The Essential Phone that’s not that essential

The new Essential Phone is not so essential. Heck, it's not even that interesting.

The Essential Phone that’s not that essential
Essential Phone

Perhaps one of the most poorly named products in recent memory, the new Essential Phone, arrives just in time to make us wonder why it even exists.

Using a “modular” design, the idea is to add pieces like a 360-degree camera or maybe some sort of connected home gadget to the smartphone, which runs a stock version of Android. It also uses a slick black enclosure, something that might make you think of a recent Blackberry model. And the screen runs all the way to the edge. Hmm.

Here’s my problem with it. While the modular design seems novel (Motorola does the same thing) and I’m impressed that any company would even try to go up against Apple and Samsung, there’s already some signs that this will be an uphill climb.

First of all, the phone is available only at Sprint or direct as an unlocked phone. I could not buy one for my carrier at an AT&T store. It also costs $699, which is not exactly a budget price. Worse, the one unusual feature related to adding modules is the one thing that also makes it a little less compelling. As far as I can tell (the company did not respond to requests), the 360-degree add-on camera is available only if you buy it with the phone for $50 extra. At, I didn’t see any way to order the extra camera.

And there are no other modules available. So, you think you are buying a “future proof” (as they say) phone, but in reality it’s one phone and one accessory for now.

Maybe there will be some sort of connected home gadget called the Home (if it comes out), but it isn’t available (and technically is more like the Amazon Echo than a modular add-on). You might say, "But’s a solid, well-built phone." Well, so is the iPhone 7, but with that phone, there are hundreds of accessories, a strong ecosystem, Apple stores in most major cities, and a proven track record.

[ Related: 5 essential questions about the Essential Phone ]

What would make someone want to buy the Essential Phone?

I asked a few friends and family members. Every person said they would never buy a debut phone these days from an unknown company. It doesn’t make sense because you don’t know what will happen if it breaks or if the hardware has flaws. When my nephew broke his out-of-warranty iPhone recently, he went to the Apple store and they just swapped it out — Apple will do that on occasion.

Essential? It’s a tiny company. Their Twitter feed has 32,000 followers. That’s half the number of the case company Otterbox. You can buy an extended warranty for the phone for $99, but who knows if the company will provide good service.

Most important, when you really do a deep dive on the specs, it’s just another Android phone — 4GB of RAM, Snapdragon 835 processor. There are no features that will change your experience with a smartphone. If anything, going with stock Android created the sense that there are no perks (and no garbage apps). At least give us a custom app with a voicebot that shows you will be able to control your connected home, or some sort of extra security features, or maybe a free service for watching movies.

The phone doesn't seem essential in any way. That’s a death sentence.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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