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18
Aug

Essential Phone hands on: 72 hours later


A forefather of Android has brought a new smartphone vision to life – the Essential Phone – and we have been able to use this latest creation for the last few days: a phone with basically no branding, high-end specifications, supposed future-proofing, and a laundry list of possibilities. A phone that begs the question posed in its own name: what is truly essential?

See also:This is how the dual-lens camera on the Essential Phone works

This is how the dual-lens camera on the Essential Phone works

3 weeks ago

As one of the most anticipated phones of the year, it is interesting to see that a device with such hype is actually quite understated. Our time at the Playground – where the phone was conceived and developed – wasn’t full of fanfare or grandiose presentations, but rather a deeper look into the philosophy that birthed the Essential brand and phone.

After a number of demos showcasing the phone’s various features, we were greeted with what will be the sales kiosks for the Essential Phone – eye catching, to be sure, but not in your face. And the device itself continues this projection.

Essential’s smartphone comes in black or white, glossy and matted in texture, respectively. None of the devices have any sort of branding on them, despite the exclusive carrier rights currently afforded to Sprint. And with the screen off, first glances at the Essential show a slab of tech just waiting to show what it can do.

The essential Phone has a 5.7-inch QHD display with a 19:10 aspect ratio and some of the most minimal bezels we’ve ever seen.

So let’s get straight to the marquee feature, as powering up the phone makes it clear off the bat – this phone is different. A 5.7-inch QHD display is sprawled out as much as it can possibly be on the Essential, making for a 19:10 aspect ratio and some of the most minimal bezels we’ve ever seen on a smartphone.

Besides a bit of chin, it truly feels like you’re holding something that is all screen, all the time with this phone. All that really breaks the immersion is the 8 MP front facing camera, which has been given its own cutout at the top that peeks through the top of the screen. But that little bit of interruption in this very pleasing display only adds some more uniqueness to the Essential.



The body of the Essential Phone is made of titanium, with ceramic as the backing for at least our Moon Black unit. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen a phone tackle a similar design element before, from Xiaomi. The Xiaomi Mi Mix (and the Essential, for that matter) is not the first phone to attempt to go bezelless, but it is the first one to garner a ton of attention for doing so. In my review of Xiaomi’s attempt, I languished over the large size of the handset, wishing for a smaller version of it. That is, essentially, what we get with the Essential Phone.

Ceramic is a very slippery material but the titanium build doesn’t dent or scratch as easily as aluminium.

And the titanium/ceramic combination seems to be holding up quite well to everyday wear and tear – ceramic is a very slippery material that can slide easily off pretty much any surface, and this has resulted in a few very small accidental drops. As Essential has touted, their build doesn’t dent or scratch as easily as aluminium – this seems to be the case so far.

What I might possibly like the most about the phone though is how it manages to make handling quite easy despite the 5.7-inch display. This is a feat that has already been achieved by the likes of Samsung and LG, but the Essential manages to do so without going too narrow or too tall in form. And there is a bit of a throwback vibe to the Essential thanks to the thicker, flatter sides. This phone doesn’t shy away from being a bit blocky – in fact, it plays in its favor as this phone is easier to handle in one hand than similarly sized competitors.

The intriguing display design requires a little bit of creativity on the part of app developers.

The display is, naturally, one of the main draws and so far has been performing really well. The intriguing design aspect where the notification bar goes all the way up to the very top of the device requires a little bit of creativity on the part of app developers. Some applications take to it just fine while others (like Facebook) don’t move their top bars all the way up.

For any applications that don’t try to change UI colors throughout, the notification area just goes black. This change can be a tiny bit disappointing – we were excited to see how the screen would handle media like YouTube but found that pillar-boxing was still the practical solution. Still, we have had no issues with this display, even in broad daylight where it was plenty visible at its highest brightness levels.



Underneath that are all the proper high end specs – the Snapdragon 835 with 4 GB of RAM. One interesting development was the move to 128 GB of internal storage throughout, which is good because users cannot expand the storage with SD cards. Though Sprint will have the Essential Phone available on their network, unlocked versions are available if you aren’t using their services.

Despite the high-end specs, there is no headphone jack on this device, a feature most users still believe is essential.

A semantic argument can be made at this point regarding the term ‘essential,’ as there is no headphone jack on this device. One could argue that leaving it out is contrary to what most users believe is required in their devices; on the other hand, it is possible that the company is trying to redefine the term.

Nonetheless, a USB Type-C adapter for headphones is included in the box and in our short testing thus far it does seem that the Essential can power headphones pretty well. We will see what the output and sound is like on higher end headphones for our full review. Speaking of sound, the built-in speaker is so far a low point on the phone, as it gets tinny and piercing at its admittedly very loud maximums.

That USB Type-C port supports fast charging for the 3,040m Ah battery unit that we will be testing further for our full review.

Charging might not require the charging cable all the time for much longer, however, as Essential is planning on using those two connector dots near the camera combo for numerous accessories, including a secondary charging method.

For now, the unfortunately delayed Essential 360 modular camera add-on is the current Essential accessory. It will take 360 photos and video, processing data in and out of the connector area that the company says will be part of future Essential devices, too. We’re excited to see what the possibilities are with Essential’s take on modularity.

Related: Are modular phones the next big thing?



Without the 360 camera, there is still the built-in dual 13MP cameras. This dual combination puts together a RGB and monochrome sensor for getting more detail out of any given scene. It is possible to take fully monochrome pictures using just the mono sensor, and so far that has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the camera experience.

