“We do not accept that price drives what’s available in technology. With Solarin, we break the rules.”

– Moshe Hogeg, president and co-founder, Sirin Labs

 

With a pitch of equal parts hype and braggadocio, Sirin Labs unveiled its privacy-focused smartphone via a glitz-filled London launch in front of a captive celebrity audience that included model Amber Le Bon and actors Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio. Pitching hard at the top end of the market, the Solarin is aimed to appeal to the high net worth individual that considers privacy and data protection to be paramount when it comes to their personal devices, yet still wants a phone that looks premium and offers an excellent user experience.

With an initial retail price of £9,500 before taxes come in to play, it has set a hazardous petard upon which it must be careful not to become hoisted. The significant population of like-minded smartphones on the market – such as the Blackphone, the Blackberry Priv and Samsung Knox – demonstrates that there is an interest in a handset of this sort, but does the Solarin surpass its rivals to the extent that it justifies its elevated price tag?

 

Sight, sound, strength

 

Sirin have brought in industrial designer Karim Rashid – who has worked with the likes of Giorgio Armani, Veuve Clicquot and Swarovski – to oversee the smartphone’s design concept. Polished robustness is the overwhelming sensation of the Solarin: the casing features titanium panels and an aerospace-standard metal composite chassis, while the curved 5.5” screen incorporates Corning Gorilla Glass 4 and delivers 2K resolution.

In terms of audio, three bass-boosted speakers are linked through a smart amplifier to restrict distortion, while the accompanying beryllium headphones reduce the amount of excess noise generated. The addition of Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 technology promises to prolong daily battery life and reduce the amount of time needed to charge the device, while the 128GB internal memory and 4GB RAM matches the iPhone 6S in the former instance and betters it with regards to the latter. At 250g, however, it is almost twice as heavy as two iPhone 6S handsets put together, which will undoubtedly put off some potential customers.

 

Privacy practicalities

 

Security is the primary focus of the Sirin Solarin. To that end, a constellation of measures – both remote and built-in – have been implemented to ensure the phone is protected in the event of loss or theft. As well as full-disk encryption and the ability to resist unauthorised factory resets, the Solarin will allow users to locate, lock and wipe the device if they find themselves no longer in possession of it.

While military-grade 256-bit AES encryption and Zimperium’s active mobile protection software act to provide secure conversations and frustrate a variety of cyber-attacks, the Solarin additionally offers privacy-conscious customers an extra security measure in the form of a ‘shield’ switch on the back of the phone, which limits the handset’s functionality so that it only permits encrypted calls and messages.

Curiously, The Solarin includes a fingerprint sensor, an element which is commonly held to be a significant security vulnerability in most smartphones. Sirin Labs claims that its optical trackpad technology and algorithm are ‘highly accurate’, yet there are few concrete details as to how exactly it safeguards its biometric identification tool from hackers.

 

Andrew Lucas security Solarin 02

At a glance

OS: Android 5.1.1
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
Battery: Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0
Memory: 128GB internal storage, 4GB RAM
Screen: 5.5” Gorilla Glass 4
Resolution: 2K
Price: £9,500

 

Usability 

 

Unlike many of its rivals, Solarin runs Android Lollipop (5.1.1) as its operating system rather than a bespoke alternative. The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 – the same one that Samsung opted to skip due to overheating concerns (although Qualcomm refutes this assertion). Notably, the phone makes use of WiGig Wi-Fi technology, offering excellent data transfer speeds of up to 4.6GB/s. This, combined with support for multiple LTE carriers, will appeal to jet-setters looking to use their phone abroad; although the lack of a second SIM card slot will temper this slightly.

 

How the competition stacks up

Blackphone 2

 

The Blackphone 2, the brainchild of Swiss firm Silent Circle, is an elegantly designed smart phone designed to secure your communications both at home and at work. Its bespoke SilentOS – built upon an Android framework – includes a Spaces function that allows users to switch between different virtual phone profiles, allowing users to keep their corporate and private conversations completely separate.

In terms of hardware, it gets pretty close to the Solarin: it features the same AES-128 encryption and, although its internal memory, RAM and screen resolution are all slightly inferior, it’s not far off. Its in-built Silent Phone app is a trusted means of ensuring call privacy, while other functions help users to avoid unsecured WiFi networks. The omission of a fingerprint reader will also reassure customers looking for watertight security. Like the Model T, it’s available in any colour – as long as its black.

