The Essential Phone is a beautiful alternative to Apple's iPhone

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
The Essential Phone, arriving next week, is the latest creation of Android creator Andy Rubin. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

It’s tough out there for a new phone, but if anyone has a chance at releasing one that grabs people’s attention, it’s Andy Rubin.

In September 2008, Rubin’s team at Google (GOOG, GOOGL) launched Android, the wildly successful mobile operating system now running on more than 85% of smartphones worldwide. Unlike Apple’s (AAPL) walled-garden approach to its iPhone OS, Android remains free, stable and open-source so any mobile-phone maker can use it in its phones and build its own user interface on top of it, something Samsung has done with its Samsung Experience software.

The Essential Phone is a fusion of titanium and ceramics. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

With the Essential Phone, the first product to emerge from Essential, a company incubated in Rubin’s Playground Global, the 54-year-old serial entrepreneur wanted to release a powerful, slick phone that served as a veritable blank slate for the consumer. To wit, there’s no branding or logos anywhere on the outside of the device, and while the Essential Phone runs on Android, there are no extra apps or software layers to bog things down.  

For $699 without a cell phone contract — or $749 with a 360-degree camera also designed by the company — the Essential Phone is priced in the same ballpark as its competitors but sports a few unique quirks and improvements that help the device stand apart.

The case

The Essential Phone feels luxurious in your hand. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

The first thing you’ll notice about the Essential Phone? It’s damn sleek. A fusion of titanium and ceramics, the glossy phone is a minimalist’s dream. While there are countless black smartphones on the market, few of them manage to feel as luxurious or premium in your hands as the Essential Phone, which ships next week in a “Black Moon” color. An additional three flavors — including “Pure White,” “Stellar Grey” and “Ocean Depths” — are coming soon.

That screen

The Essential Phone’s screen runs all the way to the top and wraps around the front-facing camera. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

One of the Essential Phone’s most striking features is its screen: a 5.7-inch display that runs all the way to top of the phone and wraps around an 8-megapixel camera in front. It’s a nice touch and sparked several conversations here in the Sunnyvale, California, offices. But for now, it’s more of a novelty, given that much of the time that extra sliver of screen is often filled with small icons like the battery status and cell signal.

Essential President Niccolo De Masi told Yahoo Finance his company reached out to the top 100 Android app developers to help them update their apps to take advantage of that extra screen space. So that situation could change in the months to come as developers come to terms with this new phone.

Otherwise, the Essential Phone’s screen is supposed to be one of the sharpest screens around, and indeed, YouTube trailers for “Guardians to the Galaxy 2” and “Wonder Woman” showed off vibrant colors — red, green and blue hues that popped off the screen — and excellent contrast.

Power and performance

The Essential Phone is powered by a Qualcomm 835 processor with eight cores, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of built-in storage. Translation: it’s ridiculously fast.

One of the Essential Phones’ biggest selling points is that it runs Android without any “bloatware” — no extra apps or software installed by the manufacturer or the carrier. Paired with that Qualcomm processor and RAM, getting around this Android handset is a swift, nearly instantaneous experience, where apps briskly load on your screen with a sense of urgency. The only noticeable lag I found was a software bug (see “Those Cameras”).  

Battery life on the Essential Phone is a non-issue. Starting my day around 6:45 a.m., I still had a 35% charge on my phone come bedtime — and that’s after a day filled with several hours of obsessively checking Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), Snapchat (SNAP) and email, plus watching several YouTube videos and making a few quick calls.

Those cameras

The Essential Phone’s back is brand- and logo-less. Up top, you’ll notice the dual cameras. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

The other distinguishing feature on the Essential Phone? A two-camera system on the back. Every time you take a photo, the phone actually snaps two images — one in color, the other in black and white, or “mono” — and blends them together to create a final image that’s supposed to be sharper and richer than most of the competition. I didn’t notice significantly sharper photos, but many photos did display excellent contrast. Colors were rich and dark, even in low-light conditions like an underground parking garage.

My only beef? A buggy camera app. Sometimes there’s a noticeable lag when you snap a photo and the phone blends the color and monochrome shots together. That issue becomes annoying if you’re trying to quickly snap several photos back to back. You can easily switch to a photo option that doesn’t use both cameras, but then you end up with photos that aren’t as rich.

The Essential Phone’s photos have excellent color accuracy and contrast. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

The camera app has another, even more annoying bug. A shortcut at the bottom of the camera app to Google Photos disappeared completely at times, which meant if I wanted to check out the photos I took a few seconds ago, I had to switch to the Google Photos app. The company promises both issues will be improved before consumers get their phones.

Is the Essential Phone … essential?

Rubin’s latest creation has many things going for it: a competitive price, one of the most gorgeous industrial designs in the Android universe, lightning speed and a clean, purist approach to software that works — outside of one or two bugs.

But it’s 2017; not 2008. And since Rubin unleashed Android, hundreds, if not thousands, of Android devices have flooded the market sporting competitive price tags and features “good enough” to satisfy most people. That’s a lot of competition, even if you’re the godfather of Android.

So, is the Essential Phone “essential”? We’ll probably see more devices over the next year, including the iPhone 8, with screens and features somewhat comparable to Rubin’s brainchild. But if you’re a minimalist-loving aesthete who enjoys how your phone looks just as much as it runs, take the plunge.

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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