[nextpage title=”Introduction” ]
Product Type: Smartphone | Manufacturer: Silent Circle | Price: From £467.00 | Where to buy: Silent Circle | [et_social_share]
The BlackPhone 2 is a best-in-class security and privacy handset that falls short on internal hardware.
As people share more data online than ever before, security is becoming a major issue in the world of smartphones. Most handsets still treat it as an afterthought, with slow updates and poor notifications for users. Silent Circle is a company who prioritises privacy above everything else, having being founded by legendary security buff Phill Zimmermann. You might know him as the guy who invented Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), an encryption method used for signing emails and secure documents. They’ve been missing from the market for quite a while but recently, have come back to push the BlackPhone 2. The device was originally launched back in September 2015 and boasts strong security and privacy features. Will it be the handset that makes us all feel like Edward Snowden, or just another slab? Let’s find out…
OS Android 6.0 with Silent OS
Processor Snapdragon 615
Screen 5.5 inches
Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels (400 DPI)
Memory 3 GB RAM
Micro SD compatible? Yes, up to 128GB
Rear camera 12MP
Front camera 5MP
Connectivity WIFI b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC
Dimensions 152.1 x 76.4 x 7.9 mm
Battery 3,000 mAh
[nextpage title=”Design and Screen” ]
The BlackPhone is a pretty understated device, with very little visual cues in its design, yet it also manages to stand out. The monolithic slab design seems to compliment it’s security focused hardware. It’s a mix of glass and plastic, which is a rather odd pairing. We’d much rather see metal trim instead of plastic, as this would’ve given the handset a much more premium feel. If the build quality was a little better, this would be a looker. As it stands, the BlackPhone is an attractive, if not premium device.
In the hand, it’s a comfortable device to hold. At 7.9mm thin, it has a nice footprint that doesn’t feel too bulky. While the handset is primarily glass, it has a firm grip and shouldn’t slip out of your hand by accident. The curved edges also mean it won’t poke into the corners of your pocket, while the weight is just enough that it won’t feel like a brick.
The front of the handset is mostly blank, aside from the three Android buttons along the bottom. A microphone/ earpiece sits above the screen along with the front camera. Bezels are reasonably thin, with the screen taking up a sizeable portion of the device. This is all encased in glass, which shows fingerprints noticeably on the black finish.
On the back, the camera sensor sits flush behind more glass, while a subtle Silent Circle logo is located just underneath. The speaker resides on the back of the BlackPhone, an unusual placement to what we’re used to. The quality of it is actually quite good, with plenty of volume. Bass could be a little better but for general media useage, it’s not bad. The right side has a volume rocker and power button, while the left has the SIM tray. The BlackPhone 2 is not a dual-SIM device, with the second slot reserved specifically for expandable storage. Cellular speed is only rated at CAT4, which might be a little slow for corporate users. The lack of a fingerprint sensor could disappoint some, though we suspect that this was removed in the belief of greater privacy and security.
Moving onto the screen and the BlackPhone 2 has a 5.5-inch FullHD IPS panel. This is about what we would expect given the price. Pixel density is more than enough and surprisingly, the image quality surpassed quite a lot of other IPS displays. Putting it against the Huawei P10, HTC 10 and LG G6… it stood up very well. There was more detail on quite a few of the test images and colours appeared deeper.
Brightness was also excellent, with the maximum setting more than capable of outdoor use. We would expect that AMOLED displays like the Galaxy S8 could outmatch it but as an IPS display, it’s very good.
[nextpage title=”Camera” ]
The BlackPhone 2 has a 13 megapixel backside illuminated (BSI) sensor, manufactured by Samsung. Silent Circle lists the module as ‘S5K3L2’, which is the same as what can be found in the 2016 Galaxy J5. This is an entry-level handset, though Samsung sensors have a reputation for being quite good.
The handset takes good pictures in bright conditions, with neutral colours and good detail. It did a respectable job of handling bright exposures and managed to illuminate the scene, though the sky was quite blown out with little highlight information. There was also a slight dark cast to images with significant exposure, however it was also an overcast day, which could be the main culprit here.
Macro photography was impressive, with the camera able to pick out fine detail on the leaves in our test images. There was a slight blue hue, though this is easily corrected in post processing.
Low-light photography was an area where this handset simply couldn’t compete. Our test image was very dark and noisy. We could just about see the silhouette of our mascot but any sort of fine detail was completely absent.
One thing that really annoyed us was the camera application, which is incredibly unintuitive. All of the controls are behind hidden menus, making them hard to find for novice users. If you skip the tutorials, there’s a possibility you may not realise they exist at all. Putting important things such as a flash control in these menus seems very confusing. Once you get the menu up, there’s actually a few manual controls to enhance your pictures, though it’s not the full suite we would otherwise prefer.
[nextpage title=”Performance and Software” ]
Packing a Snapdragon 617 and 3GB RAM, the BlackPhone 2 sits smack in the middle with regards to performance. Faster mid-range chipsets such as the 625 will outperform it, but for everyday use we encountered no problems. Browsing the UI was slick and slowdown was minimal, only occurring when running an intensive application.
