Today, the team has unveiled its first flagship device, the Essential PH-1, with intentions to make the Android experience more simplified, open source, and more up-to-date than ever before. But first, a brief history of why Andy Rubin founded the company is important to understanding the concept behind its first products.
Essential PH-1 in Pure White and Black Moon
Rubin says that he was having a late night conversation with an old friend about the current state of technology when they began discussing the drawbacks of incompatibilities between the sea of devices on the market today. “More and more unnecessary features cluttering our lives. An increasing sea of products that didn’t work with one another,” he said. The breakthrough in the conversation hit him when he realized that, as a key team player at Google, he was “partly responsible for all of this”.
Some could argue that the formation of Essential is simply a path to self-redemption for Rubin and some other big Silicon Valley names. As it stands now, the company has 80 full-time employees and two dogs working security. The company plans to raise $300 million, which began with an initial $30 million Series B funding round from Playground Global and Redpoint, followed by a second $30 million round just yesterday. With two new products scheduled for later this month, Rubin is betting he can shift market dominance away from Apple and Samsung and bring third-party Android devices back into the spotlight.
Essential PH-1 - the first titanium built smartphone
The first device is called the Essential PH-1 and features a 5.7-inch 2560x1312 QHD display with rounded corners, a 19:10 aspect ratio, and Gorilla Glass 5, powered by a Snapdragon 835 octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage. The device features a front-facing 8-megapixel camera with f/2.20 fixed hyperfocal lens and 4K 30fps video support. On the back are dual rear-facing 13-megapixel cameras with f/1.85 lenses, one color and one monochrome. Essential says this helps the phone capture up to 200 percent more light than standard cameras while improving low-light performance. The rear cameras also support Hybrid Auto Focus, Phase Detect and IR laser assist, and 4K 30fps video.
The Essential PH-1 measures 141.5mm tall, 71.1mm wide and 7.8mm thick (5.57 x 2.80 x 0.31 inches) and weighs just under 185g (6.53 ounces). The phone's frame is a combination of titanium and ceramic that can the company claims can survive a drop test “without blemish, unlike competitor aluminum devices”. The included 3,040mAh battery is around the same size as the Galaxy S8 Plus (3,050mAh), and each phone sold will be factory unlocked.
In terms of connectivity, the phone features 802.11ac MIMO Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, NFC, a rear fingerprint reader, and uses USB-C with support for fast charging. Unfortunately, there is no 3.5mm audio jack, as the company has decided to pull an HTC and opt for a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box.
As for LTE bands, Essential says that each phone sold will be factory unlocked and will “work with any carrier,” including support for Carrier Aggregation. This includes a range of TDD-LTE and FDD-LTE bands along with T-Mobile LTE bands, though it is unclear whether features like T-Mobile VoLTE or 256QAM will be supported.
The Essential Phone's modular 360-degree camera accessory attaches via a rear magnetic strip
The device also takes a few modular design hints from the Moto Z, as it features a two-pin magnetic strip on the upper back edge of the phone for seamlessly attaching accessories like a pocket-sized 360-degree camera, or a magnetic charging dock. The camera accessory is supposedly the “world’s smallest 360-degree camera” and will be sold for $50 when bundled with the handset, or as a standalone for the price of $199. Meanwhile, the docking station is currently unavailable for pre-order, but more details are expected to become available shortly.
Essential will run a version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat which we have now discovered is called Ambient OS. According to Playground CEO Andy Rubin, who co-founded Android in October 2003, Ambient OS will be “pure as driven snow, with no bloatware or customized interface”. What remains unknown for now is whether Essential devices will receive annual build upgrades like Android 8 “O” around the same scheduled time as Google’s Pixel devices. Some insist it may even enjoy a head start in OS performance over unmodified Android installations, as a result of its open-sourced package streamlining capabilities.
Yet Rubin seems to emphasize that the managed service behind Ambient OS will primarily address the problem of missing out on critical software updates and rollups that plagues the massively fragmented Android device ecosystem of today. The other issue is privacy. Rubin emphasizes that Essential “won’t force you to have anything on [your device] you don’t want to have”. In fact, he says that it was these principles that helped the company attract some of the brightest minds from around the world to join his growing but ambitious startup.
Pricing and availability
The recently founded Palo Alto startup is looking to price the Essential PH-1 at a base price of $699. It will be available in four colors – Black Moon, Stellar Grey, Pure White, and Ocean Depths. For a limited time, the 360-degree camera can be bundled into early reservations for $749. The phone is expected to begin shipping within the coming weeks by the end of June.
As PC World notes in an opinion piece, if Google’s Pixel phone has struggled to make a dent in the US market without official support from a single carrier (Verizon), then it is hard to imagine Essential being able to make a success story out of its own device given the $700 price point.