Essential’s exclusivity deal with Sprint might not be so bad

Few Android phones have generated the enthusiasm that Essential’s PH-1 has. If you haven’t been keeping up, it’s a very pretty, surprisingly clever smartphone from Andy Rubin, one of the men responsible for unleashing Android upon the world.

On the flip side, few US wireless carriers have fared as poorly as Sprint. In terms of subscribers, it’s in last place out of the Big Four. So, it was a surprise for these two companies come together to cook up an exclusivity deal of sorts: Sprint gets to be the exclusive US carrier for the PH-1, leaving Essential to sell unlocked models to everyone else.

This seemed, in a word, dumb. In an interview with USA Today, Essential President Niccolo de Masi said the company took the leap with Sprint because it likes to “bet where the market is going as opposed to where the market was.” He went on to add that Sprint is the “network of the future,” which is probably the nicest thing anyone under contractual obligation has ever said about the carrier. At this point, it’s a little difficult to imagine the pendulum of fortune swinging back in Sprint’s direction, but that doesn’t matter. The thing to remember is that while this isn’t a perfect deal, it’s still a deal. That’s more than most of Essential’s premium, unlocked competition have. Even better, Essential gets to have its cake and eat it too.

Remember: The PH-1 looks a lot like a love letter to Android’s power users. (I affectionately refer to them as the OnePlus crowd.) They like insane performance, thoughtful design and straight talk; they abhor compromise. OnePlus is a great example of a company that has been chasing this flagship dream for years and done well. Essential is ready to compete in this very specific market. For all the people who prefer to skip middlemen and get their devices straight from the source, Essential has you covered. Just buy it unlocked, pop a SIM in there, and have a great time.

Essential

The deal with Sprint just opens extra doors. If nothing else, Essential gets access to marketing money that it may have been unwilling to shell out itself. In case you haven’t been keeping track, Sprint is actually trying really hard to get back into people’s good graces. I’m not talking about those obnoxious “post-Verizon glasses guy” ads either (though some people seem inordinately fond of them).

Look at their most recent ploy: Customers who are willing to switch from their current carriers basically get an extended, one-year trial run of Sprint service for basically nothing. (You pay for a SIM and cover a small administrative fee each month.) Sprint has admitted that this won’t actually make it much money — instead, it’s a pretty naked grab for subscribers that could help liven up its next earnings release. It’s a clear sign that Sprint will do what it has to to stay in the fight. If it thinks it has a handle on the next big thing — which it might — we may see Essential ads on TV. Your Top-40-FM binge may break into a polished, 30-second Essential spot. Most important, you may be able to walk into a store and see what an Essential phone is like, and talk to a staff that’s been trained on it. By settling on a deal, Essential gets a whole new front in its war for success.

That Essential couldn’t close this kind of deal with a bigger carrier like Verizon or AT&T is telling. There’s very little detail available on Essential’s approach to software. We know that PH-1 will run Android, and that Essential founder Rubin was trying very hard to keep carrier apps off the device at launch. I suspect that was a big sticking point for other carriers. Whether you like Sprint or not, it isn’t nearly as bad as its rivals.

I mean, have you seen all the crap that comes on a Verizon phone? This junk software falls into two major categories: apps that have been pre-installed because of some lucrative partnership, or shortcuts that point to app listings in the Play Store (presumably because those companies didn’t want to pay as much). Verizon cut a deal with Google to sell its high-end Pixels to its customers, but come on — it was Google. Of course Verizon was going to figure something out. Essential obviously doesn’t have that kind of clout or leverage (yet).

AT&T is no saint in all this either. It generally adds less trash in favor of cross-promotional DirecTV nonsense that’s difficult for normal users to get rid of. And let’s not forget how many times AT&T has been burned by taking a chance on an exclusive phone deal over the years. Let’s see: there was the big stuff, like Amazon’s Fire Phone, Facebook and HTC’s First, the Padfone X … the list goes on. AT&T gets points for gumption, but the last time it really got an exclusivity deal right was with the iPhone 10 years ago.

If Sprint pledged some marketing muscle and promised not to screw about with Essential software, it’s hard to see how Essential could’ve refused. Andy Rubin’s new brainchild has little to lose and everything to gain from this tie-up. As for Sprint, it’s been batted around by the market for awhile, anyway — if it could survive that, it’ll survive a potentially misguided exclusivity play. Like I said, this isn’t a perfect deal, but a having a deal at all is better than nothing.

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LG G6 ditches modularity in favor of essentials

LG’s handful of recent teasers for its new G6 flagship left us wondering if there’d be any surprises left for us at its launch event today. Back in early January, the company was rather frank about moving away from the G5’s modular design due to a lack of interest, followed by a promise of increased safety measures after the Samsung Note 7 mishap. While it may seem as if LG has taken a more conservative approach this time, it used three teasers to emphasize the G6’s unique 18:9 (or 2:1, if you prefer) “FullVision” display.

Upon seeing the G6 for the first time, I was impressed by how much cleaner and more premium it looked than its predecessor. What used to be a metallic back is now a shiny slab of Gorilla Glass 5, which gently curves down to meet a smooth aluminum frame on all sides. You’ll spot LG’s signature setup of a dual-camera module plus fingerprint reader, but unlike on the G5, these are now flush with the back plate. LG mainly achieved this by using slimmer camera sensors, but more on that later. The launch colors are “Ice Platinum” (like Samsung’s “Coral Blue” but with brushed metal finish under glass, silver frame), “Astro Black” (black glass, space grey frame) and “Mystic White” (white glass, champagne gold frame), with more options to follow in the future.

