We're not stretching the truth when we say that Sprint's Kyocera Echo is one of the most unusual phones we've ever seen. Sure, it looks pretty boring when you take if out of the box, but a little exploration reveals a second display that flips out from behind the first to form a huge 4.7-inch screen. Don't feel bad if you're scratching your head at this point; indeed, the Echo has had an interesting life so far.
Perhaps it was because Sprint held such a major media event to introduce it--David Blaine locked himself in an aquarium--but the Android-powered Echo faced a backlash following its debut. The general reaction from cell phone fans was, "That's it?" Others proceeded to dismiss the handset as just too weird. Admittedly, we were a bit baffled as well, but after spending time with the Echo we can report that the wacky design offers a few advantages. We welcome the extra space for mapping and Web browsing and the "simultasking" and "optimized" modes bring a unique user experience.
Of course, the dual-screen design also comes with some drawbacks. The seam between the two displays can be a bit distracting and we worry about the durability of the flip-out hinge. What's more, the design is the Echo's only draw. The feature set inside is pretty standard, the Android OS version is Froyo, and data speeds top out at 3G. Sprint may have been concerned about getting the Echo under the magic $200 price point, but this is a device that would really benefit from WiMax support. The Echo won't be for everyone, and even Sprint has more or less admitted that it's a niche device, but we encourage you to at least give it a chance.
In its closed position, the Echo is just a chunky, angular touch-screen handset that wouldn't turn heads on the gadget runway. At 4.5 inches long by 2.2 inches wide by 0.78 inch deep, it will make for a tight fit in pockets and you'll notice the extra heft (6.8 ounces) when carrying it in a bag. We're not going to make too much of a fuss about the Echo's size since we realize it's a consequence of the design. Yet, it is something to keep in mind, particularly if easy portability is your top concern.
The WVGA displays measure 3.5 inches each and support 262,144 colors (800x960-pixel resolution). They're comfortably bright and colorful, but they pale in comparison with most of the Android models we see today. Graphics and photos were a tad grainy and the auto-backlit feature was slow to adjust. Here again, we understand that Sprint probably opted for less intense screens to keep costs low, but considering that the Echo's entire identity hangs on having two displays, we would have preferred something a little more vibrant. As mentioned, the Echo runs Froyo out of the box. It will be upgradable at some point, but we would have liked Gingerbread from the start.
The displays have a proximity sensor and accelerometer. The latter feature kicks in only when you rotate the phone to the left, but you can turn it off completely if you wish. The Echo offers five home screens for your customization needs and we appreciate the one-touch access to the main connectivity features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
At the bottom of the display are touch controls for the main menu, the browser, and the phone dialer; below them are the Home, back, and menu touch keys. The Echo's remaining controls sit on the left side. From top to bottom you'll find a 3.5mm headset jack, the MicroSD card slot, the power key, the volume rocker, and the Micro-USB charger port. Finishing off the rear face are the camera lens, self-portrait mirror, and flash.
To open the Echo, hold it along its left spine while pushing the top display away from you until it tilts up at an angle. In this position, the Echo's design resembles tilting smartphones like the HTC Arrive. There's no physical keyboard on the bottom display, of course, but you can call up a virtual keyboard for typing (more on that later). To finish the process, keep pushing the top half down until it's flush with the bottom screen. Then, push the two displays together until they lock.
We don't blame you if you think the hinge mechanism sounds a bit complicated. In fact, it is pretty complex. With so many moving parts, the opening and closing process feels cumbersome and rather jerky. For example, instead of gliding smoothly through one motion, the hinge moves clumsily in three stages with audible clicks between each spurt. Even after using the device for almost a week, it never felt completely natural.
We're also concerned about the hinge's long-term durability. Though the Echo as a whole feels reasonably sturdy when closed, we wonder how the hinge's plastic arms would hold up to months of heavy use. Unfortunately, that's not a question we can answer now.
All about the dual screens
Sure, the Echo may look a little weird, but the arrangement works quite well and it offers some usability enhancements that are quite appealing even if they aren't Earth-shattering. To help you understand how it all comes together, we'll explain the three "modes" that the Echo can assume.
