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You may remember that last month I got the chance to go to the launch of the Yotaphone 2. I had some brief time with the device that day, but now I have finally got my hands on it and have been able to fully put it through its paces.
The YotaPhone series takes the familiar concept of a smartphone but adds a pretty unique twist with the inclusion of an E-Ink display on the back. As you may have guessed, there are a host of advantages and drawbacks to having two displays, and we’ll go through them all with you in our comprehensive review of the YotaPhone 2! Let’s see if the novel factors of this device still hold up outside of the showroom.
The design of the Yotaphone 2 is surprising. There are no markings adorning the front of the device which immediately gives it a more sophisticated look, which is what I personally like to see on devices. The glass that sits on it is flat but the surrounding frame and shape of the phone accentuates this flatness. This ‘cross section’ feel is elegant and reminds me of the Palm Pre and its pebble nature. The whole device see curves everywhere – the top, bottom, sides and back all present a slight curve.
The device has a shallow grey tonality to it and this fits in well with what is the Yotaphone 2’s headline feature: the rear ‘always on’ e-ink display. The bezel and back blend into the matte e-ink display well and makes the whole presentation look natural for something that is quite unnatural. The back has a curve to it and this doesn’t the hurt the design in anyway. Depending on your point of view though, the curvature can come across as perceptibly thin or impractical considering there’s another screen on the back. While it does feel better holding it the ‘normal’ way, it doesn’t feel bad holding it upside down.
The device has a magnesium chassis with a glass-fibre reinforced plastic outer surface. Both panels are covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 3 which should prove useful for the rear display, as it will be the side most susceptible to scratches and scuffs. Yota has said that a rubber bumper is available so if you’re apprehensive about letting the screens come in contact with surfaces, this could be a good option.
The Yotaphone 2 comes in at 8.95mm at it’s thickest point, 144.9mm tall and 69.4mm wide. This all results in the device weighing in at 145 grams. The Nexus 5 is a good comparison here, as the two phones are very similar in terms of size. The N5 is 8.6mm thin and comes in at 130g. It’s an imperceptible difference but shows how well the Yotaphone 2 is designed, considering it incorporates 2 screens but is physically similar to nearly every other phone out there.
Looking around the device we have the headphone port at the top. The left hand side is void of any buttons or markings. On the right we have the Standby Button and above that we have the volume rocker which in this case doubles as the Nano sim card slot. This may be a technical justification for having a screen on the back but the resulting effect is a slight mushiness to the button presses. To some this may not matter but coming from the ceramic keys on the Nexus 5, there is a tangible difference. We have a single speaker on the bottom even though there are grills indicating two, which is a shame. Finally, we’re left with the Micro USB connection to finish it off.
The display on the Yotaphone 2, well two displays, are both good. The front panel is an adequately bright 5-inch full HD (1920 x 1080) AMOLED display, which results in 442 ppi.
The white balance is not too cold nor to warm which is good and provides a good experience but does lean slightly towards a green hue. The Nexus 5 in comparison is slightly more warm. There is no color shift at extreme angles and the Yotaphone 2 only shows the slightest of contrast shifts at these extreme angles.
It’s a pleasing experience overall but I’m sure you’re interested to hear about the e-ink display. It’s the phone’s killer feature and for the most part, it’s great. Modern smart phones and their screens use a lot of power so the 4.5 inch e-ink touchscreen display should make for a highly efficient one, as it only uses power when refreshing. The panel comes in at 960 x 540 with 16 levels of greyscale which in this case – is surprisingly crisp.
The concept of having two screens on a phone feels unnatural and it will take a bit of getting used to. Yota recommends using the e-ink display as much as possible to gain the most battery life from the device but this will require a change of habit. This change wouldn’t be as jarring if it weren’t for the refresh rate and ‘responsiveness’ of the e-ink display.
The display is good but it is slow and can feel slow to register presses and for those presses to take effect. More often than not you also get that flicker. Seeing this every time you make a touch can be slightly frustrating. The slowness doesn’t bother me so much but here you are trying to use the backpanel as if it were the front and that doesn’t help the display. We create certain expectations using the device in this manner. It’s a tradeoff at the end of the day, as I’m sure Yota had to balance usability and design.