More camera testing will be done for the full review, especially since we were sent an OTA just before the release of this article that added HDR support. On that note, the camera app does need these updates, as the app can run a bit slow when changing between sensors and is lacking in extra features, like a manual mode.

With Andy Rubin’s name part of the Essential’s being, it should come as no surprise that the company has put some real thought into what the Android iteration would look like in this phone. As simplicity, minimalism, and honestly essentialism are all part of the philosophy here, I was really happy to see one of the lightest versions of Android ever.

As simplicity, minimalism, and essentialism are all part of the philosophy here, the Essential Phone ships with one of the lightest versions of Android ever.

Representatives at Essential posited that aside from Android’s intrinsic applications, only about half a dozen extra are further added. And so far the result in this Nougat build have been speedy, smooth, and consistent. Even when throwing in a Sprint SIM card forced installation of three Sprint apps, it didn’t bog down the experience one bit. If there is one ‘essential’ piece of the puzzle, the lightweight but totally functional Android software in this phone nails it.

Don’t miss: What to expect from Android 8.0



The Essential Phone feels like a phone trying to cater to many people at once, all of whom have different definitions of the word. Essential could mean everyday specifications and features that no one can live without; or, these visions of modularity, easy to harness 360 media, and a screen that won’t quit could become essentials.

Reaching for both makes the Essential a continuously intriguing phone to use. It is unassuming at first but then bursts with capability, but we will see where the lines are drawn in our testing of the ‘essentials’ for our full review. Stay tuned for that and let us know your thoughts on the Essential Phone in the comments below.

18
Aug

Apple store is now stocking refurbished 2017 27-inch iMacs


Why it matters to you

A refurbished 2017 iMac from Apple can offer good savings over buying new, and they all come with a one-year warranty.

Apple has now begun selling refurbished 2017 27-inch iMacs on its web store, marking the first time fans have been able to get their hands on one of these all-in-one systems from an official channel without buying new. Although all of them pack Intel Core i5 CPUs, there are options for memory and graphics chip, at prices that offer decent savings over new models.

Although Apple hardware regularly lands at the top of our lists for reliability, like any electronics range, there are occasional problems. When those crop up, Apple often refurbishes them and packages them back up for resale and that’s where you can really save some money if you want to buy Apple without the high price tag.

There are a lot of different refurbished models available through Apple’s online store, but this is the first time that the 2017 iMacs have been put up for sale there. Priced between $1,530 and $1,950 depending on your selection of hardware, there is plenty of choice across the range, but all of them come with significant savings over buying new. As MacRumors reports, with the right choice you could save yourself upwards of $300.

If you have a particular model in mind though, you’ll want to get in there soon, as stock will fluctuate once people begin buying them up. At the time of writing, there are only a handful available, though you do have your pick of a few different configurations. The lowest cost version comes with the standard 27-inch, 5K retina display, powered by a Core i5 CPU at 3.4GHz, 8GB of DDR4 memory and a Radeon Pro 570 graphics chip. Storage-wise it offers 1TB of hard drive space with some flash cache storage.

If you have deeper pockets, you could opt for the 3.8GHz model. It still uses a Core i5 chip, but has a higher clock speed and a more powerful Radeon Pro 580 with 8GB of video memory. It also comes with an expanded 2TB of storage space.

There are a few intermediary models with different clock speeds, some offering 16GB of system RAM, too. However, be wary when looking to buy any of them. The new iMac models are listed alongside much older variants from 2015 and even 2014. As good as those were, their internal hardware will offer much less bang for your buck.




18
Aug

Own an iPhone 7? Try these 15 iMessage apps, sticker packs, games for iOS 10


We reviewed Apple’s iOS 10 last year, and it came with a host of improvements. Most importantly, the iMessage App Store lets you download stickers and install games or apps for you to play and use directly within a conversation. The whole iMessage platform, announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference earlier this year, is quite similar to the Facebook chat bots craze. You can install apps like The Weather Channel if you want to pull up the day’s highs and lows directly within a chat, or OpenTable, which lets you vote and book your favorite restaurants.

There are three types of iMessage Apps you can install — games, apps, and stickers. You can access the iMessage App Store from the Messages app by tapping the App Store icon near the keyboard in a conversation. The list of stickers, games, and apps for iMessage are continuing to grow, and plenty more will come. For now, we’ve picked five in each section that we think you should download. Check them out.

If you want a complete gaming experience, don’t forget to check out our picks for the best iPhone games and the best iPhone apps.

Best iMessage Stickers

Super Mario Run Stickers

Nintendo’s second major app to come to a mobile operating system after Miitomo features the company’s most iconic character, Mario. But game aside, who doesn’t want to spam Mario stickers in every conversation? These stickers allow you to embed the popular plumber within your messages, and you can even send a selfie with Mario’s hat and mustache layered over your face.

Download for iOS

Grammar Snob ($1)

If you’re the type to constantly correct your friends on their grammar and spelling, you should download Grammar Snob now. The app lets you playfully place misused or misspelled words over errors in a red, handwritten-like font.

Download for iOS

Aardman Face Bomb

These face bomb stickers are extremely fun because they’re interactive. To use the face bomb stickers, simply drag them on top of any picture in your conversation. You can use two fingers while you’re dragging the sticker to resize or rotate it. You can also drag the sticker on top of a message, if desired.

Download for iOS

Cookie Monster Stickers

Cookies aren’t the only time you need to bring up Cookie Monster. OK, they kind of are, but Cookie Monster is cute and goofy so he deserves a place in your Messages. Like the Disney stickers, you can drag the blue fur ball to your chat bubbles, over images, and on top of other stickers as well.

