by Ewan Spence
Last year at CES, Russian manufacturer Yota demonstrated a prototype smartphone with two 4.3 inch displays, an LCD screen on one side and an e-Ink screen on the reverse. Now in production and available to buy in a number of European territories, how does a dual-core dual-screened Android device cope in the real world? Surprisingly well is the answer, even though there is some room for improvement.
Let’s start with the underlying hardware. Compared to some of the flagship and high-end Android devices launched in 2013, the Yota Phone is decidedly mid-range. The Dual-Core 1.7 GHz Krait CPU has the speed and capability to run Android comfortably, but the handset doesn’t stretch the specs in the current market. It’s nice to see it comes with 2 GB of RAM, and when it was announced at CES 2013 these were cutting-edge specs, but the Android world has moved on since then.
The handset comes in just one storage memory configuration (32 GB) and unfortunately there is no SD card expansion port. Given 16 GB feels a bit tight on Android handsets today, the 32 GB option should be good for the life of the handset, and with smart use of cloud based services for storage and streaming it should suffice for the majority of use cases.
International wise this is a 4G handset focused on Europe, with the key LTE (800/1800/2600 MHz), UMTS (900/1800/2100 MHz) and 3G bands (900/1800/1900 MHz) all covered. The current configuration would struggle frequency-wise in the US market but if the handset was to appear in the future I’m sure that a US configuration would be supplied. For now, the focus is rightly on Yota’s home and European markets – adding in US frequencies right now would simply drive the manufacturing cost up for little return.
The handset is a mono block design, and in this case that phrase is incredibly appropriate. Apart from a slight tapering at the top-rear of the handset, the Yota Phone is black, rectangular, blocky, and angular.With a glass front to the LCD, and the familiar feel of e-Ink on the rear, the only real scope for flair is in the banding around the device. Yota have went with a black plastic edging broken by the Micro USB charging and connectivity port and microphone on the base, volume keys on the left hand side, and a headphone jack and SIM tray on the top.
There is a power button, but you’ll probably need to hunt for it. It’s actually the SIM card tray pulling double duty. A SIM ejection tool will free it for your card, and the rest of the time pressing it in with your finger will turn the main screen on and off. It’s nice touch and shows that Yota are thinking about design, but I suspect that forcing the two screens into the chassis has left them little room to do anything artistic.
That’s fine, sometimes I like my phone to be masculine and brutish.
Because all of this design is to accommodate the two screens, and I suspect the technical challenges that Yota has had to overcome are legion. Take one issue around thermal control – most smartphones will use the rear of the handset to bleed out any excess heat from the chips. That option is available to Yota but the heat needs to be distributed equally over the area because of the temperature-sensitive nature of an e-Ink screen. It’s easy to say ‘two-screens’ but to build it is another matter.
Does it work and is it worth it? That’s the two questions to ask about the Yota Phone, because without the second screen we have a workmanlike Android 4.2.2 device coupled with a 1280×780 LCD screen. Quite frankly there are a lot of devices out there which match those parts of the specifications. The device is also more expensive than the major specifications suggest at €499. I suspect this is down to the extra cost of the e_ink screen, and the smaller volumes that Yota will be building.
In my time so far with the Yota Phone, the answer is yes. By virtue of being e-Ink, the second screen is always on, drawing very little power, and Yota’s customizations of Android and their own apps which use the screen prove the concept works. With just the e-Ink screen I’ve been able to navigate around Edinburgh, check my diary and upcoming appointments, follow my favourite websites via RSS, read a number of eBooks, control the playback of music on my smartphone, and naturally see what the time is. All without powering up the battery hungry LCD screen on my smartphone.
The easiest way to think about the e-Ink screen implementation is that it is related but subservient to the main interactions on your smartphone. To set up one of Yota’s applications on the e-Ink screen you need to ‘send it to the back’ from the LCD screen.
