With so many Android phones to choose from, it's difficult for individual handsets to stand out from the crowd. The YotaPhone solves this problem with an unusual second display on the back -- but creates a bunch of new problems in the process.
This extra screen uses E Ink technology -- the same as you'll find on an Amazon Kindle -- which is theoretically more comfortable to read on, and uses considerably less power than a regular LCD screen, but it is limited to black and white. It's an interesting concept and it certainly caught our eye when it was first shown off at CES in 2013. Now that it's in our hands, does it still stand up to scrutiny?
E Ink display
It might seem daft having a second screen on the back of your phone, but the theory is sound. E Ink displays aren't backlit and aren't refreshed until new information needs to be displayed, so they use very small amounts of power. A Kindle, for example, can give over a month of battery.
In theory, the low-power rear display can be used for reading books, websites, RSS feeds and so on, meaning the power-hungry front LCD display isn't always on, sucking juice like a thirsty toddler.
While that sounds all well and good, the execution falls short of the mark. The biggest issue lies with the poor quality of the display. It has a low 640x360-pixel resolution, which makes text and icons look fuzzy -- when I put a shot of the Android homescreen on the E Ink display, I was barely able to read the app names, and images taken on the camera looked very fuzzy. Larger text in notifications is mercifully more legible.
Reading e-books is manageable, but the poor resolution means it's simply not as pleasant as reading on a Kindle. That's not helped at all by a kind of 'burning-in' of images, which means every new image shows a faint ghost of the previous image over the top. If the YotaPhone hopes to make its way into the pockets of the ebook-loving masses, it's going to need to seriously improve the quality of the display. Right now, it's just not up to scratch.
E Ink apps
The other big issue is the lack of software that supports the second screen. While you have access to the hundreds of thousands of apps in the Google Play store, the only apps that will work with the rear display are the few from YotaPhone itself that come preloaded on the device. These include a notepad -- admittedly handy to bring up your shopping list on the back screen while trawling the aisles of your supermarket -- as well as a calendar, RSS news reader app and the app that allows you to customise the rear wallpaper.
Without support from third-party developers to bring more common Android apps to the rear screen, it's very limited. You can grab the Kindle and Kobo ebook apps from the Google Play store for example, but you aren't able to display them on the back screen.
YotaPhone does have access to e-books service Bookmate, which works with the screen and lets you use the touch panel below to move through the pages. Its selection is extremely limited, however -- none of the top 10 books on the Amazon Kindle store were available, for example -- so I highly doubt it will suit anyone who's keen enough on reading to buy a phone with an E Ink screen.
Yota also reckons it's great for personalisation, as you're able to pop various wallpapers -- including your own images -- on the back for the world to see. There's a bunch of different wallpapers preloaded, including a rather charming giraffe, and you can pop down widgets over the top to update with information. The most obvious ones are a battery indicator, a weather icon and a clock, but you can show upcoming meetings too and it'll show incoming calls with a hard-to-miss fullscreen image.
It's probably the best part of the YotaPhone, in fact, as you can simply leave your phone on your desk and glance down to see the time, as well as incoming notifications from texts, emails, calls and so forth without needing to wake the phone up, or use much battery. I find myself checking my phone numerous times throughout the day to check on emails and WhatsApp messages, so I found having the E Ink screen permanently displaying notifications to be particularly handy.
Your Twitter and Facebook feeds can be displayed on the back panel too, thanks to Yota's RSS app, although the official Twitter and Facebook apps won't display on the back screen. In my own use, neither social feed seemed to want to update with new posts, meaning I was sat looking at the same posts until I turned the phone over to refresh it. The same was true of RSS feeds of websites I subscribed to. If this service worked properly, the back screen would be much more useful.
Software and processor
You'll be making your way around the now slightly old Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean on the front LCD display. Apart from the few bundled apps and the fact that you use gestures to go back and go home, the interface isn't really any different from what you may have seen on other Android devices. Five homescreens are available, with four app icons sitting on the tray along the bottom for quick access.
It's powered by a 1.7GHz dual-core processor, which, when it was first shown off at the beginning of 2013, wasn't too bad. Times have moved on somewhat though and a dual-core chip really doesn't impress, particularly when phones such as the Motorola Moto G pack quad-core processors for rock-bottom prices.
Still, it has a nippy clock speed and it achieved a respectable -- although hardly inspiring -- 1,999 on the Geekbench 2 benchmark test. Swiping around Android was relatively swift, with only the odd small stutter here and there. The multi-tasking panel opened quickly (once I got the gesture panel to work properly) and flicking between apps was hassle free.
