Android founder Andy Rubin's new smartphone is way better than I thought it would be

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Android founder Andy Rubin's new smartphone is way better than I thought it would be

  • The co-founder of Android, Andy Rubin, has a new company and a new phone — the Essential.
  • It's one of the best new phones of the year.
  • It's expensive at $699, but that's on par with most flagship phones.

There's a new smartphone you need to know about.

In fact, I placed an order to buy Andy Rubin's new smartphone before I boarded my plane home from a trip to San Francisco on Thursday morning.

I was in town to meet with a variety of companies, including Essential, a new gadget brand launched by Rubin, the co-founder of Android and now the head of a hybrid venture capital/incubator company named Playground.

I didn't have high expectations for the new Essential phone. All too often I'm let down by smartphones and the hype built by anyone other than Apple, Samsung or Google.

But the Essential phone is fantastic.

It's a combination of great hardware and a pure Android experience free of any "bloatware apps." Let's take a closer look at the Essential phone now, and discuss some of its strengths and weaknesses.

First-class design

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Andrew Evers | CNBC

Rubin and team started building the Essential smartphone two years ago, and the attention to detail is clear. The Essential smartphone offers a titanium frame that's supposed to help it survive accidental drops. It also has a ceramic body with a purpose: It lets the phone's antennas communicate without blocking them, like an aluminum panel on the iPhone does, which means you don't get unsightly antenna lines.

Essential didn't just slap a phone together to try to make a name for itself, something I was worried about. There's real thought here.

Clean and fast software

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Andrew Evers | CNBC

If you buy a Samsung, Motorola or LG smartphone, chances are you'll run into "bloatware" of some sort: duplicate apps, changes to Android that can improve (or degrade) the experience, or worse, preinstalled apps from carriers.

Essential is doing none of this, which means the Essential phone runs a near-pure version of Android. It's fast, and more importantly, should be quick to get updates to new versions of Android, including monthly security patches.

Get a load of this screen

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Andrew Evers | CNBC

The screen is the real highlight. It stretches from side-to-side and from the very tippy top of the phone nearly to the bottom. It's a sight to behold and impressed several of my colleagues who wanted to see Rubin's latest creation. This is something we expect Apple to do in September — at least if analyst predictions are right — but Essential got there first.

CNBC Tech: Essential 7
Andrew Evers | CNBC

And, yes, there's a real use for the extra screen real-estate. The camera option buttons appear at the furthest edges of the phone instead of overlapping on the live view. As phones continue to be status symbols, too, there's a "cool" factor that just can't be ignored. People will ask you what phone you're carrying, I promise.

Top-end hardware

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Andrew Evers | CNBC

The phone is packed with the best mobile processor currently available from Qualcomm, the same chip in the Galaxy S8, and ships with 128GB of storage which is more than enough for most folks to store movies, music and documents.

I wish there were a microSD card slot because I like to store my movies on a memory card and move them from device to device, but that's not a huge deal. Also, the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack will be frustrating for some folks, but I prefer to use Bluetooth headphones so didn't find it a big issue.

The battery lasted long enough for me to get through an entire day of meetings with enough juice in the tank that I probably could have had a night on the town before the battery died. It doesn't offer wireless charging, however, which the Galaxy S8 offers. It also doesn't have any sort of VR support, which might be a bummer for enthusiasts who like that.

Accessories

CNBC Tech: Essential
Andrew Evers | CNBC

One of Essential's key business strategies is to launch accessories that will work with this phone and additional phones. The first is a 360-degree camera which, sadly, we didn't get to see because it isn't ready yet. These gadgets will snap on to the back of the phone where two magnetic pins are visible.

Rubin said his plan is to keep all gadgets compatible with future devices so that folks who invest in them now will be able to continue to use them later on other products (not just phones!).

The camera could be better

CNBC Tech: Essential 9
Andrew Evers | CNBC

Rubin and team talked a lot about how much effort went into developing a great camera, using both a black-and-white sensor and a color one to help create accurate pictures.

The phone snaps some great shots, no doubt, but the lack of optical image stabilization, which comes standard on pretty much every flagship Android phone today, is a bit mind-boggling. Shots in low light came out a bit blurry if I moved at all. One would also run into trouble snapping photos in other situations, like during a bumpy car ride or with jittery hands after a day with too much caffeine. I prefer the camera on my Galaxy S8, but this really isn't a deal breaker.

Should you buy it?

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Andrew Evers | CNBC

You won't go wrong buying the Essential phone. It offers high-end hardware and a fantastic user experience, and it's only going to get better over time as Essential launches new accessories (so long as you're willing to buy them). Rubin says we can expect a new product once every quarter.

It's expensive at $699, but that's on par with most flagship phones. Yes, you can do more with a Galaxy S8 since it has wireless charging, support for VR, a great camera and an elegant design.

Despite the competition, it would be silly to doubt Andy Rubin in this space. He and his team know what they're doing, that much is evident in the first product launched by the company. I'm excited to see what follows.

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