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A closer look at that $14,000 Android phone

Engadget Engadget 31/05/2016 Daniel Cooper
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How much do you value your privacy, and how worried are you that your calls and text messages are under observation? If the answer to both question is "lots," then perhaps you'd be interested in Israeli startup Sirin Labs' first smartphone, the Solarin. The device is a titanium-clad Android smartphone that lets you quickly toggle between a regular Android device and a secure, locked-down communications tool. The headline detail here is that it costs $14,000 (plus tax), or £9,500 in the UK. At that price, it's intended mainly for titans of industry and the jet set: people with secrets worth stealing. In many ways, it's the first phone that's been specifically designed to keep the personal data of the 1 percent safe from everyone else.

The system works like this: By default it's a beefy, ultra-masculine Android smartphone with a skin that looks like it was designed by the prop department of a spy movie. But once you've flicked the tiny toggle on the back of the device, it'll switch into a secure mode with a green and white, 8-bit skin. In this mode, all but the most essential sensors are disabled, and both calls and text messages are encrypted, only to be read by trusted devices carrying the Solarin Friend app. In this environment, your data is protected by 256-bit AES encryption, backed up by security firms Zimperium and Koolspan. There's even a secure concierge service that monitors the state of your phone and warns you of incoming attacks.

An Android skin that looks like it was designed by the prop department of a spy movie

When not in this mode, it's just your average Android smartphone, with a high-end Snapdragon 810 chip and a healthy 4GB of RAM. You'll also get 120GB of internal storage (no memory card slot) and a 23.8-megapixel, Sony made camera and a quad-LED flash. Hold the 5.5-inch device in your hand and the first thing you'll notice is how hefty it feels. The pictures convey some degree of chunkiness, but only in real life do you see how pleasingly solid it feels. Imagine a BlackBerry Storm binged on protein powder for a few months and you'll get the idea. The unobtrusive styling, coated in black "technical leather" (read: leather made to look like carbon fiber), means that Solarin oozes the sort of ultra masculine charm that business types probably fetishize.

The 5.5-inch, QHD IPS LCD display boasts fantastic viewing angles and beautifully rich colors. Like the Snapdragon 810 chip, it isn't brand new, but the compromise there was intentional. The year-old chipset was chosen to ensure that the company had a year to ensure it was secure. Likewise, the Solarin may not have a 4K display, but the comparatively lower resolution here is surely gentler on the 4,040mAh battery.

Of course, members of the jet set are so called because they're often found touring the world. The company promises that the device will work with more LTE carriers across the world than any other device on the market. Regardless of the network you choose, you'll insert your SIM into a single, hot-swappable microSIM card slot on the upper-right hand side. Connectivity-wise, the phone also packs gigabit WiFi and MIMO in order to handle multiple connections at once. Then again, BlackBerry made similar promises back in the day, and those never really amounted to much.

Now, it's not hard to see who this device is aimed for, but you have to ask: Do they need this device anymore? An Android smartphone with high level encryption and security is highly desirable, but the highest levels of protection is only available within the secure mode. And in this secure mode, the only features you can make are calls and texts -- and who does either of those anymore? Sure, there are a handful of people who still need to make calls, but is the NSA really targeting them?

When I spoke to co-founder Moshe Hogeg, he said that the NSA isn't interested in business people, but the question is: are hackers? How likely is it that the precise details of a forthcoming transaction would be outlined on a voice call that criminals could then use to game the stock market? It's plausible, sure, but enough to drag people away from the comfort of their Galaxy S7s and iPhone 6Ss? That's harder to say. This phone will surely appeal to people who feel that they deserve a device this secure -- this high-end -- but then again, nobody wants using their phone to feel like a chore, right?

Aaron Souppouris contributed to this report.

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