Stop me if you’ve heard this one. An Android phone maker comes along with a hot new premium handset that promises to deliver everything we’ve always wanted: speed, good looks, and performance. This time around it’s Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone, the latest handset vying for hundreds of your hard-earned dollars with the promise of offering the most complete Android experience around.
But for all of its flashy features and pretty curves, the Essential Phone will likely face the same uphill battles encountered by other unlocked phones: namely an OS that doesn’t stay fresh, a gimmicky ecosystem that falls short of its promise, and limited carrier support.
It also lacks a headphone jack.
Rubin’s new phone may be a gorgeous, advanced piece of tech, but it still risks falling into the same pitfalls that took down many a hyped Android phone. And while Rubin might be selling Essential as something different, it has a tough row to hoe if it hopes to avoid them.
The Essential Phone is presented as a prototype from the future, but the truth is we’ve seen these gimmicks before, with varying results. The magnetic modular connector was a bust for the LG G5 but slightly more successful on the Moto Z. The thin, asymmetrical bezel makes it look something like the Mi Mix (though I can’t stop wondering why it needed to force that weird camera cutout). Even the dual camera system, which Essential claims is the world’s thinnest, is fairly ho-hum these days.
But what’s most interesting is the companion home speaker. The renders we’ve seen look fantastic, and Essential says the speaker automatically connects to new and existing devices. It will also support Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa, making it seem like the home speaker to rule them all.
But while all the makings of an Essential ecosystem are ready to go on paper, all we have are promises. There isn’t a firm release date for the phone (though Rubin hopes to ship it within 30 days), and just a single mod is currently available for pre-order. And without a price or even a vague launch window, the Home speaker is even further away from release than the phone. I’m not implying that the Essential Phone is going to be vaporware, but if Rubin’s name wasn’t attached I’d be extremely skeptical. Between the phone, the high-priced mod, and the home speaker that seems too good to be true, it’s hard to not see shades of LeEco in Essential. Creating an ecosystem from the ground up is no easy task, and Essential might be biting off more than it can chew here.
A band apart
There’s a reason why the Galaxy S phones are far and away the most popular in the Android universe: availability. Walk into any carrier or major retail store and you’ll see a big display for the Galaxy S8 (usually right next to the iPhone), something you won’t find for the Pixel.
Android enthusiasts may seek out unlocked phones, but the vast majority of consumers still buy their phones from brick-and-mortar carrier shops. And while Essential claims that its phone will work across all carriers, it remains to be seen how far that extends beyond the ability to make phone calls. Wireless providers are already cautioning against full support for the Essential.
If you’re spending $700 on a new phone, you’re going to want some assurances that it will work as intended on your network. Rubin has said he wants to bring broad carrier support, but so do the Huaweis and Xiaomis of the world, and they’ve been stymied for years. If an unlocked phone made by Google struggles to make a dent in the market without broad carrier support, it’s hard to imagine Essential cracking that code, even with all the right bands.
The great unknowns
For all the attention it gets, there’s a lot about the Essential Phone that we don’t know. The biggest question is battery life. With a 3,040mAh battery, it’s around the same size as the Galaxy S8’s, but Essential doesn’t tout any battery-life claims on its site. In fact, it’s surprisingly mum on its battery, and you have to hit up the spec sheet to learn anything about it.
But the biggest unknown is the OS. Like the battery, there’s nary a mention of it on the Essential site, simply saying it runs Android in the System Architecture/OS section of the specifications page. Rubin has said in interviews that the Essential Phone will run a version of Nougat 7.1.1 that’s “pure as the driven snow, with no bloatware or customized interface,” which sounds fantastic. But what about updates? Will the Essential Phone get Android O around the same time that the Pixel does? Will Essential take Google’s lead and finally bring speedy updates and smooth performance to a third-party phone?
The Pixel changed the game when it came to Android updates. Google’s engineering prowess made its first phone a beautiful marriage of hardware and software, and we’ve yet to see a handset that can rival it in terms of OS performance. That alone could make the Essential Phone the best Android phone around, but it’s a tall order to think that a start-up phone maker can get it right (even one helmed by Rubin), especially when heavyweights like LG and Samsung have struggled so mightily.
For everything that Essential is promising with its new phone, there’s one thing you won’t get: a headphone jack. Instead you’ll get a USB-C dongle, a la the iPhone 7.
Apple may have been able to get away this (although sales of the handset haven’t exactly been robust), but it’s just one more unnecessary hurdle for the Essential Phone to overcome. And if other Android phones are any indication, customers aren’t buying it. For example, HTC took a similar tack with its U series of phones, but even with superior sound, the U Ultra didn’t exactly fly off shelves. Essential doesn’t offer any rhyme or reason for removing the jack (not even a fancy bit of rhetoric), so presumably it’s strictly for the sake of simplicity.
And that’s one thing Essential has in spades. From the lack of a logo to the barely-there bezel, Rubin’s latest project is certainly a thing a beauty, looking like a work of art in the renders. But the question remains: If it can’t solve at least some of these issues, is another problematic premium Android phone really that essential to Android’s future?
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.