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Hands on with Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone

It’s a pretty captivating pitch: Andy Rubin, one of the guys who founded Android (and who lead the project within Google for eight years!) has a new company… and he’s building an Android phone. The “Essential Phone,” as it’s known.

I’ve been carrying around an Essential Phone for a few days now. Here’s what I think so far.

(I’m considering this a “hands-on” rather than a “review” because we, along with a handful of other outlets, have had the phone for a little over two days at this point. With something as key to our day-to-day lives as a smartphone — and one from a brand new company, no less — that’s just enough time to scratch the surface. We’ll have a more in-depth review in the coming weeks, once we feel like we know this thing inside and out — but with the device having just gone on sale, I figured it was worth sharing some early impressions.)

In a world with a million different Android phones, what makes this one stand out? The aforementioned ties to an Android co-founder might hook some die-hards… but what about everyone else? What’s this phone’s thing?

It has a few:

  • A body built of titanium and ceramic, coming together into what is probably the shiniest (for better or worse — more on that later) smartphone I’ve ever seen. It’s truly a beautiful phone.
  • A striking display with a mega-thin bezel; it stretches nearly all the way to the top of the device’s body, with a small cutout reserved for the front-facing camera and a more standard bezel across the bottom.
  • A pair of data/power pins on the rear of the device that allow you to snap on optional magnetic accessories to expand the phone’s capabilities down the road.

If you were to walk up to an Essential Phone sitting on a table, the first thing you’d probably notice might actually be the lack of things you’re meant to notice.

There is no branding, be it Essential’s logo or a carrier’s. There is no camera bump. Beyond the cutouts for things like the dual cameras, the flash and a fingerprint reader, it’s a sprawling, gleaming slab of shiny.

And oh how shiny it is. The model I’ve been carrying around is a color the company calls “Black Moon” — the color it’ll ship to buyers first. Imagine a mirror finish with a limo tint; fully polished, fresh out of the box, it’s pretty damned stunning.

Alas, a shine like that comes with an inherent catch: This thing picks up fingerprints like that is its job. If fingerprints drive you up the wall, you might want to wait until matte colors are available or get used to wiping this thing down every five seconds.

But what about marks more permanent than a fingerprint? I’ve been toting this phone around with all sorts of other stuff crammed in the same pocket. Keys. Coins. Other phones. Two days in and — honestly, a bit to my surprise — both the display and the back of the phone are flawless. We’ll see if it holds up in the coming weeks.

It feels good in the hand, its titanium body feeling remarkably sturdy. At around 180 grams, it’s a touch heavier than either the iPhone 7 (138g) or the Pixel (143g)/Pixel XL (168g), but never so much that it bothered me.

The battery life seems great so far. Two days is a short sample, but I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much battery was still left on the device on multiple occasions. That’s a good sign.

And, because I just can’t not mention it: this phone has no 3.5mm jack. I don’t like that. I don’t like it on the iPhone, I don’t like it on the rumored Pixel 2 and I don’t like it here. I have half a dozen Bluetooth headsets around my house, and I still mourn the death of 3.5mm. It comes with an adapter, but I’ve been anti-adapter for nearly a decade now.

Now, about that screen. That crazy bezel-light screen, and that front-facing camera poking out right into the middle of it.

When the first photos of this thing trickled out, I thought I’d find the camera cutout a good bit more distracting than I do in practice. I’ve already stopped noticing it. Android mostly uses that top-most section of the screen for its notifications bar, and doesn’t really use that center bit much — so rarely do I find myself thinking about what should be there.

When apps — take, say, Netflix — go fullscreen, the regions next to the camera go dark, effectively shrinking the size of the display to what it’d look like with a more standard top bezel. While it’s better than having a camera sticking a quarter of an inch into your video, it’s a bit jarring to have your screen suddenly lose a chunk you’ve grown accustomed to seeing lit up.

Would it be better without that cutout? Sure! But with display bezels shrinking and selfie-taking at an all-time high, the front-facing camera will forever need a home. Add in the fact that it looks like the next iPhone might take a similar approach, and I’d expect these lil’ front-facing camera peninsulas to become pretty standard.

We’ll save the deeper camera comparison stuff for the full review, but the Essential Phone’s rear camera seems strong — particularly outdoors. Indoors and in low-light situations, my results have been more mixed.

To slim things down and ditch the camera bump, they’re actually spreading photo duties across two cameras here: one color, one monochrome. The monochrome sensor is able to pick up a bit more detail than its color-sensing counterpart, so they take an image from each and merge them together through a bit of post-processing magic. The dual cameras also allow for a portrait mode (read: pretty blurred backgrounds while your foreground subject is in focus); the company showed us a preview build of it, but it wasn’t quite ready in time for the review units.