Download for iOS

George R. R. Martin Stickers

Winter is coming. No really, it is. But instead of typing those words out, why not use the sticker from George R. R. Martin‘s A Song of Fire and Ice collection? You can send stickers of iconic phrases, house sigils, and artifacts such as swords and crowns, and you can also place them on top of other images.

Download for iOS

18
Aug

Best iOS app deals of the day! 6 paid iPhone apps for free for a limited time


Everyone likes Apple apps, but sometimes the best ones are a bit expensive. Now and then, developers put paid apps on sale for free for a limited time, but you have to snatch them up while you have the chance. Here are the latest and greatest iOS app deals available from the iOS App Store.

These apps normally cost money and this sale lasts for a limited time only. If you go to the App Store and it says the app costs money, that means the deal has expired and you will be charged. 

Sky Guide

A star app has never been more beautiful and easy to use. Just hold it to the sky to automatically find constellations, planets, satellites, and more. It’s stargazing fun for all ages and experience levels.

Available on:

iOS

Thunderspace 5k

During the day, Thunderspace won’t let you focus on all the noise around you. And at night it will make you very sleepy.

Available on:

iOS

Student Planner

The student planner designed for the modern student with powerful features all designed to be used quickly and easily.

Available on:

iOS

Pilsy

Track your cycles and mood changes. Customizable, powerful, and intuitive design will help you to prepare for your cycles and help you avoid missing birth control pills.

Available on:

iOS

ListBox

The most important thing about this reminder app is that it won’t leave you alone until you notice the reminder, and when you do, it suggests an action.

Available on:

iOS

Pointillisted

The Pointillisted app generates pointillist artwork using images from the Photo Library, including those shared in iCloud. Become a 21st-century Seurat with your iPhone.

Available on:

iOS




18
Aug

A parent’s guide to managing their kid’s social media presence


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If your child hasn’t created an account on at least one social network by now, chances are the question has come up.

Besides being easier to connect with entire groups of friends and classmates through these services, schools are becoming increasingly involved in sharing group accomplishments on social media for all of the parents to see at once. Combine that with the relatively recent appearance of social network celebrities, regardless of inspirational or aspirational interest, and you’ve got plenty of reasons for your child to want into this world they are currently denied access to.

Truth be told, social media is almost exactly as great as it is terrible. It only gets weirder if you’re not an active user yourself, and that can raise a lot of perfectly valid concerns you may have before allowing your child access to these apps and websites. To help you better understand how to talk to your kids about the potential pitfalls and to help you understand exactly what is going on and how to ensure your child is as safe as possible, we’ve assembled this little guide to help!

The basics

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It may seem like social media is its own special language with complex concepts you’d need a textbook to figure out, but these apps and websites have more in common than you might know. There are some basic rules of the internet as a whole that are important to demonstrate to your children before they start playing with friends in these new digital playgrounds.

First things first: There is no such thing as deleting something on the internet

When you post something on the internet, regardless of whether it’s a selfie on Snapchat or a screenshot of an embarrassing conversation, to a friend on Facebook, it exists forever. It doesn’t matter if you delete the post or if the app you’re using promises the thing you shared will “go away” after an hour; a record of that post and its contents exists somewhere and that information is stored forever with your username stamped on it.

It’s also important to remember that your username is almost always connected to you in some way. Some social networks ask for your phone number, and some ask for an email address, but everything on the internet records your IP address when you access a website or app to do something. In some small way, everything you do and say on the internet is captured and cannot be deleted simply by removing a post or closing an account.

You do have some control over how much information you share

Just because you’re sharing a little bit of information on Twitter or Instagram when you use those apps doesn’t mean you have to also share it with everyone else. These apps have features built in that allow you to share your location and mood and whatever music you’re currently listening to, but it’s all optional. A great way to stay safe when you’re using these social apps is to disable the ability to share your location when you share a photo.

This information isn’t just available in the apps you use. Location information can also be shared with people through your camera app, depending on the app you use. You can also disable location services on your camera, which will remove the information that includes the exact location of the app when you’re taking the photo.

It’s also a good idea to make sure there’s nothing obviously identifying about the photos you’re taking and sharing publicly. Avoid including the name of your school or the name of your street in your photos, and it’s instantly much more difficult for a stranger to randomly discover your location by your photos.

Hashtags are amazing and terrible at the same time

Everything has a hashtag nowadays. Just about every show on every channel on television has some kind of hashtag for adding to your posts, and for a good reason. Hashtags make it easy to pick a topic and see what everyone is saying about that thing. It’s instant feedback for any live event or a fun way for friends to share an inside joke across the vastness of the internet.

But it’s also the easiest way to discover new people, which means it’s something that can be easily abused. Bullies can use hashtags to find people to shame or easy targets to trick into doing something they normally wouldn’t. Combine a hashtag with photos that have location data on them, and it becomes easy to track down a group of people in the real world.

Like anything, hashtags need to be used responsibly. Don’t engage with strangers who are out to pick a fight, and avoid sharing anything too personal with an easy-to-search hashtag in the post.

Keeping kids as safe as possible

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Now that I’ve finished scaring the hell out of you with some of the big dangers that could be lurking behind every corner, it’s important to know there are plenty of tools built into apps and websites to keep your kids safe well before they make their first post.

Make that account private

The easiest way to avoid a random stranger stumbling across your child’s account is to control how many people can see it in the first place. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and almost every other social network allow you to make your account private. This feature makes it so only people you have confirmed should be on the friend’s list can see the posts made by your child, as well as limit the amount of information visible on the profile itself.

