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Forked-Android smartphones advance to second generation

Sep 28, 2015 — by Eric Brown 2,091 views

Silent Circle and Fairphone, which each offer smartphones that run extensively forked versions of Android, will soon ship powerful second-generation models.

Alternative Android distributions have grown increasingly popular in recent years, from CyanogenMod to the OnePlus 2’s Oxygen OS to Chinese Android variants like Xiaomi’s MIUI. Last year, two more Android flavors also arrived in specialty phones that aim to find a niche in the smartphonosphere. First, there was the ultra-secure Blackphone from Silent Circle, and then the modular, environmentally and ethically focused Fairphone.

Now, Silent Circle and Fairphone, each of which offer fairly extensively forked versions of Android, are close to shipping more refined and powerful second-generation models. The ultra-secure Blackphone 2 is now available for pre-sale at $799, and the Fairphone 2, which has been on sale since June for about $600, will ship in November. Last week, the Fairphone project announced it will release the source code and build environment under open source license.


Blackphone 2

Like the original Blackphone, the Blackphone 2 runs an Android-derived distribution, which is equipped with full device encryption, and is now updated to version 1.1. Silent Circle has changed the name from PrivatOS to Silent OS.

As before, the argument for the Blackphone is to not only to provide an Android compatible phone that offers better security against the typical malicious hackers and malware, but also one that is entirely free of potential backdoors for spy agencies like the NSA, as well as carriers and other corporations. The enterprise-focused Blackphone 2 is claimed to be “free of bloatware, hooks to carriers, and leaky data.”

Blackphone 2

New features in Silent OS 1.1 includes an update to an Android 5.1 foundation and “Spaces” — security hardened virtualized containers to separate work and consumer realms. You can create up to four different “securely compartmentalized” virtual phones on the AES-128 encrypted Blackphone 2, each with full customization capabilities.

Silent OS 1.1 lets users pick which permissions they want to allow from an app publisher a la carte instead of making an all or nothing permissions decision. You can now lock the screen using a pattern, a PIN, or a password.

A Smarter Wi-Fi feature automatically stops sharing router data via WiFi after a short period if the device is connected to a non-trusted access point. In addition, Silent Circle claims it will fix new vulnerabilities and bugs within 72 hours,

The Blackphone 2 and an upcoming BlackPhone+ tablet are part of a larger cloud-based security framework Silent Circle calls Enterprise Privacy Platform (EPP). EPP enables a Blackphone 2 user to encrypt phone calls with other users of Silent Circle devices using a cryptographic key-agreement protocol called ZRTP (Zimmermann Real-time Transport Protocol). ZRTP, which is named for PGP creator and Silent Circle exec Phil Zimmermann, helps negotiate the keys for encryption using the Real-time Transport Protocol on a VoIP connection.

The Blackphone 2 is also supported in Google’s enterprise-focused Android for Work application stack and marketing program. As a result, unlike with the original Blackphone, you now have access to Google Play and Google Mobile Services.

The Blackphone 2 does not match the hardware specs of other high-end phones in this insanely expensive price range, such as the iPhone 6s or Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, but it’s much more powerful than the original.

The phone runs on an octa-core, 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 SoC, which is comprised of eight Cortex-A53 cores and an Adreno 405 GPU. The product offers 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and surprisingly for such a security-focused product, a microSD slot.

The LTE-ready phone is equipped with a 5.5-inch, 1080p Gorilla Glass display. You also get 13- and 5-megapixel cameras and a 3060mAh battery with Quick Charge 2. The phone provides a typical high-end mix of wireless and sensor features.

According to a Sep. 28 Forbes hands-on review, the design has improved right along with the feature set. For example, the phone now features a fairly thin, 7.9mm profile. The review gave high marks to almost all the features except the relatively mid-range cameras, but it dinged the phone for its high price.

Blackphone 2 YouTube video

The Blackphone 2 is available for pre-sale at $799. No ship date was announced. More information may be found at the Blackphone 2 product page.

Fairphone 2

Last year, Amsterdam-based Fairphone introduced it eponymous flagship phone with promises of high ethical and environmental standards. The Fairphone, which has so far sold 60,000 units, according to the company, will soon be updated with a Fairphone 2 model, which offers a modular design a la Google’s Project Ara intended to reduce electronics waste and extend the life of the phone.

Fairphone 2, back, front, and inside out
(click image to enlarge)

The modularity of the Fairphone and Fairphone 2 is not as ambitious as Google’s Project Ara. Yet, while Project Ara has yet to ship, after delays caused by technical problems with the magnets that hold the phone’s parts together, the Fairphone 2 is available for order in Europe today starting at $600, with shipments due in November.

Fairphone 2

Like the original, the Fairphone 2 is claimed to follow exceptional standards for environmental impact and social impact. The company claims it buys all the tin and tantalum metals used in the phone from a conflict-free source. Fairphone also supports an electronic waste recycling program in Ghana, as well as a welfare fund in China.

Although the phone was originally announced with plans for modularity, the modular design has only now arrived with the second generation model. The Fairphone 2 can be easily broken down into replaceable components for easier repair and greater longevity. Modules include the mainboard, display, rear camera, front camera, microphone, and a 2420mAh battery.

Very few of the modules have been glued or soldered, according to a mostly favorable hands-on review from Engadget. Most of the modules can be removed with a screwdriver, and the display is said to be connected with a simple clip mechanism, letting you replace it within 30 seconds. Spare parts will be on stock by the November ship date.

The Fairphone 2 is more powerful than the original, but this is still a mid-range phone. The second-gen model advances from a quad-core MediaTek SoC to a faster, quad-core Snapdragon 801 with 2GB of RAM, 32GB storage, and a microSD slot. The dual-SIM, LTE-ready phone has a 5-inch, full HD display with Gorilla Glass 3. An 8-megapixel rear camera with an OmniVision sensor is available along with a 2-megapixel front-facing camera and the usual wireless features.

Fairphone will also offer an open source stack for the Fairphone 2. In a Sep. 23 blog post, the company announced that it plans to open source the updated, Android 5.1 derived Fairphone OS build environment in “the coming months.”

Fairphone 2 exploded view
(click image to enlarge)

The company plans to release the “full open source code, all the tools and the binary blobs that will allow users to build their own Fairphone OS,” says Fairphone. The company is also planning to incorporate more public feedback into software under development, and is working on a system for accepting community contributions, complete with a public Gerrit for code review.

Fairphone 2 YouTube video

The Fairphone 2 is available for pre-order for 529 Euros, or about $607, in Europe, with shipments due in November. In the UK, it is available from The Phone Co-op for 395 Pounds ($600) along with monthly payment plans. Shipments are due in December. The company plans to offer the phone in the U.S. in 2016, says Engadget. More information may be found at the Fairphone 2 product page.

(advertise here)

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3 responses to “Forked-Android smartphones advance to second generation”

  1. Glenn says:

    “entirely free of potential backdoors for spy agencies like the NSA, as well as carriers and other corporations”

    It also uses binary only drivers provided by other corporations, and gives no indication of being any different from the modem side.

    Call it ignorant phone instead of blackphone

  2. Robert says:

    Quite right. No trust without source, as far as I’m concerned.

  3. Mark Lawrence says:

    The product [Blackphone 2] offers… surprisingly for such a security-focused product, a microSD slot.

    Why is that a surprise? Being able to keep confidential data completely separate from a phone can be a security asset.

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