ORLANDO, Fla.--In addition to delivering lots of new phones, trade shows like CTIA 2011 offer an opportunity to see any recent models that haven't yet to passed through your hands. This year, CTIA was my first chance to handle the Kyocera Echo, the dual-screen Android handset for Sprint. I wasn't able to join Bonnie Cha for last month's launch event in New York City--check out Bonnie's original take on the device--so I had breakfast with Kyocera's PR team to see the smartphone up close.
After Sprint's bizarre unveiling event--was a performance by Blaine really necessary?--the reaction from tech gadget reviewers and many CNET readers was largely a mixture of "huh?" and outright dismissal. Other people were intrigued (see our poll), but I didn't talk to anyone that had no opinion at all.
From the outside, the Echo looks like a random smartphone with only one 3.5-inch display visible. Yet, the Echo's identity rests on its unique second display that pivots out from behind to form one 4.7-inch screen. A seam runs between them, but they're flush and they snap tightly together. The long-term durability of the hinge worries me a bit, so I'll have to check back after the Echo has been in the field for a few months.
Pushing my preconceptions aside, I was struck by just how well the screens work together. In the "tablet mode," for example, you can stretch one app to span both screens. That's particularly useful for features like the Web browser and Google Maps, where more real estate is beneficial. The seam does block long finger swipes, but it wasn't distracting otherwise. Also, the touch interface on both screens was responsive.
I then tried using the "optimized mode," where one display shows the app and the other shows user controls. It was great, for example, to have separate screens for the virtual keyboard and your message writing area. The mailbox, camera, and photo gallery are three other features that work in optimized mode, and gamers can get two player views at once. "Simultasking," which will allow you to use different apps side-by-side, is another benefit of the two screens. It won't work with all features, but I liked the idea nonetheless.
The Echo's other features are a mixed bag. You get a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, a 5-megapixel camera with 720p HD video recording, and mobile hot-spot capabilities (up to five devices), but the device is stuck on Android 2.2 for now and it doesn't support Sprint's WiMax network.
So what's my takeaway? I admit that I was pleasantly surprised at how well the concept came together. I was pretty skeptical of the Echo prior to Orlando--forgive me for being a cynic, but that's how I roll--but I left the meeting seeing the device's potential. Like Bonnie said in her original report, the Echo is a handset you have to see in the flesh to really understand. Without a doubt it will be a niche device, and it will need to deliver enough battery life to power the two screens, but I urge you to give it a chance.
At CTIA, Kyocera also unveiled a developer's program for the Echo.