This is a great first step, but it’s also important to teach your child when it is appropriate to confirm people on the Internet as friends. It’s fun to see you have lots of people on your friends list, but it’s important to know who those people are in some way. This level of control lets you and your child choose between only having friends that you’ve met in person or only friends from school, as an example.

Almost everything wants to know your location

This is one of those things that can’t be repeated enough. With rare exception, the answer to the question “Would you like to share location data with this app” should be a firm “no” for your child. Social networks, in particular, offer the ability to share your location along with your posts, which tells anyone reading those posts almost exactly where you are.

Facebook is perhaps the most egregious offender here, with a feature that will also pop up a frequently visited location to let anyone on your friends list know if you’ve recently been to that store or restaurant. This data adds up quickly and can paint a very clear picture of what your child is doing as well as where and when.

Selfies and other things cameras can do

There’s no shame in taking a great selfie, especially with friends, but if your child is using their phone out near the house or in front of the school, it could reveal more information than intended. The background of that selfie might reveal the name of the school they go to or the name of the street you live on. It’s easy to accidentally set a photo with that kind of information as your profile photo, effectively broadcasting to the world where your child lives or goes to school.

It’s also important to remember you aren’t the only person with a camera on your phone, and we live in a world where videos and photos of people doing embarrassing things are celebrated by certain segments of the web. Your best tool against this kind of exposition is awareness. If your child sees someone with a phone out in a place they should have a phone out, make sure they know to tell someone in charge as well as come talk to you about it.

Being prepared and informed is not the same as being afraid

It’s easy to read all of this and be concerned about your child having a phone at all. There are stories everywhere of terrible things happening to children and access to the internet is one of the things that helped make that child a target. It’s easy to become concerned to the point of isolation, but it’s also important to know how to teach your child how to use the internet as a positive force in their lives.

These tips are a beginner’s guide to awareness, and that alone is a powerful tool to have for anyone of any age. It’s easy to see these phones as little boxes of magic with apps your kids use that you don’t understand. It’s also easy to become involved and explore these experiences with your kid. Together, you’re both better informed and better able to make the best choices for staying safe and having fun.

What suggestions do you have for parents who are new to social networks with a young kid? Share your tips in the comments and we’ll add the best to the article!

18
Aug

Essential Phone review: Our first impressions


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When it comes to joining the smartphone market, the path isn’t simply defined.

It’s pretty rare nowadays to see a brand new smartphone company launch from scratch, and it’s rarer still that it chooses to launch right into the ultra-competitive high-end smartphone space. The final piece forming this triumvirate of rarity is actually shipping a product — something that Essential has actually done. Sure hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital helps, as does the leadership of one of the founders of Android, but this is still no small feat.

And despite being its first ever product, the Essential Phone isn’t some sort of short-sighted or incomplete gimmick. It’s the real deal, with proper specs, serious hardware and desirable stock software. After a brief hiccup with its shipping timeline, Essential has a full e-commerce launch, as well as a retail partnership with Best Buy and carrier partnerships with Sprint and Telus. Yup, it’s done things properly and actually started off its life on the right track.

But with all of the launch hurdles out of the way, we now have a new phone to evaluate. In a world where the top-end Galaxy S8, LG G6 and HTC U11 (not to mention a whole field of less-expensive phones like the OnePlus 5) exist, where does the Essential Phone stand out? We cover it here in our review.

See at Amazon

About this review

We always desire to use a phone for an extended period of time before writing a review, but given the circumstances of receiving the Essential Phone, in this case we’re publishing this initial review just over two days after receiving it. Usage was on both AT&T and T-Mobile in the greater San Jose, CA and Seattle, WA areas. The phone was provided to Android Central for review by Essential.

Given the time constraint, you won’t yet find complete impressions of some aspects of the experience that take more time to evaluate. Those will come in due time, when we’ve used the phone long enough to speak specifically to them. And though the phone was using complete, stable software as we reviewed it, our Essential Phone did receive an update a few hours prior to publishing this review primarily with camera improvements and also minor interface tweaks. This review can and will be updated, as necessary, with further impressions of this software update and time using the phone in the coming days.

With all of that said, these are our first impressions of the Essential Phone after a little over 48 hours.

Condensed version

Essential Phone Hands-on video

For the abbreviated, visual take on the new Essential phone, be sure to check out our hands-on video above. Once you’re done and ready to see all of the details, read through the review below!

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Just the essentials

Essential Phone Hardware and design

From the very start, Essential has focused on simplicity, minimalism and generally striking design to sell the Essential Phone. It’s right in the name: just the essential parts, and nothing more. It’s something CEO Andy Rubin espoused constantly — he has no desire for the phone to even have the company’s name on it (something he calls “Nascar branding”), let alone any other superfluous design elements that don’t add to the function of the device.

In taking a two-hour tour of the Playground Global headquarters (the incubator from which Essential was born) and talking to the engineers who had their hands on this product, I found there was another pillar to the Essential Phone’s construction: obsessive quality and materials standards. Talking to a hardware engineer standing in front of a massive titanium 3D printing machine, we talked about the tolerances and tooling required to choose materials like titanium and ceramic rather than traditional aluminum and glass.

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The materials are tougher to work with, requiring different processes and tooling that has to be replaced 50% more often, but the trade off is worth it in their eyes. Titanium doesn’t bend as easily as aluminum, and when it does bend on impact it simply springs back into place without permanent structural damage. Ceramic is stronger than glass, resisting scratches even better, and it just feels nicer as well. The extremely tiny bezels around the screen, which give the Essential Phone its distinctive look, require a tolerance of just 0.1 mm on the display panel edges; other manufacturers typically accept a 0.4 mm tolerance.