Arguably the most intriguing aspect of the Essential Phone are those two little pins on the back.

In theory, those pins let the Essential Phone do all sorts of fun things moving forward. They carry power and data between the phone and optional magnetic accessories that you can buy moving forward. Those accessories should be compatible with other devices the company releases down the road, including their Amazon Echo/Google Home competitor, the Essential Home.

I say “in theory” because… well, they haven’t done the best job of saying what those fun things might be. They’ve announced a 360º camera, a dock and… that’s it, so far. They’re promising new accessories “every few months,” but aren’t saying much concrete about what they’ll be.

It’s a similar promise to the one Motorola made with the Moto Z last year and, more recently, the Moto Z2. Even now, Moto’s platform lacks any real earth-shattering, must-have accessories that really prove the concept.

Could Essential have some ultimate accessory up its sleeve? Maybe. But until they show it, anyone buying the phone for those pins is buying on the intangible promise of something. “Imagine the possibilities!” is an easy well to fall into — but, if those pins are the main draw for you, I’d wait until there’s at least an accessory or two that really make sense for your needs.

Alas, no accessories — including the 360º camera — were ready for reviewers just yet, so there’s not much I can say on that front. I did get to check out a prototype model of the 360º camera, which already felt quite easy to magnetically snap in place and sturdy once it was there — but beyond that, we’re still waiting on the production units before we really dive deep here.

The device runs what is effectively pure Android (Nougat, 7.1.1), tweaked only to account for things like the camera cutout. I saw a glitch or two along the way — it took a few resets before my SIM would activate, the notifications bar seemed to crash twice, the camera app felt a bit shaky at times… but things like that are all part of the deal with a brand new phone from a brand new team, and I’ve already seen them issue patches. On the software front, this team seems to move fast.

So far, the Essential Phone feels like a solid foundation for Andy Rubin’s grander vision — one of a unified ecosystem with a catalog of add-on accessories; one of Android phones that promise two-year updates and monthly security patches. Buying it now is betting on that vision, whatever that means to you. I like a lot about it — but, if you’re already content with what’s in your pocket, there’s nothing here quite yet that screams “YOUR PHONE IS GARBAGE! THROW IT AWAY AND BUY ME INSTEAD!”

Nintendo’s Splatoon 2 Switch bundle will be a Walmart exclusive


Want those snazzy neon green and pink Switch controllers you’ve been coveting? In the U.S. and Canada, you’ll have to head to Walmart to pick up the Splatoon 2 Switch console bundle – at least initially. The bundle, announced today by Nintendo, will include Neon Pink and Neon Green right and left Switch controllers, as well as Splatoon 2, the console and the dock, along with the Switch controller holder.

The bundle will cost $379.99 and sell beginning September 8 through Wal-Mart stores. It’s basically the price of the console and the game together, since there’s also a Splatoon-themed carrying case in the mix that accounts for that extra $20. Plus it’s the only way to get those incredibly fly controllers in this part of the world (unless you can find the Japanese versions second-hand somewhere).

It sounds like those controllers could eventually get released separately in the U.S. – Nintendo says this is the “first chance” for North Americans to get the accessories, which implies it won’t be the last. But anyone who’s held out on the Switch for this long should probably consider this option anyway.

Essential Phone now available to order, ships soon to pre-sale customers


The Essential Phone has arrived, a bit later than originally announced. The first smartphone from the new company founded by Android creator Andy Rubin is now available to order, via Essential’s own site, Best Buy, and Sprint. The phone is still listed as a pre-order in all three spots, with shipping information to be conveyed later, but this is the closest people have been able to get to actually holding the device in their hands up until now.

Essential also began sending out notifications to early customers who had pre-registered to purchase the device. 9to5Google reported Wednesday that pre-registered users were receiving emails telling them to supply their payment information, and that once completed, their devices would begin shipping within seven days.

The Essential Phone features a nearly edge-to-edge display, and a standard 128GB of storage on board. It supports external accessories, including a 360-degree camera that Essential revealed at the same time as its phone. The Phone supports all major U.S. carriers, but it’s being sold exclusively via Sprint with a $260 discount at retail. Unlocked, it’s $699 from Essential.com, with a limited time offer to also get the 360 camera in a $749 bundle.

