In a smartphone market dominated by two giant, multinational corporations, Apple and Samsung, it’s exciting to see a new name in the mix.
That’s one reason the Essential Phone got so much hype when it was announced in May. It’s the first major release from Essential, a startup founded by Android creator Andy Rubin, promising a premium smartphone experience without the unnecessary bells and whistles of its competitors.
The phones have now shipped, and one recently landed at the door of Seattle entrepreneur Aaron Bird, the founder and CEO of Bizible, a longtime Android user who was excited to buy the Essential phone.
Bird liked quite a few things about the phone. But in the end, the phone’s stripped-down selling point turned out to be a dealbreaker. Bird is now using a new Galaxy S8 Plus, while he waits for his Essential Phone to sell on eBay. We talk with him about what happened on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast.
Bird said one of the big attractions of the Essential Phone was its software — the phone runs stock Android, a bare-bones version of Google’s Android OS, and doesn’t come with any added apps, services, or features.
“I thought stock Android is what I wanted, because I don’t want things like (Samsung’s assistant) Bixby or all the games that you see — a lot of stuff that comes both from the carrier and the manufacturer,” Bird said. But in the end, he discovered there’s a lot of value in what Samsung, in particular, provides on top of Android.
The biggest deal-breaker for Bird was the phone’s camera. Even though it has impressive hardware, the camera was a nightmare. “The camera is really, really bad,” he said. “It reminds me of a smartphone five years ago.”
When he took a picture of his young child on the Essential phone and sent it to his wife, she told him he needed to ditch the phone. Another big issue was the phone’s notification system, which he said was much less effective than the one he was accustomed to on Samsung phones.
Both the camera app and the notification setup are features that phone makers, such as Samsung or HTC, build on top of the stock Android that the Essential Phone uses.
On the other hand, Bird said, the Essential Phone hardware is stunning and even exceeds what you see on the upcoming iPhone X in many ways, despite the fact that the Essential Phone costs $300 less than the iPhone X.
Listen to our full conversation with Bird above or download it as an MP3, and keep reading for edited highlights from his comments on the pros and cons in the phone.
The hardware: The hardware is amazing, which is the irony of the whole thing — that Andy Rubin, the creator of the software Android, built awesome hardware, but the reason I’m getting rid of it is because of the software. It’s an edge-to-edge screen. … It’s amazing, actually, that this is the first version of the hardware built by a startup that just started. That’s just really hard to nail in V1, and they did. I read about the hardware, which is one of the reasons I ordered it, but I was really surprised at how well they nailed that.
The camera: The camera is really, really bad. A lot of people don’t know this, but the camera app on phones is built by the manufacturer. So Samsung builds their camera app. The camera’s where a lot of them differentiate, and they’ve spent a long time building out great camera apps. That is actually the core of the camera.
I read online some reviews that got early access, they said the Essential camera was bad, but there were a lot of bugs, too, and the stuff was getting fixed. I figured, ‘I’m sure they’re going to release the updated camera app,’ but it’s really bad. I mean, it reminds me of a smartphone five years ago. It needs lots of light — and, ironically, it actually has two cameras, one of which is monochrome. That is supposed to make it better in low light.
Notifications: With the Samsung S7 and the S8, if somebody sends you a message on Facebook and you have the Facebook app on your home screen, it’ll have a little bubble that says “1” or “2” or “3” that tells you how many notifications you have that are unread. Whether that’s e-mail or Facebook or other things. I think most people are used to this. The iPhone’s had it for a long time. I haven’t seen stock Android since I had the first Nexus, so what I realized with this phone is that stock Android doesn’t actually provide notifications like that.
When I look at my phone I probably have 15 notifications across various apps that I haven’t read yet. And the only way to know that with a stock Android device is the notifications up top that you always get rid of. And so what ended up happening was that I would get a Facebook message and I would ignore it. So I’d swipe that away, and then I would never know to go back and read it on Facebook. … Especially with Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and all the various places where people are pinging you now.
Pasting into the dialer: I hesitate to even mention it, because it sounds so weird and petty, but I’ll travel without my laptop and just use my phone, and so I join conference calls a lot from my phone, without a laptop or paper or anything in front of me. And the way that I’m used to doing this is, I dial the number and I’ll copy the conference code… and then once I’m on the line, I paste it into [the dialer]… Apparently, the native Android OS, which is all this has on it, doesn’t support copy and paste into the dialer. So I actually was 15 minutes late to a really critical conference call because of that problem. I had to memorize the nine digits and then go back and forth and enter it in time… And it took me a while to figure out I couldn’t do it. It took me like five minutes. I’m like, ‘why is it not pasting?’ And then I realized this is a feature that’s missing, that Samsung has actually built, that I’m used to. So I don’t know — it’s such a weird one. If it was just that, I probably would have kept the phone, but it’s a use case that I need.