At 185 grams (6.53 ounces), the Essential Phone is hefty — befitting of its monolithic structure. It feels fantastic when you pick it up, and if you’re a fan of minimalism as I am you’ll love the look as well. The ceramic back flows smoothly to the highly polished titanium sides, which carries right into the Gorilla Glass 5 front. Essential is making no claims of ruggedness here, but you just get the feeling that it’s a phone capable of living — and holding up admirably — a year or two outside of a case. You certainly don’t get that from a Galaxy S8.

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Being able to use more exotic materials with extra-high quality standards on the Essential Phone is one of the benefits of being small, the team says — if it had to make 40 million phones this year, these materials and processes just wouldn’t be available. A majority of the Essential product team had a past life that involved a stint with Apple, and this experience is certainly in stark contrast to that company’s product development. It’s Essential’s nimble size that’s one of the reasons it can offer this bonkers-looking display, as the competition like Samsung and LG (and Apple, as rumored) move in that direction but haven’t yet reached this tiny bezel size.

It’s all about that dat screen.

The front-on view is indeed startling for the first day or so you use the Essential Phone. Yes there is a bezel on the bottom of the phone, but you’re not looking down here — you pay attention to the ridiculously small bezels on the other three edges. Well, that’s not quite right; you actually just forget about the bezels entirely, and truly feel like you’re only holding a screen. That is, of course, until you see that front-facing camera dipping down into the status bar.

The display itself, once you get over the mind-bending nature of the bezels and curves, is a run-of-the-mill high-end LCD. At 5.7 inches diagonally and a 2560×1312 resolution (505 ppi) it’s right in line with the rest of the industry. It’s clear, crisp and has excellent viewing angles — but at roughly 500 nits max brightness it falls short of the competition in direct sunlight. Part of that is due to the inherent reflectivity of an LCD panel, but the Essential Phone also doesn’t have any sort of outdoor display mode like the Galaxy S8, LG G6, U11 or Xperia XZ Premium, which pushes those phones over 550 or even 600 nits in harsh sun situations.

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Bare-bones

Essential Phone Software and performance

It doesn’t take long to get a handle on the Essential Phone’s software, provided you’ve used another phone with a “stock” implementation of Android Nougat like a Pixel, Nexus, Motorola or OnePlus phone. This is precisely Essential’s goal, as Rubin reiterated time and time again — it has no desire to add any extra software, services, apps or changes. And if you want something extra, you’re going to find it in the Play Store. Even in a world where you can choose from the aforementioned phones and get a very similar experience, it’s still refreshing to see a new company release a phone and go with this stock software approach from the start.

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When you start up the phone, you have a basically clean slate. The app drawer is only half full, with “as few apps as possible” pre-loaded. Unless it’s an app to perform one of the phone’s basic functions or it’s an app mandated by Google to be included, it isn’t here. Even the phones sold by Sprint and Telus will be bloat-free (though they will be SIM-locked if bought on a financing plan).

The Essential Phone’s software is aggressively bare almost to a fault. Essential has made practically zero changes to stock Android, and while that means there’s no opportunity for the company to mess things up it also means it isn’t differentiated in any way. I look at the way OnePlus and Motorola (and even Google on the Pixels) do their software, with subtle and very useful additions that improve the experience without getting in the way, and think Essential is maybe missing an opportunity to offer just that little sprinkle of extra functionality that would be super useful. This truly is the closest thing you can get to “stock” Android, for better or worse.

The only real change, if you could call it that, is adding some extra height to the status bar to ensure there are no conflicts with the odd front-facing camera jutting down into the screen. The bar is much taller than other phones, which feels a little odd at first but is really no different than simply having a larger bezel up there in the first place. Because the Essential Phone also has an extra-tall display, it has to fight with some app compatibility issues just like the Galaxy S8 and LG G6. Most apps are properly designed to scale to a tall screen and fit more seamlessly into the tall proportions, but others aren’t ready for the aspect ratio and add an extra bit of dead space at the top of the app. Unlike the GS8 and G6, the Essential Phone has no “compatibility mode” of any sort to gracefully stretch or letterbox these apps — you just get dead space at the top.

The spartan software shouldn’t come as any surprise considering the size of the Essential team.

None of this should be surprising. When the Essential Phone was announced, the entire company consisted of 20 people — hardware, software, business development … everything. Even today, a few months on from launching the company, Essential’s headcount hovers around the 100 mark, and they’re responsible not just for the Phone but also the 360-degree camera attachment, upcoming Essential Home and future products. It’s no surprise that the extra engineering hours just aren’t available to make more elaborate software.

Even with the small staff, Essential is talking a strong game when it comes to releasing monthly security patches and regular platform updates. If the company is able to keep up the cadence of updates, we may be more likely to look past the few areas of the software hat could use a bit more attention and polish.

essential-phone-straight-on-home-screen.

Performance and specs

In my time talking to Essential engineers and representatives, nobody seemed interested in boasting about specs or speeds. Not because the phone doesn’t have high-end specs, but they simply understand that the Essential Phone has effectively the same spec sheet as every other top-end phone in 2017 and it’s no longer a point of differentiation. Things like true world LTE radio support (25 bands) from a single model and 128GB of built-in storage are just givens in Essential’s eyes, because that’s what people want in their top-dollar phone.

