Oct 10th, 2019

Unless you’re a massive, established company, releasing a new smartphone is so hard. You have to build a compelling device that is powerful enough to compete with others, special and interesting enough to take people’s attention away from the established players like Samsung and Apple, and cheap enough to be worth buying. All this for a small company is much more difficult than one would think.

Essential gave this a shot two years ago with the PH-1, and it nailed some aspects of this. It was definitely special. The titanium frame and ceramic back felt more premium than any other smartphone, the tiny notch was the first of its kind, the bezels were thinner than almost anything on the market to this day, and the clip on accessories were promising. The fact that the father of Android Andy Rubin developed it definitely helped spread the word.

The high end hardware was also competitive with other flagships, with the latest Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM, an awesome 5.71-inch 2,560×1,312 display with stunningly thin bezels, dual rear cameras, and a 3,040 mAh battery. It was powerful, fast, and capable of playing any game you can throw at it.

However, there were major problems at launch. In fact, the launch itself was delayed multiple times. And when the device was released, it had major issues. The signal was weak, especially on T-Mobile, the scrolling was stuttery, and the camera was nowhere near flagship levels. It dampened the excitement of a very innovative and interesting phone. The bad press and $700 price tag didn’t help either.

These issues were mostly fixed. Signal strength was greatly improved, stutters were reduced (though never entirely fixed), and the camera software was completely overhauled. The price was even dropped multiple times. But the damage had been done. The hype had died, and the people were no longer paying attention. Sales weren’t terrible by any means but they were still disappointing. Nowadays the device has a cult following and receives everything from security updates to major Android releases at the same time as the Pixels.

Over two years have passed and Essential is finally giving us hints of what’s to come. The company showed off a new device called Project GEM on Twitter and it’s a weird and intriguing little device. It’s super skinny and tall, has a hole punch display, a single rear camera, and a color shifting back. It’s hard to know what to think with so few details available. It’s too small and skinny to function as a regular smartphone, as watching video seems impossible and typing probably won’t be easy. The interface is unique and actually pretty slick from the photos we’ve seen, but normal functions will be difficult due to the form factor. Nonetheless, we’re intrigued and excited to see Essential innovate once again.

However, if there’s any hope for success for the skinny little device, the previously mentioned criteria have to be met. Essential has already made something that’s intriguing and different. Step one is complete and they have our attention. Step two will come when the device is launched and they tell us why we should buy it. But the most important step will be nailing the launch. The device has to be ready when it comes out, it has to be polished and functional. It can’t leave a bad taste in people’s mouth and sully its reputation before it even has a chance to succeed.

So Essential, whatever you do, make sure Project GEM is ready to go before releasing it into the world. Make sure it’s as awesome as it could be. I believe in you, and I know many others do too. And please let it survive the bend test.

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