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YotaPhone: An LCD, e-ink Android mashup

LAS VEGAS–It sounds like a bad “Star Wars” pun, but the YotaPhone, a spinoff from a company responsible for making LTE routers and modems, is bringing a whole lot of Android innovation to a crowded field. In fact, it’s the most interesting smartphone I’ve seen here at CES, and this is only the first device prototype out of a planned total of three before launch.

Here’s the take-away, plain and simple: YotaPhone is a high-end Android 4.1 Jelly Bean smartphone with an e-ink display on the back. Why? It’s all about battery savings. E-ink conserves more resources than color HD displays, so if you’re just reading a long article or a book, use the low-power e-ink side, and when you’re ready to watch a TV show or swipe through a photo gallery, flip the phone around to use LCD.

There are two ways to get content onto the back display. The first is to simply mirror what’s on the screen by swiping down with a two-fingered gesture (check the video above for a demo.) That will give you a static image of a map, for instance, or a shopping list.

The second way to program YotaPhone’s e-ink display is to use apps built for that specific purpose. Yota starts out with a few, like an RSS reader, an alarm clock, and Twitter, but plans to open up the SDK so developers can create their own compatible software. Transferring data with these apps was seamless over a strong Wi-Fi connection, just by tapping an onscreen control.

Yota Device’s CEO, Vladislav Martynov, pointed out a few other uses as well. You can keep notifications nearby so you don’t miss any news, customize with a photo, and it’s outdoor reading-ready.

Now I don’t know that I buy the customization angle since the e-ink screen looks like someone slapped a boring grayscale sticker on the back of a smartphone and blacks and whites aren’t sharply contrasted or defined…but you get the idea.

New stuff
An e-ink b-side isn’t the YotaPhone’s only new trick. It also overturns capacitive navigation buttons and instead adopts a Web OS-style gesture navigation, where half a swipe across the bottom takes you back, a full swipe takes you home, and a long press in the center brings up recent applications.

Gesture controls also inform navigation on the e-ink side of things, but less successfully. Swiping and tapping navigate around, but the 4.3-inch e-ink display (200dpi) isn’t touch-sensitive itself, which just makes navigation slow and clunky. Since it’s still early days, I hope the Yota team comes up with a better system here.

Even though Corning just announced Gorilla Glass 3 days before CES, the YotaPhone prototype already has it, and then some. Yota actually got Corning to make them a curved “3D” glass for the e-ink side, which helps improve readability. As a result, the back of the thick-around-the-middle YotaPhone is slightly curved.

On the left, a regular Android 4.1 display. On the right, a power-saving e-ink screen.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

The front of the phone also uses Gorilla Glass 3 to protect its 4.3-inch 1,280x820p HD LCD display.

A final, smaller point of interest is the SIM card slot, which also doubles as power button. CEO Martynov says the company wanted to reduce the number of holes and buttons.

Other features
Qualcomm’s 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus (MSM8960) chip, 4G LTE, and NFC are all onboard. It also features a 12-megapixel camera with 1080p HD video support, and a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera with 720p support. There will be two storage capacities: 32GB and 64GB, with 2GB RAM — but no expandable memory.

The YotaPhone prototype weighs 4.9 ounces and is about 0.4 inch thick.

Problems
In addition to some weirdness with interacting with the content on the e-ink display, as the looks of the screen itself, there are other problem areas that YotaPhone will need to address as it completes the development cycle.

My fingers kept hitting the back of the phone as I held it, activating things I didn’t want to see. A locking mechanism would be helpful here, either in terms of hardware or a simple onscreen control.

I’m also still a little dubious about the convenience of flipping the phone over at intervals to use first one side and then another — even though one use case is to use the e-ink side when you’re on the phone’s final battery legs. For me, at least, chargers are nearby, I become loathe to switch up what I’m doing, and I can’t see myself wanting to leave the comforts of a rich, colorful screen to gaze upon an image that reminds me of an old, faded newspaper.

Then there’s the fact that dual screens have a way of sounding better than they really are. Yota CEO Martynov emphasizes that YotaPhone’s concept is totally different from the usual idea of a second screen or ticker, but one of the main reasons those phones have failed is because they’re just a little too odd or take a little too much work to use.

YotaPhoneYou use all sorts of gestures to control the screens; they’re fairly easy to pick up.

YotaPhone excites me, mostly on the level of a concept phone that disrupts Android sameness with some real new hardware approaches and capabilities. YotaPhone may go nowhere, or may wind up being buggy or more trouble than it’s worth. But it’s an intriguing idea out of left field, and that’s refreshing.

The YotaPhone will sell at premium unlocked prices, arriving first in Russia in Q3 of 2013, before coming to other countries. Yota Devices is currently shopping the handset around to U.S. carriers, but has no announcements yet.

I’m also a little dubious of dual-screen phones, which have a habit of underdelivering or failing to capture users’ excitement. This little rogues’ gallery of dual-screen smartphones gone wrongwill jog your memory.

That said, it could work seamlessly. I’m still really looking forward to seeing the YotaPhone in person next week, and taking those double displays on a test ride.

The two sides to YotaPhone (pictures)

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