Sharp edge-to-edge screen. Super-smooth performance. Solid Wi-Fi. Very clean software build.
Poor call quality. Weak low-light camera performance. Lacks latest LTE features.
- Bottom Line
The Essential Phone PH-1 combines top-notch hardware and pure Android software for an amazing deal on Sprint, but its more costly unlocked model is a harder sell.
Editors' Note: Essential released a software update on August 18 that addresses camera and telephony issues. We are in the process of retesting the phone and will update our review accordingly.
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The Essential Phone PH-1, the first device from Android founder Andy Rubin's new startup, reminds me a little of OnePlus phones and a little of Apple's original iPhone. Like the OnePlus lineup, it has flagship specs at a potentially killer price, at least on its current promotion: $437.37 through Sprint. Like early iPhones, it's a better pocket computer than it is a phone, clearly made by a company without much experience in the realm of voice calling and cellular networks.
Sprint doesn't have any better devices near this price. But $699 for the unlocked model is a different story, and it's hard to justify the Essential's performance at that level. This makes our rating a little strange. Our 3.5-star conclusion splits the difference between the two price levels: this is a four-star phone at Sprint's price, but a three-star phone at the unlocked rate.
The Essential Phone is being sold two ways, at very different prices. Sprint is offering the phone for $14.58 per month on an 18-month Flex lease; if you want to buy the phone at the end, you pay an additional $174.93, for a total of $437.37, and you own it. In that context, this phone fits firmly into the 'midrange flagship' price category with the OnePlus 5 and ZTE Axon 7, although those phones don't work on Sprint.
Essential is selling an all-carrier-compatible unlocked model for $699, or $29.13 per month for 24 months. That's a much less compelling deal, on par with high-end flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the Google Pixel. At that price, Essential's going is much tougher, and we can't find the big selling point that tells you to get this phone and not those.
The Essential Phone is a solid, elegant, rather slippery slab. Its most striking feature is its essentially bezel-less screen, which runs right up against the top and sides of the phone, leaving just a little bit of bezel at the bottom.
That means elements normally at the top of the screen get a bit crowded. The front-facing camera actually creates a notch in the display, as you can see below. It doesn't affect app performance, because that's where the status bar is, but it's striking. The earpiece and alert LED are basically built into the top edge of the phone, facing forward. Like the most recent LG and Samsung flagships, the phone uses virtual home and navigation keys at the bottom of the screen.
The PH-1 measures 5.6 by 2.8 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs a solid 6.5 ounces, more than most of its competitors. Our model has a glass front and a mirrored black ceramic back. There's also a white model, with gray and blue-green versions coming soon.
The fingerprint scanner on the back is separate from the power button on the side. On the bottom, there's a single speaker, a USB-C port, and a SIM card slot. There's no headphone jack, but the phone comes with a USB-C-to-3.5mm dongle, as well as a USB-C cord with a quick-charging adapter.
Tall and thin displays are trendy now, and the Essential Phone's 5.7-inch screen features a unique 19:10 aspect ratio, which is narrower than older 16:9 phones, but not as tall and slim as Samsung's 18.5:9 Galaxy S8. At 2.8 inches wide, it's still usable with just one hand (barely). The 2,560-by-1,312-pixel resolution is unique as well, although third-party apps don't seem to have a problem with it.
The LCD has gorgeously rich colors—almost AMOLED-level—but isn't as bright as some of its competitors. Held side-by-side with the LG G6 and Galaxy S8, the G6 appears slightly brighter, and the Galaxy S8 is considerably less reflective, making it more easily visible outdoors.
Head to the back again to find something very intriguing: two shiny contacts that function as an I/O port for specialized accessories. The accessories snap on with magnets. The first one is a 360-degree camera, which we haven't yet tested, but is reminiscent of the Moto 360 Camera for Motorola's Moto Mod-compatible phones. A charging dock will follow. We're excited about the potential for accessories, but we're not going to recommend a phone based on accessories we haven't seen.
Android and Performance
As befits a phone from the creator of Android, the PH-1 runs a minimalist version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat, with all of Google's apps and no duplicates. Sprint adds two apps, My Sprint and Tidal, the latter of which you can delete. The very sparse Android build means it's going to be easier for Essential to offer software updates, and the company promises two years of Android updates.
Benchmarks do not properly describe how velvety smooth the Essential Phone's performance is. That said, the Essential Phone benchmarked slightly below other Snapdragon 835-powered devices like the Galaxy S8, HTC U11, and OnePlus 5 on the AnTuTu and PCMark benchmarks, which is odd, and which I have to chalk up to early firmware; given the clean software build, the screen resolution, and the processor, it shouldn't be any slower than those phones, and it certainly isn't in real-life use. The Essential scored 151,390 on AnTuTu and 6,521 on PCMark Work, while the Galaxy S8 scored 158,266 and 6,905 respectively.
I use the Samsung Galaxy S8 daily, and I love it (it's our Editors' Choice, after all). But it's widely understood that the Google Pixel's UI is just a touch smoother. The Essential Phone feels like a Pixel with an even faster processor, which is exactly what it is (the Pixel has a Snapdragon 821). Android apps perform gloriously, and scrolling couldn't be smoother. The phone does get noticeably hot when it's doing something intense like benchmarks, but that didn't seem to impact performance in our tests.
