How much do you value your privacy? Sirin Labs is a new company making its debut in London today that stakes its future on very wealthy people believing their privacy and security to be priceless. Its launch product is the Solarin, a 5.5-inch Android smartphone accompanied by a series of bombastic claims about being the very best. It should be the very best, given that it costs £9,500 before taxes, but in my time trying it out today, I was left with the unhappy impression of an expensive imposter.
Converted into US dollars and with tax added in, the Solarin costs an amusing $16,666. I have to draw amusement from its price as consolation for putting up with the incredibly pretentious presentation about the phone itself. "Our customers are very, very smart people" was a line seemingly extracted from a Donald Trump marketing guide. Sirin Labs' "core customers are international business travellers, entrepreneurs, and partners in financial firms." These people who communicate a lot have very high security needs, and that's where Solarin steps in, featuring partnerships with security firms Koolspan and Zimperium to secure the phone and your data on it.
It's probably a sign of the fact that I'm not a business leader that I don't really feel all that drastically insecure in my daily use of a smartphone. Sure, I sacrifice some privacy to make use of various services like Gmail, YouTube, and Netflix, but the Solarin won't do anything to help me there. Its protections are against malicious attacks and exploits, which, sure, Android has had quite a few of, but then again, Google's mobile OS already has a couple of capable contenders in that space. Samsung has its Knox secure platform and BlackBerry has the Priv, both offering security levels that should satisfy even the most paranoid. So what's worth the extra sixteen thousand bucks with Solarin?
"Our customers are very, very smart people"
This new smartphone has a special switch at the back that flips it into a super-duper cybersecure mode, allowing only outgoing voice calls and securely encrypted messaging. One of Sirin's software engineers described it as "less than a featurephone" in terms of functionality, with the mode also disabling various hardware features. I like this aspect of the phone, and I also like that Sirin is starting to sell the Solarin right away with the latest Android security patches already installed. Only Google's own Nexus devices, the Blackphone, and BlackBerry's Priv have the security updates going right up to the end of May.
If everything about the Solarin had been that polished and up to date, I could be convinced that it wasn't a bad joke playing on people's rightful fears about privacy. But the processor inside is a Snapdragon 810 (which you might remember as last year's flagship chip that Samsung skipped because of overheating), the software is a heavily skinned Android 5.1, and the camera, supposedly the best in the world, is as slow as this phone is fat. The Solarin weighs 250g (that's over half a pound!) and you feel every last milligram of it. It's unwieldy and unpleasant to hold because of its bulk.
The battery is a hefty 4,000mAh, partially justifying this phone's comical thickness
The Solarin's camera has plenty of spec sheet appeal with a four-color flash sitting next to a 24-megapixel shooter with laser autofocus and f/2.0 lens. But its pictures are blurry, overexposed, and immediately unimpressive. Am I wrong to be offended by a company claiming something like this is the best when it's so painfully obvious that it's not? The front-facing 8-megapixel camera, which comes with its own flash, left a much more positive impression on me.
The rest of the Solarin's specs are very solid. It has a beefy 4,000mAh battery and a very bright 1440p IPS LCD display with 120 percent coverage of the sRGB color space. 4GB of RAM and 128GB of non-expandable storage also add to its credibility as a premium device, but for such a globetrotting phone, not having a second SIM slot is something of an omission. The Solarin has three speakers, two positioned below the display and a single tweeter above the screen. Around the back, there's a large sapphire glass cover for the camera lens and flash, which sits atop the power button with an integrated fingerprint sensor. But wait, weren't fingerprints your phone's biggest security vulnerability?
Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio were very randomly in attendance at today's launch. DiCaprio had invested in Sirin Labs founder Moshe Hogeg's previous venture, called Mobli, and I can only assume he was drawn in again to lend some extra star power to the launch. The central London venue speaks to the same aspiration of trying to wow people by the process of association.
I so very much wish that the Solarin was an honest effort to wow and impress us as a technological product. There is certainly room for improvement when it comes to Android security, and I welcome anyone endeavoring to lead that change. But this smartphone — even while rejecting the Vertu model of being luxurious just in its materials and construction — doesn't live up to its creators' lofty claims of being uniquely and brilliantly functional. As high as it is, the price isn't the most egregious thing about this phone. It's the arrogance of its makers that leaves me most displeased.