YotaPhone review: An interesting dual-screen phone that falls short of expectations

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The Good The low power usage of the E Ink second display means it can be left permanently on, helpfully displaying notifications without seriously draining battery life.

The Bad The quality of the second display is poor, and there's not much you can do with it as there's no third-party support as yet. The phone relies on awkward gestures for navigation, it has unimpressive specifications and it's running on an old version of Android.

The Bottom Line The YotaPhone's second screen is an interesting concept and one I'm quite keen on. Both the E Ink screen and the rest of the phone need serious refinement, however.

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5.3 Overall
  • Design 4
  • Features 7
  • Performance 5

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.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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.

Read also: YotaPhone: The genesis of a crazy dual-screen phone (Q&A)

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.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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.