Essential Phone PH-1 smartphones

Teardown: Essential Phone PH-1

We review the Essential Phone PH-1, as the father of Android enters the handset market.

Andy Rubin is Silicon Valley royalty. So when he sets up a new handset company aiming squarely at the high end of the market, people take notice. This is hardly some nobody looking to beard Apple, Samsung and the other established players.

For those of you unfamiliar with the name, here’s the abbreviated biography. Rubin’s career includes stints as an engineer at Carl Zeiss, Apple and MSN TV. His ascendancy truly began in 2003, when he co-founded a little venture called Android. It was, of course, acquired by Google in 2005 and from then until 2014 he was its senior VP, continuing to oversee development of the mobile OS.

Essential is one of the first start-ups to emerge from the Playground Global incubator that Rubin set up after leaving the search giant. The PH-1 - more commonly known as the Essential Phone - is its first offering. Some have reacted to it as less a product and more a design manifesto; if it is, it is a slightly muddled one.

From a materials point of view, there has been fastidious attention to detail. The PH-1 has a ceramic rear and a titanium bezel (thinned down so that the 5.7in, 2,560×1,312px display utterly dominates the front). Ceramics suffer fewer scratches and titanium is stronger than aluminium, so the phone does not bend or warp as easily.

The PH-1’s engineering engine room is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 applications processor, the go-to chip for many upscale handsets. It runs an eight-core Kryo 280 CPU alongside an Adreno 540 GPU. RAM is 4GB and onboard storage is 128GB of UFS (Universal Flash Storage) from Samsung. Cameras comprise a dual rear-facing (colour and B&W) 13MP array and a front 8MP array. To maximise display space, the front camera is effectively embedded within it.

It may be a start-up, but Essential has not compromised in terms of the specs – they are what you would expect from a $700 (£530) smartphone, almost a preferred Qualcomm reference design (see the components table). At 3040mAh capacity, the battery is in that bracket. A fingerprint sensor on the rear is present and correct.

We now get to Rubin’s mission statement. He and his team have taken the Essential brand to heart and stripped away everything they consider – well – unessential to such a device. You won’t even find the company’s logo on the outside of the phone (it’s concealed on a tag within the SIM slot).

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Android Nougat (the phones will upgrade to Android Oreo by the year-end) is a clean, efficient OS in itself. Moreover, the absence of vendor bloatware not only frees up memory but, according to numerous reviewers, means that for what it does do, the PH-1 makes more efficient use of the Snapdragon processor. Apps the user may load from the Google Play Store apparently also run faster.

This direction has had some other consequences. The PH-1 is one of the latest devices to do away with the 3.5mm headphone jack (although it does come boxed with a 3.5mm-to-USB adaptor as standard). Meanwhile, there is no memory expansion slot.

Finally here, the camera app is very much bare bones compared to other handsets in the segment. For example, there is no optical image stabilisation. This seems strange given the decision to go for a dual-camera array. It further seems at odds with another interesting marketing and design decision Essential has taken.

Two small magnetic powerpins on the rear of the phone are designed so that the owner can connect various Essential peripherals. The first to be launched is a small 360-degree camera capable of working at up to 4K resolution. A good few more will follow, the company says.

The idea of looking to build margin in this way is hardly new – it harks back to the days when all the profit in printers was in the ink cartridges. It is relatively new to smartphones, where OEMs have tended to leave the after market to companies such as Belkin.

Also, it feels a little strange for Rubin to have adopted such a strategy on a product where the most immediate appeal is to fashion-conscious minimalists. Yes, we need to namecheck Steve Jobs at this point, don’t we?

While we have Jobs in mind, there’s another piece of gloomy but tiresomely familiar news. From a repair point of view, the PH-1 comes with a ‘No Trespassing!’ sign as big as any that Apple has ever placed on its consumer products.

During their teardown, the iFixit team had to freeze the PH-1 to prise apart the glue and get a look inside. When they tried this around the back of the phone, they found that they had access to nothing. When they moved to the front, they did eventually get inside, but ended up breaking the Gorilla Glass in the process. Ho-hum.

They marked the PH-1 at 1 out of 10 for repairabilty, and some would find that generous.

Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that a number of OEMs have followed Apple’s lead in making their handsets difficult to enter without causing serious damage, this appears a potentially counterproductive choice for the PH-1.

Given that the business model is significantly built around the sale of peripherals, would you not want an owner to retain his handset for a fair period of time so that he or she keeps buying them?

That said, the Android fanboy and girl community is extremely excited and for a first phone the PH-1 feels pretty mature, although perhaps not quite mature enough. 

Key components

Essential Phone PH-1

Exploded view

1 Ceramic rear panel

2 Front camera array

3 Rear camera array

4 Midframe shield

5 Motherboard

6 Display

7 Gorilla Glass front

8 Chassis

9 Antennas/cabling

10 Speaker

11 Vibrator

12 SIM tray and identity tag

13 Fingerprint sensor

14 Battery

Motherboard

15 Wi-Fi module, Qualcomm

16 LTE transceiver, Qualcomm

17 Memory (Flash), Samsung

18 Memory (RAM) on Apps processor, Samsung/Qualcomm

19 Audio Codec, Qualcomm 

20 Power management, Qualcomm

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