Essential’s smartphone is designed to be minimal in its approach to branding, and to other stuff that phone makers typically do to mess up the smartphone experience, like preloading apps and content, or recreating their own, substandard versions of stock Android apps. It’s also a premium device in terms of materials and design, and Essential is promising two years of Android OS updates and three years of security updates, too.

It sounds like the first Essential Phone customers will still have to wait a week or so to actually receive their devices, but this is a big milestone for Rubin’s company. Another premium smartphone maker entering the fray is also bound to make things a bit more interesting in the market, which has seemed to settle with Apple and Samsung ensconced firmly at the top.

Update bricks smart locks preferred by Airbnb


A subset of smart locks made by Lockstate have been bricked after an update. The smart lock vendor is part of Airbnb’s Host Assist program, and integrates with the accommodation rental platform so, for instance, hosts can automatically generate and email one-time codes for their guests to use during check-in.

TechCrunch was alerted to the problem by a Lockstate customer, Ruffin Prevost, who forwarded us the email he had received from the company informing him of the “fatal error” following a software update.

Two models of Lockstate smart lock are apparently affected, one of which currently retails for $469.

In the mass mailer email, which begins “Dear Lockstate customer” and summarizes its contents as an “update” pertaining to LockState 6i/6000i, affected customers are asked to wait as long as 18 days for a full replacement. Or up to a week if they choose to remove and send the back portion of the lock to the company for repair.

The email adds that Lockstate will pay for shipping and return “within the continental US”. And will provide affected customers with “1 year of free service for the LockState Connect Portal for these locks”.

“We hope that you will give us a chance to regain your trust,” it concludes.

Airbnb offers a $50 discount code for purchasing integrated Lockstate products in its Host Assist program — where it describes the recommended smart locks as “revolutionary” and capable of withstanding “high usage”.

Prevost, an Airbnb host, said he owns two LockState 6i locks, which are used on two interior apartment doors that are rented out on Airbnb’s platform.

“The firmware killed the locks mid-morning on Monday, when we happened to be cleaning rooms. We keep keys to both locks in a mechanical lockbox in the hallway in case of dead batteries or failures. So even though the keypads weren’t working, we could still use those keys to open, close and lock the doors manually,” he told TechCrunch.

As well as being understandably annoyed about the update bricking both locks, Prevost is critical of how the company has handled customer outreach and support.

“The company is not making good use of social media to help stranded lock owners. They’re mainly trying to handle it all privately via email,” he said, adding: “I have had considerable problems with the locks and the company’s support in the past.”

At the time of writing neither Lockstate nor Airbnb had not responded to requests for comment.

Several affected customers, including Prevost, took to Twitter to try to figure out how widespread the problem was. Prevost says he was eventually able to speak to a marketing manager at Lockstate, who told him about eight per cent (or around 500) of the company’s locks are affected.

“The company initially told me they had no extra locks to send me for a replacement and I’d have to wait up to 20 days. After word started getting around late Friday about all this, the marketing director left me a message that they had now gotten some extra locks somehow. But I had already sent back parts of both my locks,” he added.

“When I asked why he didn’t post a detailed notice explaining the problem and detailing how folks could send in their defective gear or otherwise jump-start and accelerate the support process through sharing information online, he said: ‘Sometimes the best way is to reach out to them in mass through a vehicle like Twitter. But I’ve got to sell new locks as well. Promoting that there is a problem with less than 8 percent of our locks doesn’t help that.’

“That mindset is my biggest beef with Lockstate.”

Lockstate’s terms of service include the following warranty disclaimer —

CUSTOMER AGREES THAT LOCKSTATE AND ITS LICENSORS AND SUPPLIERS PROVIDE THE SERVICE AND THE SOFTWARE ON AN “AS IS” BASIS. NEITHER LOCKSTATE NOR ITS LICENSORS OR SUPPLIERS MAKE ANY WARRANTIES WITH RESPECT TO THE PERFORMANCE OF THE SERVICE OR THE SOFTWARE AND/OR ANY INFORMATION OR SERVICES PROVIDED IN CONNECTION WITH THIS AGREEMENT, WHETHER EXPRESS, IMPLIED, STATUTORY OR OTHERWISE, AND LOCKSTATE ON BEHALF OF ITSELF AND ITS LICENSORS AND SUPPLIERS EXPRESSLY DISCLAIM ALL OTHER WARRANTIES, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF NON-INFRINGEMENT OF THIRD PARTY RIGHTS, MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.

So, as is typical with Internet-connected devices, the buyer remains at the ongoing mercy of the company whose digital service is necessary to enable the paid-for hardware to function as intended — in this case for access control.

