Friday, 3 April 2015

Living with a Secure Phone: The BlackPhone Case Study

If you haven't heard of the BlackPhone, it's probably not the phone for you.

Those looking for security and privacy with your device, then you would have come across the BlackPhone as one of the most secure devices out there. This joint venture between encryption specialists Silent Circle and GeeksPhone is for the security-conscious consumer that is keen to keep their personal content and conversations, to just that, personal.

I've lived with the BlackPhone as my device for a few weeks now and can give a fair assessment on what it's like to use such a security conscious device on a daily basis. In many ways, this is a tricky review. Nothing compares to the software of the BlackPhone - by far the USP of the device - and it seems unfair to compare the device on hardware alone, but let's give it a go anyway.

First Impressions
The BlackPhone packaging and appearance unsurprisingly echoes the name; it's dark, moody and secretive. The phone design revolves around a clean fingerprint (that's what it looks like to me) which reinforces the secure nature of the device.

When using the BlackPhone, you have elements of that joy of returning to an old Nokia. It's a phone that texts and calls as it's primary function, it's weighs barely anything and you can hold the phone in one hand which is almost a novelty in this day-and-age. But after the novelty wears off, you notice that the plastic-shelled hardware hasn't been a priority and by all accounts looks pretty ordinary. Is this such a bad thing? I guess it's fitting of the discreet intentions of the phone in being unlikely to attract attention.

The Technical Stuff
The battery is of an adequate capacity and will last for over a day of moderate use, much in line with other smartphones. This is supported by NVIDIA's quad-core, 2GZ processor which is effective, but the 1GB of RAM is a little disappointing in power levels. This is noticeable in occasional lag, particularly on the screen unlock which was a frustration for me. That being said, it rarely affects your other usage of the phone. You've got 16GB of storage to play with, and the option of an additional 128GB of extra storage through the microSD slot.

The Everyday
As previously mentioned, the phone is a very comfortable size and weight to live with. It's incredibly lightweight and will easily fit into a pocket when moving around.

The basic functions of a phone are all present and effectively executed. The security of the phone does affect some of those basic smartphone functions such as searching online as understandably the browser doesn't provide search suggestions, but you get used to this. As outlined below, the updated PrivatOS software doesn't only match other Android interpretations, in some ways it outstrips them. I'll explain more in the software section.

The camera is efficient but not outstanding. The 5MP lens will capture the day-to-day images fine, but in low-light it begins to struggle. It's basic though, and doesn't offer stock options like panoramic mode or burst-shot. Video is similar but be warned that the video audio isn't the best.

The music software matches the camera. It does the job without being spectacular. Sound quality is in line with cheaper phones on the market with good clarity but lacking bass.

As I'll explain the reasoning for later, you'll find that some of your favourite apps are incompatible, gaming apps in particular are sometimes problematic. The main apps (email, social networks, whatsapp etc) all function well though so don't panic.

So in everyday usage, the BlackPhone will get you through just fine. The essentials are there and will operate well. The security of the device naturally means that you will need to sacrifice certain things, but if you want security, it comes in the place of convenience.

Software - UPDATED
If you're interested in the BlackPhone, the next section will be the real attention-grabber as you've probably not blown away by the hardware on the BlackPhone, and to be honest, you shouldn't be. The real differentiating factor for the BlackPhone is in the software and this is where it begins to show-off its true secure and secret colours.

The problem - I had written up a full review of the BlackPhone software running Privat 1.0 but I've had to tear that up. 

The theme of Privat 1.0 was security over convenience. Silent Circle's PrivatOS is based on Android 4.4.2 but different to the likes of HTC and Samsung who add to Android, BlackPhone removes almost every element. No syncing, no Play Store and no maps. Taking everything away gives BlackPhone the control, and that's the purpose of the device, but equally this was the problem in that the phone wasn't convenient to use.

Halfway through my testing of the device however, Silent Circle released Privat 1.1 and, without being over-dramatic, the BlackPhone is now an entirely different prospect.

