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

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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.

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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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