Essential Phone release date, price and specs: Is Essential’s presence at MWC a sign a UK release is imminent?
Following a number of false starts, Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone finally started shipping to customers who preordered the handset in the US at the end of August last year.
The original release date was expected to be in June. In July, Rubin said orders would be shipped “within a few weeks”, which was followed by claims mid-August that the phone was just a week away before shipping notifications were issued to select customers on Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T.
However, not everything went to plan. Reports suggested customers were receiving what looked like dodgy phishing emails from Essential asking them for personal details such as photo ID and billing address. What’s more, these emails were being issued to multiple customers at once and not on BCC, meaning their details were visible to strangers. Essential tweeted that it’s aware of the issue and is looking into it.
There is still no UK release date for the Essential phone, however. According to a Financial Times report last year, it was predicted the phone would be with us by the end of 2017, but that never materialised. The latest clue suggests that things may be moving a little closer, although still not quickly enough.
At MWC 2018, Essential told Alphr it will be launching outside of the US soon. It’s very presence at a European trade show is also promising and the company may have come over to discuss deals with network operators in local regions.
When it does eventually launch, it will likely be a return to the bad old days of network exclusives, though. The FT report mentions that Essential Phone representatives met with network executives from companies such as EE recently to try to secure a window.
Essential phone: What is it?
The news that Samsung and Apple have a new competitor in the smartphone space wouldn’t normally cause much reaction in each of the companies’ respective offices. After all, they already have plenty of competition from the likes of HTC, LG, Sony, Huawei, OnePlus, Microsoft, Lenovo, Xiaomi, Oppo and Nokia (again), so what’s one more competitor?
The Essential Phone is particularly interesting, though. It comes from Andy Rubin’s company Essential – and if you didn’t know, Rubin was one of the fathers of the Android operating system, before Google bought it up and made it all-consuming. He left Google in 2014 to set up a technology investment company called Playground, which in turn funds Essential.
Unsurprisingly, the first Essential phone (named simply “The Essential Phone” or PH-1) runs Android – like approximately 80% of the world’s smartphones – and the handset is targeting the top end of the market. In terms of looks, it’s certainly hit the right notes, with the bezel appearing even thinner than the edge display recently debuted in the Samsung Galaxy S8 – although, the gap in the screen for the front facing camera is a bit of a design misstep in my eyes. That 5.7in screen has a 19:10 aspect ratio, with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,312.
In terms of specifications, it should be no slouch. It’s packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor (last seen in the HTC U11), backed by 4GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. The front camera blocking out the top of the screen is eight megapixels, while the rear-facing camera packs 13.
It may be the company’s first phone, but they’ve certainly got the usual smartphone marketing tropes down to a tee, right down to the ridiculously artsy names for the colour of the case. Essential Phone comes in “Black Moon”, “Stellar Grey”, “Pure White” and “Ocean Depths”.
The main trick up the Essential Phone’s sleeve? It’s modular. Project Ara may be dead, and LG may have given up on its modular dream, but Essential joins Lenovo in keeping the dream alive. And like Lenovo’s Moto Z and Moto Z Play, the handset uses magnetic connectors to plug in its extras. The first one available is a 360-degree camera that Essential offers in a bundle with the handset for $50 extra.
When Rubin announced the Essential Phone, he explained that the company was aiming to be a big brand with several products, so it’s possible that while the first handset is aimed at the top end, there is space for a budget version too. However, it won’t be the second product – that will be the Essential Home, a virtual assistant looking to take on Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Little information on it is available right now, barring a few renders, but it looks a bit like an Echo Dot with a screen.
The company says it can be activated by asking a question, tapping it, or “even a glance,” but maintains that privacy will be at its core, adding that “we designed Essential Home to directly talk to your devices over your in-home network as much as possible in order to limit sending data to the cloud”. How well that works in practice remains to be seen, given both Google Home and Amazon Alexa rely so heavily on cloud servers.