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Hands-on with the Siam 7x dual-screen smartphone

It's a 5-inch Android phone on one side and 4.7-inch e-ink reader on the other. But does the Franken-phone concept really work?

This is the story of an Indiegogo campaign that barely raised $8,000 of its $25,000 goal, but went on to become a real product anyway.

That product is the super cool-sounding Siam 7x, a mash-up of Android phone and e-reader. To look at it is to see a fairly normal 5-inch phone, but to flip it over is to find a 4.7-inch e-ink display. This despite a body that's just 8.9mm (or 0.35 inch) thick.

In other words, imagine something like a Motorola Moto E gene-spliced with an Amazon Kindle. It's a capable (if basic) Android phone for everyday use and an e-reader when you want to conserve battery (and reduce eyestrain).

siam-7x-2.jpg

Though a decent dual-SIM smartphone, the $550 Siam 7x is a big letdown on the e-ink side of things.

Siam

There's another nice trick up the Siam's sleeve: dual SIM slots, meaning you could effectively make this a two-line phone. (More likely, however, you'll use one of the slots for a microSD card, as the 7x comes with just 16GB of storage.)

But let's be real: it's all about the second screen. And after more than a week of monkeying with the Siam 7x, I'm forced to admit a hard truth: that second screen is terrible.

For starters, there are strict limits on what you can do with it. Out of the box, the phone came with five "e-ink apps," one each for books, photos, music and address book. More are on the way, including GPS, stock ticker and social-media feeds. Those weren't available for testing, but I did install a sixth compatible app: the completely broken, utterly useless News.

This crash icon pretty much summed up how I felt about the Siam 7x's e-ink screen.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

On the Android side, News displays a list of headlines alongside small thumbnails. Tap any of the stories and the app displays a message like, "You clicked at Bing." Um, OK. Even worse, if you flip the phone and fire up the e-ink screen, you get a faded, unreadable version of that feed -- and tapping does absolutely nothing.

So, yeah, News is a wreck. I could see the appeal of reading news stories on an e-ink display, but this flat-out doesn't work. I tried to test the Music app, but it wouldn't recognize any of the tracks I'd downloaded from Google Play. The misnamed (but useful) E-Notes app displays a clock, calendar, weather summary and upcoming appointments -- stuff that's nice to have at-a-glance without worrying about draining your phone's battery. (E-ink pixels stay "lit" while drawing very little current.)

Finally, there's the E-Reader app, which provides access to public-domain books and nothing else. If you were hoping for a more Kindle-like experience (or even access to your Kindle library), forget it. The reading experience itself isn't bad, except the washed-out, low-resolution display flashes every five pages or so (shades of early e-reader devices), and it's not backlit.

I could give you some detail about the Android side of things -- the bright, colorful screen (which looks sharper than its 1,280 x 720 resolution would suggest), the built-in FM radio and IR remote, the very solid (if slightly hefty) feel of the handset itself. Heck, there's even a lifetime warranty that includes accident coverage. But there's just no point.

At $550, the Siam 7x is priced inline with premium smartphones that offer vastly superior features. I'm not sure the occasional power-saving benefits are in any way worth the hassles and disappointments of switching back and forth between screens. So, as much as I admire the idea of the dual display, the execution here falls short. Way, way short.

If you still want a 5-inch Android phone with dual SIM slots, the new Kphone K5 offers exactly that -- for $200. That leaves you plenty of money to buy a proper e-reader, one you're sure to enjoy more than what's presented here.