Two specs that aren’t included, however, are a waterproofing IP rating or a 3.5 mm headphone jack — features many people would consider “essential” when dropping $700 on a new phone.

More: Complete Essential Phone specs

Essential isn’t boasting about specs — it’s just matching the rest of the industry.

With a Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM and bare-bones software, performance on the Essential Phone is expectedly great just like every other phone in this segment. I zipped through apps just fine and din’t find any regular hangups throughout — though I did have three surprising instances where the phone completely locked up for several seconds, once requiring a force reboot. As I mentioned at the start of the review this isn’t final software, though, and eventual Essential Phone owners should expect to be using newer, more stable software than I am.

I haven’t spent enough time to make a definitive call on battery life from the 3040mAh cell inside, but early indications are positive. My first full day using the phone was a travel day, while using roaming data, which together are notoriously hard on phones — and the Essential Phone made it a full 10 hours, with over 4 hours of screen-on time, while using apps heavily and playing music over Bluetooth for at least half of that time. On the next day, which was a far more typical day of medium use with lots of time on Wi-Fi, it shaped up for a 16-hour day with 25% to spare.

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A good start

Essential Phone Cameras

The best example of the Essential Phone’s bare-bones software experience is in the camera, where it comes across as a “programmer’s first camera app” type of interface. You can toggle HDR (but not auto HDR), the flash, video quality, timer and front-facing camera, as well as switch between auto, black-and-white, and slo mo mode. That’s it. The “settings” page simply gives you options to toggle shutter sounds and location. There’s no viewfinder grid option, no filters, no clever zoom mechanism, no depth effects from the dual cameras … there isn’t much of anything.

The camera app doesn’t even lock the screen awake when it’s open, so after 30 seconds without interaction (by default) the screen simply turns off. It has decent performance, but it isn’t lightning quick like the rest of the software experience.

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The Essential Phone is working with dual 13MP camera sensors, one color and one monochrome, with f/1.85 lenses and dual-mode (laser and phase detect) auto focus. You don’t get OIS (optical image stabilization) on either camera, nor does the pair offer any sort of dual-camera selective focus or artificial bokeh effects, as you’d find in most dual-camera phones nowadays.

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Camera performance is strong, and photos are particularly sharp and detailed with just the right amount of processing in fine lines. Colors don’t necessarily pop or wow you as much as they’re just accurate to the scene. Dynamic range was good, but sometimes a tap-to-meter was needed — the software update pushed to review devices a few hours before this review was published added HDR, and hopefully that will make a noticeable improvement. (This review will be updated with any new information.)

This is great for a first-ever phone, but the camera app needs work.

In low light the Essential Phone is again capable of photos with sharp edges and good colors. But it does often struggle, as expected, attempting to use very slow shutter speeds — as low as 1/15 second — to get a clear shot. With that slow of a shutter speed and no OIS I took many soft or downright blurry photos, but when I was able to stabilize or brace against something (which is far from ideal) the camera showed strong capabilities. With some tuning and optimization to bring faster shutter speeds, that will hopefully be less necessary.

I would personally say that having a main camera with larger pixels and OIS is far more essential to a smartphone camera experience than a second sensor just for black-and-white photos, but that second sensor does offer fantastically crisp shots with a wide range of shades. I’m not sure how big the demand is for a dedicated black-and-white camera versus, say, a telephoto or wide-angle lens, but it does take unique shots.

There’s clearly room for additional tuning to the camera processing here, alongside what is hopefully continued improvements to the camera app, to boost photos to the levels of the Galaxy S8, LG G6 and HTC U11 (which are, of course, from companies with years of experience in mobile imaging). But for a first attempt, the Essential Phone takes really good photos from both of its cameras — it’s more than good enough, but not quire ready to fight the industry leaders.

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Waiting for the other shoe to drop

Essential Phone First impressions

A recurring theme of my tour of Playground Global was a frank sense of realism about the whole Essential Phone launch. Essential has a clear goal: make a clean, bother-free, high-end phone that’s user-centric, and make money off of the margins selling the hardware. It isn’t interested in designing a custom software experience or building ecosystem lock-in with extra services and subscriptions that make you feel like the product rather than the customer.

The Essential Phone’s hardware is simply stunning, there’s no way around it. Titanium and ceramic are both beautiful and brawny, while its tiny bezels are just downright amazing to experience. You get all of the specs you need — minus waterproofing and a headphone jack — plus great additions like true worldwide network support and 128GB of storage. Performance and battery life are in line with its $699 price. It isn’t all industry leading, though, with a display that has good-not-great brightness and cameras that land short of the flagship competition.

The value proposition isn’t about what it has, but what Essential has chosen to omit.

It also has a bit of an aura around it that feels as though it’s waiting for the other shoe to drop to make it a complete product. Despite having ambitions of future artificial intelligence-driven software, there is absolutely nothing in Essential’s current build of Android 7.1.1 that shows any unique software prowess or even a tiny bit of thoughtful customization for a better experience. The same goes for its rear-mounted accessory pins, which have exciting potential in the future but today sit completely idle as its 360-degree camera attachment has no release date, its desktop dock hasn’t even been seen and there are no known plans for other accessories.

It’s truly refreshing to see a new company come out of the gate swinging with new ideas, and Essential has managed to execute on its vision surprisingly well. The Essential Phone is good, perhaps even great, but aside from solid hardware and clean software it doesn’t bring anything particularly special to draw in customers. Its biggest strength isn’t what it has, but what it doesn’t: there’s no bloatware, superfluous features, unnecessary hardware or even branding to get in the way of using it.

