The Essential PH-1 was severely hyped up last year before its release. To say that it didn’t fulfill the hype is an understatement. But now, a year later, it’s actually turned into a great phone at a great price. It probably took Essential too long to get to here, but now, I highly recommend the phone.

The PH-1 is replacing my Galaxy S7 Edge that annoyed me a little when I first got it, had an equal measure of stuff I liked, and irritated me more and more over time. If you look at my reviews of the S7E, and the Moto X Pure it replaced, well, you’ll have now 3 way-too-long phone reviews from my particular brand of OCD.

***What’s Good***

Nice clean stock Android build with frequent updates - The PH-1 is already on Android 9 Pie. There’s basically no customizations. In the past, a phone that was totally stock was sometimes missing a few features here and there, simple stuff like having options like restarting the phone when you long press the power button. But it’s now to the point where basically everything is there. Certain things I liked from Samsung are missing, like built-in Hiya caller ID (it’s available as a standalone app) and scrolling screenshots (still looking into this one) but I’d gladly trade the few Samsung tricks I actually used for a nice clean stable smooth non-janky software experience.

Universal Carrier Compatibility - It works on every US carrier. The only LTE band it’s missing is 71, which T-Mobile has been building out a lot on this year. All T-Mobile branded phones currently on sale have band 71, but the only unlocked phones that have it so far are the Samsung S9/S9+/Note9 and the Moto Z3 Play. Here’s the list.

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I’m not on T-Mobile at the moment anyway, and if I switched to them, the closest area that’s going to have band 71 is the Appalachian mountains. This is where band 71 is supposed to be by the end of 2018:

Battery - While the mAh rating is lower than the S7E it replaced, the battery life is better. Probably some combination of running more optimized software instead of Samsung’s bloat, and the SD835 is more power efficient than the SD820 (and also, it turns out, this year’s SD845). Technically the phone doesn’t support Qualcomm Quick Charge, but I have a couple of QC2.0 chargers that make the phone say “charging rapidly” when plugged in.

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Officially the quick charging standard is USB Power Delivery. The included wall charger is 27W USB-PD and the phone charges crazy quick with it. I decided to get a similar 27W USB-PD charger for my car and it’s also crazy fast. I’m still using a QC2.0 charger at work but whatever, that’s more for top-ups.

There’s no wireless charging, but I can live without that. I had a wireless charging stand at my office, that I was ok with for my S7E. That phone supports Qi quick wireless charging if you use a QC2.0 or higher power brick (hence the QC2.0 charger at my office) but in use, the phone would overheat if I used it too long on the stand, and pause charging. I liked having my phone on a stand next to my work PC keyboard.

For the Essential, I got a cheap phone stand and added a micro USB-to-USB C adapter to the end of the cable that had previously been plugged into the wireless charging stand. But with the pretty decent battery life, I don’t have to charge the phone while it’s on the stand.

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Google tweaked the battery saving auto-sleep function in Pie. It used to be called Doze and would put apps to sleep that remain inactive for a while. Now it’s called Adaptive Battery. What I found is that you still need to whitelist your most commonly-used messaging apps or else your notifications will sometimes be delayed. Google apparently is less inclined to let you do this than before, because they separated the whitelist out from the battery settings. If you go to Settings > Battery > Adaptive Battery, all you get is this toggle:

To actually whitelist something, you have to go to Settings > Apps & Notifications > Advanced > Special App Access > Battery Optimization > All Apps, tap on the app you want to whitelist, and then select Not Optimized, like this:

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Dat’s a lotta taps to get to the whitelist! But it works once you get there.

Camera - This camera is excellent*. The reason for the asterisk is because with the stock Essential camera app, it’s mediocre at best. Still images in daylight are ok in the Essential app, but that’s about it. The video is super shaky and janky.

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But with the Google Camera port (this is the app the Pixel phones and Nexus 6P use) and its HDR+ processing, the PH-1 produces great results. This was a pleasant surprise to me. I was expecting to have to live with a bit of a step down in image quality from my S7E but I’m still a little blown away with the quality. I was most surprised with what GCam was able to do with the selfie camera. I’m a compulsive photo tweaker, since I’ve gotten very good at quickly punching up photos in Snapseed. But I’ve found that most of the time, the photos taken by the phone are very good right away, and only require minimal if any tweaking in Snapseed. It’s solid.

The second camera is a black & white sensor that the Essential camera app uses to help in low light, to increase detail in general, and for depth information for portrait mode. But GCam HDR+ does a way better job in low light and with detail in general, than whatever Essential’s app is doing with the info from the b&w sensor.

