You can be forgiven for not having heard of the YotaPhone. It has slipped under the radar of many smartphone fans. But it is an exciting idea, a whole new concept in smartphone design and it deserves some of our attention.
What we have in the YotaPhone is a handset with two screens. On one side is a standard looking Android screen. It is full colour and touch sensitive. Just what you’d expect. On the other side is an e-ink screen of the type we are used to seeing in ebook readers. That’s the unexpected.
There is a degree of communication between the two screens. So, for example, you can send whatever is showing on the colour screen over to the e-ink screen by sweeping downwards with two fingers on the colour side. Why would you do this? One reason would be to conserve power. The e-ink uses none at all, except when it is refreshing. So you could push your to-do list or a map of where you are going over to the e-ink side and it will be there all the time, even when the handset is in standby mode – or switched off.
Things get a little bit more sophisticated in some apps. If you run the camera whose lens is on the e-ink side, that side pops up a ‘smile please’ type screen. If you are photographing people, that’s a nice little reminder to them to try to look their best. Arguably more useful is interaction with the organizer app. You can sweep around on a ‘touch zone’ beneath the screen to view appointments. You also get around on the colour screen using gestures on a deep touch zone beneath the screen, as well as tapping the screen in usual Android fashion.
It isn’t just the two-screened approach that makes the YotaPhone look at bit weird. It is fatter at the bottom than the top, and that is because the e-ink side curves inwards towards the top of the phone. It’s quite an odd design quirk but not so weird as to be off-putting. The build is entirely plastic and looks and feels second tier, but it is very solid in the hand.
The colour screen measures 4.3 inches and has a 1280 x 720 pixel display, which is good but not great. The e-ink screen is less impressive. Its 640 x 360 pixels leave text a bit fuzzy. That’s far from ideal when you think that it will be ebook reading that draws many people to this handset. And it is worth noting that while the latest ereaders have a light built in to the screen, there’s no light here so at night you’d need to find another light source.
A competent 13-megapixel main camera and 32GB of internal storage are both welcome features. But that main camera is oddly located on the bottom rather than the top of the chassis, and easily covered by fingers. It is supported by a mere one-megapixel second camera and the internal storage can’t be augmented by a micro SD card.
The processor is a relatively capable dual-core affair and there’s a generous 2GB of RAM in support. Still, the processor is going to need beefing up if the next version of this handset is to meet its potential of being a strong multitasking phone. The biggest let down of all, though, is that the YotaPhone only runs Android 4.2. That is a long way behind the current crop of leading edge devices, and it’s a real pity.
This first YotaPhone doesn’t hit the mark for us. It is expensive if you consider the tech specs, and there isn’t enough high-quality integration between the two screens. The ereading capability needs a lot of attention too, and the e-ink screen needs to be a higher resolution and have a light.
But none of these are insurmountable problems and we really like the idea of the YotaPhone. It certainly has potential as a groundbreaking device. We think version two, which should appear before the year is out, will be a whole lot better.