When completely open, the Echo is in tablet mode with the displays joining together to form one 4.7-inch screen. In a way, it does feel like a small tablet, as all apps--from the menus to the Android Market to Google Maps--stretch across both screens. It's particularly useful for features like the Web browser and Google Maps, where more real estate is beneficial. The seam between the screens blocks long finger swipes, which can be a bit distracting, but the touch interface is responsive.
The accelerometer continues to work in tablet mode, but there are some interface tweaks that threw us at first. Instead of remaining on the bottom of the display, the phone dialer, menu, and browser touch controls jump to the right side in portrait mode. We're not sure why Kyocera made this choice, but we found it a little confusing. We also thought it was odd that Kyocera added a second set of home, back, and menu touch controls below the bottom screen. The first set below the top screen is deactivated in tablet mode so we don't really see the point of duplication. Finally, the Echo can't rest flat on a table in tablet mode. Instead, it just wobbles back and forth on the hinge.
In optimized mode one display shows the app and the other shows user controls. It was great, for example, to have separate screens for the virtual keyboard and your message writing area (the keyboard includes Swype). Also, when you tilt the first screen up, we like that you can rest the Echo flat on a table. The mailbox, camera, and photo gallery are three other features that work in optimized mode, and gamers can get two player views at once. For a closer look at how optimized mode feels for the user, check out this photo gallery.
In the last mode, simultasking, you can use different apps side by side. It works for seven features only (messaging, contacts, e-mail, gallery, browser, phone dialer, and the VueQue YouTube player), but we loved the ability to look up a phone number while typing an e-mail. We would have liked to see more features, like Google Maps, work in this mode, but simultasking is one of the Echo's high points. The process for getting there is simple, as well. When you have one of the applicable features open, you just need to tap the screens simultaneously to get a pop-up menu for your second feature. Also, you can swap the apps back and forth between the displays.
Of course, the presence of two screens raises the question of whether they'll zap the Echo's battery quickly. Bright displays, after all, tend to put the biggest drain on a phone's battery life, particularly when you're switching back and forth between apps. Fortunately, the Echo includes a handy battery meter that tracks how you're using the Echo's juice, but we're still entering unexplored territory here. For more on battery life, see the Performance section.
The Echo's phone book size is limited by the available memory. Each contact stores multiple phone numbers and fields for a street address, a company name, an instant message handle, a nickname, and notes. The Echo also has caller groups and a nice selection of 32 polyphonic ringtones. Other essential features include a calculator, an alarm lock, voice commands, and a calendar that can be synced with your Google, work, and personal accounts. We'd prefer a Filer Manager too, but the Echo lacks such an option.
Like every other Android phone, the Echo supports a dedicated Gmail app and the usual Google features: YouTube, Google Talk, Google Search (including voice-activated search), Google Latitude, Google Places, and Google Maps Navigation. You'll also find PC syncing, USB mass storage, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, syncing for most POP3 and Outlook Exchange accounts, text and multimedia messaging features, and a document viewer for PDF files and Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files.
The Echo also comes with a fair assortment of third-party apps. As it usually does, Sprint has stocked the handset with its own titles, including Nascar, Sprint Football Live, Sprint Radio, Sprint TV & Movies, and Sprint Zone. There's also a Web-based news and weather app, and TelNav GPS Navigator. For more titles, there's always the Android Market or a dedicated portal called "Echo Top Apps."
The camera takes pictures in six resolutions, from 5 megapixels down to VGA (640x480 pixels). Fortunately, you get a lot of editing options like three image-quality choices, a 2x zoom, four color effects, five "scene" modes (night, portrait, action, etc.), an adjustable ISO, geo-tagging, three exposure modes, and lens shading. We like that it includes both a self-portrait mirror and a flash and we appreciate the five white balance modes as well. After you're finished shooting, the picture gallery app allows you to edit your work with even more tolls, view a slideshow option, and send them on to friends.
The camcorder also offers a wide range of editing options. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 15 seconds, but you can shoot for longer in standard mode. The Echo has about 500MB of user-accessible memory, which isn't a lot, but an 8GB MicroSD card comes in the box. If you need more space, the phone can accommodate cards up to 32GB. For a 5-megapixel shooter, photo quality was unimpressive. Colors were flat; there was visible image noise; and shots had a pinkish hue around the edges.
