22:48, 16 Aug 2016
It’s not been an easy route to market for the Turing Phone. The first product from fledgling Turing Robotic Industries, this futuristic-looking handset was shown off last year in a blaze of publicity which focused on its super-strong liquid metal construction, hacker-proof security and eye-catching angular (not to mention waterproof) design. Pre-orders opened and thousands laid down their cash based on these promises, but the proposed release date was missed and the OS switched from the highly vulnerable Android to Jolla’s almost unknown Sailfish 2.0. Another delay followed in 2016 and many accused the company of selling vapourware – but now the Turing Phone is finally a reality, and we’ve got one to prove it.
Those who bravely preordered the device last year are getting their phones as we speak, but Turing is keen to stress that these aren’t the final deal – they are “evaluation” units intended to give buyers a flavour of what they’ll eventually be receiving at the end of the year. They lack the promised water-resistant coating and fancy Bluetooth headset (the latter is coming soon, apparently), while the version of Sailfish installed is very bare-bones; the intention is to layer Turing’s own custom UI over the top of Jolla’s OS in the future, unlocking the much-hyped “Turing Imitation Key” element of the hardware and ramping up the overall security of the device. The final version will also come with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset, an upgrade on the aging 801 which was part of the 2015 spec sheet and is found inside the evaluation units.
So what we have here is a rather scaled-down version of what was originally promised back in 2015, but a tantalising glimpse of what the final unit will offer nonetheless. Even taking into account what’s missing, the Turing Phone is a striking piece of kit. It’s comparable in size to your average 5-inch smartphone because the 5.5-inch display has very thin bezels and there’s no front-facing home button. However, it’s far heavier than your average smartphone thanks to its robust liquid metal bodywork, and while beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder, it has to rank as one of the most visually striking phones of recent memory. If Soundwave from Transformers were to morph into a smartphone instead of a Sony Walkman, he’d probably look like this. We’ve so accustomed to seeing rounded edges on phones these days that the sharp corners of the Turing Phone seem unusual and out of place; the edges are pointy enough to scratch surfaces but the look is utterly fantastic. Practically every person we’ve shown the handset to has commented on how it looks in very positive terms.
The evaluation units are all based on the “Dark Wyvern” design scheme which elegantly mixes black and gold, but other designs will be forthcoming later in the year, including a red, white and silver unit which takes inspiration from the famous Japanese anime series Gundam. The back of the Dark Wyvern edition features a scale-like texture befitting of the mythical beast from which it takes its name, but other versions will have different patterns and detailing. The innovative liquid metal construction gives the Turing Phone an astonishingly solid feel – pressure tests prove that this isn’t a phone which is likely to suffer from any “bendgate” scandals and it’s tough enough to survive huge drops and even being run over by construction vehicles.
There’s no headphone socket – for security reasons, we’re told – and without the promised Bluetooth headset you’ll have to source your own wireless audio option if you want to listen to music. The Wallaby Magstream connector for charging and data transfer is another big change; thankfully, two cables are included in the box so losing one isn’t as big of an issue as you might expect. On the left-hand side there’s a fingerprint scanner which can be pressed down to lock the phone’s display – however, the current version of Sailfish doesn’t support such scanners, so this is currently inactive. Turing is hard at work creating the software which will enable support, and it’s expected to arrive in a future OTA update.
Sailfish 2.0 marks an interesting change for anyone used to iOS or Android. An evolution of Nokia’s abandoned MeeGo project, it does away with a home button and screens full of apps to instead present a gesture-based UI. Swiping from left to right brings up your notification panel which compiles all of your emails, tweets, Facebook posts, text messages and calendar appointments. Swiping in the opposite direction shows your active apps – in fact, swiping from the corner of the screen wherever you happen to be in the OS will take you to this view, allowing you to seamlessly multitask between applications. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen shows your app drawer, which is perhaps the only concession that Sailfish makes for “traditional” smartphone users. Without a “back” button, swiping from left to right takes you back to the previous screen – a process which takes some getting used to, but quickly becomes very intuitive, especially when operating the device with one hand.
After spending some time with the Turing Phone it becomes clear that some of the shortcomings of the experience are down to the fact Sailfish is such a young OS and hasn’t been fully fleshed out in terms of functionality yet. It lacks the ability to quickly and easily share data between installed apps – one of Android’s strengths – and the visual style is almost certainly going to be too bare-bones for some. However, it does have some interesting features, including the ability to record phone calls, a 5-second delay on deleting items which prevents accidental removal of apps or photos and impressive support for Android applications. Because it’s based on Linux – like Android – pretty much any Android app will run as intended on the Turing Phone with no speed or performance issues, although at the time of writing there are problems with Google Play Services that prevent some core Google apps from running properly. These are expected to be fixed by a future OTA update. Having support for Android apps is a big plus for the Turing Phone, as Sailfish’s own app store is rather lacking at present.
The Turing Phone in its current state has a lot of issues, and after such a lengthy delay there may be some consumers who feel somewhat short-changed, especially having paid top dollar for a device they expected to have at the end of 2015. The delay for the final unit is mitigated by the fact that evaluation models are being supplied entirely free of charge, and that the phone which eventually makes it to market will be powered by a much faster Snapdragon 820 processor. While we don’t imagine it was planned from the start, the whole evaluation unit scheme is pretty unique – it’s hard to imagine Apple or Samsung sending you the prototype for their next phone before the final edition – and while the process is undoubtedly an effort to placate buyers after repeated delays and a controversial OS change, it will ultimately help make the final Turing device even better. Evaluation units will allow Turing to thoroughly test its hardware and software, ironing out any kinks before the shipping the real deal to consumers.
Making a phone from scratch when you’re not a massive, established player in the smartphone industry isn’t easy, and the process is even less straightforward when you happen to be working with cutting-edge materials such as liquid metal and promising super-secure technology to boot. That a harsh lesson that Turing Robotic Industries has had to learn over the past year or so, and despite getting its debut product into the hands of buyers, it still has a long way to go before it can truly deliver on all of the lofty claims it made back in 2015.
However, the time we’ve spent with the Turing Phone evaluation unit gives us reason to hope that come the end of this year, we’ll have a handset which not only looks and feels like a premium proposition, but offers an enhanced UI, improved features, more powerful internals and – perhaps most importantly of all – a genuine alternative to iOS and Android.
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