HTC Exodus 1 Review: Blockchain Dreams


How you appraise the Exodus 1, the so-called blockchain phone that HTC has touted for months, depends on your perspective. As a smartphone with a cryptocurrency side gig? Surprisingly good! But if you were hoping the Exodus 1 would fire the first shots in the Web 3.0 revolution? Well, at ease, friend.

In the time that I’ve spent with the Exodus 1, I’ve been struck by just how capable it is as a smartphone. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: HTC has a history of making solid, sometimes risk-taking devices. And it was HTC engineers, after all, behind much of the design and manufacturing of Google’s excellent early Pixel lineup. It knows from quality.


And yet, so much of the Exodus 1 rollout has centered around the blockchain. (“Let My Data Go,” the product website proclaims, in perhaps a bit of an overstep.) Which, yes, it serves as a hardware wallet for storing cryptocurrency and allows owners local control over their private keys, a surprisingly radical notion in a world where data is the new oil. But even Phil Chen, HTC’s decentralized chief offer and Exodus mastermind, acknowledges that these are the earliest days.

“Right now, we’re still working on the fundamentals,” says Chen. “Making sure that it’s secure, working on the key recovery mechanism.”

That manifests itself in ways seen and unseen. But first, the good: For a cryptocurrency novice, the HTC Exodus 1 offers an accessible experience. It comes preloaded with Blockfolio, an app for tracking price fluctuations of various coins (a blockchain version of the Stocks app, basically), and Cryptokitties, which is, well, here. More importantly, the HTC has stocked the Exodus 1 with the Zion wallet, which allows you to store and transact with Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum, and a few dozen tokens and collectibles built on the Ethereum blockchain.

Until now, the Exodus 1 has been available as a preorder, available for purchase in cryptocurrency only. In March, you’ll be able to buy it with genuine US dollars. Which underscores, maybe, the underlying tension of this device. The future’s just not quite ready yet.

Blockchain for Beginners

It only takes a minute or so to get set up with Zion. Just create a six-digit pin, get your 12-digit recovery phrase—and write it down somewhere safe, for the love of ether—and voila. You’re ready to HODL. I had a colleague send a pittance of Litecoin to my shiny new wallet address, and geared up to experience the decentralized internet of Web 3.0 in its full glory.

It turns out there’s not much to experience yet. The good news is that the Exodus 1 provides something of a roadmap, or at least a brightly painted arrow, through a partnership with the Opera browser. Opera hosts a decentralized app store, making it relatively easy to find the so-called DApps (that’s “decentralized apps”) designed to let everyone maintain control of their data. The less good news: the Opera Dapp store offers around 30 options, including a handful of exchanges and more than one Pokémon knock-off. There’s a crypto-based Airbnb, and a couple of blockchain social networks. The Exodus 1 will also feature integrations with Nodle, a decentralized IoT connectivity provider, and an activity tracker called Numbers. But overall, it feels a bit like apartment hunting in a high-rise where most units are still just exposed framing.

“You’re not using your Facebook sign-in, your Apple ID. You’re using a digital identity that you own. Although the interaction is similar, it’s fundamentally different,” says Chen, who fully acknowledges that it’s still very early days. “It’s like a proto, preliminary example of consumers starting to own their digital identities.”

Confusing all of this slightly further is that the HTC Exodus 1 also comes preloaded with the Brave browser, and displays that—not Opera—in your bottom row of apps. Chrome comes preloaded as well. If you want Opera, you have to go hunting for it.

Hold the Phone

The right question to have asked at this point is some variation of: Why would I put cryptocurrency on a phone? You can lose a phone, or break it, or someone can steal it. Or you may someday, you know, want a new one. Smartphones are not the likeliest place to stash your digital assets. It’s a good question, and Exodus 1 doesn’t yet have all of the answers. We’ve talked in more depth about its approach to security here, but the topline is that it uses ARM TrustZone technology, similar to the iOS secure enclave, to protect your cryptocurrency. TrustZone is strong, and very difficult to crack. But it’s not infallible. And the more people start stashing digital assets in there, the more popular a target it will become.

Chen says that HTC is working on an alternative hardware solution for future generations of Exodus, and that it has established a bug bounty program and collaborated with the cryptography community to ensure Zion’s resilience. Either way, it’s best to think of Exodus 1 as an ambitious experiment, and to plan your risk tolerance accordingly.

