Wild YotaPhone marries e-ink with Android
The YotaPhone was one of the most interesting devices to come out of this year's CES trade show in January, even managing to scoop a much-coveted CNET Best of CES award in the mobile category. It stood out from other phones thanks to the unusual second display affixed to the back.
This second display uses e-ink technology -- the same thing you'll find on an Amazon Kindle -- which is theoretically more comfortable to read on, and uses considerably less power than a regular LCD screen. It's an interesting concept and it certainly caught our eye, but now that it's in our hands, does it still stand up to scrutiny?
The YotaPhone goes on sale on December 4 in Russia, Germany, Austria, and Spain for 499 euros and is due to hit UK shelves in January next year. YotaPhone has confirmed that the device will not make it to US shops, but that future revisions might.
Design and display
Looking at the phone from the front, you'd have no idea there's anything unusual about it. Its overall design is pretty uninspiring, in fact, with plain black edging and an unbroken glass front. It has none of the elegance of phones like the HTC One or Sony Xperia Z1, instead opting for a strictly functional aesthetic. Its wide bezels around the screen give it something of a budget look too.
It measures 133mm long and 67mm wide, making it easy to hold and use in one hand. Its 10mm thickness puts it very much on the chunky side, as does its 146g weight, but that's something I can perhaps forgive, given the extra screen on the back. On the edges you'll find a Micro-USB port, a volume rocker, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a combined power button and micro-SIM slot.
It feels fairly sturdy, with no flex in the chassis and a stiff band around the edge that seems like it could withstand a few plummets to the ground. The rear e-ink display is more of a concern, though, as it picked up almost every scuff it could find.
Putting the phone down on my desk resulted in numerous marks on the display, and the same happened when it was in my pocket with my keys. Although it didn't seem to permanently scratch the screen, I was forced to give it a good clean most times I fished it from my pocket.
The front 4.3-inch LCD display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution that makes small text and icons look crisp and easily readable. It's bright, but its cold colours meant that images or TV shows on Netflix didn't look as punchy as they do on phones like the Galaxy S4.
With no physical navigation buttons on the front of the phone, you'll need to use a series of gestures to make your way around the Android interface. A swipe to the right takes you home, for example, a back swipe takes you back a page, and a two-finger swipe down takes a screenshot and displays it on the rear screen.
While it's a nice idea to leave the front free of buttons, I don't think Yota has found the best solution. For one, the gestures need to be performed on a dedicated touch area beneath the screen. Having that space taken up with a touch panel negates any space saved by having no buttons. If the gestures were incorporated into the screen, it would give more room for the screen to stretch out, without making the body of the phone any bigger.
Performing the gestures can be awkward too. Apart from simply having to learn and remember what everything does, I found the touch area to be quite unresponsive, regularly forcing me to repeat the gesture before anything happened. Bear in mind that I was testing a prerelease device that apparently doesn't have final retail software on board, so this may be much smoother once the phone goes on sale. Regardless, I don't think the gestures add anything to the experience.
It might seem daft having a second screen on the back of your phone, but the theory is sound. E-ink displays aren't backlit and aren't refreshed until new information needs to be displayed, so they use very small amounts of power. A Kindle, for example, can give over a month of battery life.
In theory, the low-power rear display can be used for reading books, Web sites, RSS feeds, and so on, meaning the power-hungry front LCD display isn't always on, sucking away the juice faster than the CNET team at an open bar.
While that sounds all well and good, the execution of the idea again falls short of the mark. The biggest issue lies with the quality of the display. It has a low 360x640-pixel resolution, which makes text and icons look very fuzzy -- when I put a shot of the Android home screen on the e-ink display, I was barely able to read the app names.
Reading e-books is manageable, but the poor resolution means it's simply not as nice as reading on a Kindle. That's not helped at all by the burning-in of images, which means every new image shows a faint ghost of the previous image over the top.
The other big issue is the lack of software that supports the second screen. While YotaPhone has some bundled apps like a notepad -- it's admittedly handy to bring up your shopping list on the back screen while trawling the aisles -- as well as a calendar, a news reader, and an education app, its functions are still limited and third-party support is almost nonexistent.