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There’s no hardware image stabilization, but the GCam does software video stabilization while recording, which makes for vastly smoother results than the Essential app. They’re maybe not quite as stabilized as the hardware IS was able to do on my S7E. Google Photos has a video stabilization trick it can do, so at some point I’m going to play with shooting a video in GCam with its stabilization on, and then having Google Photos do its thing with it to smooth out any remaining jank. Not that I do a ton of videos anyway.

One final note about the GCam port: you need a phone with a Snapdragon 820 or higher processor, and supports Google’s Camera2 API (you can use this app to check your phone for Camera2 API support). Which means that you need something flagship-ish to run it. The SD835 in the PH-1 does a fine job with this.

Screen - I went back and forth on whether I wanted to classify the screen as good. This is because the initial impression was slightly underwhelming.

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The screen is an LCD, not OLED. The colors and saturation are generally pretty good. It doesn’t pop like an OLED screen, and it’s not quite up with the absolute best LCDs, but generally speaking, at worst, it’s still above average.

It’s a weird resolution in between 1080p and 1440p: 2560 x 1312. A typical 16:9 aspect ratio 1440p screen has a resolution of 2560x1440, so in a way, this is like a skinnier version of that. Most other phones with extra tall screens and better-than-1080p resolution use that 1440 pixel resolution for their width, but this still definitely gives more room to work than 1080p and the different display and font scaling settings are very versatile.

Now, when I first got the phone, I had a less favorable impression of the screen. The automatic brightness would tend to set the brightness a little too low for my liking. Indoors, it would seem like the screen was a little washed -out looking, and outside in bright daylight, it wouldn’t quite crank the brightness to the max, and I would have to do it manually. This, even though the max brightness, in bright sunlight, still sometimes requires shading the phone with your hand a little

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But, in Android P, the automatic brightness is supposed to learn your preferences over time.

After about a week of having to occasionally bump the brightness slider to the right, eventually the phone learned my preferences and now it generally is to my liking.

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It’s not going to make the maximum any higher of course, but I’ve definitely noticed that in general use indoors or even in my car in bright daylight, after a few days I was no longer persistently pushing the brightness slider to a higher setting.

Is the screen as good as an OLED like in my S7E? Not quite, but it’s a good screen.

Size - The PH-1 is not a big phone. This is ok with me because there’s plenty of screen real estate. Compared to my S7E it’s noticeably less tall but it has the same screen width and more vertical area by far.

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Most extra-tall phones have an aspect ratio of 2:1 (18:9), while others go even taller. The Samsung flagships are 18.5:9, OnePlus 6 is 19:9, LG G7 is 19.5:9. I find the small versions of phones with these aspect ratios like the regular Galaxy S8/S9 and the LG G6 to be to skinny. But the big ones are pretty huge.

The PH-1 on the other hand is a 17.5:9 aspect ratio. This means the screen is basically the exact same width as a 5.5" 16:9 screen, while giving some more height. It’s a really nice aspect ratio for a phone. Thanks to the notch, the overall height of the phone is less than my S7E by a good margin, and it’s even less tall than stuff like the regular S8/S9, or G6/G7.

Build Quality - It’s nice.

I have a case on the phone. I always have a case on my phone. I don’t care so much about all these phones nowadays with their shiny iridescent colors under glass backs. I actively dislike them. No way should you use them out in the world without a case, but the only way to see the shimmery finish is to use a slippery crystal clear case.

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A phone is not a sports car. It’s an object you live with on a daily basis that lives in pockets and gym bags and in your grubby mitts. I’d rather have something built to actually work within that use case, than something with a bunch of glass all over it that serves no function (don’t say BUT THE WIRELESS CHARGING, plenty of other materials work with wireless charging) other than to make the phone shiny, more expensive, and more fragile.

Oh, right, we were talking about build quality. The PH-1 has a titanium frame and ceramic back. I got the Halo Gray color because it was the cheapest. It’s a semi-matte dark finish. The phone is very much a nearly-featureless black/gray/whatever slab. Its corners are a little rounded but otherwise it is flat. No crazy curved glass with iridescent shimmery color beneath it. This is fine by me. I actually like using the phone out of the case, briefly. But then I put it back on.

Water resistant - It’s not the highest IPx rating but there’s at least something there. Fine for my needs.

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Fingerprint Sensor - It’s way fast and less finicky than either my S7E or my work iPhone 6S. Unlike those two phones, the sensor is not a button, but it still wakes up the phone if the screen is off. There’s no figuring out what combination of fingerprint sensor touching and button pressing is necessary to get unlocked. Just tap and go. The sensor is very flush with the back of the phone with only a slight raised lip around it, so if you roll without a case it’s slightly hard to find by feel. But with a case, it’s fine.