The Privat 1.1 update has created multiple partitions of the
phone - secure and personal. Switching between the two is easy and can be done through the notification bar or the lock-screen. These partitions are known as 'Spaces' and have transformed the phone. The BlackPhone is now two devices in one; in simple terms, one is security conscious, and one is your everyday Android phone. As BlackPhone say, one device is now 'many virtual devices'.

You may think of switching between profiles and themes in two partitions, but the BlackPhone doesn't stop there. The 'Spaces' are entirely separated. Photos, accounts, all information is separated. When going to the secure 'Space' you have to enter your pass code, but the personal Space doesn't need to be password protected. Further to this, you can add a further Space too. Alongside the pre-installed 'Silent Space' focused on security, users can add Spaces for work, personal or child friendly. It's up to the user.

The update also included Silent Circle's world's first privacy-focused app store, titled 'Silent Store'. The USP of the store is that it 'brings permissions clearly to the forefront, stating everything in plain language so that you can decide the inherent value of any application with the full scope of information.' Basically, no more unknown T&Cs or signing away permissions, you will be in control. The obvious downside to this is that the Silent Store doesn't support all apps, yet the essentials are still there.

With the Silent Space, the basic set of apps are two-fold, the Silent Circle apps and the third-party apps.

Silent Circle software fortunately is very, very good. The apps are clean, slick and effective. It's a secure set-up where you have to unlock them each time they're switched on. What can you do on Silent Circle? Make calls, texts and run an contacts book. Security-wise, the calls are encrypted and the messages can be burnt from both devices on time-codes. Both users MUST have Silent Circle software, but you can provide Silent Circle to non-BlackPhone users for a $10 annual subscription. When you buy the phone you get this for free, plus one for a friend. 

One of the main BlackPhone features is their Security Centre. This manages details of permissions for each and every app to most finite detail. Alongside this, there are three main third party apps:
  • Disconnect: Secures unsecure WiFi through a VPN and provides anonymous web browsing
  • SpiderOak: Secure cloud storage that can be shared with a contact
  • Kisnet WiFi Manager: Disconnects from WiFi when it's an untrusted network
Currently the software setup is a little confusing and alongside the app setups, it is not user-friendly process. From that perspective, the phone feels slightly incomplete, and not favourable to an everyday user. If you're not especially tech-savvy, the software set-up might bemuse. There's certainly room for improvement from Silent Circle in supporting customers in making the set-up and tutoring a little more convenient. There's no doubt however that Silent Circle have made significant progress on this with the PrivatOS 1.1 update and will look to continue doing so.
Placed right in the territory of flagship devices, the BlackPhone costs in excess of £500, but it would be unfair to compare the two. The BlackPhone offers plenty of value for that money, but it is absolutely for a certain audience. 

Part of me feels surprised by the hardware flaws, and even the price. In my eyes, Silent Circle could charge what they want for the BlackPhone. It's targeted to people that want to secure their information, and if you are that keen to secure your information, then you'll pay the money to do so. I think BlackPhone could have charged more the phone and upgraded the hardware to make a flagship-challenging device in look, feel and usage.

In my first review, I would have said that if you need the security and privacy guarantees with your phone, then you pay the money for the BlackPhone. If you're not that bothered about security and privacy then this phone isn't for you. That was before PivatOS 1.1.

I've never known a software update to have such a dramatic effect on a device. It's not perfect, but it's a drastic improvement. I wouldn't have felt comfortable using the BlackPhone on a day-to-day basis because it didn't support all the apps and usability I desire with a phone. The camera is so-so, the apps are a frustration and I enjoy the convenience that comes with apps tracking my information. With the 1.1 update, these issues haven't been resolved in their entirety but steps have been made to change this and now this phone can be aimed more at the mass-audience.

BlackPhone never intended to build a phone for convenience. They were tasked with building a phone of purpose and they've done a brilliant job in achieving that. The latest step is to provide enough convenience for users wanting a regular phone with a secure state. I still harbour frustrations with the hardware as BlackPhone definitely could have charged more and allowed the phone to pack more power in the punch, but it's still capable.

