While the phone's design is intentionally subtle, that 5.7-inch Quad HD screen definitely isn't. The PH-1's defining feature is how its LCD display stretches almost completely across the phone's face, leaving just a few millimeters of black chin beneath the panel. It's stunning. When the screen is off, we're left with an obsidian slab; when it's on, it feels like something out of the future. Well, the near future, anyway. We've seen phones with expansive displays before, but there's something sumptuous and thrilling about a phone that's basically all screen. Arguably more impressive is how a divot has been cut out of the screen to accommodate the 8-megapixel front-facing camera. It sounds weird in theory, but since Android's notification bar fills in from the sides, the camera never actually gets in the way.
Yes, it's almost impossible at first not to gawk at the PH-1's screen. The gap between the panel and the glass that covers it may as well not exist, so viewing angles are excellent. Colors are clean and vivid, though they lack the telltale punchiness of AMOLED screens (most likely due to cost). As technically impressive as it is, the screen does fall short in a few ways.
For one, I wish it were a little brighter: It's perfectly readable in broad daylight, but phones like the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 are brighter and more clearly legible under the sun. It's also a bummer to come across apps that don't take full advantage of that extra screen space. The phone's dialer, Chrome, Twitter, Spotify and more are all bounded on the top edge by a black bar, robbing you of the visual impact that comes with seeing, say, a Google map that stretches all the way across the phone. Unfortunately, this was the case with most of the apps I've tested this past week.
Other apps are prone to different issues. Spotify, for instance, has a lot of extra space below the notification bar, pushing all the actual content down a little more than expected. This issue has been less common, but it's still mildly annoying whenever I come across it. Considering how niche the Essential phone is right now, it's unclear when or if developers will update their apps to accommodate this eye-catching screen.
Meanwhile, the Essential's single speaker mostly just gets the job done. It's louder than I expected, but audio comes out sounding pretty thin and it's easy to accidentally cover the grille with your finger when holding the phone sideways. If you spend most of your day listening to audiobooks, podcasts or music that doesn't feature prominent bass, the speaker shouldn't bother you much. As always, though, you're better off using a pair of headphones, which in this case means having to rely on an included USB-C adapter. I had no issues with audio quality through the adapter, and its short, braided cable gave me hope that it would survive a long-term stay in the minefield that is my backpack. I was also a little concerned that such a small earpiece wouldn't sound good, but it made for pleasant for voice calls; no one on the other end had any complaints about the audio quality either.
And the blank slate theme continues. The PH-1 runs a clean, mostly untouched version of Android 7.1.1. I've said that about other phones before, most recently the Moto Z2 Force, but Essential takes cleanliness to a different level. I've only spotted a handful of changes here. For starters, the typical Android notification bar is thicker than usual, because it has to clear the camera sitting right in the middle of it. There's also an option in the settings to discreetly send usage and diagnostic data back to Essential so the company can smooth out potential performance issues. Really, the biggest change to bare-bones Android is the inclusion of a custom camera app, which we'll get to in a little bit.
The situation is a little different for Sprint customers: Upon activation, the My Sprint and Tidal apps are automatically installed. Considering how overzealous some carriers are when it comes to preloading apps to fulfill business agreements, Sprint's minimal overreach feels downright refreshing. The rest is just Nougat as we all know it, and Essential has pledged to deliver Android updates to PH-1s in the wild for two years and security updates for three years.
Now, as much as I love stock Android, I have to wonder if it's enough to whet the average consumer's appetite for functionality. After all, there's a reason Google offers more than just stock Android on its flagship Pixel phones: It's all in the name of helping users more easily accomplish the things they want to do. I respect Essential's devotion to openness and cleanliness, but there's a way to deliver subtle, powerful changes without completely rewriting the playbook. In any case, I'm sure the decision to deliver one of the purest Android experiences out there won't hurt the startup's chances too much. If anything, it offers an extra dose of geek cachet.