In a world of unscrupulous apps and tech company tracking, the Blackphone 2 promises to help keep your personal information private without getting in your way.
The second edition of the Blackphone by security and privacy company Silent Circle is a step up in usability and is surprisingly easy to set up and use, even for privacy novices.
Nothing is unhackable, of course, and testing how resilient it was to attack was not possible at this stage.
The Blackphone 2’s monolithic style suits its purpose. From the outside it looks like a well put-together generic black slab. Front and back are glass, the sides rounded plastic.
The only hint that it isn’t just some generic device is a small barely visible Silent Circle logo on the back with the words “blackphone” and “private by design” in grey-on-black lettering.
It’s quite comfortable to hold, and isn’t as slippery as other glass smartphones, but picks up fingerprints like a magnet. The 5.5in 1080p LCD screen is reasonably bright and vivid. It is of similar quality to that used in the OnePlus 2, for instance, but not quite on a par with that fitted to the Nexus 6P or Galaxy S6 Edge+.
The phone is 7.9mm thick, which is about average for today’s smartphones and feels well built. It flexes a little under pressure from your hands, which means it’s probably best not to put it in the back pocket and sit down.
- Screen: 5.5in 1080p LCD (518ppi)
- Processor: octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615
- RAM: 3GB of RAM
- Storage: 32GB; microSD card slot
- Operating system: Silent OS 2 based on Android 5.1.1
- Camera: 13MP rear camera, 5MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS
- Dimensions: 152.4 x 76.4 x 7.9mm
- Weight: 165g
A day’s battery
The Blackphone 2 has Qualcomm’s mid-range Snapdragon 615 processor, which is certainly powerful enough for the phone’s intended audience. It felt snappy, lag free and chewed through multitasking without an issue.
Only those trying to play graphically intensive games may struggle, but if that is what you’re after I’m not sure why you’re considering a Blackphone.
I found that the Wi-Fi reception wasn’t as good as it could have been, compared to similar devices, but 4G reception was excellent, as was call quality.
The smartphone lasted just under 24 hours per charge, with reasonably heavy use and lots of push emails and notifications. You will need to charge it once a day, but it should see you till you get home even if you go out for the night.
Overall, you don’t feel like you’ve compromised anything in the name of buying a “secure” phone.
Lollipop on the surface
Beyond the interesting boot animation, it looks and behaves like stock Android. You have access to all the Google apps and to the Play Store to download third-party apps with no real restrictions.
The only additions really visible to the untrained eye are a Security Center icon, the Silent Store and Silent Phone apps, which is a good thing as anyone who is familiar with Android will be right at home.
The stock Android-apparence masks the hidden layers of security and privacy built into the phone.
The Security Center app walks the user through it, but essentially you have granular control over not only the personal data that apps can access, but also the hardware and services provided by the phone.
Don’t want an app from having access to location data or the internet? No problem. It operates in a similar manner to the new permissions system implemented by Google in Marshmallow and made famous by Cyanogen OS.
The per-app control is only one level. The Blackphone 2 has what it calls “spaces”. Each space is like a separate user profile within which restrictions can be made on a system level. Each space cannot talk to another, ensuring what you put in it stays in it. You can have, for instance, a space for your work email, contacts, calendar and documents that is fenced off from the other parts of the phone.
If you want to use an app but you think it might be risky, you can put it in a locked down space so that if it does try and do terrible things it’s isolated from the rest of your data.
Getting to each space is simple. You can either switch spaces straight from the lockscreen with different codes or use the switcher in the notification shade. The level of security you give each space can be changed, including the ability to lockdown every other space when one particular one is active.
Companies can define a space and govern rules about it, which means you can blend personal and work on the same phone without compromising data security. Several other devices, including BlackBerrys can do something similar.
As easy or as difficult to use as you chose
Every setting and configuration sounds complicated, but the Security Center can guide users through it. With enough patience you can work everything out within 30 minutes.
It means that you can make the phone as easy or as difficult to use as your security requirements warrant. You can randomise the pin pad on the lockscreen, which makes it much harder for someone to snoop over your shoulder at you passcode, but also makes it harder to unlock the phone.
Other things worth noting are automatic switching on or off of Wi-Fi based on location, the promise of rapid updates to the operating system directly from Silent Circle to make sure security bugs are patched as quickly as possible, and device encryption that is on by default.
Silent Phone and Store
In additions to the modifications behind the scenes made to Android, Silent Circle offers encrypted voice calling and messaging through its Silent Phone app.
It encrypts phone calls and messages only between Silent Phone users, but Silent Phone is available on both iOS and Android, which means it’s not just Blackphone users you can call.
It requires a subscription on-top of your mobile phone contract, but will typically be bundled with a purchase of the Blackphone. Given the number of Silent Phone users is small, it’s of limited utility in general life, but if a business or group was to buy wholesale into the Blackphone they could chat without fear of being snooped on.
You can call non-Silent Phone users, which secures the phone call until it needs to connect to a traditional phone network, which is not as secure but allows users to avoid being snooped from the point of the call, if for instance you were calling across an insecure internet connection.
The Silent Store also offers apps that have been vetted by Silent Circle to be snooping free. The small selection of apps include Firefox, Keeper, Orbot: Proxy with Tor and Ghostery Privacy Browser, all downloadable with Silent Circle’s seal of approval.
The 13-megapixel camera is nothing to shout about. It produces average photos in good lighting, but washed out, dull images when shooting indoors under artificial light.
The five-megapixel front-facing camera is fixed focus and equally anaemic.
The Blackphone 2 is available for £659 without a mobile phone contract in the UK, but including 100 minutes of Silent Phone subscription for a year.
For comparison, BlackBerry’s Priv Android phone costs £559 and offers similar work-private life segregation.
The Blackphone 2 promises to be the most secure Android smartphone available.
It’s not the most advanced, its cameras are weak and its design is rather plain, but it is surprising just how useable its software and services are. The Blackphone 2 keeps the bests bits of Android and doesn’t get in your way like a lot of privacy-orientated services do.
You can make your life as easy or as difficult as you want, with varying levels of security. While the Blackphone 2 isn’t the answer to everyone’s prayers, for the paranoid or important amongst us, it might be the least painful tool for the job.
Pros: security without an overburden of difficulty, spaces, normal Android experience, encrypted phone calls, snappy performance, promise of rapid security updates
Cons: bland design, weak cameras, expensive, weaker than expected Wi-Fi connectivity