In bright conditions, images are crisp and color reproduction is impeccable. The camera is particularly impressive in the macro range, with the autofocus quickly homing in on the subject of that particular close-up. The automatic camera settings are also very well-tuned -- particularly white balance, which copes with artificial lighting better than any smartphone camera I've used in some time. Auto-exposure compensation doesn't leave much to be desired, but images sometimes come out on the dark side when natural light starts working against you and you're shooting a landscape (this is the case with most handsets, though). HDR mode spits out some nice, high-contrast pictures when the scene is amenable to this kind of magic, but it really comes in handy in low-light situations.
Now, the main camera isn't amazing when light is lacking, but it's at least approaching the kind of mettle Nokia and Motorola have managed to achieve despite low megapixel counts. I'm still encouraged by the number of photons the sensor is able to suck up in such conditions, but the white balance setting tends to apply an unnecessary red filter to darker scenes. This is where the HDR mode comes in handy, as long as you're willing to wait a couple seconds for the image to process. I've had no issues with white balance when taking HDR shots in low light, and it makes for a brighter and slightly less noisy image compared with a regular photo. There's always the companion flash as a last resort, and it kicks out a decent cone of light. The standard problems with using a flash still apply here, like washed-out pictures with pitch-black backgrounds.
Apart from HDR, there are no other special modes like burst capture or even panorama. You're dealing with a seriously limited stock camera app that does stills, video and nothing else. That being said, it's very responsive. The app boots up immediately, and the shutter-response time is almost as quick, which somewhat makes up for the lack of burst-capture support. Image-processing time obviously increases in HDR mode, but only up to around a second in good conditions. When light starts fading, the autofocus and shutter speeds starts to decline in parallel, but this is all pretty normal.
The app itself is a simple affair, with only a few settings to adjust: white balance, exposure compensation, scene selection and, of course, image resolution. Should you want to tweak any of these manually, they're all quickly accessible from the viewfinder window. There is one noticeable issue with the camera app: It hangs for about a second when you're turning the phone from landscape to portrait orientation. The majority of the time, it resumes the way it should, but it does occasionally crash.
Video recording quality is just, well... OK. There's a drop in clarity compared to stills when filming in 1080p, and alongside the extra noise, it sometimes drops a few frames when you're moving or panning rapidly. Auto-exposure compensation can be a little skittish as well, but again, this is a fairly common problem with smartphone cameras. Audio quality is notably poor. Not only is the volume extremely low, but also everything sounds muffled and distant. Recordings also don't hold up in low light nearly as well as stills, but you can still opt for a grainy, ill-defined clip if the situation absolutely calls for it.
Performance and battery life
The Blackphone is one of only a few handsets packing NVIDIA's quad-core, 2GHz Tegra 4i SoC, and here it's paired with 1GB of RAM and 16 gigs of internal storage, though only around 12 and a half of that is user-accessible. There's always the microSD slot that supports up to 128GB cards if you need more, of course. NVIDIA has a reference device it uses to demonstrate the graphics capabilities of its mobile chip, but naturally I had to test that myself. With the Google Play store unavailable, I searched for the most intensive-looking 3D games I could find in Amazon's app store, and settled on GT Racing 2, Angry Birds Go! and Trials Frontier. (As a side note, devices with an NVIDIA chip usually come with the TegraZone Android game store preinstalled, but I wasn't shocked to see it omitted from the Blackphone, given no other app stores are accessible out of the box.)
NVIDIA knows a thing or three about gaming, so it's no surprise it handled all of my choices with ease -- most of the time, anyway. I was particularly conscious of fast loading times, both when booting up the titles and hopping into different tracks within them. However, there were a few hiccups here and there, with occasional dropped frames and some minor periods of straight-up "hanging."
I'm hesitant to pin this on NVIDIA's chip, though, as I had similar experiences when using non-intensive apps, and infrequently when just cycling through menus or the app drawer. Otherwise, it's relatively fast in general use, but you can provoke it into stuttering by attempting to do too much too quickly -- kind of like an old PC that's on its way out. When I started to feel it getting too slow, a reboot brought it back up to speed. I've already mentioned the camera app can stall when rotating the phone, which leads me to believe there's some software optimization or bug fixes to be done. The Security Center permissions manager runs in the background while the majority of apps are open, too, which could be to blame for some of the stuttering. It never gets to the point of truly frustrating, but let's just say it's nowhere near as slick as it could be, especially when the Blackphone runs a stripped-down, albeit custom Android build.
NVIDIA's chip also includes an LTE radio, which is capable of up to 100 Mbps download speeds. This is as fast as the Cat 3 standard goes, but NVIDIA has achieved Cat 4 speeds with newer Tegra 4i software. Blackphone is currently testing this Cat 4 update internally, and if all goes well, I'm told it'll be rolled out before the end of the year. For reference, the North American version supports bands 4, 7 and 17, and the international model 3, 7 and 20. I had no issues with internet performance using the stock browser. Websites load quickly (as fast as you expect them to on a mobile device, anyway) and tiling is only just noticeable when quickly zooming in and out of desktop sites. Navigating around websites is smooth, too, and it's important to note that running traffic through the Disconnect Secure Wireless VPN service didn't appear to have any impact on performance.