Despite any usability issues with the e-ink display, it still looks great. Pictures look great, especially black and white images and Yota have done well to manipulate the display to make it work with the rear e-ink panel. A word of warning though – this display wont be sufficient for those looking to do anything more than reading or using slower paced apps. Watching videos and playing games wont be a good experience at all. The e-ink display works best if you’re using it for glanceable info and notifications. You can answer calls, check to see if you have any emails, texts and it’’s surprising how good that feature is, especially when such a technology is based around the ecosystem of your phone.
Like any electronic paper display, the display works great outdoors, which could certainly come in handy.
Powering the two displays we have the Snapdragon 800 running at 2.2GHz complemented with what should be an Adreno 330, according to Qualcomm’s site. The phone has 2GB of ram and comes standard with 32GB of storage. While the Snapdragon 800 isn’t the latest processing package around by any means, it is still a capable choice and, for the most part, doesn’t hurt the device’s performance as the phone runs fine most of the time.
One curious hit to the performance was the keyboard, however. Trying to type often resulted in lag which queued up a number of characters. If it wasn’t that then it was the incorrect detection of keys, often thinking I was ‘swyping’ or typing something else when I wasn’t – even after trying different keyboards. The problem persisted even on the e-ink panel via Yotamirror.
Given the hardware of this device, it should be more than capable, so I don’t particularly understand why this was happening. It’s displeasing as this impacts the very nature of using a smartphone. Hopefully this can be addressed in an update. So here’s looking at you Yota.
Beyond the keyboard quirks, everything else works just as you’d expect. The system runs well and fluid with app switching being snappy.
The Yotaphone 2’s rear camera is an 8MP shooter which, oddly enough, is lower than the 12 which was found on its predecessor. I’m not sure whether this is an actual downgrade or if there is a better sensor with this 8MP shooter.
There’s a 2.1MP front facing camera but you may find yourself not using it much due to YotaMirror. With the rear display, you can use the main camera as the front facing camera due to the ability to cast the main display to the rear e-ink panel. This allows you to shoot a better picture overall, negating use of the front facing camera. Again, it’s not the most natural way of using the phone but once you get used to it, you may find yourself using it more and more.
When using the camera normally, the rear display will display a nice ‘Smile’ picture. Small touches you know?
The sound on the Yotaphone is relatively poor but that’s in comparison to today’s standards. Lately we’ve been seeing devices that are progressively producing better audio from their onboard speakers. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as the speaker on my Nexus 5, which I’ve never really liked. The audio is louder, doesn’t clip and has a touch more depth.
We have a 2500mah battery supplying the power to the Yotaphone 2. Battery life was going to be a point of contention given the rear e-ink panel. Suffice to say, the phone gave me 3 hours and 55 minutes of screen on time playing a 1080p video loop, on full brightness. On average, it lasted me about 8 hours but, I could get more.
All in all, battery performance is pretty solid, and the more you use the e-ink display, the better performance you’ll see.
The YotaPhone 2 features a vanilla build of Android 4.4.3 KitKat, and it’s pretty speedy considering there is no OEM skin weighing it down. It’s also worth noting that Yota promises Android 5.0 Lollipop will eventually come to the device, though no specifics are given.
The phone comes with only a minimal amount of app bloatware, which thankfully are all removable. As you’d expect, there is a suite of Yota apps designed for the e-ink display, though. We have ‘YotaRSS’ which works through feedly. There’s Chess, Checkers, Sudoku and 2048 and there’s the Yota Reader which works in coordination with the ‘LitRes’ app. The app supports epubs, text files but not PDFs which was slightly disappointing as I have quite a few pieces of text in that format and native support would’ve good.
It’s not all bad as you can you use any app that you want on the e-ink display through what Yota calls ‘YotaMirror’, which essentially passes the screen through to the rear e-ink display. You’ll lose some detail in the conversion but this is the way you can bypass any limitations of the applications that Yota provide. You can use the Kindle app for reading, use your favourite weather app or browse Chrome for some information. Even though the apps aren’t tailored for the e-ink display, it’s a good function that increases the usability of the device. However if you use an app that requires a lot of refreshing, you may end up using more battery life then you would with the front panel.