I'm not a security conscious person, and I value the convenience of Google and my ever-syncing social networks so it's not quite phone for me. However, BlackPhone isn't targeting me, and it's not there for convenience. It's a locked-down secure device with subsidised access to the some of the best software out there. To be the best security-focused phone out there, that's all you can ask.

To find out more about getting your hands on the BlackPhone, contact the guys over at fonehouse. They're running live demos in London. Click here for the store location.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Why the Apple Watch will be the ultimate brand loyalty barometer

Apple are renowned for the brand they've created. The Apple brand is one envied by all other manufacturers because it is desirable and aspirational.

Simply put, Apple is the one that people will queue for. Users want Apple products, regardless of cost, but because of status.

Until now, Apple have been able to rely on the highest levels on brand loyalty when launching new items, even when the products haven't been cutting-edge or particularly innovative. They've leant on that loyalty with launches of the iPhone 4S and the 5S, alongside endless minor upgrades to the Macbook. The public still flock.

It is also true that Apple have always produced products that sit towards the top-end of the pricing spectrum, tugging on that brand loyalty to lace the pockets of the company. It's true of the iPhone, MacBook and now, the Apple Watch. Users have been able to show-off an iPhone as the same phone that the celebs use. It's been a status symbol and continues to be so. It may be the same with the Apple Watch, as Apple will be sure to intelligently seed the watch to influential figures. The key difference however, is that the iPhone and MacBook have demonstrated clear consumer purpose, so whilst they've been priced high, consumers have been happy to part with the money to ensure the seeming quality.

Everyone needs a smartphone. Apple makes them happy to part with a little bit more in order to get one.

This is not true for the Apple Watch. Apple have, alongside all other manufacturers, failed to show a purpose to owning a smartwatch - and perhaps even more concerning is a battery life that will only last 18 hours. Being priced north of £300 for the sport edition, and £450 for a fashion edition (not forgetting the watches priced at £1,000-£10,000) the price is pushing consumers to the edge of their loyalty to the Apple brand.

There's no denying that whilst Apple are continuing to post staggering profits, their brand loyalty has been shaken over the last few years. Their innovation and high-end quality have been placed under scrutiny, and the numerous competitors have had an impact.

Come April 24th, we'll be able to judge just how powerful that Apple brand loyalty really is and be in a position to see if and how that brand loyalty has been affected - using the Apple Watch as a barometer.

Thoughts welcomed.

Monday, 9 March 2015

HTC One M9: Everything You Need to Know

HTC are releasing the latest in the One Series to the public in late March. I'll get my hands on it for a user review closer to the time but should you hold out to buy it? Let's have a look at everything you need to know about the HTC One M9.

Headline specs
HTC's older younger brother to the M8 sports a familiar 5" 1080px screen, but an increased Snapdragon 810 OCTO-core processor. That's all supported by 3GB of RAM which will make the device lightning quick.

Storage also remains the same as the One M8 but HTC appear to have dropped the 16GB edition of the handset - a smart move in my experience. Obviously, the expandable storage option still remains, with a further 128GB optional addition via microSD.

The battery has been given a slight boost too, going up to a competitive 2840mAh. That’s more than Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and far more than the iPhone 6 which only holds 1800mAh.

In more or less every way, the M9 looks identical to the M8. That disappointed me. It's not that the M8 isn't a gorgeous phone - far from it. I've got it and marvel at its beauty when I remove the case.
For me, it's the same problem that's plagued the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy range. The M9 feels old already. It seems uninspiring and lazy. HTC cannot afford to be lazy - especially when their smartphone share is being attacked from all sides, and I just can't understand why they've left it.

Since the beginning of the One series, HTC has been relatively flawless in terms of build quality and the HTC One M9 is unsurprisingly no different. The beautiful curved back has remained, with HTC boasting that its creation is a 70-step process. There's a minor difference in the side-on profile from the One M8 where the unibody appears to have been altered, but this doesn't affect the feel or quality one iota.