Out of 128GB, the phone has 116GB of available storage (there's no memory card slot, though) and 4GB of RAM. We're still in the process of testing its 3,040mAh battery, and will update this section as soon as we have a result.
Call Quality and Network
Here's where the Essential Phone disappoints. Call quality and LTE performance on Sprint's network just isn't what we expect of a flagship phone, a failure that sends me back to my memories of the first iPhone, which had similar issues.
I compared the Essential Phone with the LG G6 and Galaxy S8 on Sprint's network. On the Essential Phone, I got skips, dropouts, and a computery tone in calls that I didn't hear on the other devices. Transmissions through the mic often have a sort of hiss or fuzz behind them, and while the speakerphone and earpiece are both loud, they have a harsh tone that's less pleasant than the more rounded sound of the G6. The PH-1 does, however, support VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling on networks that use those features.
The phone's physical design also makes calling feel a little odd. Because the earpiece is all the way at the top, the audio sweet spot is up there with it, which means you need to place the phone lower on your ear than you're probably used to.
The PH-1 has frequency bands to work on every US carrier, and Essential says the $699 unlocked model will work with the big four in the US. But side-by-side speed test performance on Sprint's network fell short of the LG G6, and is likely to fall short of the Galaxy S8 and Moto Z2 Force as well, because the phone is missing key network features. It has 3x carrier aggregation, but not 4×4 MIMO or Sprint's HPUE coverage extender.
In 10 tests across a range of network conditions, the Essential Phone averaged 10.05Mbps down where the LG G6 averaged 21.94Mbps. Just as importantly, the G6 was faster than the Essential Phone 80 percent of the time.
This, by the way, is why I tend to be skeptical of cell phone startups. Voice quality, LTE, and RF front-end are still a type of black magic, and they're very hard for beginners to get right. I'd argue it took until the iPhone 4S for Apple to really nail them, and that was the phone's fifth iteration.
Essential is on more solid ground with LAN technologies. The phone supports dual-band 802.11ac, and tested against a Galaxy S8, it proved to be a hair better in weak Wi-Fi conditions. Bluetooth 5.0 is also present, as is NFC, and both work just fine.
Camera and Image Quality
The Essential Phone comes with dual 13-megapixel lenses on the back, one color and one monochrome, as well as an 8MP front-facing shooter. The dual cameras are a Qualcomm Clear Sight setup designed to improve contrast and low-light performance. Clear Sight takes advantage of the fact that without a color filter, a camera's lens can capture more light. So the black-and-white lens captures fine detail, and the color sensor then fills in the colors.
Initial performace is pretty good, but I suspect camera quality is going to get dramatically better with firmware updates. In good lighting conditions, the Essential takes photos that might even rival the Galaxy S8, our favorite camera phone. Its dynamic range is better, delivering truer shadow areas while not stinting on brighter parts of the picture.
But something software-wise is wrong with low-light performance. It's much worse than I expect from an f/1.8 camera, and shows no Clear Sight advantage at all. In poorly lit conditions, photos taken with the PH-1 are practically blacked out, while with the Galaxy S8 they're just dim—this could make a big difference to your nightlife photos. Dropping to monochrome mode improves low-light performance, but then you get black-and-white photos. There's also, surprisingly, no bokeh or portrait mode, which you get on most dual-camera phones.
The camera app itself can also use some work. For starters, it doesn't seem to show exposure accurately—I thought dark areas of my photos would be underexposed, and was pleasantly surprised when I looked at the actual photos and they weren't. It's also noticeably slower to save photos than the Galaxy S8 is.
Images taken with the front camera are par for the course for a high-end smartphone. Low-light performance is boosted by the default 'selfie flash,' which flashes the screen before it takes an image. In very low light, images get a little noisy, but stay sharp.
The rear cameras record 4K video at 30 frames per second in even low light, and the front camera records smooth 1080p video at 30 frames per second.
Comparisons and Conclusions
The Essential Phone is a good first try. It usually takes new manufacturers a few models to get the tricky parts of phone-making right. Essential is well-funded, and if it iterates quickly, it could be a strong competitor.
But the Essential Phone PH-1 is a version 1.0, a first phone from a brand-new company, and it shows. It may be a physically smooth slab of glass and titanium with powerful hardware, but from a software perspective, it's still rough around the edges. Hopefully, firmware updates can improve camera and voice performance. At $699 unlocked, though, we can't recommend this over the Google Pixel, the Samsung Galaxy S8, or the presumably upcoming Pixel 2.
But Sprint's current price promotion changes a lot, especially if voice quality doesn't matter that much to you. At $437, the PH-1 is practically a steal. Especially when you consider the similarly priced OnePlus 5 and ZTE Axon 7 don't work on Sprint's network, the Essential beats the year-old and midrange phones you'll get from the carrier in the $200 to $400 range. So if you're buying the phone on Sprint, increase the score you see at the top of the page by another half star.
PCMag.com's lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He's the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta. Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed… More »
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