Restraint is refreshing, and something that isn’t exercised by the competition nearly enough — but it’s a tough selling point in this hyper-competitive market full of established companies selling great phones that best the Essential Phone in multiple areas.

Essential Phone

  • Essential Phone review: First impressions
  • Essential Phone specs
  • The latest Essential Phone news
  • Join our Essential Phone forums!

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18
Aug

Essential Phone vs. Samsung Galaxy S8: The no-bezel battle


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Whenever a newcomer hits the scene to challenge an incumbent, we take notice.

The Galaxy S8 has been a clear success in the market, outselling not only the entire slate of high-end phones in 2017 but also beating Samsung’s own Galaxy S7 sales records. But there’s a new challenger, the Essential Phone, coming in at a similar price with similar specs — and though it doesn’t have immediate aspirations of coming anywhere near Samsung’s sales, Essential surely believe it has a competitive product.

Here’s how the new Essential Phone compares to Samsung’s Galaxy S8.

Even though it wasn’t the first to do it, you can easily say that Samsung popularized the “tiny bezel” movement in the smartphone industry. This is the direction phone hardware is moving, and I think it’s fair to say the Essential Phone takes one more step along the path with its own amazingly tiny display bezels. Whereas Samsung plays a bit of eye trickery with its curved display to makes its bezels seem super-small, Essential actually does it — and it throws in the additional tiny bezel on the top. I tend to favor Samsung’s symmetrical top and bottom bezels, but you can’t say the Essential Phone isn’t striking when it’s in your hand.

When it comes to the screens themselves, Samsung still takes the cake here. While the Essential Phone’s LCD is no slouch, Samsung’s AMOLED is still the industry leader and beats it in crispness, brightness and visibility in direct sunlight.

Samsung goes sleek and a little flashy, while Essential keeps it strong and minimalist.

There’s a clear differentiation here when it comes to the hardware that surrounds those displays. Samsung continues to shave metal off with each successive generation, to the point now where you basically only feel glass holding a Galaxy S8. It’s not as fragile as it looks, but it isn’t particularly robust. The Essential Phone strikes a better balance between sleek looks and strength, using a full titanium frame that’s dramatically stronger and a ceramic back that’s much less prone to scratches than the GS8’s glass. You can tell the second you pick it up, as the Essential Phone weighs in at 185 grams, a full 30 grams heavier than the Galaxy S8. It’s not quite heavy enough to be a usability issue, but you sure can tell you’re holding something more substantial.

More: Samsung Galaxy S8 specsMore: Essential Phone specs

Internally, it’s par for the course with both of these flagships. Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM and ample internal storage — though the Essential phone does have an extra 64GB to play with instead of an SD card slot like the Galaxy S8. Batteries are near-identical at 3000mAh and 3040mAh, though the Essential Phone likely has the lead in battery life considering how much less its software is doing at any given moment.

Samsung fans have perhaps taken for granted some of the core features included in the Galaxy S8, as they definitely aren’t given in other phones even at this price. The Essential Phone doesn’t have wireless charging, waterproofing of any kind, or a headphone jack. Chances are having all three of those features isn’t a requirement for a phone purchase, but I bet at least one of them is — and these just aren’t things you can get around with the Essential Phone.

If you’re going to pick the Essential Phone, software is likely to be a big part of your decision.

Comparing the software experience is likely the biggest differentiator between these two phones. Essential is going with the simplest, cleanest version of Android possible, with the fewest number of pre-installed apps and absolutely no extra services unless they’re necessary for the core function of the phone. It’s probably a little too simple for some, but for anyone who has fought with manufacturer- or carrier-imposed software changes, it will feel like heaven. For all of the streamlining Samsung has done with its interface, it’s still loaded with features, tweaks, apps and services that you may or may not want — and you’re going to have to work a little bit to make it work for your needs.

Now let’s talk cameras. Samsung is still one of the leaders in this department, building on a few years straight of having one of the best cameras available. Its 12MP sensor has all of the right supporting specs, and processing that takes great, consistent photos in so many situations. It’s one of the standards by which we hold other cameras. This is Essential’s first shot, and while its dual 13MP cameras do well in most situations they can’t team up to do what the Galaxy S8’s single lens can. Stellar black-and-white photos aside, the Essential Phone doesn’t match the GS8 here.

Bottom line

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Given the current expectations around smartphone prices, it’s tough to argue either of these phones isn’t worth the $700 (or so) price tag. Both offer fantastic screen-to-body ratios, great specs and overall good experiences befitting the “flagship” moniker we all like to throw around.

The Samsung is a safe choice for many, but the Essential Phone shouldn’t be overlooked.

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 has the clear advantage in terms of the raw number of features it offers in its software, its great camera, and its hardware extras like waterproofing, a headphone jack and wireless charging. That extra software can be burdensome, though, and its overall hardware package isn’t as physically strong as some of the competition.

The Essential Phone is a clear pick for those who want something a little different, and aren’t necessarily attracted to a big-name phone. It offers a stronger body that should better stand the test of time, the same general spec sheet as the competition, and clean software that won’t get in your way or bog down with needless additions. Its cameras aren’t up to the GS8’s speed, though, and the minimalist hardware with a few missing features can weaken its value proposition.

Essential Phone

  • Essential Phone review: First impressions
  • Essential Phone specs
  • The latest Essential Phone news
  • Join our Essential Phone forums!

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Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+

  • Galaxy S8 and S8+ review!
  • Galaxy S8 and S8+ specs
  • Everything you need to know about the Galaxy S8’s cameras
  • Get to know Samsung Bixby
  • Join our Galaxy S8 forums

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18
Aug

TELUS opens pre-orders for Essential Phone, starting at $290 on-contract


Essential’s second carrier-exclusive launch gets under way.

