Picking a phone is like learning to trust a friend: You don't want to confide in someone who will blab every detail of your life to everyone else, just as you want to be able to trust that your smartphone activity isn't being relayed back to a carrier or Internet giant.
Mobile-security company Silent Circle's sophomore effort at the ultimate private device aims to provide just that. The Blackphone 2 (starting at $799 unlocked) is a device you can trust with your sensitive information and communications, and it even lets you create up to four virtual phones in one handset. But security features aside, the Blackphone doesn't stack up well compared to other flagship phones.
The Blackphone 2 looks exactly like its name suggests: When the screen is turned off, all you'll see is a black, rectangular block that feels like a sturdy, stone-cold slab. I found this design boring, but others may find it attractive.
A volume rocker and power button sit on the right side, a micro-USB port is on the bottom, a headphone jack lies on top and a microSD card slot is on the left.
At 6 x 3 x 0.31 inches, the Blackphone 2 is smaller but thicker than the iPhone 6s Plus (6.23 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches), and the Galaxy Note 5 (6 x 3 x 0.29), which has a larger 5.7-inch display, has the same width and height but is slimmer. The 5.81-ounce Blackphone 2 is lighter than the 6.7-ounce iPhone 6s Plus and the 6-ounce Note 5.
Display and Audio
Videos and pictures look great on the Blackphone's 5.5-inch, full-HD display. Red tomatoes and yellow peppers in a fruit stand looked bright and vibrant in a 1080p trailer for "The Intern," and Robert De Niro's frown lines and strands of white hair were sharp. Viewing angles weren't generous, though: Images dimmed and degraded when I tilted the screen side to side.
You might have trouble reading the Blackphone's display in bright sunlight, since it is dimmer than most. With its brightness measuring just 346 nits on our light meter, the Blackphone 2 lost to the average smartphone (406 nits), iPhone 6s Plus (531 nits) and Galaxy Note 5 (510 nits).
However, the Blackphone 2 reproduced 138.5 percent of the sRGB color gamut, indicating that it can display more hues than the average smartphone (117 percent) and the iPhone 6s Plus (105.1 percent), but less than the Note 5 (193 percent).
The Blackphone also scored a lower Delta-E error rating (1.32) than the average smartphone (3.31) and the Galaxy Note 5 (2.7), meaning its screen shows more accurate colors. The iPhone 6s Plus (0.4) fared better, though.
I had trouble hearing the soundtrack to a trailer over an ad playing at a moderate volume on my TV, because the Blackphone's rear speaker directed the sound away from me. Violins in an adaptation of "I Started a Joke" by the Bee Gees were hauntingly clear, as were the song's drums and ghostly voice.
Most of the Blackphone 2's software will seem familiar to Android users, as it basically runs Android 5.0 Lollipop with some Silent Circle apps installed. The most noticeable difference is the row of Spaces icons at the top of the notifications panel that let you quickly switch to another profile.
Spaces is a key feature of Silent OS. It lets users create up to four different areas to separate business and personal activities. Each Space is like an individual user profile, with its own apps and settings. You can switch among Spaces by tapping on the respective icon in the notifications panel or via the Security Center app.
Blackphone said there will be no bleeding of information across Spaces, because they are created at the core of the phone's operating system and are not just a simple software overlay. Information saved to the Blackphone's storage is accessible only by the Space it is assigned to. So, for example, the photos you take with your camera in the Owner space cannot be seen in the Personal space. I liked being able to switch to a Silent Space profile to conduct more secure tasks, and going into my Personal space for more frivolous activities.
The only thing I noticed crossing over Spaces was text messages. Because you are signed in to the same Silent Circle account across all of the profiles on the phone, all of the messages you get will show up on all the profiles. You can turn this SMS sharing off in the Spaces settings.
Other Security Features
Whenever you restart the phone, you'll need to enter a PIN before the handset will even load the Android operating system.
Each Blackphone 2 comes with a one-year subscription to the Silent Circle network, which gives you 100 minutes of encrypted audio and video calls with other Silent Circle users, as well as in-network texts. After that year, you'll need to pay $15 a month to keep your Silent Circle service for 100 minutes, but you can still use your phone without the subscription. The calls are encrypted end to end; they are scrambled at the originator and unscrambled at the receiver.
