Maxim Leonovich

@pacavaca

Not so Essential phone

TL; DR Don’t buy it unless you have a strong reason.

Nexus 6P and Essential PH-1

My Nexus 6P is two years old and, as every Android, becoming slower and slower. The battery has degraded too, and now the phone is not holding even half a day of moderate usage. I usually change the phone every two years, and a few weeks ago I started looking for a new one. I’ve had a bad experience with the vendor (Samsung) tweaks in the past, so the stock Android was the must for me. Pixel phones were still a month or two away when I suddenly found the Essential Phone.

The website promised a very attractive looking device with almost a stock Android and some unseen before titanium + ceramic body. They were also selling a cool 360 camera which, for $50, I thought would be nice to have. I like taking 360 photos and the only tool I used so far was the cardboard camera app. I didn’t care about a headphone jack, and a water resistance I never had before anyway. The phone just went on sale, so all the (pre-) reviews on YouTube were positive and I quickly got sold on it. I placed my order and started to wait.

Most of the new products experience shipping delays, so I didn’t have much hope getting it anytime soon. Meanwhile, first people received their phones, and disturbing news started appearing here and there. They were all about the camera. The phone features a dual sensor camera, which is supposed to produce better pictures by combining a regular photo with a sharper black & white version of it from a second sensor. Unfortunately, people were reporting much worse than expected picture quality and everyone was complaining about the camera app. I started to worry. The camera is something that I use every day, and I got used to excellent quality pictures produced by my Nexus 6P. Nexus camera has been particularly great in the low-light, and that’s where Essential’s lacked the most. People were also unhappy about the camera app quality.

Somehow, though, that ends up making the Essential Phone’s camera one of the slowest I’ve ever used. I can forgive a somewhat slow camera app as long as the results are decent, but with Essential, there’s no excuse. That’s especially true when this is literally the only app the company had to work on to get this phone ready for launch. Hopefully, this will all improve with time.
(from 9to5google.com)

To start using a non-Google phone, I had to move away from a Google Project Fi, and that was another sacrifice. The next cheapest option was T-Mobile. T-Mobile ONE is significantly more expensive, and it is a post-paid plan (requires a credit check and a long term commitment). Of course, it’s “unlimited”, but I was rarely going out of 2Gb on Fi, because most of the time I’m on WiFi. T-Mobile also lacked an automatic Google Voice integration, and altogether it seemed like a downgrade for a higher price. Still, I went ahead and ordered two sim-cards for me and for my wife.

My phone was still not shipped, and I learned another “not so good” thing — it uses a regular LCD, not a superior (AM)OLED. At this point, it was evident to me that I’m paying $700+ for barely an upgrade and in many places a downgrade from my two years old Nexus 6P. I’ve ordered a replacement battery for my old phone and attempted to cancel an Essential order for the first time. That’s where things started to get weird. First of all, I was not able to create an account on their website — social login was broken, although the Facebook one went half way through. Signing up with an email was also not possible because the account with my email got pre-created during a failed Facebook login. The return policy was suggesting that I had to call support anyways. So, I dialed 888–444–2222 (fancy, ha?) for the first time. I expected a usual robot to great me, but I didn’t expect it to act as a voicemail. It asked me to leave my name and my phone number and promised to call me back. This was strange, but I still left a message. In a few hours nobody called back, so I dialed again and left another message — no response. Next day I found a support form, sent a cancellation request, got an automated acknowledgment from Zendesk and… silence. I tried to ping their representative on Twitter — no response. Meanwhile, this happened. As others noted, at this point Essential looked more like a Kickstarter project, struggling to deliver any results, rather than a billion dollar company, founded by a Godfather of Android.

Finally, my phone got shipped and delivered, and below is a brief overview and comparison to Nexus 6P.

The build

I’ll skip the packaging and accessories, I don’t really care about them. The first thing you notice is the build. The build is the strongest (and possibly the only strong) feature of this phone. It is very heavy, feels like you are holding a piece of metal in your hand. It is smaller than 6P, but the display is actually a little bit longer, thanks to the bezel-less design. The top of the screen looks fantastic in the apps that support using it and especially on the home screen. The camera hole is not a problem too, it doesn’t overlap with anything important.

It looks much better IRL

The screen

The screen is actually fine. Blacks are obviously better on the Nexus 6P and Nexus looks better at night, but other than that I have no complaints about the screen. The significant drawback is that (AM)OLED screens are required for the phone to be Daydream ready and that’s a bummer. I won’t be able to order a headset from Google and enjoy a better quality VR. How am I supposed to view photos from a 360 camera after all?
Some people report that the touch sometimes misses your fingers and you have to tap multiple times. I don’t think I’m noticing it much, but something is there. Most probably it’s tweak-able through software later though. The picture below illustrates what I’m talking about.

Dots were supposed to be strokes, but the sensor didn’t recognize them

The performance

I installed all the apps I had on my Nexus and PH-1 performs significantly better. One of the crappiest apps I use is the Skype. On 6P it periodically hangs for a few seconds and overall feels very sluggish. On the new phone, it’s very swift. Also, despite having a smaller battery, it’s holding the charge better than my old phone. All the recent flagships feature similar hardware specs, so I expect them all to perform similarly well. No worries, after a year any Android phone will feel slower, and after two, you will want to replace it. That’s how it works.

