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Device Review: YotaPhone, a Dual-Screen Phone and e-Reader

yotaphoneOnce in a while, a device comes along that throws convention against the wall and tries something different. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. With that in mind and as you can tell from the title, we’re going to talk a bit today about the YotaPhone from Yota Devices. Yota, a Russian mobile broadband provider, started making devices back in 2011, but focused heavily on wireless modems and routers. And then in December 2012, they unveiled their first smartphone, the YotaPhone.

Here are the specifications of the device, just in case you’re curious:

OS Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2
CPU Dual-Core 1.7 GHz Krait
FORM FACTOR Monoblock touch with front and back screens
DIMENSIONS 133.6 x 67 x 9.99mm
WEIGHT 146g
MAIN SCREEN 4.3” 720×1280 LCD, 16.7M colours; capacitive multi touch
BACK SCREEN 4.3” 360×640 EPD, 16 grayscale; capacitive touch zone below the EPD for gesture controls
NETWORK LTE 800/1800/2600 MHz, UMTS 900/1800/2100 MHz, GSM 900/1800/1900 MHz
CAMERA Main camera 13 MP AF, LED flash, front camera 1MP
MEMORY 2 GB RAM, 32 GB eMMC
CONNECTIVITY WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, BT v4.0, GPS w/A-GPS + Glonass
VIDEO 1080p 30fps; H.263, H.264 AVC, MPEG-4, WebM
AUDIO MP3, AAC, eAAC, eAAC+, AMR, MIDI, WAV
ADAPTER MHL 1.0, OTG
BATTERY 1800 mAh
OTHER Accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, FM radio, micro-SIM, special YotaPhone gestures and Put2Back applications for the back screen

With a dual-core processor, 2 GB of RAM, and an 1800 mAh battery, this device sits pretty firmly in the low-to-mid range with this current generation of devices, but keep in mind that it was unveiled at the end of 2012. Yota unveiled a second generation YotaPhone at Mobile World Congress 2014 with improved specs all around, but ended up sending me an original YotaPhone to test out, so that’s what I’ll be talking about today.
DSC00340

Hardware

As mentioned earlier, this device doesn’t exactly blow you away with performance, but that’s not really the point. A dual-core processor mated to 2 GB of RAM is still perfectly acceptable for most everyday use. However, the real “meat and potatoes” of this device is what’s on the backside, not its internals. When you turn the YotaPhone over, you reveal its 4.3″, 360×640 e-ink display.

DSC00339

It’s not a touch display, and it’s not terribly high resolution, but as far as being a proof of concept, it’s definitely interesting. The other truly interesting point to be seen about this device is its lack of buttons, capacitive or otherwise. It comes with the standard fare of power and volume buttons, but beyond that, there’s not a capacitive button to be seen. To make up for this, there’s a touch-sensitive area at the bottom of the front screen (the large black bezel at the bottom) and a touch-sensitive area below the e-ink screen on the back (again, a large black bezel, partially obscured by the camera lens and the YotaPhone logo).

The problems with these touch sensitive areas are: 1. It’s difficult to remember what gestures to use, and 2. sometimes they’re not terribly responsive, especially the back area. One major downfall in terms of hardware is the lack of any 3G or 4G connectivity in the US. I worked with YotaPhone’s engineers for a couple of weeks trying to sort it out, and tested on both AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks, and had no luck.

Software

Again, nothing really out of the ordinary here. It’s running Android 4.2.2, so it’s not the latest and greatest, but it doesn’t have to be. The point of this device isn’t to be a flagship, but to show what’s really possible when you combine a traditional smartphone with an e-reader. Android on this device is pretty close to stock AOSP, so the modifications come in the form of bundled software. This device comes  preloaded with a suite of applications designed around moving between the front and back screens, so you open an application on the main display, hit a button, and flip the device around to continue interacting with the app on the e-ink screen. Not exactly a perfect setup, but it’s a start.

DSC00341

The problem with this concept is that it’s limited to the applications that have built-in support for the YotaPhone’s second screen, as well as built in services, like messages, calls, calendar appointments, weather, and so on. Yota made an SDK available for getting started developing for their device, but the likelihood of developers embracing it seems slim. FBReader does support the dual screens, and works admirably. I’ve seen articles stating that Yota was in talks with Amazon to bring support for YotaPhone to Kindle (or to bring support for Kindle to YotaPhone, I’m not really sure), but it doesn’t appear that anything has evolved from that, and in reality, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Amazon to pursue it because that’s one less reason to own a Kindle e-reader.

Battery Life

As stated previously, I was only able to use this device on wifi or 2G/Edge, so truly testing the battery life wasn’t possible. 1800 mAh doesn’t lend itself well to an extremely long battery life, but if you primarily used the device’s e-ink screen, you might certainly be able to squeeze out a few more hours. The problem is, the e-ink screen doesn’t support much, and isn’t usable as a primary interface, so unless you’re simply reading an e-book, you’ll have to keep turning the device over and swiping the content to the back screen, then turning the screen back off. As you can probably imagine, that’s not going to be great for battery life.

Camera

Given the nature of this device, I didn’t really anticipate talking about the camera, but there were a few things about the cameras that are worth mentioning. As far as the front facing camera, you usually expect it to be pretty terrible, and, in this case, it wasn’t entirely. It was pretty bad in lower light, but in bright light, it’s actually capable of producing semi-usable video footage.

IMG_20140527_181459

The rear facing camera was even more surprising. In low light, the images, while grainy, were decently clear. In better lighting situations, the pictures and video were actually quite nice. I could see someone using this as a traditional vlogging camera, if the rest of the phone actually worked on their local 3G/4G bands. The colors were a bit washed out in some of the brighter outdoor photos, but still quite usable.

 

The true problem with the rear-facing camera, however, is its placement. Every other phone I’ve ever tested has the camera at the top of the device. But on the YotaPhone, it’s at the bottom. Because of this, I find myself covering the lens with my fingers. I’m sure it’s just a matter of getting used to the placement, and I haven’t done that yet. The fact that the e-ink screen lights up with cute phrases like “Smile for the camera!” and briefly shows you a picture of what you just captured make it a very interesting experience, if you can just get used to the actual location of the camera lens.

GPL Compliance

As of the writing of this article, unfortunately, Yota has failed to comply with the GPL with regards to releasing the kernel source for the YotaPhone. XDA is in talks with them and is assisting them with compliance, so hopefully we’ll know more soon.

Conclusion

On the whole, the YotaPhone is a really interesting device. The blend of traditional smartphone with e-reader is something that I’ve been looking for ever since Notion Ink announced the Adam Tablet back in 2010 with its Pixel Qi display. I don’t quite think Yota hit this one out of the park, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying it (if it’s available where you are), especially since they’ve already announced a newer version with a full touch-enabled back e-ink display and worldwide 4G compatibility, but as far as proof of concepts go, this one’s definitely worth a look.

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