Right now I’ve not been able to find any third-party applications that directly interact with the e-Ink screen, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be used. The most flexible feature of the handset (in my mind) is the ‘two finger swipe’ down from the top bezel of the screen (Yota calls this the ‘twin swipe shot’). This takes a screenshot and pushes it onto the e-Ink display. Information such as hotel reservations in Booking.com’s apps, boarding passed from British Airway’s Android App, or some info you need to have to hand from a web page can be easily blitted to the e-Ink screen, and you can swipe through the images on the back screen with a swipe of your finger.
There is occasionally an issue with the different resolution 1280×780 on the LCD, and exactly half that on the e-Ink display, at 640×360) making some text ‘fuzzy’ but I was happy to see that QR codes and the like were accurately copied and the e-Ink version could easily be scanned by another device. That’s important for boarding cards and travel passes.
The Twin Swipe Shots is part of Yota’s Notepad application, one of a number of Yota developed apps that naturally make best use of the e-Ink screen. After Notepad most people are probably going to turn to the Wallpaper application, which lets you set up images and widgets to appear on the e-Ink screen. There are a number of high contrast black and white images built-in, but the application will happily read in other images and allow you to crop them to the right size to act as wallpapers. You can also add widgets such as a clock, a status bar of information, or the next alarm due, as widgets on these images – or you can go with a black or white background for a clear view of the widgets.
The three other major e-Ink applications pull double duty and also run on the LCD screen as well as having a significant presence on the rear of the Yota. MapsWithMe is your mapping application, using data from the OpenStreetMap project. While you need to buy the pro version via Google Play to allow you to search the map and bookmark destinations, this free version allows you to locate yourself and see your surroundings. it also allows maps to be downloaded for offline use. Inside the settings you can set the update frequency for the e_ink display, from a manual refresh down to every 15 seconds.
Organiser is the calendar application and will allow you to see you online calendars (including your Google Calendars) over the day/month/year views. The Yota notepad app is also integrated here, so dated notes show up in the organiser view. You also have a new calendar type called ‘Counter’ which counts down to a specific event. These countdowns can be show full screen on the e-Ink display, or you can set up Organiser to show you a ‘screen per day’ view of your Calendar.
Finally, Bookmate provides the functionality that I suspect the majority of people looking at the Yota’s second screen would expect to see… an eBook reader. Bookmate is a cloud based online book store and library. Currently the all-you-can-read subscription service is only available for Russian users, but everyone else can use the free parts of the service, which includes text from sources such as Project Gutenberg, or you can upload your own eBooks (using the FB2 or ePub file format) to the service and have them synced to your Bookmate application on your Yota Phone (iOS and generic Android versions of this app are also available).
All of these e-Ink based apps work, and give you a good experience on the e-Ink screen. It is vitally important you not only follow the tutorial when you first switch on the device but also take time to read through the online manual to discover how all the apps actually work, because I wouldn’t class them as intuitive. While the Yota Phone remains an smartphone for power users and early adopters this should not be a huge problem, when the handset reaches the general consumer the first thirty minutes with the Yota handset can feel frustrating and awkward as you get to grips with how to work with the two screens on the smartphone.
One of the ideas of the Yota Phone is to reduce the drain on the battery by using the e-Ink screen instead of the LCD screen for many tasks. Certainly a quick check for the time, looking at an incoming notification, and looking over your favored RSS feeds, can all be done on the e-Ink screen, but these tend to lead to a desire for more information, and you’re back with the standard Android interface on the LCD. It does help, but the 1800 mAh struggles to get through a full day of work and into the evening. I’d like to see a few more hours of general use out of the handset, and a second generation device with a more advanced processor that the Snapdragon S4 Pro should take care of that issue. Right now, Yota Phone users should be aware that battery capacity is one of the weak points of the design.
