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YotaPhone 2 review: An e-ink screen on the back of a phone: Audacious but expensive

The YotaPhone 2 is an Android phone with an e-ink screen on its back, letting you read e-books and see notifications while using hardly any battery power.

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Andrew Lanxon
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Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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9 min read

Making your phone stand out in an increasingly crowded world of similar products isn't easy. You can cram a laser into the camera, try curving the display round the edge like the phone's melting, or, in the case of YotaPhone, slap a second display on the back.

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6.0

YotaPhone 2

The Good

The YotaPhone 2's rear e-ink display lets you read e-books for long periods without draining much battery -- a feature no other phone has. It has decent all-round specs and a good front screen too.

The Bad

Its high price puts it among the top-end phones, which it fails to justify. The e-ink screen suffers from ghosting issues, the software for customising it isn't particularly easy to use, the camera doesn't impress and there's no expandable storage.

The Bottom Line

Although the YotaPhone 2's e-ink display is wonderfully novel, and can result in much better battery life, the phone needs to be considerably cheaper if it's going to be a sensible purchase over other Android phones.

The first YotaPhone was certainly novel, and its e-ink second display showed promise. Its poor quality and lack of compatible software meant it never really shone though. Not willing to throw in the towel, the Russian handset manufacturer is back with the second-generation YotaPhone -- the YotaPhone 2, would you believe? -- and it's seen a whole bunch of changes.

It's had a complete design overhaul, with better quality displays front and back, a more powerful processor and it makes better use of the e-ink screen. It's available to preorder in the UK and the rest of Europe from today direct from the company's website. Launches in the US and Australia are on the cards, but no official date has been confirmed.

It costs £550, SIM-free and unlocked, which converts directly to around $860 or AU$1,025. That puts it squarely in the price range of the smartphone elite -- blockbuster phones like the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S5 , Sony Xperia Z3 and LG G3. Doing battle against these guys is difficult enough for established names, let alone for an unknown Russian brand. Its rear screen certainly makes it unique in the smartphone world -- no mean feat -- but is it enough to justify its high price?

See the two faces of the YotaPhone 2 (pictures)

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Two screens

The entire point of the YotaPhone 2's existence is the second display on the back. It uses e-ink technology, which isn't backlit like typical LCDs and only uses power when it refreshes what's on screen. It's therefore incredibly power efficient. You'll find e-ink screens on Amazon's Kindles, whose batteries can last up to a month on a single charge.

On the YotaPhone, the idea is to use the LCD for tasks like Web browsing, texting, gaming or watching videos, and the e-ink side for reading e-books or other long pieces of text. Not using the LCD for long periods will save power and, as e-ink screens don't use backlights, it should be easier on your eyes too. At least, that's the theory.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The YotaPhone 2's e-ink display is improved over its predecessor both in the quality of the display and what it can do. It has a 960x540-pixel resolution, up from the measly 640x360 pixels of the predecessor, which helps make text look sharper and more easily readable. It still has problems though.

Its biggest problem is with "ghosting". When the display refreshes what's on it, a faint trace of the previous screen is left behind. Although YotaPhone said this is a bug in the software and will be fixed, it was also a problem on the first model, so my hopes aren't high for a big improvement here. I'll update this review if an update arrives that fixes the issue.

The rear screen has three main modes: YotaCover, which acts as a lock screen, displaying images from your gallery; an Android-like set of four homescreens with widgets for weather, favourite contacts and app icons; and a mode where it simply shows the same Android interface you see on the LCD side.

Programming the rear screen is done almost entirely using the Yota Manager app, which can be very tricky to use. It requires a lot of tapping around, sometimes at random, trying to find little settings icons to select just which app icons or contacts you want to display. I also found that even after setting up my Twitter account, it still wouldn't display any recent tweets on the Twitter widget, which I'd have liked to remain visible.

The e-ink screen is fully touch-enabled (unlike its predecessor) so you can swipe around Android as you normally would. It's far less responsive than the LCD screen and much less sharp, so it's no good for quick texting or emailing, but it does bring more functionality to the rear display than its predecessor had. The biggest draw is that you can use apps like Kindle, Kobo or Google Books, giving access to a far wider selection of literature than was available using only Yota's e-book service.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Pressing and holding the home button on the LCD side allows you to instantly take a screenshot of whatever's on screen and display it on the back panel. It'll then sit there until you replace it -- even if the phone's battery dies completely. If you're on your way to an unfamiliar pub with 2 percent battery and you need to save the directions, you can take a shot of Google Maps and keep it on the back for reference. Handy.

Simply being able to use Android immediately makes the YotaPhone 2's e-ink screen considerably more useful than its predecessor's, but it still has plenty of room for improvement -- specifically with the ghosting problems, making the widgets easier to customise, and improving the look of Android mode, which is still far from crystal clear.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle though is in simply learning to use it and figuring out which of your existing day to day activities can be done on the rear display -- thereby using less battery power. In this sense, there's a steep learning curve and it's likely that you won't see an immediate advantage in using the back screen unless you're particularly keen on reading e-books on a small phone, instead of a dedicated e-book reader.

Main display

It's not all about the e-ink screen though -- there is still a regular LCD display on the front. It's a 5-inch affair with a full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution. That gives a pixel density of 440ppi, which is enough to make the display extremely crisp. Icons and text are clearly displayed and high definition images have great clarity.

