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The Essential Phone is your best 'iPhone 8' equivalent on Android

You've heard the rumors and seen the alleged prototypes, and perhaps even ogled the dummy devices that purport to show the design of the upcoming iPhone 8.

But if you want to get as close to the real deal as possible right now, you have to leave the comforting confines of iOS and venture north a ways to Palo Alto, where the team behind the Essential Phone is readying to ship their first device. Essential Products is the brainchild of Andy Rubin, and comes out of a hardware incubator he started after leaving Google a few years back. The Essential Phone is aptly-named, too: it's about as bare as you'll find on a phone today, sans excess of any kind — it even lacks external branding.

It also resembles what we think the iPhone 8 will look like, at least on the front. Its 5.71-inch screen goes practically edge-to-edge, eschewing bezels for the Platonic ideal of the blank slate that many smartphone manufacturers hope will find the right balance between form and usability. This decision is not without consequences, though: Essential had to buttress the front-facing camera into an awkward dip near the top center of the LCD panel, marring the visual uniformity. Apple has also been forced to tackle this problem, reportedly choosing to go with a "notch" design — bringing the iPhone 8's OLED display up to the edges on the top left and right with a swoop in the middle to accommodate the camera hardware — which could add some difficulty for app developers.

But the Essential Phone is interesting for more reasons than its slight resemblance to an unannounced iPhone. It also represents for the Android world what Apple has been trying to accomplish with the marriage of hardware and software with the iPhone, iOS, and the entire ecosystem of Apple products for upwards of 10 years now.

To Essential, its first piece of hardware, the phone (or Phone) is but a conduit (though hopefully a profitable one) to a larger ecosystem of interconnected products, from cameras to home automation, that founder Rubin believes no one does well enough today. The first step of the puzzle is the phone, being the central nervous system of every app, service, and piece of communication in most peoples' lives; the next step is building the ecosystem so that the phone feels indispensable.

Essential understands that the phone is a means to an end, but it's also the most important computer in our lives.

Apple has done this in innumerable ways; in no particular order, the App Store, iMessage, iCloud, Handoff (Continuity), Apple Watch, Apple Music, Apple Pay, FaceTime — even Notes! — to keep iPhone users invested in the ecosystem. But Android has little inherent gravity, at least not intrinsically. Companies like Samsung have tried for years to build its own version of what Apple has, with little to moderate success. Are you more likely to buy a Galaxy because it exclusively works with the Gear VR or Gear 360, or works better with a Gear S smartwatch? Does Bixby Voice engender you to its hardware? Samsung's success still, after all these years, is far more tied to its hardware innovation and relentless marketing than anything surrounding it.

Even Google is not precious about its own growing ecosystem of free services. You can use Google Maps and Photos on an iPhone about as well as on the Pixel, and its nascent hardware division, from the inexpensive Chromecast to the pricey Google Wifi router system, works just as well on an iPhone as any Android device.

Google doesn't care where you use its services, and brings most of them to iOS alongside Android.

What's interesting about Essential as a company, and the Essential Phone as a product, is that it distills Rubin's vision of Android — not Google's vision, but his own — into a single product. Android's iPhone. High-quality materials, best-in-class silicon, and a software experience that does away with every bit of cruft possible. If you purchase the Essential Phone from the company itself, there is nothing but the bare minimum of Android apps pre-installed to be certified by Google to run the Play Store. Indeed, it has fewer apps pre-installed than even a Pixel, which is sold by Google itself.

Of course, there is an inherent compromise in launching a phone running Android, even one as unadorned and "stock" as the Essential Phone. For one, the phone, which ships this week to those who bought it unlocked, runs Android 7.1.1, which is about to be overtaken as the newest version available to consumers — Android 8.0 Oreo is rolling out as we speak, but only to the most recent of Google's Nexus and Pixel devices. The other problem with the Essential Phone is that what it sees as a virtue, simplicity, most consumers construe as additional work. The irony of only getting Google services pre-installed on a phone not made by Google — the only piece of software developed by Essential itself is the camera app, and it's not very good — isn't lost on Rubin, who's said that this is just the first step in a long list of software improvements for the phone, but it's surely to rile some early adopters.

