Since Essential launched the PH-1 last year, the phone has gained a cult following. Although the phone isn't without its faults, there aren't many other choices for a Snapdragon 835 below $500, and many people took advantage of last fall's Sprint and Amazon sales that saw the price fall lower, under $400. Essential also pioneered the "notch," which (like it or hate it) is only just now coming into vogue. The company and its products aren't perfect by any means, but one might even call Essential disruptive.
For better or worse, I’m reminded of another company that pioneered disruption in the flagship space: OnePlus. And Essential is on track to needlessly repeat many of OnePlus' mistakes.
OnePlus learned from its mistakes
My opinion isn't meant to be a slight against OnePlus, but I think most of us can agree that the “Never Settle” company has come a long way from the era of the OnePlus One and OnePlus 2. Although the OnePlus One was a great phone with an excellent price, it had a few noteworthy defects that the company staunchly refused to adequately acknowledge. For example, many units had a yellow tint to the bottom half of the screen, as well as widespread touchscreen input problems.
Compound those issues with OnePlus’ poor support and communication at the time, and the customer experience was often one of two extremes: exceptional satisfaction with a good phone at a great price, or seething dissatisfaction with its unresolved and unacknowledged issues. Even so, the OnePlus One was able to ride a wave of popularity and community enthusiasm to success. Historically, people get excited (and maybe a bit defensive) when they think they've found a good deal. But, as Carl Pei acknowledged in the OnePlus 5T launch, the company was still heady from its success. It had yet to learn from its mistakes.
"We became so confident in ourselves that we started to ignore the feedback from our community, because we thought that we had already satisfied them," co-founder Carl Pei said at the OnePlus 5T launch event, later describing the "cockiness" of his company and the turmoil it experienced with its follow-up phone, the OnePlus 2, in 2015:
"It seemed like whatever we said or did was wrong and we attracted a lot of criticism [in 2015]. So as a result, we stopped communicating with our community because we lost confidence in ourselves. But there's a silver lining to this story, we learned the lesson of humility. We were lucky to come out of  alive. We no longer thought that highly of ourselves and began listening to feedback from our community again.
With the OnePlus 3, things began to turn around. The company started to change how it communicated with the public. OnePlus became more than just a shell for the company's products and it realized that it could acknowledge problems without ruining its reputation. Although the phone improved significantly on its forebear, the OnePlus 3 wasn’t perfect. But, when early issues like the display's over-saturation and memory management were pointed out, the company didn’t ignore its customers, it fixed things. When many began to have problems with the rear camera's focus (one of the most widespread hardware issues), it didn't blame customers, it fixed phones.
I consider the OnePlus 3 to be one of the best devices from 2016, and part of that satisfaction stems from improvements in how OnePlus handled communication: it took responsibility for problems. When I had issues with my OnePlus One, the company’s support may as well have been a brick wall, but when I (twice) contacted support for my OnePlus 3, the resolution was quick and painless.
OnePlus is now a company that acknowledges when it makes mistakes, like the recent HD Netflix snafu. It accepts responsibility to the point of paying for shipping to make things right. (There are some other mistakes it didn't handle quite so well, but at least it's trying now.)
Essential shouldn't need to make those mistakes again
Right now, Essential is just starting out. It’s at that “OnePlus One” stage, and it’s running into some of the same issues. Its products have documented problems, some of which the company staunchly refuses to acknowledge, or which it defends as deliberate decisions—like the static issue with its headphones, or the "fixed" touchscreen input/scrolling jank.
History repeats itself. Like the OnePlus One, at the current price the phone is a good value on paper, but if you are unlucky enough to experience some of the potential defects, you’re in for a rough time.
Having used the Essential Phone as a daily driver myself, it’s the single most frustrating phone I’ve ever touched. The industrial design is excellent. Just feeling and handling the phone is a joy. The PH-1 is incredibly original in an Android world that's grown increasingly derivative. But the phone has so many individual issues, it just can't be compared to legitimate flagships. Although Essential might argue otherwise, the phone has a serious problem on some networks—especially T-Mobile—covering a range of magnitude from diminished signal to being intermittently incapable of connecting to data or receiving calls.
The phone also has OnePlus One-level touchscreen issues. Whatever the explanation, just panning around a list on the PH-1 is a stuttered experience, even with the alleged “Slow Scrolling Jitter Fix” introduced in the Android Oreo 8.1 update—which only seems to improve the experience in a few apps like Chrome, and only at the expense of significantly increased touch latency. Random intense performance drops (and total lock-ups) are still common with the phone, even after months of updates.
I don't mean to knock Essential too hard, here, but compare the software performance of the PH-1 side-by-side with a two or three-year-old midrange phone, and it's abysmal. My ancient OnePlus One manages to provide a more consistent experience. I’ve had experiences with random ghost touches while the phone is just laying on a surface.
Contacting Essential’s support for any of these problems might result in technically rapid and courteous service—something even OnePlus could probably learn from—but you still get the same runaround in responsibility that the "Never Settle" brand used to give in the old days. Based on my experience trying to raise attention to some of these issues, they’d prefer to place blame for the phone’s failings on external sources (i.e., signal issues are not present or T-Mobile's fault, although side-by-side tests demonstrate otherwise).
Of course, it's alright for a phone not to be perfect; literally none of them are. But at the very least, the company needs to acknowledge these problems and take responsibility for them. It's one thing to say "There's nothing wrong with our product," and it's another to say "We're sorry for those problems." Better would be: "We'll fix these issues."
lol Essential's president took down the crappy photo their phone took. Here it is again. pic.twitter.com/P3j17H4cwf
— David Ruddock (@RDR0b11) June 5, 2017
For a while, OnePlus willingly kept those same blinders up, unfortunately resulting in the OnePlus 2. That leaves me concerned. Acknowledging (and fixing) problems is a lesson that OnePlus took years to learn, and I’d hoped Essential was cognizant enough of the market's history to skip it, for our sake. If the company has to go through its own OnePlus 2 phase, I'm not sure that it will be able to weather it quite so well. Remember, although they would never admit it, OnePlus had the backing of OPPO—and through them, BBK, which is now the 2nd largest phone manufacturer in the world. In comparison, I don't think that Essential can ride out the effect of two sequential bombs.
If history is any indicator, Essential may have to go through its own "rock-bottom" phase before things can get better, but it would be a lot better for us as consumers if it didn't.