Samsung and Apple ship more smartphones worldwide than any other company. But Android creator Andy Rubin is betting he can solve a few problems with their phones, which is why the first product to come from his new company Essential will be an Android phone. Rubin unveiled the device in May, and I had the chance to briefly use it during an event in New York.
The phone, which starts at $699 and will be available later this summer exclusively on Sprint, shares some physical characteristics with the LG G6. Both phones feature super thin bezels and angular edges, but there are several aspects about Essential's device I prefer over LG's device. For one, the corners are a bit sharper, which I think gives the phone a classier look. It reminds me of a more modern version of Apple's iPhone 4 and 4S, perhaps among the most beautiful smartphones ever made, mostly because of its boxy shape and elegant glass-coated back.
But more importantly, the Essential phone is void of any branding. There's no logo representing the carrier or Rubin's company anywhere on the phone. This may sound like a worthless omission, but it does a lot to make the device feel slick and attractive. Since there's no branding on the front, it also gives Essential more room to slim down the bezels and extend the phone's screen even further (the G6 includes an LG logo below the screen). The bezels are so thin, in fact, that it made my iPhone 7 Plus feel gargantuan in comparison, even though Apple's smartphone actually has a smaller screen. The Essential phone is slightly wider than the Galaxy S8, which features a softer, more rounded shape, but it's just as easy to operate with one hand.
Flip over the phone and you'll notice something strange: two identical dots situated near the camera. These pins form the port for connecting accessories such as the 360-degree camera that Essential is selling for $199, or $50 if you buy it as a bundle with the phone. The concept is similar to Motorola's Moto Mods, which make it possible to add contraptions such as movie projectors, camera grips, and extra batteries to certain Motorola phones by snapping the accessories onto a magnetic connector. The Essential phone's connector is much more discrete than Motorola's; the Moto Z Droid includes an array of dots near the bottom of the phone on its rear, while Essential's device only has two near the camera.
That being said, two of Essential's design choices may seem jarring to some smartphone shoppers. Like Apple and Motorola, Essential has chosen to omit the 3.5-millimeter headphone jack from its smartphone. And since there are barely any borders framing the display, the front-facing camera juts into the screen, which can make the front look a bit awkward. But it didn't impede usage in any noticeable way; its impact seems to be purely aesthetic.
Based on my limited time with the Essential phone, the software felt just as sleek and minimalist as the hardware. The handset appeared to be running a clean version of Android that hasn't been modified, meaning it's just the basic experience without any extra features, widgets, or apps. This makes the phone feel fast, polished, and easy-to-use; there's no need to worry about accidentally triggering a side menu with a rogue swipe. It's just the core Android gestures here, which include swiping down from the top to access quick settings and swiping from left to right to pull up the Google screen.
Even though Rubin has said in the past that the Essential phone will have its own new smart assistant, I'm told it will support the Google Assistant. This isn't shocking, as Rubin has said Essential is open to bringing other virtual assistants to its devices. The software on the demo unit I tried wasn't final, so my experience may not reflect the final product. But I hope it does, because the Essential phone is just as smooth as Google's own Pixel and Nexus phones, perhaps even more so.
It's impossible to judge whether or not Rubin's Essential phone lives up to its promises until we get a chance to use the final production version. But it's certainly promising: a future-proof device that's resistant to drops and cracks could make this the phone you hang on to for more than 12 months. Still, even if it does deliver on those values, making a dent in a market so heavily dominated by Apple and Samsung will be no easy feat.