Essential Phone Thoughts

After a few delays and some angry tweets (sorry Essential!) I received my Essential Phone and have been ecstatically putting it through its paces. It’s a gorgeous device and a solid Android phone. Here are my thoughts so far.

The good

Gorgeous hardware

This thing is beautiful. And not just aesthetically, but also the feel of the materials and the solidity of the device truly put it in a league of its own. It’s a phone that you want to hold in your hand, because it feels and looks so nice that the weight of it just seems enticing.

This may sound romanticized, but I really haven’t held any consumer electronics device that comes close to triggering the emotional response when picked up that the Essential does.

Beautiful screen

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but man this thing is beautiful. Looking at the Essential next to a Pixel with their screens on really makes the Pixel look out-of-date.

The camera notch really blends away, given that it’s so tiny compared to the width of the screen. In landscape, apps are letter-boxed automatically in a way that the top and bottom bezels of the phone seem to roughly match. Apps that support the translucent status bar API from the release of KitKat generally work without a hitch — the way Essential did this is by making the status bar area the height of the notch. This basically means that app compatibility “just works” (mostly, more on that below).

With the Essential you get a 5.7 inch display in a body with almost identical dimensions to the smaller Pixel. For me, this is the best size combo out there.

Amazing battery life

This thing’s battery life is awesome. People say the Pixel has great battery life, but I typically only get 6–7 hours at most out of it without running to find a charger. The Essential Phone seems to predict around two days of real world battery life based on my heavy usage, which is seriously impressive for a phone with a display this size (and non-OLED to boot).

The bad

Camera is 💩

There’s no nice way to say this — the camera is bad.

The camera app from Essential, specifically, is really bad. It’s slow to open, slow to take a photo, and freezes often when you try to take a photo. The photos you do get are, in my opinion, not really acceptable after spending a year with the Google Pixel’s camera. The imagery ends up looking much noisier and less clear than photos from other leading smartphones.

I ended up quickly switching over the Google Camera. The software ran much smoother and had no freezing issues when firing off bursts and multiple shots. And the quality ended up being better than those from the Essential camera app as well, pretty consistently in my experience. Unfortunately, the same noise and clarity issues (to a lesser degree) were consistent across the photos I took as compared to with my Pixel.

Minor touch screen issues

I’d read about this, but convinced myself this couldn’t be an issue in a flagship 2017 phone, but… unfortunately it is.

In social media apps and so forth, it’s easy to dismiss an unregistered tap as having scrolled a little bit, or whatever, so I didn’t really notice this at first. When I actually took notice was when I fired up Clash Royale for the first time and lost due to my perfectly-timed defensive tap doing nothing and losing the game because of it.

Another thing I’ve run into is that slide-out navigation drawers occasionally do not respond to a left-edge-swipe. This seems to happen more often than not when switching into an app that was already running and immediately trying to swipe the menu, but it seems inconsistent. Usually it is fixed just by scrolling the view a little bit, and trying again. I thought this, too, was in my head at first, but the consistency with which I try to swipe out a left menu and it fails leads me to believe otherwise.

I think you could probably live with this, in general usage, but it is definitely quite annoying. I hope that Essential can fix this through software, but it’s not really clear what the issue is.

Everything in-between

Pure Android

To be honest, even as an Android fan and developer, I’m not really sure what “Pure Android” means anymore. It used to be that Google’s Nexus phones would run a clean version of Android (which I thought was easily usable enough for the mass public), and other manufacturers would butcher the OS with bloatware leaving it an slow, ugly mess. But nowadays, honestly all the manufacturer skins have been scaled way back and most additions are actually quite useful — including ones Google has put exclusively on it’s Pixel phones.

The biggest one of these, for me, is the fingerprint reader swipe. I already rely on this heavily, and almost exclusively, on my Pixel. With the Essential, getting at the notifications is even a little bit tricker since the “top of the screen” is effectively the top edge of the device, making it further from your thumb. As a side note to Essential, it’d be awesome if when apps get letterboxed you could swipe from the bottom of the letterbox, but that doesn’t work :-\

Charging indicators… but why?

The biggest mystery to me is why Essential spent a whole lot of time on stuff that, in reality, doesn’t matter at all.

As you probably have seen on Twitter already, the powered down charging animation of a coffee cup being filled with battery bars is pretty cool.

They also made it so when the phone is on and charging, the battery icon in the status bar animates. This one I actually take stronger offense to, since from a utility perspective, this means I cannot see what the battery charge actually is at a glance — I need to actually swipe down the quick tiles to see the % which is annoying AF.

I don’t mind either of these, but really why would you spend time on this when the camera app is literally unusable?

App compatibility

As I said above, I think the approach they took to handling the camera notch works really well out of the box. There are a few issues that discerning users may notice, so I thought I’d call out my experience with those.

One caveat of the approach Essential took is that while it should have just worked for every app perfectly out-of-the-box, unfortunately the KitKat translucent status bar API is a pain in the ass to adopt properly. So in reality you get a peculiar mix of apps that usually have colored/translucent status bars but oddly get letterboxed on the Essential and then some others that work perfectly as you’d expect. In reality, this is not a big deal – the worst of the worst is that Spotify has an extra ~48dp of padding at the top of the entire app.

Animation jank

This one is gonna be annoying. Almost all the apps I use which have any sort of fancy animations (most social media apps) are gonna have weird positioning issues. For example, the position of the circles in Instagram Stories jumps and animates to and from a position above where the actual circle is in the UI.

This, again, is just an artifact of compatibility and the kinks may be ironed out both on the app developer side and on Essential’s side.

Conclusion

This is a phone that I really, really want to keep. I want to have it in my pocket, and hold it in my hand, and use the gorgeous screen… But I just can’t live with this camera as my go-to. With the amount of pictures I take, and the smartphone as ultimately the most-used and most convenient camera of all time, I don’t feel comfortable relying on the Essential Phone camera everyday.

I’ll be returning the Essential and looking elsewhere for my bezel-less fix, probably the Pixel XL 2 or the iPhone X.

Unfortunately, I feel like Essential got nearly everything right with this phone, except the most essential thing for a lot of customers — the camera.

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