Moving on, there’s ‘Yotasnap’ which takes a screenshot and sends it straight to the back via a swipe gesture from the nav bar. The implementation works well and is pretty quick. The nice thing about this, as with anything using the e-ink display, is that whatever you send will stay there, even if the battery dies. Yota call this ‘life after death’.
There’s YotaEnergy which is a battery saver mode that cleverly utilities the e-ink display in a way that other phones can’t. It cuts off various functions to the front panel and gives you that back via the rear e-ink display. It limits the CPU frequency, turns off every wireless radio, lowers the brightness and more. Yota claims that, with Yotaenergy on the last 15% of your battery life is equal to 8.5 hours of operation. I tested this with 10% battery and it lasted me 6 further hours. Not bad at all.
Finally, there’s the YotaHub which consists of Yotacovers and YotaPanels. YotaCovers adds a nice sense of personalization to the phone in what is essentially a lockscreen. You can get to this by tapping the icon at the bottom to quickly bring the cover down. This addresses the always on nature of the display in an easy to use manner which should please those that are concerned with the privacy of this device. I mean it’s superficial but this small ability to display whatever you want as your permanent image shows a nice uniqueness to the current sea of plain devices.
YotaPanels offer glanceable widgets and shortcuts to contacts and other apps that are made and rendered for the e-ink technology. In essence they are similar to the homescreens that you find on your launcher. You have up to four screens with varied grid presets to customize. Problem is, you can only see what widgets are available once you’ve chosen your grid size, meaning if you want to have another widget, you have to go back and change the grid size. It’s all a bit unintuitive. On the plus side, having these apps makes logical and essential sense for the rear display, elevating it from merely a display to something offering genuine cases of usability.
During the launch event, I was told that there would be an SDK available. So far we have seen an official Twitter app which comes with a widget on the Yotapanel. I only hope this is pushed forward as this e-ink display will only be as good as the apps and functions available for it. We have a good start and while the technology isn’t quite perfect yet, this device can really carve something out for itself by pushing forth this unique hardware choice.
Contrastingly, I did encounter a few odd issues. Namely, I could unlock the front screen with a swipe gesture, mimicking the unlock action you use on the rear e-ink panel. This issue was sporadic but it kept recurring. There’s no mention if this is an intended feature so I’m inclined to call this a bug.
The Yotaphone 2 is made with a unique screen and I have to commend Yota on fitting it all into a neat little package. This is a great selling point but choosing to have components from a previous generation, having only a satisfactory camera and audio capabilities that are only a step above disappointing – I find it surprising to see just how high the price really is.
Yota are asking for £555. In Europe, it’ll be 699 euros (roughly $852). For that pricing, you could buy a Nexus 5, which has similar internals, and a Kindle all for £338. Sure, it doesn’t have the integration of dual screens, but I don’t think it deserves the premium they’re asking for. Even still – I’d like to see this phone out there. I want to see it being used by developers as I believe there is some real potential with this concept and any future iterations going forward.
It is on sale now in 20 countries in Europe, the CIS and the Middle East. Later in 2015 they’ll slowly be launching in other markets such as Asia, the USA, Canada and Latin America.
To be honest, the YotaPhone 2 is a good device but I can’t help but think that it would be nothing without the e-ink panel. The phone itself is basic and doesn’t offer anything new or relatively interesting. So, you may find yourself using the e-ink display on the back and will be quite happy with what this technology can offer, but the rest of the phone needs to be just as good, if not better, so that both feature-sets can provide an attractive package.
The e-ink display works well and with the 16 levels of greyscale, static pictures and texts, look great. It’s just awesome having a screen that is always on and uses very little battery. That said, the software controlling all of this is more restrictive that I initially thought. Small touches as being able to remove the standard 4 icons on the Yotacover would be a start. The potential here is rather large and I hope the SDK gets utilized as more apps and customization would help greatly.
The phone has some noticeable bugs, too. It’s not as intuitive as it should be. The refresh rate and latency was never really going to work when using it like a normal phone – it requires a different form of usage. That and the previous niggles I mentioned earlier, I hope, will be solved by future software updates from Yota.
But hey, at the end of the day, it’s all down to just what you’re looking for and if these features excite you, and you can live with some of the idiosyncrasies, then you’ll really enjoy the Yotaphone 2. We just find it rather hard to recommend at its current price point.