Gaming was a bit of a disappointment on the BlackPhone 2, with the handset not capable of running the latest titles on high settings. Our test title of Asphalt Xtreme does tend to struggle on mid-range devices, but the BlackPhone 2 had a very hard time playing this on highest settings. The experience was choppy and inconsistent. We had to dial things back to lowest settings before performance became stable and playable. Entry-level games such as Candy Crush Saga ran fine on the handset.
Moving onto the CPU benchmarks and it’s a similar story, as the handset seems to be firmly sat in the lower end of mid-range. GeekBench posted a result of 340 for single-core and 1237 for multi-core performance, while AnTuTu scored the device 29,551. This performance is way behind top-level handsets and teeters on the very edge of the mid-range.
If we looks at graphics benchmarks specifically, the handset once again struggles against the competition. GFXBench scored a total of 144.8 frames, the equivalent of last years Wileyfox Storm, while 3DMark was 346. Again, these results are quite low.
The BlackPhone 2 runs on Android 6.0 which is not the latest operating system, however an upgrade to 7.0 Nougat is planned sometime in the future. It’s a stock implementation that feels very fast and fluid. We always commend manufacturers for not throwing in a bunch of unnecessary skins and features, so bonus points here.
Even though it runs on Android, the underling software is SilentOS. The aim of this is to overcome various security holes found in the Android operating system. It’s backed up by various applications embedded into the phone, with the ‘Security Center’ acting as a main hub. Much like what we’ve seen on newer BlackBerry devices, it takes a passive approach to your privacy and security woes.
Open the app and the first thing you’re confronted with is a number at the top of the screen. This will indicate how many potential risks are currently happening in the background of your device. These are categories based on priority; high being the most important. By addressing these concerns, it should ensure that your BlackPhone will be as safe as possible. Swipe left and you’ll get a number of real-time alerts for your cellular connection. If you’re calling another handset which has a potentially unsafe connection, you’ll see notifications and warnings here. It’s a comprehensive suite that has a very low learning curve; something which we’re sure corporate users will appreciate.
Another big element of the SilentOS is ‘Spaces’. Built into the Security Center, it allows various secure profiles to be setup within the BlackPhone 2. Each of these is stored in a completely separate partition on the handset, keeping your photos and personal information away from prying eyes. Setting up a space is simple enough; you simply hit the ‘Spaces Management’ and create away. Avatars can be selected depending on what the Space will be used for, while a multitude of settings decide what each can access within the handset. We found this feature to be very useful if the device needed to be used at work or with family. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Spaces resides in the notification tray, so you can hotswap accounts on the fly while using the handset. While Spaces was clearly designed for multiple user accounts, we found it equally as useful for setting up multiple desktops.
The last big element of SilentOS is the ‘Silent Phone’ application, which can be downloaded on any Android or iOS device but excels on the BlackPhone. This encrypted messaging app requires a monthly subscription, with prices starting at £109 for the basic messaging package and zero minutes. The functionality is similar to popular services such as WhatsApp, with the added element of far greater privacy. Messages have a ‘burn time’ which can be adjusted. Set it low and your messages can disappear within a matter of a minute. This happens for both parties, meaning nobody will be able to hold onto sensitive information. A notable flaw in the app is the ability to screenshot conversations; we think that Silent Circle should disable that for absolute security. If you take the plunge and buy Silent Phone minutes, you’ll be able to get fully encrypted two-way calling when both parties use the application. A big advantage of owning a BlackPhone is that these minutes are completely free when calling to another BlackPhone handset.
The BlackPhone 2 has a 3,000 mAh battery, which is on a par with most other handsets on the market. Combine this with a frugal Snapdragon 617 and you would expect the results to be impressive. During day-to-day use, we found that the handset would just about make it through a day of moderate use. Add a little bit of gaming/ media into the mix and this would drop to a working day. Those of us who are frugal could probably squeeze two days, though you would need to be very careful.
During our battery drain test, the handset went from 100% to 80% in 44 minutes. This calculates to 3 hours 40 minutes of on-screen time (not counting battery saver). Frankly, this is a very poor result and quite disappointing. Willing to give the BlackPhone 2 another chance, we ran the battery test again; this time the result was 4 hours 45 minutes. Neither of these results are incredible figures, but the second seems more consistent with what we would expect from our daily usage experience. The AnTuTu result of 6436 puts battery performance in the middle of the pack, albeit slightly lower down.
[nextpage title=”Conclusion” ]
The BlackPhone 2 is an excellent secure handset but falls short as an actual smartphone, having under-powered hardware, poor battery life and a middling camera. If they had paired the fantastic software with an equally good handset, this could’ve been something very special indeed. As is stands, this would make an excellent work device but not necessarily a daily driver. A corporate tour de force that needs better hardware in order to appeal to consumers.