It is not often I pick up a phone and am immediately impressed with something new. Most manufacturers try to add new distinguishing hardware such as a double cameras or a pen but they rarely make it from one generation to the next. The YotaPhone 2 is a smartphone with two screens and both are useful. On the front is a traditional 5 inch AMOLED screen but turned over there is a perfectly integrated and fully touchable e-ink screen. This second screen is so well-integrated that if all black it is hard to tell it is there. In use it provides a low battery screen to extend the battery life, a place for notifications of everything from tweets to RSS feeds and a comfortable reading screen.
The YotaPhone 2’s most obvious feature is the dual screens. The front AMOLED screen works as standard and the e-ink screen can be used in three ways. First there are the built in applications – these are an ebook reader (epub), a few information widgets, email, sms and a phone dialer. The e-ink home screen can be customized and is controlled by the YotaHub app. The second use is as a mirror or replacement of what would be on the screen normally. This almost any app can run including Kindle, Chrome or Pocket which are optimised for reading. Finally the back can show a set of slowly moving information like a screensaver. This information could be anything from time and weather to Twitter or RSS feeds or just a wrap around photograph.
So how well does it work? Surprisingly well. The notifications are great for time, weather, calendar and alarms, although they are not so useful for RSS feeds being very abbreviated. The built in epub e-reader is basic but works well and allows communication with Calibre. Screen mirroring is slick and it is easy to switch from the color to the eInk screen. Unfortunately switching back from mirroring is far less simple and left me stuck where I originally was on the first switch rather than keeping up with me.
For a an experienced Android user there is a certain amount of adjustment to having two screens but it it works very well.
It should be noted that the eInk screen is not backlit. This makes perfect sense when thinking of the extra battery cost needed and the internal space required for a light but it does mean that it can only be used in well-lit situations. No reading in bed in the dark on this e-ink.
There are several unexpected design features which add to the feeling that the YotaPhone 2 is a well thought out device. The built-in wireless charging. The sim card slot hidden and protected inside the volume rocker. The curve of the back and the e-ink screen making it feel very very nice in the hand. The battery life that was surprisingly good even before the eInk screen is taken into consideration. The little touches like the eInk screen displaying SMILE when the camera is activated.
Cost is always an issue with speciality or more unique devices. The YotaPhone 2 is currently available via their own store for £555. This compares to the 2014 MotoG (8GB) which is around £130, the Nexus 5 (32GB)at £339, the Nexus 6 (32GB) £499 or the HTC One M8 (16GB) at £399. The new HTC M9 and Samsung S6 launching in March will probably be more expensive but as it stands right now the YotaPhone 2 is among the more expensive options available on the market.
Ignoring the screens the spec of the YotaPhone 2 falls into the middle to upper end of the market. It is in fact very similar to the much better known Nexus 5. Last years’ super phones – the HTC One M8, Nexus 6 and the Samsung S5 top it, but not by a huge amount.
Size: 144.9 x 69.4 x 8.95 mm
Processor: Qualcom Snapdragon 801 2.2 GHz Quad core
Operating System: Android 4.4 Kitkat – some skinning
Network: GSM, HSDPA and LTE
Memory: 2GB RAM
Storage: 32GB internal, no MicroSD slot
Display: 5″ AMOLED 1920×1080, 442ppi
Rear Display: 4.7″ eInk 960×540 16 level grey scale. Full touch and 235ppi
Camera: 8MP front, 2.1MP back
Connectivity: microUSB 2.0
Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 & 5 GHz) capable
Bluetooth: 4.0 with ADP
NFC (Near Field Communication): Yes
GPS: GPS, GLONASS and BeiDou
Battery: 2500mAh non-removable with Quick Charge and wireless charging (Qi)
Like any other mobile phone a mobile phone contract with data or Pay As You Go is needed to get more than wifi usage.
Visually from the front the YotaPhone 2 is a black slab with a small speaker and front facing camera at the top. The sides curve into the back and have the headphone jack at the top, the volume rocker and power button on the right. The microUSB socket is on the base in between two speakers.
The back of the device has a camera and flash at the top with the eInk screen underneath it. At the bottom is a small YOTAPHONE logo.
The software on the YotaPhone is near untouched Android 4.4 and as such has the normal accessibility features built in such as magnifier gestures, captions and talkback. These all work with the eInk screen mirroring.
The device supports Slimport – a Google / Intel standard that lets the phone connect from the microUSB port to a DisplayPort monitor or HDMI out and carries video and sound. Slimport has not caught on through most of the mobile industry but it is a nice addition which only requires a £10 cable to make use of.
The YotaPhone has no notification LEDs.
The YotaPhone 2 has a pair of speakers on the bottom edge on either side of the microUSB port. Sound quality is good, although due to the size of the speakers not particularly high in bass. Volume is good and louder than I would expect from the size of the speakers with little breaking up at the highest volumes.
The placement of the speakers on the edge means that they are not blocked when the phone is either way up and using either screen. The e-ink screen can be used to control music.
The phone has a single standard 3.5mm audio headphone / microphone jack in the top left of the rim.
Input and Touch
Physically the YotaPhone 2 is very ergonomic. The back eInk screen is slightly curved and has a matt texture which feels very good in the hand. All three buttons – power and volume rocker are on the top right. The buttons have small travels but distinctive clicks that have clear actions.
Control with the AMOLED screen is responsive and what I would expect from a modern smartphone. I played several higher spec games on it and had no problem with slowed down responses or controls.
The eInk screen is considerably less responsive but this is more because of the inherent refresh rate of e-ink rather than the screen having issues detecting touch. We tried playing some games that needed faster reaction time such as JetPack Joyride and they actually worked and were marginally playable. This is not however what the second screen is designed for and it worked perfectly at the more conventional paging, scrolling and touches used to navigate e-readers or in Android.
The YotaPhone 2 is compatible with OTG cables without any rooting required. With the use of a OTG hub we were able to plug in a USB mouse and keyboard. We were also able to get a N52 gamepad controller and a Logitech Extreme Joystick controlling the phone. From our testing if there is sufficient power most external USB controllers should work with the YotaPhone 2.
Ease of Use
When first started up the YotaPhone 2 launches into a standard Android setup. Once this has finished it launches a tutorial. This tutorial (which can be relaunched whenever desired) explains the difference between the YotaCover and the YotaPanel – the YotaCover is static information such as pictures or non-interactive notifications and the YotaPanel is interactive widgets for when the screen is unlocked. The tutorial then goes through unlocking the e-Ink screen, switching from the Cover to the Panel, swiping between panels, introducing YotaEnergy (extreme energy saving mode), running widgets in full screen and how to begin to customise the panel setup.
The YotaPhone is intuitive to use, for example mirroring from the color to e-ink screen takes a swipe up and then to the left. The extra controls take a small amount of effort to learn but once learnt feel natural.
The YotaPhone 2 is clearly a niche device aimed at on the go e-Ink readers or those who want to extend their battery life by significant amounts and it succeeds very well at these goals. The hardware feels and looks classy, well rounded and manufactured and if you fall into the target audience it is a very serious contender for your money. On the software side Yota have been smart and kept Android as vanilla as possible using external apps to control the e-Ink screen. Recommended.
The YotaPhone 2 was released in December 2014 in 20 countries and February 2015 in the UK. This review is based on a unit kindly provided by YotaPhone.