We're not stretching the truth when we say that Sprint's Kyocera Echo is one of the most unusual phones we've ever seen. Sure, it looks pretty boring when you take if out of the box, but a little exploration reveals a second display that flips out from behind the first to form a huge 4.7-inch screen. Don't feel bad if you're scratching your head at this point; indeed, the Echo has had an interesting life so far.
Perhaps it was because Sprint held such a major media event to introduce it--David Blaine locked himself in an aquarium--but the Android-powered Echo faced a backlash following its debut. The general reaction from cell phone fans was, "That's it?" Others proceeded to dismiss the handset as just too weird. Admittedly, we were a bit baffled as well, but after spending time with the Echo we can report that the wacky design offers a few advantages. We welcome the extra space for mapping and Web browsing and the "simultasking" and "optimized" modes bring a unique user experience.
Of course, the dual-screen design also comes with some drawbacks. The seam between the two displays can be a bit distracting and we worry about the durability of the flip-out hinge. What's more, the design is the Echo's only draw. The feature set inside is pretty standard, the Android OS version is Froyo, and data speeds top out at 3G. Sprint may have been concerned about getting the Echo under the magic $200 price point, but this is a device that would really benefit from WiMax support. The Echo won't be for everyone, and even Sprint has more or less admitted that it's a niche device, but we encourage you to at least give it a chance.
In its closed position, the Echo is just a chunky, angular touch-screen handset that wouldn't turn heads on the gadget runway. At 4.5 inches long by 2.2 inches wide by 0.78 inch deep, it will make for a tight fit in pockets and you'll notice the extra heft (6.8 ounces) when carrying it in a bag. We're not going to make too much of a fuss about the Echo's size since we realize it's a consequence of the design. Yet, it is something to keep in mind, particularly if easy portability is your top concern.
The WVGA displays measure 3.5 inches each and support 262,144 colors (800x960-pixel resolution). They're comfortably bright and colorful, but they pale in comparison with most of the Android models we see today. Graphics and photos were a tad grainy and the auto-backlit feature was slow to adjust. Here again, we understand that Sprint probably opted for less intense screens to keep costs low, but considering that the Echo's entire identity hangs on having two displays, we would have preferred something a little more vibrant. As mentioned, the Echo runs Froyo out of the box. It will be upgradable at some point, but we would have liked Gingerbread from the start.
The displays have a proximity sensor and accelerometer. The latter feature kicks in only when you rotate the phone to the left, but you can turn it off completely if you wish. The Echo offers five home screens for your customization needs and we appreciate the one-touch access to the main connectivity features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
At the bottom of the display are touch controls for the main menu, the browser, and the phone dialer; below them are the Home, back, and menu touch keys. The Echo's remaining controls sit on the left side. From top to bottom you'll find a 3.5mm headset jack, the MicroSD card slot, the power key, the volume rocker, and the Micro-USB charger port. Finishing off the rear face are the camera lens, self-portrait mirror, and flash.
To open the Echo, hold it along its left spine while pushing the top display away from you until it tilts up at an angle. In this position, the Echo's design resembles tilting smartphones like the HTC Arrive. There's no physical keyboard on the bottom display, of course, but you can call up a virtual keyboard for typing (more on that later). To finish the process, keep pushing the top half down until it's flush with the bottom screen. Then, push the two displays together until they lock.
We don't blame you if you think the hinge mechanism sounds a bit complicated. In fact, it is pretty complex. With so many moving parts, the opening and closing process feels cumbersome and rather jerky. For example, instead of gliding smoothly through one motion, the hinge moves clumsily in three stages with audible clicks between each spurt. Even after using the device for almost a week, it never felt completely natural.
We're also concerned about the hinge's long-term durability. Though the Echo as a whole feels reasonably sturdy when closed, we wonder how the hinge's plastic arms would hold up to months of heavy use. Unfortunately, that's not a question we can answer now.
All about the dual screens
Sure, the Echo may look a little weird, but the arrangement works quite well and it offers some usability enhancements that are quite appealing even if they aren't Earth-shattering. To help you understand how it all comes together, we'll explain the three "modes" that the Echo can assume.
When completely open, the Echo is in tablet mode with the displays joining together to form one 4.7-inch screen. In a way, it does feel like a small tablet, as all apps--from the menus to the Android Market to Google Maps--stretch across both screens. It's particularly useful for features like the Web browser and Google Maps, where more real estate is beneficial. The seam between the screens blocks long finger swipes, which can be a bit distracting, but the touch interface is responsive.
The accelerometer continues to work in tablet mode, but there are some interface tweaks that threw us at first. Instead of remaining on the bottom of the display, the phone dialer, menu, and browser touch controls jump to the right side in portrait mode. We're not sure why Kyocera made this choice, but we found it a little confusing. We also thought it was odd that Kyocera added a second set of home, back, and menu touch controls below the bottom screen. The first set below the top screen is deactivated in tablet mode so we don't really see the point of duplication. Finally, the Echo can't rest flat on a table in tablet mode. Instead, it just wobbles back and forth on the hinge.
In optimized mode 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 keyboard includes Swype). Also, when you tilt the first screen up, we like that you can rest the Echo flat on a table. The mailbox, camera, and photo gallery are three other features that work in optimized mode, and gamers can get two player views at once. For a closer look at how optimized mode feels for the user, check out this photo gallery.