That said, iPhone users looking to decamp for more "open" climates may want to take a look at the Essential Phone. Despite the fact that it has no first-party hardware at all — it uses off-the-shelf components, such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor and a now-common dual camera setup — there are some parallels with the iPhone that bear some exploration. For one, Rubin and his team promise lightning fast software upgrades within day or weeks of Google's official releases, with platform updates for two years and security patches for a year after that. Sure, that mirrors Google's promises for its own hardware, but very few Android manufacturers have been able to keep it.

The second point is that Rubin has learned from his many years at the helm of the Android project, watching the iPhone and Droid compete at a code level, a silicon level and a carrier level, that as many good decisions as Apple has made throughout the iPhone's ten-year history, others have fallen flat.

In a May essay written around the time of the Essential Phone's release, Rubin laid out why he started the company, and built the Essential phone. Some of them could have been straight from the mouth of Steve Jobs in 2007:

  • Devices are your personal property. We won't force you to have anything on them you don't want to have.
  • Premium materials and true craftsmanship shouldn't be just for the few.
  • Devices shouldn't become outdated every year. They should evolve with you.
  • Technology should assist you so that you can get on with enjoying your life.
  • Simple is always better.

But one does not fit with Apple's worldview, and that's one that Rubin hopes to leverage: We will always play well with others. Closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated.

Much of what Apple does, for better or worse (but usually better), makes using Apple products a more fulsome experience. The iPhone benefits from its integration with iMessage, its symbiotic relationship with Apple Watch, with the App Store's curation. But Apple doesn't go out of its way to endear itself to standards it doesn't think adds any benefit to the user experience, so you can't charge your Apple Watch from just any Qi wireless charger, and prior to iOS 11 developers didn't have access to the iPhone's NFC chip for actions outside of payments.

It's not clear how Essential plans to "play well with others" given that its first accessory, a 360-degree camera, relies on power pins on the back of the phone, but it's an admirable and well-received portion of the manifesto.

The Essential Phone is unlikely to sell well in its first year, and for all I know, the company, despite already being valued at over a billion dollars, may not last more than a few years. Phones are largely commoditized, and it's unclear how Rubin's vision of Android will fare in a world where the top five manufacturers control upwards of 80% of the world's phone market share. But even if Essential manages to carve out a small niche, I believe that like HTC before it, Essential may be considered the Apple of the Android world, and to me, that's pretty high praise.

Read Android Central's Essential Phone review

Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.

