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10 Ridiculously Niche Smartphones
By K. Thor Jensen,
PC Magazine, 11 July 2016.

The smartphone market is pretty well-established by now. You've got your big players in Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and a few others, all of whom do basically the same things: big, clear touch screens, fast data networks, decent sound. Aside from the branding and the operating system, there's not a tremendous amount of difference between one phone and another.

But then there are the companies operating on the fringes of the smartphone ecosystem, which have something different in mind. BlackBerry is a prime example. When it announced it was discontinuing the BlackBerry Classic recently, a vocal group of users protested. Even though the ungainly miniature keyboard is a relic of a bygone era, some people still inhabited that niche.

In this feature, we'll showcase a bunch of phones that target very different markets than the ones you're used to. These mobile devices come in weird shapes, boast weird features, and generally cover the bases that iPhones can't or won't. No matter what your niche, there's a smartphone out there for you.

1. Runcible

Most cell phones share a pretty standard form factor, a relatively Golden Mean-conforming rectangle, suited to display modern widescreen video formats. But some people are pushing that envelope in unique directions. The Runcible is patterned after a classic pocket watch, but boasts some truly odd features. For one, it only accepts 12 contacts that you can call and get calls from. Everybody else goes to voicemail. We tried it out at MWC when it was a Firefox OS-based device; since that OS's demise, it now runs a version of Android 5.1 known as BuniOS. The phone is available for pre-order now for US$399, and is expected to ship in September.

2. Solarin

Do you have approximately US$14,000 to blow on a cell phone? Then the Solarin might be for you. The debut product of London-based Sirin Labs, this Android phone is targeted at the incredibly security-conscious. Weighing in at over half a pound, the Android-based Solarin was designed in collaboration with security companies Koolspan and Zimperium, and features a toggle switch on the back that lets you instantly disable every feature with the exception of outgoing voice calls and encrypted text messages. It's positioned as a luxury device for high-rollers in the world of finance, where a data leak can mean the loss of millions in an instant.

3. Zanco Fly


On the opposite end of the spectrum is a phone that's designed for undetectability. The Zanco Fly is a low-end phone manufactured in China that's allegedly made from 100 percent plastic, making it a popular item for prisoners. The tiny device is small enough that it can be easily smuggled inside a body cavity, boasts decent battery life, and works anywhere in the world. Interestingly enough, nobody knows what company actually manufactures these things; they seem to come from just one guy on eBay, who does pretty robust business shipping them out.

4. Pantone 107SH


Adding custom hardware to a cell phone is a dicey task; you need to make sure there are enough people out there who need the feature to get a return on your investment. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the time was right for Softbank to roll out the Pantone 107SH, the first cellular phone with a built-in radiation detector. The Android-based unit has a single-purpose button on the front face that, when pressed, performs a reading of ambient radiation and within 10 seconds delivers results accurate to within 20 percent. It's pretty grim that such a thing has to exist, but that's the world we live in.

5. Akyumen Holofone


The "phablet" market of devices that bridge the gap between phones and tablets has seen some pretty interesting devices, but California-based Akyumen's "Holofone" is a real outlier. It boasts a 7-inch screen and some pretty decent specs, but the real selling point is mounted on the back: a 35 lumen projector that lets you display the screen as big as 16 feet wide on any surface. Made with advanced heat dissipation materials, the Holofone allows you to hold the device for an extended period while using the projection feature. It runs Windows 10 as a native OS and can also output video via mini HDMI cable.

6. Freedom 251


Phones are just too damn expensive, right? That's why Indian firm Ringing Bells is targeting one of the biggest niche markets out there with the Freedom 251, billed as the lowest-priced cell phone on the market. The Android device retails for a paltry US$4, and its internal specs aren't too bad - 1GB RAM and a 1.3GHz processor will do the job, and the 3.2-megapixel camera is workable. Obviously, corners were cut with the plastic case and low-quality speaker, but you can still make calls, post to social media, and do most other things that a phone 100 times the price can do.

7. Vertu Signature Touch


And on the other end of the equation, there's a phone for people who want to show off their wealth in the most ostentatious way possible. Each Vertu Signature Touch is constructed by hand in England by master craftsmen and starts at US$9,000. With a case of Grade 5 titanium, one of the most durable metals on Earth, this phone can take a lot of punishment. The 5.2-inch device sports a 21-megapixel camera for Instagrams of insane fidelity. You can get them with a variety of different materials on the back, including calfskin leather and alligator skin.

8. Project Ara


Buying a cell phone can be a pain in the butt, especially when you find yourself paying for features that you never want to use. I'd be totally fine without a front-facing camera, for example. That's the guiding principle behind Google's Project Ara, a truly modular mobile phone that's designed to last forever by allowing users to swap out pieces at will. The device's frame accommodates a variety of elements, including different cameras, better speakers and microphones, and even a kickstand. Developer models are being shipped out this year, and we can't wait to get our hands on one.

9. Digno Rafre


Durability is a big deal in the phone world, and manufacturers are constantly working to develop tougher screens. But Kyocera's Japan-only Digno Rafre phone is built to handle a problem that we didn't even know we had: it's washable with soap and water. The marketing materials talk about how we use phones to check recipes while we're cooking and expose them to the elements, so a device that can withstand hot water without damage is a pretty good idea. If you're the kind of person who likes to take a lot of bath selfies, this could be the niche phone for you.

10. NoPhone


Let's close this out with the most ludicrous niche smartphone available: one that doesn't work. The NoPhone is a self-professed "technology-free alternative to constant hand-to-phone contact" that gives people addicted to their mobile device a way to kick the habit. Retailing at just US$10, it's a solid hunk of plastic the same general shape and size as a smartphone, but without any of the features. For an extra five bucks, you can upgrade to a model with a small mirror on the front for selfies, but that's about it. The idea seems ludicrous, but they're apparently selling, so what do we know?

Top image: Runcible, via PC Magazine.

[Source: PC Magazine. Edited.]