The first phone from Essential Products is a striking device, thanks to its ceramic body and a display that covers nearly all of the front of the device, with the notable exceptions of a small bottom bezel and a cut-out for the front-facing camera. The Essential Phone went on sale last month, but I got my first chance to check one out in person tonight.

I also asked a representative about reports that Sprint has only sold about 5,000 units so far… and got a firm “no comment.” But while Sprint is the only carrier selling the Essential PH-1, the company does also sell an unlocked version of the phone that works on any US wireless network. And given that this phone is really designed to appeal to smartphone enthusiasts, I suspect most potential customers would probably be more interested in that version anyway.

The phone I got a chance to play with was running close-to-stock Android software, but it was also close-to-just-set-up software, so I didn’t get a chance to try many apps.

But I did find the camera cut-out less annoying than I’d expected… mostly because a black bar shows up when you’re using most apps on the phone, so you don’t even really notice the cut-out. Instead if looks like the phone grows a bezel when you’re surfing the web or using the phone for activities such as playing games or watching movies.

Of course, that sort of makes me wonder why Essential didn’t just release a phone with a slim top bezel that covers the camera… but it’s possible we could come to see some apps embrace the cut-out and wrap around it. That’s what already happens on the home screen and app launcher, giving you a little more screen real estate by moving the status bar up next to the camera instead of below it, for example.

The phone feels very solid and well-constructed, but there is a downside to the ceramic back. It’s a fingerprint magnet. The representatives at the Essential booth have a cloth to rub down the phone pretty much every time someone puts it down.

I spent a few minutes playing with the black model, but I’m told fingerprints are less noticeable on the upcoming white version.

The other thing that makes this phone stand out are the two little pins on the back that you can use to attach modules like a 360-degree camera, which is the first (and currently only) module available. The Essential Phone sells for $700 on its own, or $750 when you buy it with the camera.

Bringing the camera close to the pins on the back of the phone is good enough for the magnets to do their job and pull the two gadgets together and lock things in place. An LED lights up on the camera to let you know it’s connected, and a few seconds later a 360-degree camera app opens on the phone automatically.

Essential is already working on additional modules, including a laser scanner and a “high-end audio accessory” with a 3.5mm audio jack (the phone doesn’t have one built-in).

We could probably see more modular accessories in the future… if Essential manages to sell enough phones to make continued development worthwhile. For now, the company isn’t really saying anything about sales numbers.

The Essential PH-1 smartphone features a 5.7 inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a 3,040 mAh battery, a 13.1MP camera, and a USB Type-C port.

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5 replies on “Hands-on with the Essential Phone (and its camera cut-out)”

  1. Hey Brad,

    I had pre-ordered one of these and I’ve had it since release – so about a month now. The 360 camera came about a week later.

    It is OK, but I’m actually kind of disappointed with it. I’ve been experiencing random lockups a few times a week – sometimes more than once a day. Sometimes it’ll go completely unresponsive for a minute and if I leave it alone it’ll come back, other times it stays frozen long enough for me to give up and reboot it with the power button.

    The 360 camera is interesting – but it definitely works better for photos than for video. If you can stand in one place and shoot video, or move the camera very slowly, it works OK. But when I’ve tried to move around are a faster pace while shooting 360 the video gets jaggy real quick. I need to see if I can shoot at a lower res maybe – but you really want max res for 360. Also, I used it to shoot video on a warm, sunny day for about 10 minutes, while participating in a parade. I went to use it again a few minutes later to find it had disabled itself due to overheating – and it was very hot to the touch. So that’s an issue if you plan to do more than short videos.

    But what bothers me the most, and surprised me that it does, is the lack of stereo speakers. The sound quality is just so much worse than my old Nexus 6P. Videos and games are noticeably less immersive with the sound coming out of one small speaker in the bottom of the phone. On top of that, because the speaker is in the bottom – and not the front – I find it very easy to cover it with my hand, especially when holding it one-handed. It is just awkward. Even conference calls just don’t sound as good.

    It doesn’t suck, and I expect they’ll improve some things with software updates, but I’m going to be watching the Pixel 2 XL announcement very closely and I’m considering grabbing one of those and selling the PH-1.

  2. Until I saw the video, I was completely turned off by this phone. I still think it’s too expensive but the modular capabilities look interesting. The 360 degree camera is meh-ish (gimmicky) but a more capable camera add-on (with hi-quality optical zoom) and other hi-quality add-ons could make this phone pretty capable.

    1. Yeah, it’s a lot more charming in person than I thought it would be. I’m kind of turned off by the $700 price tag, but I wouldn’t say it’s not *worth* the price… that’s just more than I personally want to spend on a phone right now. But I’m cheap. 🙂

      1. Putting it next to the SGS 8 doesn’t bode well for the Essential PH-1.

        Especially since you can find it new and unlocked for US $480, when the deals come.

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