Built out of a ceramic back and titanium sides, Android founder Andy Rubin’s Essential startup’s eponymously named smartphone gets top billing in craftsmanship, eschewing the pedestrian aluminum and glass components on most modern flagships. The luxuriously crafted hardware is a marvel to behold and hold, and Essential is picking up the torch of the old Vertu, a spinoff of Nokia that once commanded prices upwards of $5,000 for its devices, which were clad in precious metals worthy of jewelry. Yet, despite its luxurious exterior, the Essential Phone is a largely understated phone, available in either an all-white finish or a mute jet black colorway.
I had the opportunity to use the Essential Phone as my daily phone over the past two and a half weeks, and in that time, the device has seen price cuts by as much as $200 from its original launch price of $699. Our review ratings today are based on the value that Essential brings to the Android space at its new $499 price point.
As the original phone with a notched design, the Essential Phone beats the iPhone X’s launch by a few months. The phone was announced in the spring, and delays forced Essential to miss its original launch timeline. When it was available in August, the Essential Phone delivered on a design with bezel-less top, right and left edges, with a slight chin on the bottom of the device. This near-bezel-free appearance gives it an appearance not unlike Dell’s Infinity Display on the XPS 13 laptop, and it is striking in appearance. There is a U-shaped cutout at the top—the phone’s notch—that houses the 8-megapixel front-facing selfie camera.
Along with the notch, just above that is a very thin slit that’s concealed between the glass display and the titanium railing for the earpiece speaker and an LED notification light. The thin slit does a fantastic job of keeping the Essential Phone’s clean lines, but if you have lint-filled pockets, the downside is that the design traps lint and other pocket fuzz in the speaker opening.
The phone has a very modern appearance with straight edges and slightly curved corners. The device takes on a boxy appearance, but its 7.8mm of thinness does a good job of making the phone not feel like a brick. The front of the device is covered in Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5. The device has a 5.71-inch LCD panel with a 2,560 × 1,312-pixel resolution, giving the device a 19:10 aspect ratio. The LG V30 and the Samsung Galaxy S8, for example, both use AMOLD screen technologies with an 18:9 aspect ratio. The result is that the Essential Phone feels slightly wider in the hands, but the new 19:10 aspect ratio along with the bezel-free design make the phone feel much more compact for single-handed use than 16:9 phones from last year.
And while the phone comes with a sizeable screen with a high resolution, it’s not rated as Daydream VR-ready, so you can’t use the Essential Phone for virtual reality games and applications with Google’s headset.
The sides are constructed of titanium, and despite its slippery smooth backside, the rear isn’t made of glass. Instead of the glass sandwich design used by Apple’s iPhone 8, LG’s V30 and Samsung’s Galaxy S8, Essential is forging its own path with a rather unique ceramic back. Ceramic, according to the company, is more durable, but in the hands, the effects are very similar to glass. My black review unit shows all smudges and fingerprints, and when placed on a flat surface, my Essential Phone is prone to sliding off the table all on its own. The upside is that the slick feel makes it easy to slide the phone in and out of your pockets, but if you have butterfingers, getting a third-party case is recommended as Essential, unlike Huawei, doesn’t bundle one in the box.