The Web browser is standard Android. Among its features are bookmarks, pop-up windows, copy and paste, and multiple windows. As mentioned, it's great to spread out the browser onto both displays, but it's disappointing that you must double tap or use the magnifying glass to zoom in and out. The Echo does not support pinch-and-zoom multi-touch.
The Echo's music player is just what you'd expect from an Android phone, which is to say it could be better. Features aren't extensive, but you get all the essentials, including album art, and repeat and shuffle modes. For a phone that's supposed to be great for gamers, the Echo comes only with The Sims 3. There's a dedicated Web portal for purchasing Namco and HD games, but we think Sprint could have given us more options form the start. Fortunately, Kyocera has launched a developer's program for apps that are optimized for the Echo's dual-screen design.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) Kyocera Echo in San Francisco using Sprint service. Call quality was satisfying on most fronts. Voices sounded natural on our end and there was little static or interference. The signal also was clear and it stayed relatively strong in buildings and underground. We noticed, however, that callers sounded a tad removed. Though the volume was loud enough, it was as if our friends were calling from behind a wall or screen. It wasn't a huge deal, but it was inescapable.
Reports from the other side were good as well. Callers could tell we were using a cell phone, but they mentioned decent clarity and little wind noise. Interestingly, they also said we sounded a bit distant even though there was enough volume. It wasn't an issue if we were speaking in a quiet place, but if there was a lot of background noise we did have to speak up to be understood. We had the same experience when talking to an airline's automated calling system. It was fine when we were phoning from CNET's offices, but out on the street we had to enunciate carefully and speak clearly.
Kyocera Echo call quality sample Listen now:
As mentioned, it's disappointing that the Echo lacks support for Sprint's 4G WiMax. Yes, keeping a phone affordable is important, but the Echo's dual displays make it one device that could really benefit from the high-speed data. It's not that 3G EV-DO is unbearably slow, but you notice the difference when you compare the Echo with the carrier's WiMax devices. And when you're trying to browse a Web page in tablet mode, the drag is even more apparent.
Inside, the Echo has a 1GHz Snapdragon processor. As a result, the handset responds relatively quickly when opening and closing programs, scrolling though menus, and switching tasks. It also remained responsive when simultasking on the two displays.
The Echo has a rated battery life of seven hours talk time. As we said earlier, we're particularly concerned to see how the dual screens affect the Echo's power use. We're running the official CNET Labs tests over the next few days, but in preliminary testing the Echo doesn't appear to drain unusually fast. After one full charge, for example, we tried simulating how the average user might interact with the phone over the course of an afternoon. We used the Echo in its various modes, opened and closed the screens multiple times, and made a few calls. The displays weren't always lit, but we gave them a decent workout by using features like Google Maps, the browser and the Android Market. After almost two and a half hours, the battery was about 60 percent drained. That may seem alarming, but it's not a huge difference from many competing smartphones. Also, keep in mind that using only one feature for an extended period will use less power. Our final talk time test results were 5 hours and 35 minutes.
On the upside, the battery meter conveniently lets you track which features are the most power-hungry (at one point, Swype was using 66 percent of the battery!). And if needed, you can use a force stop to end problem apps. Sprint also includes an extra battery and an external charger in the box. When your Echo needs more juice, you can connect the second battery directly to the handset via a cable or you can swap out the batteries if you're on the go. At any rate, we suggest using the autobacklight feature and keeping the display timeout to 30 seconds.
So, no, we weren't lying when we said that the Echo is one of the quirkiest phones around. Yet, this is a phone with an identity crisis. Though the dual screens offer some unique, and admittedly nifty, usability enhancements, they're not exactly market-changing. And more importantly, there's not much else to say about the Echo. The feature set inside doesn't do the dual screens justice and you'll have to settle for 3G data speeds and Froyo out of the box. The usability enhancements from the design are nice, but they're not exactly market-changing.
We're also concerned about the device's long-term durability, its power consumption, and a few niggling issues with the user interface. We can see a lot of users passing up the Echo, but we also understand how it could be a fun, satisfying, and attention-getting device for the right person. Pick it up and give it a try at least; this is definitely a device that needs to be experienced to be understood. The Echo costs $199 with a two-year contract.