential Phone atop two aluminum framed smartphones, presumably all have been dropped, and only the aluminum phones show signs of damage. The Essential Phone also has a ceramic back, which is extremely durable, allows radio signals to pass through and maintains a premium feel all around. 

The Essential Phone appears to have an upper hand in materials. Ceramic has shown up on smartphones before, notably on the OnePlus X, but titanium smartphones are not an everyday sight. Committing to a tough smartphone is a great move on Essential’s part, as fragility should not be an essential aspect of a smartphone. Unfortunately there are no details on water resistance yet, and the Gorilla Glass 5 screen’s durability will be another matter.

Three cutting-edge cameras

Dual-camera smartphones have been popping up for a while – some tasked with capturing 3D images, some combining photographic metadata from the two sensors for a more detailed shot, and others allowing you to shoot in a variety of unique styles. 

Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus wasn’t the first to with a dual-lens camera, but it’s gotten the most attention for the feature. As such, we’re probably not going to see the dual-camera arrangement go away too soon and Essential Phone fully embraces the idea.

What does it do exactly? Essential claims its dual 13MP cameras setup will allow “200% more light than traditional phone cameras.” Since dark settings are notoriously difficult for smartphone cameras, more light can’t hurt. With a lot of people relying solely on a phone as their primary camera, ensuring quality photography should be essential to a premium smartphone formula, and Essential seems to get that with the inclusion of this feature.

The 8MP, 4K-capable selfie camera on the front stands out – for better or worse – as it cuts right into the screen real estate at the top of the phone. It won’t block most of the information in the Android notification bar in the end and 16:9 video playback on the 19:10 screen aspect ratio won’t even extend to the edges anyway. It’s a small price to pay for a 4K front-facing camera.

A connector for the non-essentials

Perhaps where the Essential Phone stands out most is in its approach to non-essential features. On the back of the phone, there is a special connector where accessories can magnetically attach and function wirelessly with the phone. To start, Essential is releasing a small 360-degree camera attachment and a wireless charging dock. 

Motorola has done something similar with its Moto Mods on the Moto Z and likely Moto Z2, which have various attachments that enhance or add new functionality to the phone, such as a pico projector or an optical zoom camera. 

Here’s what’s different about the Essential Phone approach: the connecter is small and attachments don’t have to conform to the dimensions of the phone, meaning future models of the Essential Phone can have wildly different designs and earlier accessories will still work.

Rubin stated in the above interview that the accessory connector technology would be open source, which suggests that the ability to add or enhance functionality should be essential to smartphones. The accessory connector fits in with Rubin’s belief that “devices shouldn’t become outdated every year. They should evolve with you.” The Essential site even says the connector is meant to keep the phone “future-proof, and always up-to-date.”

This could be the key feature of the Essential Phone that sets it apart from the highly competitive crowd it’s set to enter. Though the accessory connector is about non-essential features, it seems the idea is that it will allow the phone to incorporate new features almost as soon as users and manufacturers start to deem them essential.

So, essentially, how does it stand?

The success of Essential hinges on how well Andy Rubin and his new team actually execute this first project. With no previous phone models, there’s little to suggest how well the new company will put together this phone and give users adequate support. 

The new phone has all the features and specs a modern flagship smartphones needs. It checks a lot of boxes, and aside from predictable complaints about the front-facing camera cutting into the screen, many will even find the design aesthetically pleasing. It’s titanium and ceramic body appear to be a solid match. The issue here is that it does little to distinguish itself from the already crowded flagship market currently dominated by Apple and Samsung.

The wireless accessory port has a lot of potential, especially for users that want customization options with their phone. The promise of this feature unfortunately depends heavily on how well Essential sells the phone and draws third-party support. 

What’s the outlook on its modular accessories future? Rubin said Essential would make a few of its own attachments, but an accessory port that can support an endless variety of attachments won’t truly shine if only a handful of accessories are ever made. We’ve seen that play out unsuccessfully with the LG G5.

The Essential Phone may go one of two ways. This is either going to be a Moto Z competitor with even more versatility, or another LG G5-like misfire, which launched with a lot of promise and ended up with two modular accessories. We’ll know more later this month.