  • There will never be such thing...iPhone equivalent on Android. Please!
  • Guess I have to take my clue from which site this is on, which way you mean this ;)
  • I'm not a typical Apple fan boy and I have plenty of experience with Android. The fact is that overall user experience on iPhone is so much better than any Android effort to date; not just because of sheer speed and efficiency, or slick interface, quality hardware etc. but entire approach to creating mobile device and supporting ecosystem. Currently Apple is simply doing best job, and this is not going to change soon. Microsoft is actually much better and more serious challenger than Google, but they have different set of issues...
  • Agree. We've seen this journalistic trick since the iPhone arrived - "PhoneX will challenge iPhone". Never happens. People switch to iPhone not from it.
  • Thats not necessarily true, I have friends who have switched from iPhone to Pixel and haven't looked back...really its a matter of what each user wants...both Ecosystems have their pros and cons...If you're heavily invested in one youre going to tend to stick to it...if you're a real tech fan then you are invested in both ecosystems and aren't blindly loyal to one...I can't tell you how many times i've been infuriated by things that should work in both ecosystems but for one reason or another don't... neither Android or iOS is perfect...most people think iOS just works, and for most things they would be right..but on the flip side most of those same things work just as well on Android.
  • People do switch from iPhone. And this article doesn't bill the Essential phone as an iPhone challenger.
  • Depends on what metrics someone is measuring the iPhone.
    There will never be a "complete" iPhone on Android, for the fundamental reason that Android is not iOS.
    If someone gets what they want from the iPhone but on an Android phone, then for their intents it is for that person, an iPhone on Android.
    Be whatever it is they wanted, some hardware, some software, or a mixture of the two.
  • Its the only android that I've ever seen that has raised my eyebrows. They did an excellent job with this phone.
  • I hope they will sell the phone outside of the US like in South Africa. I would really love to own such a clean device, especially with a seemingly very possible quick Android updates.
  • Exclusive to Sprint's network? Really? I would think that's problem. Maybe the most iPhone-like Android device, but falls far short, between the OS and the network.
  • It's launching as a "Sprint exclusive", but it can be bought directly from Essential and will work on any network. Similar to how the Pixel launched with Verizon, but could be purchased from Google and used on any network
  • As a carrier locked phone, it is exclusive.
    With whatever benefit comes along with that. But it does come unlocked as said from the manufacturer, just perhaps lacking whatever it is the carrier offers you.
  • I look forward to trying this phone. I'm not as excited for it as I am for the next iPhone, but it's still compelling.
  • If Apple released flagship iPhone in 2017 without OLED, without magnetic charging, no waterproof, with Touch ID on the back, with mono speaker and big hole in the middle of the screen they would be soooo doomed. However when somebody else is doing it, it's amazing, well.
  • Essential Phone more like Essential fail LMAO😆😆😆😒😒😒😒😒
  • I'm a recent convert to iPhone (within the last month) after 10 years on Android. This phone still potentially has Android's fatal flaw - lack of consistent security updates. While Project Treble seems promising, it still leaves security updates to the manufacturers who will continue to be motivated by profit rather than customer service and customer loyalty. Google should take security updates over and push out security updates like they push out updates for Google Play Services. Without Google handling security updates, I don't see a change in the inconsistencies. Also, only 3 years of security updates is not good enough - should be 5 years. I'm a Gen Xer and believe that if I'm paying $700 or more for a phone it should last at least 5 years.
  • Thats the fundamental problem with the open nature of Android.
    But also one of its strengths, in that the experience isn't solely dictated by Google's whims.
    There is a lot more room in Android to defy Google than there is room to defy apple on an iPhone.
    You just have to decide if that works for you, that more closed but consistent and supported experience over an open one without an iron fist leading it.
    There are users for both, and neither is inherently bad.
  • Skeptic here:
    1) "promise lightning fast software upgrades within day or weeks of Google's official releases" We shall see. They're already behind Android's latest. And the Essential is already 2 months late from original plans.
    2) Camera issues: The photos are more important than the phone calls for many SmartPhone users today.
    3) The minimalist approach sounds great until you realize each user has their own set of required Apps.
    4) Essential's HW and SW are optimized or so they claim. Will they be able to keep up with each new Android release and optimize it? Surely they aren't investing in CPU, MPU, AI chips etc. the way Apple is. They must use off-the shelf HW and SW. They will never achieve economics of scale, entering a market 10 years late.
  • Personally I am not a fan of the cutout at the top.
    Seems a waste having a physical and therefore unavoidable constraint placed on the screen.
    I would rather have a bezel and full use of the screen.
  • this is just a huge advertorial for the essential. none of its claims are even true. what devices become outdated after a year? they claim that premium quality shouldn't be just for a few but charge as much as any other premium phone and offer way less in terms of features and capabilties and then spin it as "simple is better". no one beyond the tech media are interested in stock android devices. it's such a scam. if every company could get away with just slapping stock android onto generic hardware they would.
  • i thought when i open this link it will show a list of alternative of iphone 8 for android.