Then there’s the matter of recovering those assets if you lose or replace your actual device. For that, you have the recovery phrase, as mentioned. But Zion also uses what it calls “social key recovery,” which lets you split your key among three to five trusted contacts. You assign them through your Google account; your trusted contact list is stored in Google Drive. This is as far as I got in testing out social key recovery. Zion asks to “see, edit, create, and delete all of your Google Drive files,” among other permissions, and the dissonance between that and my new decentralized life spooked me. (To be clear: This doesn’t indicate shenanigans on HTC’s part, and I suspect it’s the most user-friendly way to make social key recovery work. But, still.)

Besides, I couldn’t figure out which five friends I would trust to call on three years from now to cough up my private keys. That may say more about me than it does the recovery mechanism. It’s universally an issue, though, that social key recovery doesn’t currently account for what happens if you have a falling out, or one of your friends becomes otherwise unreachable.

So yes, the blockchain experience remains a work in progress. The upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10 will also have dedicated hardware storage for private keys. Details about the implementation remain scarce—what about key recovery, if you drop your phone in the river? is it a custodial relationship, or will users truly own their private keys?—but it’s an option you may want to hear more about before committing to Exodus 1.

That said, the Exodus 1 doesn’t ask you to make many hardware sacrifices. This is solid smartphone, especially for $700. (That feels like a crazy thing to say, but that’s less than the budget iPhone XR, and much less than the $900 Galaxy S10.) The specs hit all the right flagship notes: a zippy Snapdragon 845 processor, an ample 128 gigabytes of storage, 6GB of RAM, a lanky 6-inch display with good color, although it could stand to be a little brighter.

As for the design, the front is like the front of any other smartphone, and no, there’s no headphone jack. (Sorry!) On the back, HTC has opted for thick, transparent back case, with the name of the device etched onto it along with a road map to where all of its internals reside. It’s a neat enough effect, but a combination of being highly reflective and fingerprint-loving makes it a little hard to parse. It’s also a little bit slippery, which begs a reminder: Please put your cryptocurrency wallet smartphone in a case.

The dual-lens rear camera doesn’t have the software smarts of the iPhone or Pixel 3—Night Sight mode alone makes the Pixel worth it—but it takes surprisingly high-quality photos anyway.

Or maybe not that surprisingly. The Exodus 1 is essentially an HTC U12 Plus, or at least close enough a sibling that, save for the stylized back case and the Zion software integration, only a parent could tell them apart. My colleague Jeff Van Camp gave a fuller accounting of the U12 Plus hardware last summer, particularly one issue I haven’t gotten to yet: the side “buttons” that are actually pressure-sensitive bulges. Suffice it to say, they take some getting used to.

Still, strictly as a smartphone, all blockchain considerations aside, the Exodus 1 offers decent value, especially since it costs $150 less than a comparable U12 Plus.

Worlds Collide

Where I get tripped up, though, is where the traditional smartphone mores and data privacy zealotry find themselves jarringly at odds. When you first start up the Exodus 1, it suggests a number of apps you might want to download, including a few that you have to actively uncheck. The latter include Hulu and Candy Crush Kingdom, but also Avast Antivirus, which requires extensive access to your smartphone to work as advertised.

Similarly, the HTC Exodus 1 may come pre-loaded with privacy-focused Brave, but also Chrome, and Facebook, and Instagram, and Messenger, and all the other Google apps, all of which are antithetical to the concept of controlling your own data. When I installed Twitter, the Exodus 1 asked me if I wanted to include it in my “BlinkFeed,” HTC’s notification hub that pulls from headlines and social media sources. In doing so, it asked for permission to read tweets, see who I follow, post tweets for my, and access my direct messages.

I’m not at all trying to be alarmist here. You can delete all those apps if you don’t want them. You can turn off BlinkFeed. You can uncheck all the boxes and say no to all of the permissions. You have control. But for whatever safe harbor Zion provides, it’s surrounded by the same data maelstroms we navigate every day.

You’ll still be able to do everything in the Web 2.0 model. But the Web 3.0 stuff all happens out of this Zion vault, the secure element. Although interaction-wise it looks very similar, fundamentally it’s very different. That does take quite a bit of education,” says Chen. “There will be this transition period. Will this be an awkward part? Yeah, there will be some of that. But this is early, this is the beginning. And I think we have quite a few good examples of what that beginning looks like.”

The Exodus 1 is a perfectly good smartphone. But if you buy one, buy it for that, and enjoy your glimpse at what the decentralized internet might look like, someday, when broader adoption and more useful Dapps converge. Just don’t bet too much coin on it coming all that soon.

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