Andy Rubin is famous for founding Android, which was later acquired by Google and turned into the largest computing platform on Earth. He left Google several years ago to look for new challenges, and now he’s arrived back in the Android ecosystem with a startup known as Essential. The company revealed its first phone this week after teasing it several weeks previously. The Essential Phone has a crazy edge-to-edge screen, a titanium frame, and the latest Qualcomm chip. This phone looks like it could even give the Galaxy S8 a run for its money, so let’s see how they stack up.
Samsung’s Galaxy S8 has a 5.8-inch curved AMOLED panel that’s taller than other phones. The 18.5:9 aspect ratio offers more space than a regular 16:9 display in this chassis would. That helps it fill more of the available space, and the edges that curve downward make it comfortable to hold. Samsung calls this an “infinity display.” The resolution is 2960 x 1440, which is among the highest available on a phone.
Essential has a similar goal of cramming as much screen into its phone as possible. This phone has a 5.7-inch flat LCD panel. It’ll be 2560 x 1312 with a 19:10 ratio. However, it goes all the way to the edge of the phone — for real. There are only a few millimeters separating the display from the edge, but that comes with a trade-off. The front-facing camera takes a chunk out of the display right in the top center. It’s certainly an interesting design choice.
The Essential phone has a cool take on the shrinking the bezel, but Samsung’s AMOLED is a known quantity, and it’s great. LCDs tend to have duller colors and slower response time, making VR impractical. So, advantage Samsung on this one.
These phones will share a lot on the inside, and that’s what counts, isn’t it? Both phones have a Snapdragon 835 with 4GB of RAM. The Galaxy S8 is tuned to be more power efficient, so it doesn’t feel as fast as you might expect for a device with such a powerful chip. We don’t know what Essential will do with the 835, but there’s room to leave the GS8 in the dust.
The Essential Phone will ship with 128GB of storage, but the Galaxy S8 is only 64GB. Most markets don’t have a higher-capacity variant, either. Both phones use high-speed UFS storage, which is much faster than a removable card. In fact, the Essential phone doesn’t have expandable storage at all. Samsung’s phone has a microSD card slot if you don’t mind the slower speeds.
Essential might be able to meet the needs of most users with so much built-in storage, but some people will never give up the microSD card slot. Still, a Snapdragon 835 tuned for performance could be enough to put Essential over the top.
Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is a beautiful piece of engineering with its aluminum and glass body. The glass rear panel curves up to meet the curved front, giving the overall device a rounded, comfy feel.
The Essential Phone, by contrast, is a flat slab, but it’s made from materials we don’t often see in smartphones. The frame will be titanium, which is much more durable than aluminum. Aluminum will scratch and dent if you drop it, but titanium remains unblemished. The back panel is ceramic, which (depending on the structure) can be much lighter and stronger than glass.
Samsung has opted to stick with the headphone jack for at least one more generation, but the Essential Phone is living in a jack-less future. It only has a Type-C port, but you can use a 3.5mm adapter. It does, however, include a fingerprint sensor in the right place on the back of the phone. That’s the same location used by the Pixel, LG G6, and others. Samsung placed it way up next to the camera, which is terrible.
The Galaxy S8 is a pretty phone, but the new materials Essential is bringing to the table are intriguing. I think Essential has an advantage here.
Samsung’s TouchWiz interface used to be the definition of bad design, but it’s gotten much better over the years. It still lacks the sensible interface of stock Android, but Samsung has at least made its myriad of features comprehensible. The color palette is also more elegant. Meanwhile, Essential aims to launch its phone with a nearly stock version of Android. That’s probably a good thing.
One potential concern is what’s going to become of Essential in a year? Samsung will be around to update the Galaxy S8, even though it might take longer than you’d like. Maybe Essential will crash and burn, or maybe it will pivot to other devices. It’s a new player with a lot of unknowns. Essential is in a position to provide a great Android experience, though.
The Galaxy S8 only has one 12MP camera on the rear as more and more phones implement dual cameras. However, it’s a really good camera. Focus is incredibly fast, colors are accurate, HDR mode is effective, and even low-light shots are good. In my experience, it’s a close second to the Pixel.
The Essential Phone has two rear-facing cameras, which it says are the thinnest dual sensors ever created. Essential is doing the same thing Huawei does with its Leica-branded dual cameras. There’s a 13MP RGB sensor paired with a 13MP monochrome sensor. The monochrome sensor is great at capturing detail, and more sensors equals more light. The output from both sensors is combined in software to give you an (allegedly) great photo.
It’s hard to say who’s going to win here. Camera performance varies hugely based on software, so we’ll have to wait and see. Still, Essential has some cool ideas.
The Essential Phone has one feature with no analog on the Galaxy S8: an accessory connector. On the back panel of the phone are two small pins that power Essential’s accessories, of which only one has been announced. When buying an Essential phone, you can add a 360-degree camera for $ 50. It attaches magnetically to the back, and you’re all set.
The accessory transmits data to the phone wirelessly with a special RF module. The result is a USB 3.1 connection without the plug. This could be cool for various accessories, but all we have so far is the camera. Hopefully Essential shows off some more ways to make use of that connector. It has more potential than other modular accessory systems.
Cost and availability
Just looking at the hardware Essential has on offer, the $ 699 asking price seems like a good deal. Titanium and ceramic are not cheap, and the phone has specs on the same level as the Galaxy S8. You’re looking at $ 750 for Samsung’s phone, or $ 850 if you upgrade to the Galaxy S8 Plus.
Samsung’s devices are more widely available, though. You can get a Galaxy S8 from any carrier or from Samsung unlocked. Essential is only selling the Essential Phone on its website, but it’s unlocked. It says carrier partnerships are coming later, but it might take longer than anyone expects.