 

“Nothing is hack-proof,”

– Daniel Ford, chief security officer, Silent Circle

 

The original Blackphone had a high-profile security flaw exposed in 2014 which, although Silent Circle had already patched it, prompted the company to launch a bug bounty programme to more actively identify flaws in its software. This means that the company now commits to having any serious vulnerability resolved ‘within 72 hours of detection and reporting’.

 

Andrew Lucas smartphone security blackphone 2

At a glance

OS: Silent (based on Android)
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon Octa-Core
Battery: Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0
Memory: 32GB internal storage, 3GB RAM
Screen: 5.5” Gorilla Glass 4
Resolution: Full HD
Cost: £599 

 

Turing Phone

 

Based on the Linux-based Sailfish OS, the Turing Phone works on the principles of decentralised authentication, which acts as an identity guarantor to create an environment where users can share confidential information safely. Like the Solarin, it is designed to be physically strong as well, with a frame constructed of liquid-metal alloy called liquidmorphium, which is said to be tougher than titanium or steel.

As well as a fingerprint sensor, Turing’s own unique identification RFID system comes with the phone; additionally, the phone has been ratified to IPx8, so you won’t have to worry if you accidentally drop it in the pool.

 

Andrew Lucas security Turing Phone

At a glance

OS: Sailfish 2.0 (linux)
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon Octa-Core
Battery: 3000 mAh
Memory: 128GB internal storage, 3GB RAM
Screen: 5.5” Gorilla Glass 4
Resolution: Full HD
Cost: £560

 

Granite Phone

 

Built on top of the Sikur security ecosystem, Granite Phone is a slightly smaller handset that offer the standard privacy-minded fare of encryption for calls and messages. It is markedly more lightweight than its competitors in terms of functionality and – while it promises ‘various authentication layers’ and a unique, secure operating system –the inner workings of it are as shrouded in as much mystery as the actual cost (although it has been quoted elsewhere at $999).

Andrew Lucas security granitephone

At a glance

OS: Granite
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon Octa-Core
Battery: 2700 mAh
Memory: 16GB internal storage, 2GB RAM
Screen: 5”
Resolution: Full HD
Cost: Unknown

 

Blackberry Priv

 

With its lengthy lineage of business-oriented phones, Blackberry’s most secure offering looks more along the lines of a standard consumer device that an ultra-private interface. It uses Android Marshmallow – the upgrade from the Lollipop OS that the Solarin employs – which runs AES 128-bit encryption as a default. Design-wise, it boasts a 5.4” curved OLED display with 1440p resolution – the same specifications as a Galaxy S7 Edge – coupled with the ubiquitous Gorilla Glass to ensure durability.

Hardware-wise, it matches up pretty well to its more expensive competitors but, security-wise, it trails somewhat behind. Its DTEK ‘warning system’ is fairly toothless – it records when an app is viewing your data or accessing functions such as the camera, but it doesn’t actually prevent it from happening in the way that the likes of the Blackphone will. It’s not all bad – it comes with full-disk encryption and embedded ‘root-of-trust’ keys – but this won’t go far enough for some users.

 

Andrew Lucas security Blackberry Priv

At a glance

OS: Android Marshmallow
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808
Battery: 3410 mAh
Memory: 32GB internal storage, 3GB RAM
Screen: 5.4” OLED, Gorilla Glass
Resolution: WQHD
Cost: £529  

Samsung Knox

 

While this is a mobile security platform rather than a specific handset, it is worth mentioning Knox due to its inherent compatibility with Samsung smartphones. This platform offers users on-device encryption, a virtual private network, single sign-on and smart card authentication, as well as secure and trusted boot software to ensure that your phone cannot be started by an unauthorised third party program.

A core component of Knox is Security Enhancements (SE) for Android. This limits the amount of data that third-party apps can access by splitting the operating system into ‘domains’, each with different access permissions. This has the additional benefit of acting as a safeguard should a malicious or flawed app be opened, as it will be unable to infect other programs outside of the zone it has been placed in.

Despite its obvious strengths, there have been some issues reported in its security network. The most recent came from researchers in Tel Aviv, who discovered three separate issues, although each has since been patched by Samsung.

Luxury meets privacy meets… affordability?

 

The Solarin is far from the first security-focused smartphone available, and several of its rivals have carved out well-established niches in their areas of specialism. Sirin Labs has done a good job of bringing to market a first generation device that, by and large, compares favourably to its rivals from a technical perspective – by no means an insignificant achievement.

That said, it does not necessarily outperform them to the degree that the handset cost might suggest. Whether consumers will opt for it on the basis of its glamorous design and slightly higher specs, rather than choosing a cheaper alternative that comes a close second, only time will tell. No one but the individual can truly put a price on their peace of mind when it comes to privacy.