The dual-screen Yotaphone 2 – for when one display just isn’t enough

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Smartphones are constantly finding new ways to automate or augment tasks that would traditionally be covered by other products, but until there’s a dramatic advance in technology we’re still essentially left manipulating similar-looking touchscreen devices. One company that has attempted to try something new is Yota, who incorporated two screens on its maiden handheld the Yotaphone last year. It’s now back for more with the Yotaphone 2, which essentially aims to refresh the device for the current generation.

The premise may require a bit of explanation – from the front it’s a fairly standard Android smartphone with all the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect. Flip it over, though, and you’ll see an e-ink display that holds all the advantages of e-book readers – namely a comfortable reading platform and low impact on battery. Anyone who’s tried to read an e-book on a smartphone will tell you that this sounds like a great idea, but for some reason it never really took off. The Yotaphone 2 is now available to buy though, and with the usual suspects giving it the once over we’re keen to see whether this is something that will finally catch on.

To have a chance it needs to get enough right on the hardware front, and it appears as though what we’re looking at is a fairly mid-range smartphone. It has a pocketable 5” full HD (1920×1080) display on the front and round the back is your 4.7” alternative with 960×540 resolution using e-ink. There’s 32GB of internal memory (with no microSD), an 8MP front and 2MP rear camera and it runs Android 4.4 out of the box. Nothing to write home about so far, but it’s powerful enough to have potential, so let’s see how it goes.

We’ll let Engadget tell us how good the Yotaphone2 is as a phone before we get to the exciting bit. Initial impressions are good, with notable improvements over the predecessor and a sleeker overall package.

“It’s got comfortable curves in all the right places – if you’re using it like a regular smartphone and poking at the primary display”

it says, but:

“flip the phone over to make use of the E Ink side, and it’s a different story: The edges that come into contact with your hand are now sharp, unwelcoming, 90-degree intersections of glass and plastic.”

There’s some degree of tolerance required on the comfort front, then, but the quality on offer might make up for it. The main display is described as “gorgeous”, with AMOLED technology doing a great job of deep blacks and vibrant colours, good sunlight visibility and great viewing angles. The cameras don’t fare as well though, and despite being capable enough in bright, sunlit conditions can result in washed out images lacking in colour. It struggles with both artificial light and low-light conditions for various reasons, so it’s safe to say this might be a deal breaker if a good snapper is a high priority.

Like most reviewers CNet places a fair bit of emphasis on the second display and we’ll take a look at their summary for some more information on the USP.

“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.”

Each of these screens can be programmed using the supplied app, which takes a bit of getting used to, but what really helps the Yotaphone 2 to stand out is YotaMirror, a function that allows you to display fully functional Android on the e-ink display. This aids functionality no end, but you’ll still want to stick to tasks that this technology is really intended for due to inherent drawbacks of the technology and issues with the device itself.

“Its biggest problem is with “ghosting”. When the display refreshes what’s on it, a faint trace of the previous screen is left behind”

says CNet, who also points out that it’s far less responsive than the LCD screen and 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.”

But perhaps the biggest issue most users will have, it says, is working out which of your daily activities are better suited to the rear display, and thereby save on battery power.

Pocket Lint is generally impressed by the phone as a whole, stating that “everything works very well indeed”. The core hardware keeps everything running smoothly during typical operation but one area that does seem to be a problem is battery life. Considering you’d reasonably expect this to be superior to other phones because of the option of the e-ink display, it discovered that only if and when you master effective use of this will it “just about hold its own against some of the current flagships to get you through a long day”. It also has some comments on the second screen, namely that “as it stands the rear screen is a long way from being bug-free.” Issues include the aforementioned ghosting but it is responsive and seems to work well for reading books. There’s also a nice function to display a screenshot of whatever’s showing on your main screen on the rear, where it’ll stay until you refresh it. This could be a map, boarding pass or other important information that, privacy issues aside, could be a real benefit in certain situations.

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The final thing we should address is one that was mentioned in all three reviews – the price. At £550 sim-free you’re paying top-whack for what is essentially a mid-range handset for the benefit of the e-ink display. What’s pleasing is that it’s fairly impressive as a phone anyway, something Yota really had to get right to make it worthy of consideration, but this leaves consumers with a difficult choice between a top-tier, no nonsense smartphone or dual-screen e-ink innovator that could still turn out to be just a gimmick. The choice is yours.