A number of e-Ink devices, notably the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, have increased expectations of what an e-Ink screen should look like, with clear text and high contrast on a screen with a uniform front-light that is comfortable to read over long periods. Which leaves the Yota’s main selling point as a touch disappointing. There is no light on the Yota’s e-Ink screen so you will be at the mercy of the ambient light conditions around you. Yota have not managed to solve the issue of ghosting on e-Ink screen so there are moments when the previous screen displays and selection boxes can influence the current image.
With a tendency to mimic colors using the sixteen available greyscales in practice the crispness that can be achieved by an e-Ink display is lacking. A software tweak to bias the shading towards darker hues may help this, because right now the display feels fuzzy to my eyes. This isn’t helped by the slight taper on the top of the Yota, which curves the top third of the e-Ink screen away from the user’s eye. If you find the right angle to read the bottom two-thirds of the screen, that doesn’t alway carry over to the top third, especially in less than perfect lighting conditions.
Neither is the e-Ink screen touch sensitive. The user interface is controlled by a small touchpad area below the screen giving you five inputs – swipe right, swipe left, swipe right and left, tap, and hold. These are enough to navigate, but you’ll spend a lot of your opening moments with the touchscreen trying to work out how to do something and with no visual guide it is going to take some memorization to make the most of this new view and way of working.
Interestingly, the same swipe system is employed on the LCD side of the phone, again on a small touchscreen area below the screen. While you can set the Android soft-keys to be displayed on the screen, you can duplicate the ‘back/home/task manger’ buttons with the ‘swipe left / swipe right / tap and hold’ moves. This is a nice touch of consistency between the two sides of the device, and it didn’t take me more than an hour of use to turn the soft-key display off.
Yes, the concept works, and it delivers a solid vision of what a dual-screen smartphone can offer. Is it worth it? That’s a trickier question to answer. There is not a significant volume of software available using the e-Ink display, and while the Twin Swipe Shot app allows you to copy information over, that’s not the same as having an application running on the rear of the smartphone. SDK’s are out there for developers to build applications, but without the demand from users (or support from Yota) I’m not holding my breath for an instant rush of applications. I don’t think that the Yota Phone is ready for the mainstream smartphone user, but there will be a class of smartphone user who are looking for something a bit different that will be attracted to the Yota concept, and there’s just enough here to keep them interested, if they are happy to compromise in some areas.
The obvious use case is eBooks, and while Bookmate is a solution that allows for purchasing and downloading books, as well as using your own eBook files it’s far from being a replacement for a Kindle, Kobo, or Nook e-Ink reader. The mapping application works, but it’s not Google Maps with all the cloud and sync benefits that are on offer; and while reading RSS feeds on the back screen is novel, for any interaction or reading more than a page of an article requires you to flip over to the LCD screen.
There is a market for a handset like this, and I suspect that smartphone fans who enjoy being early adopters and are looking for something a little bit different will enjoy using and owning a Yota Phone. The strength of Android (even in the older 4.2.2. build) means that there are thousands of apps that already run on the main LCD screen,and someone switching to a Yota for the e-Ink capabilities does not have to sacrifice the Android experience to do so. Using a Yota phone does not need you having to give up anything, this is a smartphone that is ‘full blown Android and then a little bit more’.
The Yota Phone feels like a very polished first generation device. Following on from a prototype at CES 2013 (where it won the Best Cell Phone category) Yota have put the hardware into production and on sale that is not just usable, but practical. I’d have no issue in using this Android handset in the sort of situations where handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini would be suitable. Its specifications may not be the top of the line, but this is a handset that works.
Yota have delivered with their first handset and if you do pick it up you;re going to have a solid Android handset that has a delightful twist when you turn it over. Naturally Yota will be working on follow-up devices, but for now they have managed something that many companies would love to do… to take a prototype that captured the media’s attention at CES and bringing it to market during the year. Simply put, e-Ink and a second screen do work on a smartphone, and Yota have done more than enough to be considered as players in the smartphone marketplace.