On the front, the 5.7-inch IPS screen packs a resolution of 2,880 x 1,440, along with a pixel density of 564 ppi plus support for Dolby Vision and HDR10 content. That panel is covered by a flat sheet of Gorilla Glass 3 which sits flush with the metallic frame — a design choice made to protect the display from scratches and drops. Despite the taller screen, its reduced bezel along the top and bottom sides has enabled a smaller body footprint than, say, the G5, S7 Edge and OnePlus 3T, thus letting the G6 fit a tad more comfortably in one’s hand.

Another notable feature here is that the display panel has rounded corners, a decision made for both aesthetic reasons and to offer better protection against corner drops — LG’s data claims a rounded corner allows for stress dispersion upon impact, as opposed to a sharp corner taking the full blow.

In terms of core specs, the G6 is largely on par with other recent flagships. It runs Android 7.0 (pre-loaded with Google Assistant) and packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chipset (MSM8996AC), 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, 32GB of UFS 2.0 storage, microSD expansion, dual microphones, USB 3.1, NFC and LTE downlink of up to 600 Mbps. The surprise here is that the G6 has a dustproof and waterproof rating of IP68, meaning it’s completely protected against dust ingression, and has been tested for continuous immersion under at least one meter of water. (Amazingly, LG said it tested its phone in salt water as well.) As such, the Nano SIM + microSD tray is the only removable part, and it uses a rubber gasket to seal properly.

For some, the trade-off here is that the battery is no longer removable, but you do get a much larger 3,300 mAh lithium polymer cell. With the bundled Quick Charge 3.0 power adapter and USB-C cable, I managed to go from a depleted battery to 34 percent charge in just half an hour, and then to full charge 72 minutes after that. But it isn’t just about a larger battery this time. Following the Note 7 fiasco, LG began testing batteries at higher voltages and with more recharging cycles as well. And, just to be safe, it also increased the thickness of the separators inside the G6’s battery, so that it’s better protected against short circuiting due to external forces.

On a recent trip to LG’s factory in Korea, the lab technicians proved their batteries’ durability by showing me a couple of crazy torture tests. The first one threw a thick steel rod right onto a fully-charged G6 battery right in front of me but nothing happened, whereas a non-LG battery blew up in the same test, but that was only shown in a video for safety reasons. The second test was rather painful to watch: An apparatus slowly pushed a large needle into another fully-charged G6 battery, but again, no boom. And yes, I also watched a video of a non-LG battery quickly exploding in the same test.

LG has a flame test as well, which the battery can supposedly withstand, but I didn’t have the opportunity to observe it in action. Just to be doubly safe, LG added a heat pipe to help lower the chipset’s heat, and it seemed to do its job well during my 20-minute N.O.V.A. 3 gameplay.

Now, this is where things get a little confusing: Some of G6’s special features will only be available in select markets. For instance, built-in wireless charging is only available on the US models, whereas the 32-bit Quad DAC previously seen on the V20 is only available in the Asian variants — bad news for audiophiles elsewhere in the world. Similarly, only some Asian markets will offer a 64GB model as well as a dual-SIM variant. Simply put, you won’t find a “perfect” model anywhere, which is a real shame.

On the software side, LG’s new “UX 6.0” takes full advantage of the G6’s 18:9 screen aspect ratio. Many of its native apps — namely Gallery, Contacts, Calendar, E-mail and Music — are designed with a dual-square grid in mind, making them more practical and aesthetically pleasing, to boot. The same applies to Android 7.0’s multi-window view, in which you can set a square window for both apps if you want. The feature-packed Camera app goes even further by offering a scrollable thumbnail bar, so that you don’t have to go into the gallery to browse recent photos.

Most of the major third-party apps I tried rendered just fine on the G6’s taller screen; the issues I came across were relatively minor and should be easy to fix. For example, the top bar in the Facebook app would double in height after a while for some reason. Then in Netflix and VLC, the full-screen videos were forced to one side as the hidden Android navigation bar left a blank space behind. YouTube and the native video player don’t have this problem, but only the latter offers a “zoom” mode to enable a true full-screen playback.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the G6 is intentionally skipping the Snapdragon 835, and for good reason. LG’s product planning team pointed out that due to the chip’s new 10nm process plus additional circuitry, it would take some time before production quality reaches a satisfactory level, and that’s on top of the time needed for LG to test the chip for the sake of reliability. Even though LG never said as much on record, it’s clear that it wants to beat Samsung’s Galaxy S8 to market by a wide margin, so it makes sense to stick with a chip that’s a known entity.

But not all is lost, as LG worked with Qualcomm to port the Snapdragon 835’s camera zoom transition feature to the G6 for both stills and video. This enables a smoother switch between the two cameras while zooming, and indeed, the switch delay is less noticeable than what I’ve seen on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Speaking of, the G6’s dual-camera module is powered by Sony’s 13-megapixel IMX258, with the f/1.8 main camera featuring optical stabilization plus a 71-degree field of view, and the f/2.4 wide camera looking at 125 degrees. On the other side, the 5-megapixel selfie camera has an f/2.2 aperture and 100-degree field of view. As with the G5 and the G4, LG is still sticking with the 1.12um pixel size for all three sensors, but the lower resolutions are inevitable given LG’s insistence on removing the camera bump. What’s more concerning is the lack of laser autofocus and color spectrum sensor this time, but LG believes its software optimization makes up for it. We shall see.

Based on my brief experience with the G6 so far, it’s safe to say that LG has taken a sensible approach. Here we have a solid device that’s tougher, more practical and better-looking than its predecessor, and its FullVision display is a much-welcome feature in a market where phones tend to struggle to stand out. It can perhaps be a little frustrating knowing that no matter where you get your G6 from, you’re still missing out on certain features, so it’ll be interesting to see how the consumers respond when the regional prices come out. There’s no word on availability yet, so until then, we’ll continue to fiddle with our G6 and let you know how we get on with it.

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