Andy Rubin's Essential Phone hits Sprint shelves

SAN FRANCISCO—Essential Products made its big retail debut in the United States Thursday as its first phone hits the shelves of Sprint stores across the nation.

Sprint, which has exclusive carrier rights to sell the handset from Andy Rubin’s startup, is offering the Essential Phone for $14.58 a month with no money down over 18 months, marking a 50% discount worth roughly $260. The carrier also offers Essential’s 360-degree camera, a modular add-on, for $200, or $16.67 over 12 months on its installment plan.

Essential also was named as one of FierceWireless’ top 15 startups to watch in 2017 and beyond. The company comes to market in a particularly heated environment, however: Apple and Samsung recently introduced high-end phones as the holiday shopping season approaches, and Google is expected to unveil a second-generation Pixel in the coming weeks

Rubin is the celebrity founder of Android, of course, and his company has garnered $330 million in funding as it enters an extremely competitive smartphone market. But the handset has some impressive specifications at a price point well below flagships such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 and Apple’s upcoming iPhone X.

“Essential Phone is enabled with three-channel carrier aggregation capable of reaching peak download speeds of more than 200 Mpbs,” Sprint said in a press release. “With an average of 204 MHz of spectrum and more than 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in the top 100 U.S. markets, Sprint has more spectrum for the future than any other carrier across the nation, allowing Sprint to keep adding the capacity and speed needed to serve customers increasing demand for unlimited data.

The Essential PH-1 is a high-end, Android-powered mobile phone positioned to compete with Google’s Pixel and Samsung’s new Galaxy S8; it features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor and 128 GB of internal storage. It is made of titanium and ceramic, with magnetic modular add-ons, and notably lacks any logos.

And while the prospects for Essential’s first phone will surely be constrained by Sprint’s exclusive distribution deal, the carrier’s airwaves are ideal for Essential’s strategy of targeting millennials and other consumers who increasingly use their phones to view, record and share video—which requires significantly more data than other use cases.

Indeed, one of Essentials first products is a 360-degree camera that attaches to the phone magnetically, enabling users to shoot spherical UHD images at 30 frames per second.

“I think it’s the future of social media,” Essential President and COO Niccolo De Masi told FierceWireless on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress Americas Wednesday. “I think this is some of the most important brand-building we can do,” he said of the Sprint launch of the phone. “Because you see it, touch it, feel it.”