***What’s Just OK***

Ambient Display - The PH-1 uses what I assume is the stock Android P ambient display. There’s no always-on display because the screen isn’t OLED, but there is a shake-to-wake function where shaking the phone will show the ambient display with clock and notification badges. You can double tap one of these badges to open the app.

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That part is very similar to the Samsung always-on display. But the shake-to-wake isn’t quite sensitive enough. My old Moto X Pure had a more sensitive shake-to-wake and it also had IR sensors at the corners of the front of the phone so you could just wave your hand in its general direction and it would wake to the Moto Display screen. My work iPhone 6S is a little more consistent with its shake-to-wake response as well.

When new notifications come in and the screen is off, they briefly show on the ambient display. But if you’re not looking at the phone when that happens, the only indication when the screen is off you have that there’s a notification is the notification light. I usually turn off a phone’s notification light when it’s too bright but thankfully this one is small and dim enough (it’s built in to the tiny sliver of earpiece at the very top of the phone) that I think I’ll leave it on.

After always having a clock on my S7E at all times, I’m still adjusting to having to wake up the phone, or look at one of the many other clocks or watches in my life to see the time. First world problems.

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Audio - The speaker is there. It exists. Sounds come out of it. The quality of the sound does not make me say, “hey that’s actually pretty good for a phone.” I’ve had that reaction to my old Moto X Pure with its front-facing stereo speakers, and to a lesser extent, my dad’s Samsung S9+ which uses a downward-firing speaker and also plays sound from the earpiece to create a stereo effect.

Oh, and there’s no headphone jack. Whatever. Yes, this is dumb to remove, but I can live with the dongle. I’m not a huge user of wired headphones. I have a nice/cheap set of wired earbuds I keep in their own specific pocket of my work bag. I use them to sometimes listen to music at my desk and also take calls with better sound quality than a bluetooth headset.

My amazing incredible solution to the dongle problem is to leave it attached to my headphones, and if I end up wanting to use them with my work iPhone 6S, I just unplug the dongle from the headphones.

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The rest of the time (car, gym, streaming to assorted speakers) I’m using bluetooth anyway. I also use wired headphones to sometimes watch videos in bed with my tablet, which has a headphone jack. I wouldn’t buy a tablet that requires a headphone dongle, but I can live with using a dongle on a phone.

It’s not like it’s the bad old days before phones added headphone jacks and there was no way to plug headphones in.

Haptics - The vibration motor is a little on the weak side. It’s smooth and not rattly, and depending on what you’re doing you either get a nice quick buzz in response to a UI interaction, or longer buzzes for calls and notifications. But it’s just not very strong.

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My S7E had a stronger motor, but when that phone would ring, sometimes the vibration pattern would actually lag along with Samsung’s laggy-ass software.

My work iPhone 6S still blows any Android phone I’ve used out of the water. I may not prefer Apple phones overall, but Apple does have one hell of a haptic feedback setup. The vibration motor can dance in little patterns, and when you get a notification in your pocket, you feel it. It’s a strong, high-frequency vibration almost like a back massager or something.

I appreciate the PH-1 motor’s lightness for things like doing my fingerprint or tapping the home button, but I’d like a stronger vibration for calls and notifications.

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Android phone companies have started this year to focus on haptics, like in the LG G7 and Sony XZ2, but this is more one of those things that’s largely fine, and I only notice it because I also have that iPhone 6S in my other pocket and its haptics are way better.

***What’s Slightly Busted***

Android 9 Pie notch support is a work in progress - Before Android P, Essential had its own notch-handling scheme, but now Android P has baked-in notch support. Essential dropped their own notch-handling in favor of the stock one. Most of the time it works fine, except when it doesn’t.

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For apps that have a colored top bar, and this flows up to the status bar area, where the status bar darkens the color a little, like this:
 

Chrome has a black top bar that’s all combined with the notch:

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Google Maps puts the map up in the status bar, with some shading at the top.

Videos play fine, but they don’t use the notch. Since most videos I’d be watching on a phone have a 16:9 aspect ratio, but the PH-1's aspect ratio is wider than this, notch or not, there would be a black bar on the side of the phone anyway. A while back, Youtube added a mode where you can have the video go around a notch on a phone that has one but I’ve yet to try this and I doubt I’d like it.