The uglier part

As everybody knows, the camera is the weakest point of this smartphone. A lot of it is due to software. You can find a custom APK with the Google camera app, used on Pixel phones, and see for yourself that the software actually does all the magic. The camera app provided by Essential is trash, so at the very least, you will have to use some other app, that is not officially supported and can not take advantage of the second sensor. Let’s take a look at some pictures.
In the day light, the Essential camera is fine. Google app performs slightly better and on par with Nexus 6P.

The default camera photo is a bit more blurry, but overall not too bad

The magic of the Google’s post-processing begins in the low-light conditions. Here’s the same scene, taken with the Essential and Nexus phones, using a Google camera:

Nexus clearly wins here

And here’s the same scene shot with the Essential’s camera app:

And that’s how bad is the default app

Here’s another night picture:

Google camera wins

A significant difference, right? You can interpolate how the image quality will change with the amount of light on the scene. Half, if not the most, of my pictures I take in the low-light, so I think that the Essential’s camera performance is just unacceptable. Using a Google camera makes it perform almost as good as the one in the Nexus, but after two years of evolution and for more $$, I would expect something better. There’s a slight chance that Essential can improve their own app and make a good use of the second sensor, but given my experience so far, I don’t quite believe in that. It feels like the company has a lot of other problems to fight and software engineering may not even be the primary focus. I can, of course, keep using the Google camera, but why not to buy Pixel then?

The 360 camera is still on the way, but some people have already received it. Their experience is again, so-so. You can find a sample photo in this CNBC article. It didn’t impress me at all. Again, for 360 you need a lot of software, and Essential doesn’t feel like a software company.

A bit more

A few more drawbacks for me are the lack of waterproofing and a strange case situation. As I said, I’ve never had a waterproof phone before, but I ski a lot in the winter, and my phone is always wet. So, having some assurance that it’s safe wouldn’t hurt. The other thing is that I use a magnetic phone holder in my car and it’s really convenient. It’s small, and I can snap my phone on it very quickly, without dealing with cumbersome springs and rubbers. The only thing is that I have to keep a small metal plate on my phone. I usually put it under the phone’s case. With Essential, however, it doesn’t make any sense to use the case, as the phone will immediately lose its beauty. But without the case, I will lose a day-to-day convenience, not so good.

Now the ugliest part

The support — it just doesn’t exist. I keep calling their number every day, leaving the voice message, and nobody is calling me back. I submitted a support form one more time and tried to bug the Twitter person once again — no response. I really want to return the phone, and these things are driving me crazy. There’s a 15 days return period, and if after a 10th day I won’t hear back from them, I will file a dispute with my credit card issuer. Right now it all feels more like a scam, rather than smooth buying experience from a trusted vendor.

UPD:

The support finally reached out to me (after 5 days). They apologized for the inconvenienced and said that they are experiencing a lot of technical problems right now. I still think I’ll better return the phone, even though I really like the build.

UPD2:

It’s now been 11 days since I first contacted Essential support regarding the return. I’ve got an email response asking for details 5 days laters. I’ve sent them all the details right away and… silence. Yesterday I’ve pinged them again and got this in response:

Hi Maxim,
Thank you for your response. You can expect to receive a call from us within the next 3–5 business days to finalize the return process and confirm your information.
Essential Phone is a beautiful device that we can confidently say will exceed your expectations, should you choose to reconsider in the future. Thank you for your time and have a wonderful day!

3–5 more days and I’m not even sure if they’re going to contact me at all. Terrible, terrible support experience.

Summary

Google (Huawei) Nexus 6P went on sale two years ago with the starting price of $500. It served me for two years and proved to be an excellent device. It still receives Android updates and features a superb camera, capable of taking photos literally with no light. Essential costs $700 and has a few improvements over the 6P (the body and the performance). However, it also has several significant drawbacks and clearly doesn’t stand up to the competition. For $700 you get a device, that is barely (if at all) better than your old one and a ton of frustration. So, I think it’s not worth buying it unless you have a very specific reason (like you are a strong company supporter or want to develop an Essential-only app). I understand that Essential is a new company and it’s their first product, and nothing can be good on the first attempt. But then I don’t understand the pricing, it really should be priced as a mid-range device, and then all the buyers will be more than happy.

P.S.

I didn’t complain about the headphone jack, just because it so happened I have a Bluetooth headset.
Also here’s a link to a subreddit, where you can find lots of different opinions. Some people actually like it.

And yeah, I know how it feels on the launch day, but customer support is still kind of essential.

UPD3: 360 camera

While I’m battling with the support, the 360 camera has finally arrived. I played with it for an hour and I think I don’t want this toy too. 360 concept is cool, I like the idea that it captures everything around me, I like the magnetic attachment, but the picture quality, I just can’t enjoy it. It reminds me of my Sonny Ericsson phone cameras that I had in high school. Also, the Essential camera app — it has only 4 buttons in 360 mode and it’s still so easy to make it completely freeze. Unfortunately, unlike the main camera, it’s unlikely that the 360 camera can work with any other app. Below are some photo samples.

Not so low light
Low light
Uploading 360 videos on YouTube is not very straightforward

I could bear with video quality but photos are just terrible IMHO.

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