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Touring the Turing, a wonderfully weird encrypted smartphone

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You'd think a company that takes security as seriously as Turing Robotics does wouldn't paint its first smartphones purple, red, gold or blue, but you'd have it pegged wrong. For a freshman effort, CEO SYL Chao envisioned an Android phone that was meant for designers and aesthetes as much as it was for security nerds and paranoiacs who crave the encryption tech inside it. Weird? You bet, but after spending a little time with some pre-production prototypes, I can't help but pull for this underdog.

Gallery: Hands-on with the weird, wonderful Turing phone | 21 Photos

"Weird" might be too loaded a word for it; I prefer "charmingly quirky." The first indications that you're not dealing with your usual smartphone maker are the color schemes at play. The "Beowulf" Turing has a twinge of gold to signify the hero's eventual kingship of the Geats, and a hexagonal pattern etched into purple polycarbonate (no, it's not all liquidmorphium, the super-durable composite alloy that's more or less unbendable) as a callback to Grendel's mom's scales. Meanwhile, Chao said with no shortage of nerd pride that the red-white "Cardinal" model, festooned as it is with panel lines, was inspired by the original Gundam, circa 1979.

If that didn't immediately tip you off to the different sensibilities here, the rest of the body will. It's not quite heavy, but the liquidmorphium frame keeps things feeling dense and sturdy (though one hefty prototype I played with was designed to see how heavy a phone people would be comfortable with). It's waterproof. There's no headphone jack. The traditional, vulnerable micro-USB charging port has been replaced with a MacBook-like magnetic charger. The panel lines and the untapered edges stand in stark contrast to the smooth phone designs peppering the market right now, too -- if the iPhone feels like a curvy, friendly VW Beetle, the Turing is a Lamborghini from 1985. It revels in its own machine-ness.

Most of what's inside is pretty pedestrian by comparison: It's got one of Qualcomm's quad-core Snapdragon 801 chipsets with 3GB of RAM and a 3,000mAh battery. And that screen up front? A perfectly adequate 5.5-inch screen running at 1080p. The most basic Turing will come with 16GB of internal storage and set you back $610, although the ballers among you might gravitate to the $870 128GB model. Not exactly stuff to set your world afire, but Chao seems perfectly happy to be making a phone that isn't meant for run-of-the-mill spec chasers.

I wish I could render some sort of fleeting judgment on how well the whole package works, but the Turings just aren't ready yet. Chao and his team are gearing up for a September launch (pre-orders start at the end of July), and these last frenzied weeks are being spent polishing things up. That's just as well -- the version I played with had a pretty batty interface demo that had me swiping the screen to rotate between an ornate, leather-esque app launcher and a flatter alternative. You don't need to take those weird flourishes as gospel either since Chao says the final version of the software will run lighter and should obscure Android 5.1 completely.

Really though, it's all this authentication stuff that really seems like the future of Turing's business. Nestled right where a microSD card would go is what Chao calls the Turing Imitation Key, a teensy bit of extra hardware that algorithmically encrypts your data right there, almost completely removing the possibility that some malcontent could snoop on you. Chao very quickly agrees when I call the phone a Trojan horse to get people (and developers) tapping into that secure Turing key, too -- he'd ultimately like to see banks and other mainstays of modern life using these keys to encrypt data all over the place. Throw in some secure peer-to-peer apps for messaging, voice calls and email cloud services (which will eventually get the open-source treatment) and you've got a phone that aims to make it easy to live privately.

Now, let's be real: There are countless reasons why the Turing phone could fail. Key relationships could go south. The supply chains could fall apart (though Chao strongly disagrees). And, most damningly, people might just scratch their heads at the thing instead of buying it. Every mobile upstart faces these same challenges, but it feels like Turing Robotics is just throwing all the cool, useful stuff it's ever wanted into an off-kilter body that could raise eyebrows in the right way. It sure won't be for everyone, but this bizarro blend successfully avoids feeling like any other phone I've used. And if it doesn't pan out? Well, Chao's already dreaming up things to squeeze into Turings 2 and 3.

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