The device coped fine with streaming video on Netflix too. It handled water racer Riptide GP 2 acceptably, but it stuttered in more intense moments. Casual gamers looking to fling some Angry Birds are adequately catered for, but if you're keen on playing the latest, glossiest games, the YotaPhone is not for you.
Design and display
Looking at the phone from the front, you'd have no idea there's anything unusual about it. Its overall design is pretty uninspiring in fact, with plain black edging and an unbroken glass front. It has none of the elegance of phones such as the HTC One or Sony Xperia Z1, instead opting for a strictly functional aesthetic. Wide bezels around the screen give it something of a budget look too.
It measures 133mm long and 67mm wide, making it easy to hold and use in one hand. Its 10mm thickness puts it very much on the chunky side, as does its 146g weight, but that's something I can perhaps forgive with the extra screen on the back. On the edges you'll find a micro-USB port, a volume rocker, 3.5mm headphone jack and a combined power button and micro-SIM slot.
It feels fairly sturdy, with no flex in the chassis and a stiff band around the edge that seems like it could withstand a few plummets to the ground. The rear display is more of a concern though, as it picked up almost every scuff it could find.
Putting the phone down on my desk resulted in numerous marks on the display, and the same happened when it was in my pocket with my keys. Although it didn't seem to permanently scratch the screen, I was forced to give it a good clean most times I fished it from my pocket.
The front 4.3-inch LCD display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution that makes small text and icons look crisp and easily readable. It's bright, but it has quite cold colors that made images and TV shows on Netflix look less punchy than they do on phones such as the Galaxy S4.
There's no microSD card slot to store your music, apps or videos, but with a decent 32GB of on-board storage, you shouldn't run out of space too quickly.
With no physical navigation buttons on the front of the phone, you'll need to use a series of gestures to make your way around the Android interface. A swipe to the right takes you home, for example, a back swipe takes you back a page, and a two-finger swipe down takes a screenshot and displays it on the rear screen.
While it's a nice idea leaving the front free of buttons, I don't think Yota has found the best solution. For one, the gestures need to be performed on a dedicated touch area beneath the screen. Having that space taken up with a touch panel negates any space saved by having no buttons. If the gestures were incorporated into the screen, it would give more room for the screen to stretch out, without making the body of the phone any bigger.
Performing the gestures can be awkward too. Quite apart from simply having to learn and remember what everything does, I found the touch area to be quite unresponsive, regularly forcing me to repeat the gesture before anything happened. I don't think the gestures add anything to the experience.
A 1,800mAh battery powers the YotaPhone, which I found gave an acceptable amount of life when using it as you would any other smart phone. With mixed use, including using the main screen for emails, texts, downloading apps and playing a bit of Netflix, I didn't struggle too much to get a day of use out of it. As with all phones, your own times will vary wildly depending on how much you use it. If you spend your day using the LCD screen for more demanding tasks such as gaming, or hours of video streaming, you'll almost certainly need to give it a boost during the day if you want any juice remaining for your evening.
With more cautious use, including using the E Ink screen for all my notifications and Twitter updates, rarely touching the front screen, the phone still had around 30 per cent battery at lunchtime of the second day of use. With GPS, Wi-Fi and push email running in the background, there are still plenty of demands on the battery, so it won't run eternally on the low-power display.
A 13-megapixel camera on the back of the phone gave fairly decent results, and wonderfully the E Ink screen says, "Smile for the camera!" In my test shot of St Paul's Cathedral, the image was rather dark, but there was plenty of detail on the brickwork of the building.
It struggled to focus up close on the tree bark in my second shot, although colors and exposure were good.
Focus was better, although not quite perfect, in this shot of a fruit and veg stall. Colors are again accurate and it's well exposed.
A point to bear in mind is that the camera is oddly placed in the bottom left-hand corner (as you look at the back of the phone). I found it difficult to keep my finger out of shot when holding the phone in landscape mode and almost impossible when shooting in portrait mode, given that I'm right-handed.
Having an E Ink display on the back of the phone to let you comfortably read books or long articles without quickly draining the battery is a great idea in theory. I'm sold on the concept, but I don't think the YotaPhone is quite there yet.
Its E Ink screen is very low quality, which makes doing even basic tasks with it unpleasant. There's a definite lack of support for the display from third-party developers, meaning there's not much you can do with it just yet. It hasn't managed to excite any US carriers, and so won't be available in US stores, although it will be on sale on the YotaPhone website for 499 Euros (around £410 or $675). All preorders have now sold out.
The idea behind YotaPhone is really interesting and I hope to see the concept refined in the future. If a better quality display is used and YotaPhone works much more closely with developers, its next generation device might be worth checking out.