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Silent Circle Blackphone 2 review: A potent phone for the paranoid and privacy-minded

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Security patches and bug fixes remain by far the most important mechanism for securing not just phones, but any devices. Silent Circle aims to patch vulnerabilities as soon as they come in. By partnering with Google and setting up its own bug bounty program, the company aims to jump on flaws as they come in.

"Any critical vulnerability that is public, we aim to fix within 72 hours," said David Puron, Blackphone vice-president of engineering, which he said can translate to as little as a week from disclosure to patching.

The BlackBerry factor: Will you switch?

When you think phone security, you might think BlackBerry. Despite its dwindling market share and declining user base, it remains a favorite in big business and government, thanks to its various security certifications.

Silent Circle said it's "working" towards government and military certification, such as FIPS 140-2 for government networks handling low-level classified material, but declined to comment publicly on its progress. That paves the way for rival phones, such as Samsung Knox-enabled devices and some Apple iPhones, to barge in ahead of the Blackphone 2.

There's also one potentially deal-breaking element missing: encrypted email. The Blackphone 2 supports Google Apps and Android for Work, as well as the usual email services, including Microsoft Exchange. That's because in part there isn't one that stands up to the mark -- at least just yet. As with the first Blackphone, the company has shied away from offering an app because of the dangers associated with the legal problems that Lavabit -- the email service favored by Edward Snowden -- encountered in 2013. That said, there are encrypted email options available through the separate Silent Store, which offers verified apps known to be secure and private, but in any case, it's another feature where BlackBerry dominates its rivals.

Making Silent Circle's job a little tougher perhaps, BlackBerry has confirmed it will soon roll out an Android smartphone of its own, running its own BlackBerry security software. That could work in BlackBerry's favor, but also potentially for the Blackphone 2.

Silent Circle says it has the advantage over BlackBerry is its "zero-knowledge" approach to user data. It can't see your data, ever, unlike -- so the Blackphone maker claims -- BlackBerry can, which has in recent years appeased governments by offering access to portions of its users' communications.

"Almost every product we make, makes it impossible for us to play any role even when forced by law enforcement or governments," said Aguera.

Design and feature set

Just as much thought was put into the design of this phone as what goes in it. The Blackphone 2 is as haunting to look at as its name might suggest, donning a back-to-front glossy, glass-like black finish.

It's marginally larger than its predecessor at 5.5 inches diagonally -- the same size and 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution as the iPhone 6 Plus and 6S Plus. Its curved corners and lightly textured edges makes it easy to hold, despite being on the larger size. But good luck keeping smudges and fingerprints off the glossy back panel. The phone can get grubby quickly.

The smartphone rivals the BlackBerry in almost every way, but does it have the chops to take on a government and enterprise favorite? Zack Whittaker/CNET

Blackphone 2 lands with a 1.7GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor and 3GB of RAM. That's a step back from the Snapdragon 800-series you'll find in more cutting-edge phones in this price range, but -- quite honestly -- if you're looking to play games, this isn't the phone for you, anyway.

There's 32GB of internal storage, which is expandable with up to 128GB via a microSD slot (designed for non-encrypted files such as movies and music). The rear-facing 13-megapixel camera performed well, but images compared to the iPhone 6 were not as well composed. There's also a 5-megapixel front-facing camera for video calling on the go. Wi-Fi connects on 802.11 a/b/g/n and the newer ac bands.

In real-world testing, the phone lasted most of the day on moderate to heavy use on its full-charge of its meaty 3,060-mAh battery. (We're still conducting our looping video battery rundown test, and will update here when we have full results.)

Bottom line

The Blackphone 2 is an elegant handset that packs a privacy punch and a whole lot of potential.

There's no other Android phone on the market that appeals to the security-minded on a consumer or small to medium-sized business level -- except the BlackBerry, which on paper at least still holds the advantage. As for enterprise support, the Blackphone 2 can be remotely managed through common mobile device management (MDM) services, like Citrix and Soti.

The Blackphone 2 is also a better phone than its predecessor, with a bigger screen and access to the full Google Play app store. That means you don't need a second phone for all those daily smartphone conveniences -- music, video, social media, games and so forth -- should you choose to indulge.

From a security standpoint, the various ways in which the phone could be attacked have been mitigated as much as possible, and far exceed other efforts in the smartphone market. As for privacy, the device puts the weight of work on itself, while putting the onus of choice and preference in your hands.

It's a winning combination. But whether or not the Blackphone 2 can pick up where the BlackBerry began to fail remains, for now, a big unknown.

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