Hands on: Sirin Labs Solarin

Would you spend $14,000 on an 'unhackable' phone? Sirin Labs hopes you will

Sirin Labs says its $13,000 Solarin phone is super secure and sexy, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Vertu.

“It’s the best phone ever built.” That was the phrase repeated several times by Sirin Labs, makers of the Solarin smartphone, a newly launched luxury mobile device with an emphasis on high-tech security. It’s a statement one shouldn’t make lightly, given the excellence of various phones on the market at the moment, in particular the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and the iPhone 6S Plus, or even those from luxury mobile trendsetters like Vertu.

Is it true that Sirin Labs has made the “best phone ever built,” and if so, how?

Privacy

Ignoring the technical aspects for the moment, the Solarin is all about the security, specifically how it protects you from hackers, viruses, malware, and other such nasty threats. Sirin Labs enlisted the help of two other companies — Koolspan and Zimperium — to not only make Android more secure, but to add in an intriguing extra layer of protection for those who truly value their privacy. Or the incredibly paranoid. Take your pick.

With a flick of a switch on the rear of the phone, it enters a shielded privacy mode where all sensors, the cellular radio, and Android itself are disabled, leaving only the option to make military-grade AES 256-bit chip-to-chip encrypted calls to a white list of select individuals. This way, the call stays between you and the other party, and there’s no way for hackers to listen in.

Unfortunately, those hardware encrypted calls only work between Solarin phones. If the person you’re calling has an iPhone or an Android device, then they get an invitation to download a special app, which then provides lesser, software-based encryption for calls. It’s not ideal and we doubt most people would even bother to download yet another app, but it’s better than nothing. Sadly, there’s no support for landlines, either.

Additionally, Sirin Labs’ “cyber response team” continually monitors threats to the device, and will not only warn you of them, but can also take action against them automatically. The team monitors attacks in real time.

The phone runs Android 5.1 Lollipop rather than Android 6.0, for reasons related to the depth of the high-security customization.

For instance, if an MMS-based security breach was instigated, the cyber response team’s forensics department would detect it and then prevent it from happening, protecting you from stealthy attacks. All you’d end up seeing was a report from the team telling you about the attack, and the steps taken to prevent it. The team’s actions range from disabling Wi-Fi to shutting down the phone completely. It’s possible to opt out of Sirin Labs monitoring for threats, should the trade-off of giving a security team partial access to your device be a worry.

The phone is protected by a fingerprint scanner on the rear, and requires PIN access at all stages, plus a separate one can be set for entering privacy mode. You can receive encrypted calls when in normal Android mode, and it takes a few seconds to swap to privacy mode, where the caller is identified.

However, you’re going to have to pay extra for some of these security services. Sirin Labs told Digital Trends that the real-time security is likely to be an extra, for example, and you’ll have to pay more for speedy service and the replacement of the phone internationally if you lose it. Although it seems crazy to ask for extra money when you’re already plunking down thousands on a smartphone, we’d be surprised if these extra charges would worry someone prepared to pay £10,000 for the phone in the first place.

Technology

All of this is wrapped up in a phone that only the rich will contemplate buying. It starts at £9,500 in the U.K., or around $13,700, and for that, you get a phone with titanium side panels that’s around the same size as and iPhone 6S Plus, but heavier and thicker, mainly thanks to a 4,000mAh battery inside. The rear panel is made of a carbon-leather weave, which has a pleasing texture to it, while the chassis is held together with the tiny screws more often seen in luxury watches. The display is curved, but at the top and bottom rather than around the edge.

The 5.5-inch IPS LED screen has a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution, but with a wealth of tuning performed by Sirin Labs to give it a wonderfully bright, high-contrast style. It did look fantastic, and the Quad HD resolution videos looked stunning. The audio is also impressive. It’s the first to feature something called 3D sound which comes from three bass-boosted speakers powered by a special amp, and Sirin Labs promises a “signal to noise ratio never heard before in a smartphone.” Listening to the phone face-on, it was easy to hear the stereo separation, and the power made the rear panel vibrate considerably. However, we’re not sure that shaking is a very good thing. There are also four noise-canceling microphones that can track voices during a conference call.