The music-listening experience on the Blackphone is basically the same as it is on every other smartphone. It's clear and crisp enough, but missing clarity on the low end, so keep those bass-boosting headphones at the ready. It's also noticeably lacking in volume, but this should only be an issue if you're wearing leaky headphones in a noisy environment. Any over- or in-ears will render this problem moot. The loudspeaker is, amazingly, one of the worst I've come across, with distortion making music almost unrecognizable. It's just fine for taking hands-free calls, though. Connectivity-wise, the Blackphone has dual-band WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, Miracast support and GPS. While this covers most bases, it's lacking 802.11ac, NFC, GLONASS, et cetera -- things you'd usually expect in a $629 handset.
It's hard to really judge GPS performance, as the Blackphone doesn't have any mapping or navigation apps out of the box. A sideloaded version of Google Maps (and the mobile website) refuses to communicate with the GPS module, as does Yelp (downloaded from the Amazon app store). MapQuest (also from the Amazon store) is the only app that will successfully home in on my location, but mapping data loads painfully slowly over a cellular connection for some reason. The GPS module is supposed to be fully functional, as you have complete control over what apps can access it through the Blackphone Security Center. App compatibility issues strike again, it seems.
I had no trouble with WiFi connections themselves, but it's worrying that at around six feet from my router, it still only registers two out of three bars of reception. The cellular connection is more of the same. In my South London home, I'm usually at full bars regardless of the phone I'm using, but I managed only two out of four with the Blackphone. If you're in a low-reception area or have WiFi dull spots around your house, these seemingly underpowered components might give you some trouble. On the other hand, the Bluetooth worked just fine, with quick device discovery and connections.
The Blackphone's 2,000mAh battery is neither extraordinary nor terrible. With intensive use -- including browsing, downloading and installing APKs, listening to music, checking email, taking pictures and a few brief gaming spurts -- it got through nearly a whole day without dying, although I did cut back on screen time when I saw the battery dropping to alarming percentage levels. With slightly more conservative use, it lasted a day and a half without requiring charging.
The Blackphone retails for a whopping $629 if bought direct from SGP, and the only reseller I know of is GSM Nation, which will sell you one for only $549 (disclaimer: GSM Nation provided our review handset). For that kind of money you can have your pick of any smartphone on the market, flagship or otherwise. You're not just buying any other smartphone, though; you're buying a substrate for PrivatOS and its included apps to live on. In this respect, the Blackphone is a niche device that's all but incomparable to anything else out there.
There are several encrypted-communication apps and similar privacy services for both Android and iOS platforms, but in the realm of super-secure handsets, you don't have much choice. Boeing has developed its own "Black" phone specifically for the military and certain corporations, which even has a modular design to incorporate extras like solar charging, satellite communications and biometric sensors. The only other security-focused device for the consumer market is the FreedomPop Privacy Phone, a Galaxy S II with added software for encrypted comms and safer internet access via VPNs. At $189, it's a bargain compared to the Blackphone, but then again, it doesn't take privacy to quite the same extreme.
If you look at the Blackphone purely from a hardware perspective, it's nothing special. It has LTE, a good set of cameras and acceptable specs, but it's hardly a poster child for inspired design, and the display could do with being about twice as powerful. As you've heard more than a few times already, it's all about the software. That's not perfect either, though, with spotty app support and a few performance kinks that need to be ironed out. Then there's the everyday user experience. I understand you can't exactly install all of Google's services as standard and still call the thing secure, but people will inevitably want to use the phone for things other than its basic functions. Ultimately, this has to be at the discretion of the individual user, but anyone that's not au fait with alternative apps stores and side-loading APKs will struggle.
The Blackphone could do a better job of supporting customers in this regard, without them needing to dig through forums for solutions. Maybe in future iterations of PrivatOS, or other security-centric phones that come to the market, we'll see a better balance between convenience and privacy. For now, though, the Blackphone is not for the faint of heart. All this being said, you can't really fault how locked-down it is, and despite the high price tag, you're essentially getting subsidized subscriptions to some of the best mobile security services, as well as useful bespoke apps like the Security Center permissions manager.
If privacy is important to you, the Blackphone is almost certainly what you're after in a mobile device. Besides, you don't have much choice currently. One thing I'm still coming to terms with, however, is the concept of selling peace of mind. As Edward Snowden continues to leak information about how the NSA and other national government agencies were/are hoovering up every bit of personal data available to them, digital privacy has never been a hotter topic. With people wanting more control over how their data is handled, it was inevitable that products like the Blackphone would appear.
There's a fine line between leveraging a mild global hysteria to sell a niche and expensive smartphone, and creating the best possible product to serve a growing market need -- and in that sense, PrivatOS and the Blackphone's bundled apps are likely to satisfy even the most demanding privacy-conscious consumer. I guess it doesn't really matter either way: Nobody's forcing anyone to buy a super-secure handset. And, even if the Blackphone is one of a new, shrewd generation of opportunistic ventures in this area, it can't be blamed for creating the demand.