It's bright too and has strong colours. The black levels are nice and deep, which results in great contrast. It's an impressive screen overall, as good at displaying the basics of Twitter and Facebook as it is showing off glossy Netflix shows and your photography collection.

Design

The YotaPhone 2 has had a significant design overhaul from its predecessor. It both looks and feels considerably more refined. The square, boxy design is gone, replaced with a more attractive oval shape. Instead of sloping off halfway down the phone, the back panel is gently curved, making it very comfortable to hold.

It's still rather plain, but I feel that works in the YotaPhone's favour -- it hasn't tried to clutter either side with pointless additions like chrome edging or fancy metal-effect grilles. Instead, it looks very functional. The front glass panel is unbroken except for the speaker. It's completely flat too and runs right to the edge of the body, which I rather like. At 145mm long and 69mm wide, it's not so big as to be cumbersome to use and at 145 grams (5.1 ounces), it isn't too heavy either.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The glass on the front screen is made from toughened Corning Gorilla Glass 3, while the e-ink side is made from fibre-reinforced plastic. While both sound pretty sturdy, they really need to be, as one of the displays is always going to be in contact with the table when you put it down -- try not to plonk it onto a bar table where someone recently spilled their pint. It also means you can't wrap it in a case to protect it from keys and coins in your pocket. The e-ink screen does pick up scuffs easily, but at least they're pretty easy to clean off. How it fares after months of constant use remains to be seen.

The phone comes with 32GB of built-in storage, which is a fairly decent amount. It needs it though as there's no microSD card slot, so you can't expand the storage when you start to run out. On the upside, it does support USB flash drives connected using the micro-USB port.

Processor and battery performance

The phone is powered by a quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, with 2GB of RAM. That's a decent engine, although not outstanding. The mobile elite -- such as the LG G3 and Sony Xperia Z3 -- tend to use faster, more recent Qualcomm chips and have 3GB rather than 2GB of RAM.

Still, I found the phone to be perfectly capable. Navigating around the Android interface, on the LCD screen at least, was very swift with no annoying lag or stuttering. Apps opened quickly, editing images in Snapseed was easy and it had no trouble with gaming (Asphalt 8 played very smoothly) or high-definition video streaming.

It runs Android 4.4.3 KitKat, which isn't the most recent version -- that honour goes to version 5.0 Lollipop. Yota has said that an update is coming, but gave no firm time. It runs a totally plain version of Android, so you won't find any custom skin on the interface. Although that should in theory make it easy to update, the delay comes from Yota having to make sure the software for the rear screen will work properly with a new Android version.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The YotaPhone houses a 2,500mAh battery -- pretty capacious. In my testing, the phone dropped from full to 70 percent remaining after two hours of video streaming, which is around average. Of course, that's not telling the whole story here, because how much life you get from it will depend entirely on how much you rely on the low-powered e-ink display.

If you spend your commute reading e-books on the e-ink side, rather than on the LCD display, you'll certainly see an improvement in battery life. It's too early to give a final verdict on battery life, as it's going to require continued testing using both sides of the phone. I'll update this review with further findings later.

Camera

The back of the phone is home to an 8-megapixel camera. On paper, that's a step below the likes of the LG G3 (13 megapixels), the Sony Xperia Z3 (20.7 megapixels) and the Galaxy S5 (16 megapixels), but more pixels don't necessarily mean better photos. I took it for a spin to see what it can do.

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YotaPhone 2 camera test (click image to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My first shot of this fruit and veg stand didn't particularly impress. There's sufficient detail, but the auto white balance hasn't done a brilliant job of reading the scene, resulting in a rather cold colour cast. Exposure isn't perfect either -- the cauliflower in the top left looks rather too bright.

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YotaPhone camera test without HDR (click image to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The detail on this building shot is again good, and the white balance is a little better, but it's struggled to expose evenly, resulting in quite a lot of shadows in the bottom half.

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YotaPhone 2 camera test with HDR (click image to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Turning on the HDR mode has helped rescue many of the shadows, as well as keep the bright sky under control, but it has given the image a somewhat surreal look.

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YotaPhone 2 camera test (click image to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It struggled in indoor lighting too. Out of five shots I took of these Christmas baubles, this was the least blurry. It doesn't have a particularly warm white balance either. The camera isn't awful by any means, but it's no more than average and given the high price of the phone, average isn't good enough. If mobile photography is a chief concern, you'd be wise to look towards the Galaxy S5, Xperia Z3 or iPhone 6.

Conclusion

The original YotaPhone was an interesting concept, but it was poorly executed. With this second generation, many of its issues have been addressed. The e-ink display is higher quality, the design has been greatly improved and it has generally better specs all round. It's a considerably more refined product.

The first version did set the bar extremely low, however, and although the YotaPhone 2 has leapt clean over it, it's still a niche product and you can get much more phone for the money elsewhere. The Galaxy S5, for example, has a far superior camera, a superb display, a more powerful processor, a water resistant design, a fingerprint scanner and a heart-rate monitor, and costs less than the YotaPhone 2. With the money you save, you could buy a new Kindle if you're keen on reading e-books. The excellent LG G3 is cheaper still.

The YotaPhone 2 is certainly not a bad phone, and if you spend the time figuring out which of your daily tasks can be done on the back screen, you'll definitely see battery life improvements, but it needs a good chunk off its price tag before it becomes a sensible purchase.

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6.0

YotaPhone 2

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6