BARCELONA, Spain -- You haven't heard the last of the YotaPhone, the unusual Android handset with an e-ink display on its back. Although the smartphone has only been on the market for a few months, its manufacturer is already showing off the next generation. This second act is rounder, a bit svelter, and incrementally smarter. We were lucky enough to wrap our paws around a prototype of the new YotaPhone at MWC 2014 And though it's clear this updated gadget isn't quite ready for prime time, we can see it makes the most impressive case yet for a dual-screened e-ink Android smartphone combo.
E-ink display gets a boost on specs, apps
While propping up top Android specs is important to Yota Devices (and we'll get to all that in the section below), this phone is at least 50 percent about the performance of that second screen.
The new YotaPhone's e-ink, or electronic paper display (EPD), grows to 4.7 inches on back, with a 960x540-pixel resolution. This is leagues more detail-rich than the first phone's 640x360-pixel resolution, which frankly made monochromatic images look fuzzy; a bad combo.
Interestingly, Yota Devices CEO Vlad Martynov told CNET that the company is working on a variant with a backlit EPD for select markets, even owning up that a backlight consumes more power, and makes the phone both bulkier and more expensive.
In addition, the EPD will become fully touch-sensitive to swipes, Yota Devices says, and much more accurate. This newfound full-touch freedom is key to playing drawn-out turn-based games like chess, or brain-benders like crosswords and Sudoku, without sucking down your battery every time you make a move.
As another new feature, both screens on the new YotaPhone will take advantage of creating new privacy profiles for work, play, and guests.
Perhaps the biggest news of all are the new applications that'll be compatible with the e-ink display. They include a new power-saving mode that turns off the AMOLED screen, but keeps the EPD going. The new functionality also loops in a fitness tracker, and a dashboard called Sportscaster for viewing real-time updates to scores, headlines, and play-by-play commentary.
So that developers can get on board with e-ink apps, Yota Devices said that it will make its software developer kit available online.
Slimmer, rounder design
Compared with the blockier debut model, this second-generation YotaPhone (note: they're not currently calling it "YotaPhone 2") shows its softer side, with rounded corners, curved glass, and a thinner black or white body. It definitely looks sleeker and more modern than its blocky antecedent; almost pebble-like. As a matter of fact he device has a distinct feel of the Galaxy S4 or even the old Galaxy Nexus, both very well designed handsets.
If you like to visualize these things, it measures 144 millimeters tall by 69.5mm wide by 8.9mm thick (in inches, that's 5.67 inches by 2.73 inches by 0.35 inch) and weigh about 140 grams, or 4.9 ounces.
The OS and screen climb the specs ladder with a 5-inch 1080p AMOLED display framing Android 4.4 KitKat (the premier version sported a 4.3-inch screen and Android 4.2 Jelly Bean). The device keeps its gesture pad beneath the screen, though it is possible to reinstate stock controls through the YotaPhone settings. If you live in chilly climates, you'll appreciate the gloves-on sensitivity.
The updated YotaPhone packs in a modern 2.3GHZ quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM8974) chipset, wireless charging, and NFC. It'll be LTE-capable straight out of the box. All this helps the device feel nimble and lively and we can attest that the handset churned through its Android menus, apps, and homescreens with agility. Unfortunately manipulating the e-ink screen was nowhere near as responsive.
For instance our finger taps and swipes on the YotaPhone's blank-and-white display often when unanswered. Additionally the gadget rebooted spontaneously during our brief time with the unit. Of course we can probably chalk much of these issues to the fact that the Yota product we handled was truly an engineering sample running beta software. Hopefully the actual shipping device will not exhibit that same quirky behavior.
Once again, Yota Devices turns in some elegant solutions that most people who handle the phones won't really notice: the combined SIM card tray and volume rocker is one example, joined by a secondary microphone slipped into the headset jack.
What you will notice is that the 8-megapixel camera and LED flash have migrated up from the smartphone's bottom left corner to the top and center of the back, above the rear display. I personally find this a much more convenient location. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera sits dead center above the Android face.
For storage, the 2014 YotaPhone gives you 32GB. There's a 2,500mAh battery and 2GB RAM.
Pricing and availability
Yota doesn't have details of the smartphone's go-to-market date or cost nailed down just yet, but we do know that it'll sell in Russia, Europe, and the Middle East first, and that we'll see versions for China and the US by the end of 2014.
CEO Martynov told CNET that even though it doesn't have carrier buyers yet, Yota Devices will invest in creating these country-compatible models and hope that operators pick them up. If not, there are always direct online sales or other retail channels to consider, like Amazon, for example.
Although Yota Devices positions the YotaPhone as a high-end handset, the company also aims to keep costs about 10 percent lower than other premium Android smartphones -- and that's without subsidies, of course.
Today, the YotaPhone is in its first, experimental stages, and it's generating at least a little curiosity among early adopters -- most of them in the home Russian market so far. Until we get a more final version in our hands, it's hard to say if the Yota team has fixed the sluggishness and awkwardness we encountered using the e-ink display day-to-day. The new, improved YotaPhone of tomorrow will still remain a niche product at best, but its more modern look and more useful e-ink display should pique a little more interest.
The 8-megapixel camera might be a harder sell down the road, as more premium smartphones have 13-megapixel cameras and above, but if that component choice lets the company keep the price lower, it can position the phone as a higher-value, longer-lasting phone with a built-in e-reader and more.