This might explain why the calls I made and received over the Silent Circle network took longer to connect than normal. After I hit Call on the app to connect to my contact, I heard some crackling, followed by a dial-tone-like sound when he picked up. A second of silence followed before we both heard each other, which made me think the call was disconnected. It also took a second or two before the call stopped sounding crackly and seemed more stable.
One of the best features of Silent OS is its ability to let you decide exactly what every app on your phone has access to, and unlike Android Marshmallow, which has similar settings, it lets you make each app ask you before it accesses info every time. Marshmallow just lets you set the permissions to on or off.
For instance, I went to the permissions for Chrome, which had access to my location, microphone and camera, among a long list of other functions. I picked the Ask option to make the app ask me each time it wanted to access my camera. Other settings — such as the ability to keep the phone awake, modify the clipboard, show notifications and vibrate — were on/off options only.
No other phone on the market offers options like these at the moment, and even the closest competitors, Android Marshmallow and CyanogenMod, just let you set Allow or Deny as options. Silent Circle was able to achieve this by working with Google to tweak Android for enterprise users.
If you ever misplace your phone, you can sign in to your account on Silent Circle's website and remotely wipe your information. You can choose to wipe a specific Space or your entire device.
The included Silent Store curates apps that the company deems to have good privacy practices, but brings you to the Google Play store to download and install each one. You can also download any app you want via Google Play, but they have not been designated as secure by Silent Circle.
Armed with a 1.7-GHz octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor and 3GB of RAM, the Blackphone 2 handles daily multitasking with ease but is a generation of chipsets behind the latest premium smartphones, many of which use the Snapdragon 800 series. I streamed a video smoothly with several apps — such as Chrome, Messaging, Play Store and Security Center — open in the background. Sometimes, though, the keyboard took almost a second to show up when I tapped a text field.
On synthetic tests, the Blackphone 2 is slower than other smartphones on the market. Its score of 1,595 on general-performance test Geekbench 3 is much lower than the smartphone category average (2,564), the iPhone 6s Plus (2,866) and the Galaxy Note 5 (5,053).
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The Blackphone also took 10 minutes and 34 seconds to transcode a 204MB video from 1080p to 480p on VidTrim in our real-world video editing test. That's much longer than the average smartphone (6:37) and the Note 5 (4:40).
The Blackphone also fails to measure up to other smartphones in graphics performance, delivering just 7,011 on graphics test 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. That's less than half the average smartphone's 17,896, the Galaxy Note 5's 22,536 and the iPhone 6s Plus' 27,295.
The Blackphone's 13-megapixel rear camera shot bright and colorful shots in bright light, but it struggled in the dark.
Blue sky and red buildings in my shots of Manhattan skyscapes were vivid, and details such as far-off windows looked sharp.
Picture quality was similarly clear in indoor light, with my sleepy friend's individual eyelashes looking sharp, but her tan skin looked sallow. The photo had a green tinge to it overall, too.
The camera struggled even more in low light, barely showing any detail in my nighttime photos of New York City. Buildings were lost in shadow, and only lights were visible.
My 1080p video of New York City traffic was bright, clear and smooth.
The 5-MP front camera shot selfies that were clear enough for me to make out individual strands of hair in my eyebrows.
Orange dots on my blouse and my brown hair were accurately depicted.
The Blackphone 2's 3,060-mAh battery won't last you all day — it notched just 7 hours on our battery test, which involves Web surfing over T-Mobile's 4G LTE network at 150 nits of brightness. That's more than an hour shy of the average smartphone (8:11), the iPhone 6s Plus (8:16) and the Note 5 (9:35).
Trustworthy and tight-lipped, the Blackphone 2 is like your most reliable confidante. Your sensitive information is safe, and you can tell it exactly what you want it to hear. But just like any friend, the Blackphone 2 has its flaws. It's slower than the average smartphone and doesn't last very long on a charge. Plus, its camera doesn't work very well in low light.
For $50 less, the iPhone 6s Plus is a much faster phone with longer battery life. However, the Blackphone 2 promises greater privacy and peace of mind when conducting sensitive communications.
But with its comprehensive security features and ability to act as four phones in one, the Blackphone 2 is unique; there is nothing quite like it on the market. While you could download Silent Phone on your phone for more secure communications, the Blackphone 2 is designed from the core to provide an even safer environment. If security is your chief concern, the Blackphone 2 should be on your list of phones to consider.