You can grab the Kindle and Kobo apps from the Google Play store, but you aren't able to display them on the back screen. YotaPhone does have access to e-book service Bookmate, which works with the screen, but its selection is extremely limited and I highly doubt it will suit anyone who's keen enough on reading to buy a phone with an e-ink screen.
Yota also reckons it's great for personalisation, as you're able to pop various wallpapers -- including your own images -- on the back for the world to see. A bunch of different wallpapers are preloaded, including a rather wonderful giraffe, and you can pop down widgets over the top to update with information. The most obvious ones are a battery indicator and a clock, but you can show upcoming meetings too.
It's probably the best part of the YotaPhone in fact as you can simply leave your phone on your desk and glance down to see the time, as well as incoming notifications from texts, e-mails, calls, and so forth without needing to wake the phone up each time. I find myself checking my phone numerous times throughout the day to check on WhatsApp messages -- having the e-ink screen in this instance would be a benefit.
Your Twitter and Facebook feeds can be displayed on the back panel too, thanks to Yota's RSS app. In my own use, however, neither seemed to want to update with new posts, meaning I was stuck looking at the same posts until I turned the phone over to refresh it. If this service worked properly, it would be much more useful. Fingers crossed this will get sorted out in the final release.
Software and processor
You'll be making your way around the now slightly old Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean on the front LCD display. Apart from the few bundled apps and the fact that you use gestures to go back and go home, the interface isn't really any different from what you may have seen on other Android devices. Five home screens are available, with four app icons sitting on the tray along the bottom for quick access.
It's powered by a 1.7GHz dual-core processor, which, when it was first shown off at CES at the beginning of the year, wasn't too bad. Times have moved on somewhat though, and a dual-core chip really doesn't impress, particularly when phones like the Motorola Moto G are packing quad-core processors for rock-bottom prices.
Still, it has a nippy clock speed and it achieved a respectable -- although hardly inspiring -- 1,756 on the Geekbench 2 benchmark test. Swiping around Android was relatively swift, with the odd small stutter here and there. The multitasking panel opened quickly (when I'd got the gesture panel to work properly) and flicking between apps was hassle-free.
The device coped fine with streaming video on Netflix too. It handled water racer Riptide GP 2 less well however, with stuttery frame rates becoming a problem in more intense moments. Very casual gamers wanting to fling some Angry Birds are adequately catered to, but if you're keen on playing the latest, glossiest games, the YotaPhone is not for you.
An 1,800mAh battery sits inside the YotaPhone, which seemed to give an acceptable time in normal phone use. If you spend your day using the normal screen for gaming, video streaming, and sending lots of texts, then you'll almost certainly need to give it a boost during the day if you want any juice remaining for your evening.
With careful use you shouldn't struggle too much to get a day of use out of the phone. Of course, if you use the back panel for notifications and Twitter updates, rarely touching the front screen, the phone will have a much better battery life.
A 13-megapixel camera on the back of the phone gave fairly decent results. In my test shot of St. Paul's Cathedral, the image was rather dark, but there was plenty of detail on the brickwork of the building.
It struggled to focus up close on the tree bark in my second shot, although colours and exposure were good.
Focus was better, although not quite perfect, in this shot of a fruit and veg stall. Colours are again accurate and it's exposed well.
A point to bear in mind is that the camera is oddly placed in the bottom left-hand corner (as you look at the back of the phone). I found it difficult to keep my finger out of shot when holding the phone in landscape mode and almost impossible when shooting in portrait mode, given that I'm right-handed.
Having an e-ink display on the back of the phone so you can comfortably read books or long articles without quickly draining the battery with a bright LCD display is a great idea in theory. I'm sold on the concept, but I don't think the YotaPhone is quite there yet.
Its e-ink screen is very low-quality, which makes doing even basic tasks with it unpleasant, and there's a definite lack of support for the display from third-party developers, meaning there's not much you can do with it just yet. If YotaPhone can use a better-quality display and work more closely with developers, its next-generation device might be worth checking out.