Sirin Labs Solarin Hands On
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Disappointingly, the Solarin has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor inside, putting it a step behind the Galaxy S7 and LG G5, but it is the second-generation version of the chip, so it shouldn’t produce excess heat. Sirin Labs told Digital Trends that it had worked hard on heat dissipation from the body, and that there were no concerns.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor is a strong performer, and during our brief test the Solarin zipped along, showing no hesitations, even though there is a custom user interface over the top of Android. There are a few changes to the notification drawer and jazzed up icons, but nothing too distracting. Switching to shielded privacy mode is simple, but a little fiddly with one hand. The decision to put a diamond in the hardware switch itself is little more than a thinly veiled reason to justify the cost.

The phone runs Android 5.1 Lollipop rather than Android 6.0, for reasons related to the depth of the high-security customization. Still, it seems odd that such a secure phone would be running an older, and theoretically less secure version of Android. It also brings up the worry that the phone won’t get timely updates, which would defeat the purpose of making a secure phone in the first place.

Elsewhere, there are all the global 4G LTE connection bands you could want, and support for WiGig, the faster, shorter range alternative to Wi-Fi. Except it hasn’t launched yet, so you won’t be able to use it.

The company was similarly bombastic about the camera, calling it “the best daylight smartphone camera” available. It has 24-megapixels, a four-tone flash and laser autofocus, but we didn’t get to try it outside to judge performance. The camera app is custom designed for Sirin Labs, and the company has also tweaked Android with a few special apps and widgets. There’s an 8-megapixel selfie cam with its own flash around the front.

It’s not as tempting as a Vertu, despite the high price

When you think about the Solarin as you would a normal smartphone, it’s price tag sounds absolutely crazy. However, Sirin Labs isn’t competing with Samsung or Apple. It’s natural competitor is Vertu, the most established name in luxury smartphones. However, the two are quite different. The Solarin isn’t built by a single craftsman, makes do with Gorilla Glass 4 over the display rather than sapphire crystal, and doesn’t have a stitch of leather in sight. There’s no Concierge service like the one that makes Vertu phones so attractive, no signature of the builder hidden under a secret panel, and no real sense of drama and desirability, either.

The phone struck me as ordinary. It didn’t feel special like something that costs £10,000. It’s not even that great to look at, because the design is very understated and offers no real outward indication of its value. If you’re after a status symbol, then the Solarin probably isn’t it. Perhaps that’s the point. The value is deep inside. This is the techno-lover’s luxury phone. Privacy isn’t exciting in the least, but it is important. To anyone that has had their phone hacked, their identity stolen, or is in a position to have anything to lose in such an eventuality, then being protected against it will be of the utmost importance. In this case, the Solarin is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, assuming it actually works as advertised.

The value comes from the high level of privacy and security, but at the moment, we only have Sirin Labs word that it operates more effectively and is better than what’s already built into iPhones and some Android phones. It’s also important to note that its main competitor Vertu also provides secure calls and security measures through its partnership with Silent Circle. When you factor that in, it makes you wonder why Sirin Labs thinks its phone is better.

There was even a sense that Sirin Labs knows the Solarin isn’t really “the best phone in the world,” even though it shouted that line at every opportunity. Moshe Hogeg, co-founder of Sirin Labs said, “The future of the company is more exciting. This is just the beginning, expect more products that will push the boundaries.”

The commitment, motivation, and technical prowess is clearly there at Sirin Labs, but for now, the Solarin is for eager early adopters who have what most of us would spend on a car hanging around as disposable cash. You’d also have to be pretty convinced that you’re a prime hacking target for the security features to be worth it.

The phone will be on sale June 1 through Sirin Labs own website, its Mayfair, London boutique store, and in Harrods.

Highs

  • Gorgeous screen
  • Great audio
  • Hardware-encrypted calls
  • Real-time security monitoring

Lows

  • Expensive
  • Untested security benefits
  • Older version of Android
  • Not the latest processor
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