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Finally: A Good-Looking Android Phone Without The Bloatware

This Android phone is made by Essential, a company you've probably never heard of. And it looks really, really nice.

Posted on August 18, 2017, at 9:01 a.m. ET

This is the Essential Phone, a new logo-less Android device. It's the first phone made by Essential, a company you've probably never heard of.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

There are tens of thousands of Android devices currently on the market. Samsung and Huawei are currently the top Android phone makers (with a combined 29.6% of the total smartphone market share worldwide), with China's Oppo and India's Vivo not far behind.

And yet Essential, a small hardware company out of Palo Alto, California, thinks that the world needs another Android phone.

Andy Rubin, the man who invented Android, is one of the key figures behind the new phone.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Rubin is the founder and CEO of Playground Ventures, a startup incubator that provides engineering and design resources (as well as lots of money) to hardware projects — and the company's first venture is Essential, a new consumer electronics brand that, according to Rubin, focuses on consumers and craftsmanship.

"One things I worry about is as an investor is what the deals I’m not seeing are," Rubin told a group of reporters earlier this week. "So, every now and then, I’ll decide to start a company because I see an opportunity based on my years of experience. And Essential is that first company."

What's most exciting about the Essential Phone is that it runs a very "pure" version of Android, without a ton of extra, unnecessary apps (also known as "bloatware").

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Every year, Google releases a phone running a clean version of Android, without third-party "skins" and other feature gimmicks loaded by carriers or manufacturers. The latest "pure" Android phone is the Google Pixel, which had amazing software perks (unlimited high-res photo storage!), but an uninspired design.

Samsung's Galaxy S8, on the other hand, has beautiful hardware, but is still full of useless Samsung apps (hi, Samsung Pay) that take up space on the phone and crowd your homescreen.

The Essential phone, perhaps because its made by one of Android's creators, meets those two devices somewhere in the middle. It runs Android without any bloat (the only pre-installed Essential app is the camera app), and has a polished, modern design that looks and feels great.

That, on top of the fact that Essential is a beautiful, high-end phone.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The first thing you'll notice is that it's stunning. The phone is made of titanium (which, apparently, is stronger than the aluminum in the Pixel and iPhone) and ceramic. Most notably, it doesn't have a camera bump. It lies completely flat, which reduces any scratch risk for the camera's lens.

And I love that it's logo-less. In fact, that was a design point for Rubin: "On the phone, there’s no branding. It’s not a NASCAR. It doesn’t have a carrier brand. It doesn’t have our brand. Doesn’t have the retail channels' brand. Customers spend their hard-earned money on this. We want it to become their product."

The black version has a mirrored back that's incredibly shiny and smooth. It also attracts a lot of fingerprints. Speaking of which, there's a fingerprint sensor in the back to unlock your phone.

It doesn't feel like it'll slip out of your hand, though. There are matte edges around the display that provide just the right amount of friction (and help cellular signals go through the chassis).

One unfortunate side effect of using strong materials is that it makes the phone feel...hefty.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Essential is designed without cases in mind (its website intentionally doesn't sell them), because titanium is so resilient that it can survive a corner drop test on solid concrete with a scratch.

You can feel the durability — and the weight. The Essential phone is 185 grams, while the Galaxy S8 is 155 grams and Google Pixel is 143 grams. That doesn't seem like much, but when it's something you're carrying around in your pocket all day, you'll notice the difference.

For small-handed folks, the size is manageable-ish with one hand.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The Essential phone's screen is 5.71 inches diagonally. But because its display reaches so far to the edge, it feels like an XL phone in a non-XL package.

Its power button is lower than the volume control (something I had to get used to), which makes it easier to reach.

However, the fingerprint sensor is quite high, so when I was using the phone one-handed, I often had to precariously wiggle the phone to reach the bottom of the screen and access back/home buttons.

The shape of the phone is also more brick-like, compared to the rounded curves of Samsung's flagships, and that made it more difficult for my thumb to reach the far corners of the display.

One weird quirk with this phone is that it has a notch on the top of the screen for the front-facing camera.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The phone is designed this way to allow for as much screen real estate as possible. For the most part, it's not obtrusive. It's where most notification icons live. But Essential's software team is reaching out to the top 100 apps in the app store and proactively working with them to make their apps friendly to the front-facing camera nub.

The real star of the show is the phone's 360 camera accessory.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The camera, which is sold separately for $200 (or $50 if you buy it with the phone), snaps to the phone through magnetized, metal prongs. According to Essential, it's the "world's smallest 360º personal camera."

After you connect the camera, it immediately launches 360º mode in the camera app. I tried a not-yet-finalized version of the 360º cam and app, so sometimes the app launched automatically, sometimes it didn't.

The camera can capture 2k or 4k photos or video and doesn't have flash, so you're limited to day photography. The accessory has two 180º cameras, one on the front and one on the back, and the two images are stitched together automatically on the phone itself. It puts in a lot of work for small device. You can hear the fan inside of the 360º camera working, and the phone runs warm while processing 4k images.

When it officially launches, Essential's camera app will also be able to support 360º livestreaming to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Being able to capture 360º photos right from the phone felt novel and fun.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The main problem? Because it's an all-around capture, you have to be in every. single. photo.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Hi, here's me opening my window shade.

And because you have to press the shutter with your thumb, a warped version of your hand shows up in the frame.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

If you look closely, you can see the photo sphere's stitching.

It's probably best for epic, vast landscapes and large group selfies.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News
Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The phone's built-in camera is decent, too.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

There's a front-facing 8MP camera with f/2.2 aperture and a rear camera (13MP with aperture of f/1.85) with two lenses. Unlike the iPhone 7 Plus's dual lens setup, which has one wide and one telephoto (or close-up) lens, Essential's phone has one RGB color and one mono, or black-and-white, lens.

The benefit is that the color information comes from the RGB lens, and the detail comes from the mono lens. The images taken by the two are combined to create a high-resolution photograph with true-to-life color.

I compared the Essential's camera to the best phone camera around: the iPhone 7's — and the results are similar.

iPhone 7 on the left, Essential on the right

iPhone 7 on the left, Essential on the right

Here's where the phone falls short.

I really hated the vibration on this phone. The vibration motor was so jarring that I had to turn haptic feedback off for typing and system notifications.

Unlike other flagship phones (namely Samsung's Galaxy S8 and the iPhone 7), the Essential phone isn't waterproof, which, for clumsy folks like myself, feels, er, essential.

There's no headphone jack. The phone does come with a USB-C to headphone jack adapter, however. I am a Bluetooth-believer and personally don't take issue with this, but many do.

And it's probably not being sold through your carrier. Sprint is Essential's exclusive US carrier and is offering 50% off its leasing plan ($14.58 for 18-months). Those on other cell providers will need to pay $699 for the unlocked version, and $749 for the version with the 360º camera.

One thing to keep in mind: This is the company's first product — and the next generation is bound to make up for this debut phone's flaws.

After a very brief review period, I'm impressed. It's a great choice for those looking for Samsung/Google/HTC/LG/Apple alternatives, and for Android purists.

But it *is* Essential's first effort. While the hardware feels quite polished, the software, at times, didn't. During testing, for example, the camera app crashed multiple times (though Essential did push an update the night before publication that apparently addresses the issue). Tech-savvy early adopters who already have plenty of backup phones in case this one fails should go for it — but everyone else may want to wait for v2 before making the plunge.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.