Essential Proves How Sensible Pricing and Software Updates Can Redeem a Failing Phone

Essential Proves How Sensible Pricing and Software Updates Can Redeem a Failing Phone

Essential hasn’t been around for too long, but it’s been the subject of a disproportionate number of headlines in the Android world this year — and often not for a good reason. Their first (and so far only) device shipped much, much later than promised. Even after shipping significantly later than promised, the Essential PH-1’s software and camera stumbled out the gate. And then there was that embarrassing e-mail mishap.

At launch, Essential’s camera app and experience was pretty subpar. I experienced frequent crashes, missed focus, extremely slow processing times, and just bad results overall. It exemplified many of Essential’s shortcomings — that the “Essential” phone didn’t offer a dependable experience as much as a “bare bones” flagship. Users quickly discovered that even the recently ported Google Camera app produced better results, putting Essential’s own camera software (which they “worked on until the last possible minute”) to shame. The silver lining here was that the camera woes felt more like a software issue than a hardware compromise — the Essential phone uses the Sony IMX258, present in some of the better shooters of the year like the LG G6. Thankfully, the Essential Camera App is updated via the Play Store and has received several updates post-launch, bringing it closer to what it should have been (though not close enough to what people expected given the launch price).

Essential also struggled a bit with the device’s software, and that conclusion is unavoidable for those that have been daily driving the device since it first shipped. The phone is incredibly barebones – something enthusiasts have been clamoring for in many ways. It’s almost too barebones – on first boot you’re greeted with just a handful off applications and one toggle to send diagnostics to Essential, and beyond the custom camera app that’s all you’ll get from Andy Rubin. However, the phone itself wasn’t able to run quite as smoothly we’d expect from a phone running stock Android on the most powerful mobile processor (that’s widely available, anyway). Users experienced stuttering when scrolling, missed touches, and odd jank with far too many reports for what some interpreted to be a limited problem At the moment, Essential users are awaiting a promised update that should fix these issues (update has been released as of 10/30/2017). According to Marcus from essential:

“… yes we are aware of the issue related to the display touch and have a patch from Qualcomm we are testing internally. I saw the fix in action literally yesterday and the improvement is night and day. I think you guys will be really happy with it. Our plan is to get this out in one of the next upcoming OTA updates releasing a few weeks. Stay tuned!“

These issues aside, I’ve absolutely enjoyed my PH-1. Essential absolutely nailed the design, and it permeates throughout the user experience in subtle ways. The PH-1 is just plain enjoyable to hold. It has a substantial heft that makes it feel important, almost worthy of that original price point. All of the material choices are top-notch, well put together, and just plain interesting. The totally unique camera notch almost completely fades away and winds up being a distinct accent that unmistakably conveys this is not a common device. By no means is the Essential phone perfect, but it’s also not a complete train wreck either, and it’s certainly better-built and better-equipped than most other compromised devices out there. Everything considered, it’s a fine phone with a great build, tons of storage, great battery life, but with a “good at best” camera experience.

The Essential Phone’s build quality and construction are unmatched at its new price point

All of this brings me to something that I find very confusing around the web. It seems as if there is a lot of delight in any stumble a company like Essential encounters. Companies like these that bring something new to the table, even if it’s just a unique design, are surely a good thing that only adds more choice in a crowded but stagnant space. Competition is a good thing and we shouldn’t be celebrating a world with only Samsungs, Apples, and maybe Huaweis. Instead, comment sections, parts of reddit, twitter, and really anywhere social seem to delight in any pitfall that Essential encounters. Part of that might be attributed to the over-promising that these less-recognized companies tend to partake in to get their name printed on every headline. Such practices can quickly stain the good will of curious customers and make such companies go from inspirational underdogs to infamous smooth-talkers. Essential certainly struggled and failed to deliver on some promises (not to mention that gigantic e-mail blunder), but established OEMs struggle every year as well. LG can’t seem to launch a device on time, Samsung’s Note7 was catching on fire and was banned by the FAA, the Pixel 2 (and XL) have a list of issues with the bigger Google phone featuring a notoriously compromised display… Hardware is hard, and I think that should be obvious by now. Users should welcome novel new approaches to the space and hope that good ideas prevail. The Essential phone is failing at software more than hardware, and that’s actually a better prospect for long-term users and XDA enthusiasts in particular. Many of us are here precisely because we want to maximize our device’s capabilities strictly through software improvements.

I bought my PH-1 at $749 with the 360 camera add-on. By no means was this cheap or a bargain, but with devices like the Note 8 costing $940 and the Pixel XL 2 at $849 it isn’t’ topping the charts either. However, this past week Essential slashed the price by $200. At $499 this phone is an extremely compelling package. Those of us who bought the phone at a regular price will get a $200 promo code good for the essential.com web store. At $499 I have no reservations recommending this phone, especially if they ever come out with the Ocean Depths color. If you can find one of those $200 promo codes, getting this level of hardware for $300 is an absolute no-brainer for anyone interested in a gorgeous and solid phone with great specs and Stock Android. While Essential’s software is still playing catch-up despite the high expectations its founder’s name alone instilled, at this price point this device really faces little competition beyond OnePlus’ also-excellent OnePlus 5. Essential has tripped many times and disappointed many enthusiasts, but this substantial price slash makes this phone extremely competitive. The PH-1 failed to offer a truly “Essential” experience at that $699 starting price, but now it’s close to being the value package to beat for those interested in a no-frills premium handset.

Update as of 10/30/17: Today, Essential released build NMJ20D. This update includes: 2017-10 security patches, Improved performance and bug fixes, Improved touch scrolling, and Fingerprint gestures. Initial impressions are incredibly positive. The phone’s touch response is actually “night and day” improved, as promised. Additionally, fingerprint gestures are working well. A good phone keeps getting better.

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