Hands-On: Silent Circle Blackphone
The Blackphone is a smartphone for corner office types who absolutely require encrypted, secure communications. Silent Circle's second-generation handset is a handsome piece of hardware. Here are our impressions.
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Silent Circle first introduced the world to the Blackphone about a year ago. Since the device's release, Silent Circle said it has booked about $750 million in business. Clearly there's demand for what it provides: secure communications. The Blackphone is the tool through which Silent Circle provides those communications, and the company showed off second-generation hardware at Mobile World Congress.
Like many devices, the Blackphone is a black slab. It's a fairly attractive and well-built slab, based on the time I spent with it here in Barcelona. It has glass surfaces and a metal frame, which is a pleasing combination. The Blackphone is a bit nondescript, which is probably by design. It doesn't stand out from the crowd in the least, and that likely counts as a plus as far as Silent Circle is concerned.
The materials are quite good, as is the quality of its manufacture. The seams are fitted together tightly and everything about the device feels solid and on par with its $600 price point. It's a large phone, thanks to the 5.5-inch screen, but it still manages to fit well in my hand and my pocket. The thin profile helps a lot.
The 1080p HD screen looks good at first blush and the front face of the phone is devoid of any physical buttons or controls. It relies on three capacitive keys placed under the screen for controlling the operating system. The bezel isn't too thick or distracting.
Silent Circle placed the volume toggle and screen lock button on the right edge of the phone. They are rather thin, but stick out just enough that finding them isn't too difficult. I was pleased with the travel and feedback they each offered. The SIM card slot is on the left edge, the microUSB port is on the bottom, and the headphone jack is on the top. Since the phone is made of glass, the rear cover cannot be removed. That means there's no swapping out the battery.
The Blackphone runs PrivatOS, which is a forked version of Android. It functions like Android, but doesn't have access to the Google Play Store. That means it has limited access to apps. Unfortunately, Silent Circle was unwilling to let us see just how the OS works. The idea behind PrivatOS, however, is to encrypt essential communications — namely phone calls and text messages. Silent Circle acts as the network operator of sorts to provide the secure path between phones. There's one hitch, however; both parties need to have Blackphone's in order for the conversations to be fully protected.
Silent Circle's business model appears to be working, or it wouldn't have been so successful with the first model. The second model is a dramatically better piece of hardware. As long as Silent Circle can continue to be one of just a few companies providing this type of service, it will continue to succeed.
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