Coming in a day after the Essential Phone launched in the U.S., Canadian carrier TELUS has opened up its pre-orders for the new phone from Andy Rubin’s company. Unlike the Sprint “exclusivity” in the U.S., TELUS has a true exclusive deal to be the only retailer in Canada selling the phone, rather than just the only carrier partner in Sprint’s case. Essential won’t be shipping its unlocked model to Canada at launch, so your only choice up North is to buy from TELUS.

See at TELUS

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At launch, TELUS only has the “black moon” color on offer, just like Sprint, and of course, the only storage option is 128GB.

Pricing is set at $290 on a two-year plan of at least $95 per month, or a hefty $490 on a two-year plan of $85 per month or more. Online orders ship for free (at that price they better), and are expected to arrive in three to four weeks — that’d put the Essential Phone on your doorstep around the week of September 10.

TELUS also says that the Essential Phone’s 4K camera attachment will retail for $270 when it ships later this year.

Essential Phone

  • Essential Phone review: First impressions
  • Essential Phone specs
  • The latest Essential Phone news
  • Join our Essential Phone forums!

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18
Aug

This $24 50-mile TV antenna gets you local channels without a monthly fee


Our friends at Thrifter are back again, this time with a deal on an over-the-air antenna!

This AmazonBasics ultra thin HDTV Antenna is down to $23.99. This antenna dropped to $28 in early February and has sold steadily at that price ever since. This is the first drop below $28 and its lowest price ever.

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Features for this antenna include:

  • 50 Mile range to access from broadcast tower; receives free HD channels including ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Fox, Univision and more
  • Reversible with black or white sides to match your home’s decoration; antenna can be painted over to achieve a more personal touch
  • Supports 1080 HD and includes 16 foot coaxial cable
  • Multi-Directional and Reversible: No “pointing” needed

Like the product page notes, the success of the antenna varies a lot depending on where you live, what’s being broadcast near you, how far away you are, and other variables like that. If you want to know how to take full advantage of over-the-air antennas like this, check out our article.

See at Amazon

More from Thrifter:

  • How to get the most out of your Amazon Prime membership
  • How to save money when driving

For more great deals be sure to check out our friends at Thrifter now!

18
Aug

How to set up a VPN on Android


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Setting up a VPN on your phone is easier than you think.

One of the easiest ways to protect yourself and your privacy while you are using the internet is with a VPN. Filtering traffic and tunneling through an anonymous service isn’t something most people can set up themselves, and there are plenty of companies out there who want to do it for you. We’ve looked at a few of the services and their Android apps, so if you don’t already have a VPN subscription that’s where you should start.

The best VPN services

The best VPN apps for Android

The next step is getting your VPN set up on your phone, and that’s really easy, for the most part. VPN access is built into the network settings on Android, and we’ll look at how this native integration works, but most of the time there is a better way: the company’s Android app.

If your VPN company has an Android app

We’re going to use IPVanish VPN for our example. Once you have an account set up with IPVanish, you’ll need to visit Google Play. IPVanish VPN has published its own app, and you can install it like any other.

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Once installed, open the app and follow the setup instructions. At some point, you’ll be asked to provide permission for the app to see your internet activity, and you’ll need to say yes for it to work. And that’s all there is to it! You can check out the app’s settings so you know how to turn it on and off or how to switch servers. The app does all the hard work and you can just use it like any other app on your phone.

If your VPN company doesn’t have an Android app

This is a little more complicated, but still easy enough that most anyone can follow along. You’ll need to know a few settings that your VPN company will be providing. Everything is pretty standard, and the settings you would need for a computer are the same ones you will need here. Again, we’ll use IPVanish as our example.

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  • Open the settings on your phone.
  • Under the Wireless & networks section, tap More.
  • On the next screen, choose VPN.
  • In the upper right corner, tap the + symbol.

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On the screen that opens, you’ll need to supply a few settings. These are the settings you’ll find at your VPN companies website.

  • Name: Give your VPN connection a name.
  • Type: Choose the connection type. Your VPN company will tell you what to use here, and IPVanish allows us to set up a PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) or an L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol) connection. Be sure to read any documentation from your VPN company if you need help deciding which connection type to use.
  • Server address: You’ll need to enter the server address provided by your VPN company here.
  • DNS settings: DNS search domains and DNS servers are also provided by your VPN company if they are needed. They probably aren’t — see the documentation — but if they are required, this is where you enter them.
  • Forwarding routes: Again, you probably won’t need to enter anything here. If you do, it will be in the documentation your VPN company provides.
  • Username and Password: Your phone might have these entries here, or they might be in the next step. Use the login provided by your VPN company in either case.
  • If your phone has a setting for Always-on VPN here, checking it keeps the VPN active at all times.
  • Once done entering these settings, tap Save.

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  • If you didn’t have a section to fill in your user name and password earlier, a window will open asking you to connect to your new VPN entry. Use the user name and password provided by your VPN company.
  • Tap Connect to save your login and start the connection.

If you go back to the VPN connections page, you’ll see the entry you just created. Tapping on it starts or stops the VPN connection.

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Your new VPN works with all data on your phone — web browsers and other apps. If your VPN has a data cap, you’ll need to be mindful of when it’s turned on. You can tell when the VPN is active by looking for a key icon in your status bar. You can add as many VPNs as you like this way, but only one can be active at a time.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to use these instructions and be safer online with your new VPN!

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