Futuristic-looking liquid metal Turing Phone promises total hacker protection (hands-on)

/ Updated: July 11, 2015 12:00 PM PDT
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The search for the secure smartphone continues: this time, we're taking a look at the Turing Phone. This Android smartphone will be available for pre-order later this month, and combines a unique, liquid metal chassis with a hardline focus on security.

At first blush, the Turing Phone left me... let's say skeptical. When a company you've never heard of launches a sparse website touting a (pricey) smartphone, bandies about jargon like "Liquidmorphium" and claims to be able to shut out hackers, it becomes hard to reserve judgement.

But the Turing Phone is more or less real: I've handled a pair of prototypes (and one non-functional dummy), and chatted at length with SYL Chao, Turing Robotics' CEO. Chao's previous project was the QSAlpaha Quasar IV . That smartphone was similarly focused on total encryption and security, but ran a custom operating system based on Android and ultimately failed to gain much traction. The Turing Phone amends some of those missteps and looks and feels great, but Turing Robotics' claims remain theoretical, and unproven. But the device remains an intriguing concept: let's look beyond the buzzwords and to see what lies underneath.

Design and build

The Turing Phone is still in the prototype stage, but it looks and feels like something from the future. No thanks to the hardware: the 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor isn't exactly state of the art, and the 5.5-inch 1,920x1,080 pixel display pales in comparisons to flagship devices like the 5.1-inch Samsung Galaxy S6 or the 5.5-inch LG G4 -- both of those offer 2,560x1,440 pixel resolutions. It is by no means a bad display, and while my time was admittedly brief I didn't see any glaring issues -- this is a prototype model, however, so we'll need to wait and see.

The phone a little heavier than my Nexus 6 but certainly not onerous, and far easier to slip into a pocket. The SIM card slot that sits on the left side of the device is the only real point of entry for dirt or grime, as there are no other holes on the phone. It charges by way of the "Wallaby Magstream" magnetic power cable that looks curiously like an Apple MagSafe 2 plug. The 3,000mAh battery isn't removable, and you'll need to pair a Bluetooth headset for audio, as there's no 3.5mm headphone jack.

The premium Turing Phone promises world-class security through a chip on the phone. Josh Miller/CNET

The Turing Phone's frame is made up of the liquid-metal alloy that the company is calling "liquidmorphium." It's an amorphous alloy of zirconium, copper, aluminum, nickel and silver that's supposedly stronger than steel, but cheaper and more efficient to produce than titanium. I'm not a fan of jargony buzzwords, but this liquidmorphium stuff is interesting; it feels like glass, and when polished down it takes on a mirror-finish. The liquid metal frame is also something of a fingerprint magnet, so it's probably a good thing that the 5.5-inch screen has a very narrow bezel. There's a fingerprint reader on the left side of the phone, in a perfect spot for your thumb. I'm a lefty so it makes perfect sense to me, but I imagine right-handed folk might be a little confused, at first.

The phone is available in Beowulf (left), Pharaoh (center) and Cardinal (right). Josh Miller/CNET

The back of the phone is made of a tough plastic, and houses the near-field communications (NFC) chip. There will also be a few color options to choose from: the Beowulf model offers blue accents, and its plastic back is textured to look like a serpent's skin; the Pharaoh model offers gold accents. I'm partial to Cardinal, a simple red-and-white affair that would look at home in Neo Tokyo, or some other cyberpunk setting.

Hydrophobic nano-coating will keep the phone's innards safe from splashes. Josh Miller/CNET

The phone is also using "Binnacle Ocean Master" nano-coating technology to waterproof their device. The naming scheme gives me pause, but hydrophobic nano-coating is nothing new -- we've seen examples of the technology used to protect phones in the past.

The technology goes beyond weather-sealing: your average ruggedized phone relies on a tightly sealed chassis to keep water from getting in and mucking up the works. In the Turing Phone's case, I was told that all of the phone's innards are waterproofed, so submersion becomes a non-issue. The phone has an IPX8 rating, and Turing claims that the phone has been left underwater for up to 24 hours without issue. The Xperia Z4 that Sony recently announced also boasts an IPX8 rating, while Samsung's Galaxy S6 Active has an IP68 rating

Plenty of promise -- and security promises

A sturdy chassis and waterproofed innards are great, but remember -- the point of the Turing Phone is security, and testing those claims will be difficult. It all revolves around the Turing Imitation Key, which attempts to constrain public-key cryptography onto the phone. It's a complex subject, but simple to understand: a "public key matrix" is paired with your private key, and both remain on your phone, offline. When someone wants to communicate with you securely, they'll be able to use your public key to encrypt it, and only your private key will be able to decrypt that message.

The difference, Turing Robotics says, is that this is all happening on the phone's hardware -- other mobile-encryption services rely on transmitting data to and from third-party services. Turing's imitation Key handles all of the work right on the phone, which theoretically means there's no chance for malcontents to sabotage the encryption or decryption processes. But we've all heard the term "hacker-proof" before.

We only got to see a mockup of the Turing UI -- the phone currently runs stock Android Lollipop. Josh Miller/CNET

The final question revolves around the software. The devices I saw were running stock versions of Android 5.1 Lollipop, but the final version will have a custom Turing interface running on top of Android. Being based on Android seems to run at odds with the hyper-secure platform Turing Robotics is aiming for, particularly since you'll still have access to Google Play Services and the app store. We'll just have to wait and see what Turing has in store.

Pricing and availability

The Turing Phone will start shipping later this year, and it'll be available for preorder on July 31 -- there will only be 10,000 units available, to start. It's available in three capacities at three price points: there's a 16GB model that will sell for $610 (£391, AU$798); a 64GB version that will sell for $740 (£474, AU$969); and the 128GB model, which will cost $870 (£580 and AU$1,120). In an attempt to sweeten the deal, Turing Robotic Industries is offering a "bonus accessories package" to folks who preorder. which will include a mobile Bluetooth keyboard, earphones, a Bluetooth headset and a mobile gaming controller.

Those high prices give me pause, but I will admit that after spending some time with a working prototype my thoughts have moved from outright skepticism to wary interest. But even if the final model lives up to its promises, this phone remains aimed at the well-heeled and security conscious, and not the average consumer. We'll have to wait and see if the final version of the hardware will address misgivings we might have about the software, or hardware.

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Turing Phone

Part Number: CNETTURINGPHONE

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  • Diagonal Size 5.5 in
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