And also — as Prevost was using it — integrated into his Airbnb host customer service workflow with the aim of making it easier for him to manage guests by generating and sending one-time access codes ahead of time.

So faced with two doors having unresponsive locks for at least a week, what did Prevost do? A lot of extra work, basically — manually replacing both dud locks with two non-Internet-connected-keypad alternatives that he had previously been using, and reprogramming those with the codes previously generated by the (now) dumb Lockstate locks.

“Our Airbnb guests were never inconvenienced,” he added. Clearly the same could not be said of Prevost.

Asked whether he intends to continue to use the product, he illustrated how much of a lock-in a tightly integrated connected device can represent, telling us: “I have six months of Airbnb guest codes for advance bookings already set up and sent out to the guests via email, all as a function of how those locks operate. Manually reprogramming all of those codes or contacting each guest with new codes would be a big productivity loss compounded by this IoT failure. So I’m taking the company at their word that they can fix the locks and have all my cloud data loaded back in.”

“At this point I’ve ‘de-integrated’ the locks from Airbnb so the cloud isn’t generating new codes for those locks. We’ll see where things stand at year’s end when most of those pre-programmed guests have cycled through,” he added.

Another lock-in evidently discouraging Prevost from switching to an alternative smart (or dumb) lock is a physical/aesthetic consideration — with specific holes having had to be drilled in the doors to accommodate Lockstate’s product. “Removing the locks leaves a big hole that I have to patch or cover with some other similar size/shape lock,” he noted.

Prevost says he’s now expecting the reprogrammed backplates back from Lockstate this week — having sent them to the company on Thursday.

“It still hasn’t clearly explained publicly what happened, why, or how they will ensure this won’t happen again. And word is getting out anyway, so any efforts to keep this under wraps have not worked, and have only been a disservice to the customer,” he added.

“They initially told me it would be 14-20 days for a new lock. But they didn’t explain the degree of the problem, which would have helped us understand why the delay was so long. Many customers balked (including me) and said, ‘No, send me a new lock right now.’ Rather than explain the magnitude of the problem (500 bad locks and apparently no inventory in reserve), the company appeared to ignore those of us complaining the loudest.”

As a kicker, it’s not the first problem Prevost has experienced with Lockstate’s products either, after the initial locks he bought a year ago arrived with defective hardware.

“They had to send me several new locks (some of the new stuff was also defective) to get up and running initially. So if I’ve experienced problems with hardware, software and support. What else is there?”

8bitdo’s NES30 Arcade Stick is a big, beautiful fighter companion


If you’re looking for a little more arcade feel for your Nintendo Switch, look no further than 8Bitdo’s NES30 Arcade Stick. The Bluetooth controller accessory is compatible with a range of platforms besides the Switch, and it’s a well-made gadget with careful attention paid to how buttons and the joysticks feel, giving an authentic arcade cabinet experience. It’s also very big, which is not necessarily a bad thing – just something to be aware of.

The NES30 Arcade Stick is a little larger than two Switch consoles stacked on top of one another, and thicker, too. It’s big and solid, which makes it optimal for staying planted when you’re getting fast and furious with fighting game combo action. The Joystick on the left is replaceable if you feel like you want a custom option from Sanwa, and the buttons are standard 30mm arcade models which can also be swapped out if you’re not entirely happy with the feel.

In my relatively amateur opinion, however, 8bitdo did a good job with the stock joystick and buttons included with the controller. They feel like a genuine arcade experience, with satisfying, audible clickiness for the buttons and just enough resistance when you’re rotating that stick. It’s a much better experience overall for pulling off special moves vs. using the existing Switch controllers, and really amps up the fun factor for Ultra Street Fighter II, as well as the many re-released classic SNK fighters available for the console.

The console also features a dedicated turbo button, and a switch for changing between X-input and D-input modes, as well as wired USB support for PC and Raspberry Pi devices, via the included 3-meter USB cable (which is also used for charging the internal battery). It gets 18 hours of playtime on just an hour or two of charging, which is plenty for a single charge, and works with Windows, Android, Mac, Switch and Steam wirelessly via Bluetooth, too.

Functionality aside, the best thing about the NES30 Arcade Stick might be its charm. The use of NES (or Famicom, depending on your model) inspired colors and graphics really makes for an attractive package. Depending on your interior decor tastes, it could even be a central conversation piece adorning a coffee table or curio cabinet when not in use.

The NES30 Arcade Stick is available to pre-order from Amazon for $79.99, and will ship starting on August 20.