One of the few significant changes with the HTC One M9 is the abandoning of the rear-facing UltraPixel camera in place of a monster 20 megapixel shooter. It's a sensible move given they never managed to communicate the UltraPixel lens to consumers. They've not abandoned it completely though - it still appears in the front facing 'selfie' camera.

The rear camera video has been upped from 1080p to 4k, and the front boasts a 2 UltraPixel sensor.

The HD screen shows off HTC’s seventh edition of their Sense UI. The UI has been updated to be more reactive to stimuli around you. Your home screen will now reorganise based on the time of day. Alarms, apps and wallpapers, will react to the time of day. If you cycle to work, you’ll get notifications to charge your lights before heading home in the evening. It will be interesting to see how it dovetails with Google Now.

What Else
HTC’s Dot View case has been upgraded as well, and now, for some reason, you can play games like tetris on the front. Utterly pointless, but quite clever.

HTC’s ridiculously named 'BoomSound' speaker system for the One Series has been upgraded once again. This time, Dolby have taken over from Beats to provide a 5.1 surround sound to the phone. Thanks to Harman Kardon, a three-finger swipe can send the music out to speaker systems in the house.

HTC have upgraded the best phone of 2014. It's no mean feat to achieve but that’s where it ends. As I’ve said before, we seem to have reached a smartphone impasse. I’m disappointed to see HTC nudge the bar – but not raise it.

The HTC One M9 is still a stunning phone, and one that no-one will regret purchasing. Then again, I’d argue there’s little point in paying for the M9 when the HTC One M8 is cheaper, and 99% of the M9.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ignore Wearables - You don't need them

'Wearable Technology.' The buzzwords of 2014, the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2015. Tech companies are pushing 'wearables' in the direction of consumers and saying, "That'll work, they love this stuff". But do they? Do consumers really want it? The signs are suggesting no, not yet.

Firstly, I'm not including fitness bands in this. Fitness bands have a proven purpose and have sold relatively well. Other wearables, however, are still in 'geek' territory. People like me, into my tech, want wearables, simply to pick apart about how amazing some aspects of the technology are, and how woeful the rest is. Google cancelled Glass through little more important than a growing lack of interest. They felt they couldn't make it work for the moment.

Smartwatch sales are frankly, very poor. Pebble have had limited success with 1m sales in just over 2 years and so have Samsung (mainly because the watches are given away with Galaxy devices). Maybe the introduction of the Apple Watch will change that. Apple has a habit of doing making something currently available, copying it, and making it desirable.

The immediate reaction from consumers has been quite clearly - we don't really care. The intrigue isn't there, and it is just lost on the mass audience. Research by Fizz (below) shows a few problems for wearable manufacturers:

Firstly, the average price willing to be paid is far below the current price of wearable tech. Many Android Wear devices cost somewhere north of £200, and if rumours are to be believed, the iWatch could cost double that. More than half of those that responded with interest about smartwear mentioned cost would be the deciding factor which will worry manufacturers.

Finally, the purpose issue is of utmost importance. 37% of respondents pointed to a lack of necessity for the devices being the reason for lack of desire.

These items still have failed to find their place in society. There is no need for them. In response to the lack of purpose, wearables are trying to do everything. I use 1% of the Sony Smartwatch 2 capability on a day to day basis. The reviews are relatively useless, when in practice, those features just don't step into everyday life. Nothing has changed since I first wrote about the Samsung Galaxy Gear in 2013. Back then I complimented the smartwatch on its appearance and functionality. I still defend that stance with my 2013 hat on - but really, the smartwatch should have come on a lot since then. They've cracked the appearance element - now just for sorting the need.

(Huawei's new smartwatch - gorgeous)

It's a criticism I levelled at Microsoft with Windows 8 - too much, too fast. We're just reaching the point when smartphones are struggling to progress in innovation, and that needs a chance to settle and allow flagship capabilities seep through to the lower-end.

The smartwatch is an incredible feat, it really is. To cram all that technology into such a small piece of kit is astounding - but that doesn't mean it needs to be forced to consumers who are voting with their wallets.

