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.
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.
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.