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But all is not perfect. While the PH-1's notch is skinny, it’s also taller than the regular Android status bar. For apps that haven’t updated to the Android P notch support, they get a gray translucent status bar that matches the height of the notch, but the app tries to flow up into the extra-tall status bar area of the PH-1, producing results like this:

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This problem only occurs in some apps, and I’m sure this will improve over time.

In theory, Google has some quick little thing that app developers can use to tie in to the Android P notch-handling scheme, and once these apps are updated to tie into that, this issue will go away.

Essential is also working on bringing back some of their proprietary pre-Pie notch handling tricks which they’re (supposedly) going to include in the next security patch update.

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Android P navigation gestures - Google decided that they needed to replace their standard back/home/recent apps keys with swiping gestures. You’re not stuck with the gestures and can switch back to the old way. I tried a couple times to use the gestures, but couldn’t get myself to like them.

There are still back and home buttons. You press back to go back and home to go home. The differences all come down to multitasking. The old way, you pressed the multitasking button to bring up your recent apps, or double tapped it to switch to your most recent previous app.

The gesture way, you swipe up on the home button to bring up your recent apps, and swipe right on the home button to go to your most recent previous app. If you swipe right and hold, you then get a scroll bar to scroll between your recent app cards, which you have to keep your finger held down on, and then release when you get to the app you want. This is pointless, because you can still swipe up on the home button to do recent apps and then just swipe between them without having to keep your finger held down.

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Here’s why I didn’t like this.

  1. The recent apps gesture starts from the home button and I’m used to tapping a different part of the screen from the home button to get my recent apps.
  2. Completing a successful swipe up from the home button while holding the phone with one hand requires more thumb gymnastics than the old recent apps button.
  3. I use the swipe-up app drawer. I’d try to open my recent apps from the home screen, but I’d slightly miss the home button at the beginning of my swipe, and swipe up the app drawer instead of the recent apps.

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The gestures don’t add any new functionality in exchange for these tradeoffs, so I turned them off.

Bluetooth range is a little low - When I’m at the gym, sometimes when I go to get a towel to wipe down a piece of equipment I’m done with, I leave my phone next to that piece of equipment. With the PH-1, the signal in my bluetooth gym headphones cuts out a little sooner as I move away from the phone, compared to my previous couple phones. It’s maybe 5-7 feet less range. I dunno, I haven’t tested this scientifically. All my gym shorts have pockets in them, and I shouldn’t be leaving my phone and walking away from it anyway.

Dark theme - Android P has a built-in dark “theme” but it only changes a very select things to dark. I’m...not even sure which ones? The settings screen and notifications and whatnot are still white. Maybe it does stuff to the stock launcher, but I use Nova launcher where I set up the different UI layers with dark-ish translucent-ish scheme. This doesn’t bother me so much compared to my S7E because the screen is not as bright. Sometimes with that phone, white UI elements could be a bit eye-searing.

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Final Thoughts!

As you might’ve guessed, I like this phone a lot. There’s hardly anything in the negative column (for me at least).

It was on my radar last year when I bought my S7E, but at the time it was not an option. The camera was trash, the software was buggy even though it was stock, and there was no support for high-quality bluetooth codecs like aptX.

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Now, the built-in camera app is still below average, but awesome with GCam. Sure, I’d like to have a more useful second camera like a telephoto lens, or even LG’s wide angle, but it’s not a huge deal.

The software is smooth and Essential has been great at pushing out updates. It got Android P like a day or two after the Pixels.

It supports all the bluetooth codecs. Well, not Apple AAC, but it does aptX, aptX HD and LDAC.

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The notch is in a slight state of flux at the moment. but I’m sure that’ll improve relatively soon.

I got the PH-1 for the crazy $224 price that Amazon had it at for a few hours one Monday morning. I had actually already bought it the night before for $280 but redid my order when the price dropped. The current price on Amazon is $310 to $354 depending on what color you want.

Let’s put this in perspective. Outside the US, there are lots of upper-midrange unlocked phones, but the segment in the US is light on options, especially if you want an unlocked phone and/or one that works on Verizon.

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In the $300-350 price range, there’s nothing that comes close to touching the PH-1. Everything else is running low-mid level chips. At best you’ll see an SD636 and you can’t run GCam with that.

The cheapest phone at the moment with an SD835 is the Verizon-exclusive Moto Z3 for $480, and it’s not unlocked or universally compatible. It’ll be interesting to see how the prices shake out on the new takedown LG G7 models. The G7 One with its lack of LG skin and SD835 could be a damn fine option but no word yet on price or availability.

So if you want an unlocked phone, with near-flagship specs, no major compromises, and a crazy good price, the Essential is definitely the move at the moment, even if you won’t get it for quite so cheap as the deal I jumped on.