Wearables will breathe again, but manufacturers need to find out how they can help the consumer before they'll fly off the shelves. For the moment, they might as well be ignored.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Watch the live stream of the Samsung Galaxy S6 launch

We're at the start of MWC - aka smartphone season - and Samsung join Huawei as the first out of the door to announce their new addition to the Galaxy family. Watch the live stream of the Samsung Galaxy S6 launch below. It starts at 5.30 GMT.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

SmartWatch Evolution in Appearance - Not Purpose

It's always nice to be on the money, and thankfully, regarding smartwatches, I have been.

It wasn't long ago that I was writing about the central problem with the smartwatches on the market - was that, first and foremost, they had forgotten to be a watch. I used the first Samsung Galaxy Gear and, whilst enjoying the technology, just couldn't get past the central issue - I didn't really want it on my wrist. 

Let's be honest, the smartwatch is a novelty. It serves no important purpose. Yes, it makes checking notifications that tiny bit quicker, but making £150+ difference to a life? No chance. It's for the people with the disposable income, or want to be on the forefront of technology, or finally, for fashion. It's that last point which is where manufacturers have finally cottoned-on. Us tech geeks are not a mass-market. We're a cynical bunch who are rarely 'fashionistas' so we are able to look past the image, and more at what the thing can do.

So, using my unpenetrable testing criteria for the appearance of the watch, I tested out the Sony Smartwatch 2 through London. Overall, it's only a rare and investigative second-look look that claims the attention of the passer-by. For me, that's the way it should be. It should be a watch, first and foremost, with technology following. I chose the Sony Smartwatch 2 because it looked most like a watch, and not some space-age invention.

With the Moto 360 and Pebble Steel leading the way, manufacturers have caught up. LG G-Watch R followed, and now finally Samsung too, with the Gear S. Obviously, the iWatch too. These watches have stripped back the technology, and focused on design, with more subtle (and more practical) technology.

I use 1% of the Sony Smartwatch 2 capability on a day to day basis. The reviews are relatively useless when in practice, those features just don't step into everyday life. 

Nothing has changed since I first wrote about the Samsung Galaxy Gear in 2013. Back then I complimented the smartwatch on its appearance and functionality. I still defend that stance with my 2013 hat on - but really, the smartwatch should have come on a lot more since then.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Have we really reached a smartphone impasse?

It seems so.

For the first time in several years, smartphones stepped back from the frontline at CES and that's no surprise. Sure, many manufacturers are looking to MWC for smartphone announcements, but over the last two years, we've seen less and less revolutionary changes in smartphones, and more performance tweaks.


It's a boring phrase, but 2015 IS the year of the wearable tech. Perhaps not for consumers, but certainly for the top-tier manufacturers. The endless wearable uses were shown at CES, and its all focusing around the clamour for that first 'hit' in the wearables market. Of the glasses, watches and fitness bands, no-one has managed to truly capture the public's imagination.

So where does that leave smartphones? Well, the new kids on the block are catching the others but offering little new to market. Look at Xiaomi; impressive company, impressive growth, but are they changing the smartphone? No. They are offering available features in a different shell and at a more affordable price.
     And it's that last point which is important. The price of smartphones is being driven down and less margin available for manufacturers. Given the impasse, consumers are seeing less reason to upgrade on an annual basis, and even sticking with devices for 2-3 years. Smartphones are becoming less of the cash-cow they once were. The annual performance updates and optimisation are in place to save the manufacturer money, and maintain face within the saturated market.

MWC is coming up, and both Samsung and HTC have announced launch dates for their new devices. We expect to see the evolution of Samsung's Galaxy Edge, which is a nice idea, but not greeted with rapture by consumers so far, and HTC will be likely to finely tune the M8. We are confident in neither bringing a drastic update to the smartphone market, but the opportunity is there for a surprise. Let's wait to see about that impasse but the signs are there.

Chances are, we should ignore the HTC One M9, and Samsung Galaxy S6, as that impasse has been reached.