By Brandon Miniman | May 9, 2011 8:55 AM
The Kyocera Echo represents a first for the entire smartphone industry: it is the first dual-screened phone, which is pretty impressive considering that Kyocera isn’t exactly known for smartphones. It runs on Sprint’s 3G network and is capable of running certain apps in parallel, granting you an experience similar to what you’d get on a desktop computer with dual monitors. But does it make sense to have dual displays on a smartphone, or is this just a novelty? And how did Kyocera do with their first smartphone? In this full review, we’ll give you our answers!
The box that we received with the Echo was actually the press version, and a bit different than what consumers will get. Nevertheless, inside the box we found the second battery and external charger, a screen cleaner, USB sync cable, and no headphones.
Let’s talk about specifications. The Echo is running on Android 2.2 with a 1GHz single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU and 512MB RAM plus around 512MB of ROM. Included is an 8GB microSD card for extra storage. The dual display configuration is in the form of two 3.5″ WVGA displays. When put together, this creates a surface of 960×800 resolution and 4.7″ in total, giving it a near-tablet size and resolution. Inside you’ll find radios for 802.11 b/g, Bluetooth 2.1, and CDMA with EVDO Rev A. Unfortunately, the Echo cannot take advantage of Sprint’s 4G network. The device also has an accelerometer, a light sensor, and proximity sensor (which is buggy at times). Powering everything is a 1370mAh battery, but because two screens means double the battery drain, you get two batteries with the Echo.
The Kyocera Echo isn’t going to win any awards for beauty. It’s a squarish-looking device that lacks the refinement and fit and finish of an HTC or Samsung phone. The asymmetrical bezel configuration is done on purpose to minimize the size of the black bar when you flip open the phone into tablet mode. On both displays, there are the typical three Android buttons, with no dedicated Search key.
When you flip open the second screen, which requires two hands unless you don’t mind dropping the phone, you can either lay both screens flat, as seen here, or…
…position the screen at a tilt. This configuration is helpful when typing, but unfortunately the screen doesn’t lock in this position, causing it to tilt slightly if you try to interact with it.
If we flip over the device while the screen is in the tilted configuration, we can get a look at the hinge that makes the two screens possible. In our testing, we found the hinge to be very robust.
Here on the right side we can see just how thick the Echo is at a chunky 0.70″. Compared to other none-slate devices, like the Touch Pro 2 (0.66″) and the T-Mobile G2 (0.58″), the Echo is one of the thickest smartphones that you can buy. But hey–what other device has dual displays?
On the left side of the device, we have the external hot-swappable microSD slot, the standby button, volume up/down rocket, and the microUSB syncing and charging port.
Here on the top we can get an interesting view of the hinge. What’s nice about the boxy shape of the device is that you can rest it on a table top on any edge and have it stay propped up.
Flipping over to the back, we see the modest Kyocera branding etched into the plastic battery cover. You’ll see the 5MP to the right, which can do 720p HD video recording. Near the camera is an LED flash, plus a self-portrait mirror.
Removing the back battery cover we can see the 1370mAh battery.
Despite the browser being buggy at times and lacking multi-touch, it’s truly amazing to be able to see two websites or two apps at the same time on your smartphone! While there aren’t many scenarios where looking at two web pages at once on your phone would be beneficial, it’s a neat party trick. More about how the dual-screen configuration works below.
Before we talk about how the two screens operate together, some notes on software. The Echo is running Android 2.2. We have yet to hear from Kyocera on whether there will be an update to Android 2.3.
Kyocera has done very little to differentiate the Echo in terms of software, because they probably devoted most of their resources into getting the dual-screen software working right. What you get out of the box is the default Froyo launcher, but your favorite third-party launcher will work on the Echo, even on both screens. There are no added Kyocera widgets or Kyocera-branded applications except for the Tablet Mode Extension, which is required to get third party apps to work across both displays, and it is available for free in the Android market. You’ll find a handful of Sprint apps, though, like Sprint Zone, Sprint Football, Sprint TV, and others.
There are no tablet-specific settings. One thing you’ll want to keep on is automatic screen brightness. This makes the screen a bit too dim, but it’s your only option if you want to last through the day without a charge.
HOW ANDROID WORKS WITH TWO SCREENS
Android wasn’t made to support two screens. In fact, Kyocera had to rebuild certain apps from the ground-up so that they could be used in parallel with one-another. These apps are called Simul-task apps, and they can literally be run at the same time: you can watch a YouTube video while checking email; you can look at two web pages at the same time; you can use the phone dialer while looking at your photo gallery; you can respond to a text message while checking sport scores on the net. The use case scenarios are pretty vast, although most people don’t have a problem with doing one thing at a time on a traditional single-screen smartphone.
Essentially, you can operate the Echo in two modes (if you don’t count single-screen operation, which is the most obvious):
Tablet mode: As long as you have the Tablet Mode Extension downloaded, the Echo will scale most third party apps across both screens. Much like the Galaxy Tab, you’ll find that text looks sharp when an app is stretched across the full resolution because text is rendered at the operating system level, but some graphics look pixelated. Most apps we tried worked fantastically in tablet mode, granting more screen real estate to see more of the app: Twitter, Facebook, Weather Channel, and Angry Birds all worked great in Tablet Mode. Some apps don’t work, like New York Times and SpeedTest.net. These apps sort of “hover” between the two screens. In such cases, it’s best to go back into single-screen mode.
Simul-task mode: This is where the magic happens. Kyocera has re-tuned seven apps (mail, web, gallery, phone, SMS, contacts, and VueQue) to be able to work in parallel. These apps are differentiated by their icons: each has a little blue dot in the bottom right corner. Beyond these seven apps, no other apps can run simultaneously. Kyocera has made an SDK so that other developers can take advantage of the Simul-task technology, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see many apps from developers since the Echo is a new device, and an experimental one at that.
To enter the Simul-task menu, you press a finger on each screen at the same time while both screens are open. From here, you can specify if you want to launch a new app, swap the apps, or stretch a Simul-task app to both displays. Because of this gesture, none of the Simul-task apps work with multi-touch, which is a shame.
The Simul-task apps can operate on one screen (with another Simul-task app on the other) or on two screens. Let’s break down the behavior of each Simul-task app when you use it with both screens:
1. Email. Stretching email across both screens will put your inbox on one screen and the message preview on the other. This is a great way to arbitrage your email efficiently.
2. Web. Scretching web across both screens means that you’ll have a full screen view of the webpage on 960×800 pixels. Yes, you’ll have a black bar between the displays, but that’s not so bad once you get used to it.
3. Gallery. In this app you can have the camera viewfinder on the top screen with your last image taken on the bottom. Or, if in the gallery, you’ll see thumbnails of your images on one screen, with the selected image on the other.
4. SMS. This app works exactly like Email: on both displays, on screen has your index, while the other screen has the selected message.
5. Phone. Stretching phone across both displays doesn’t enhance functionality, it just makes everything bigger, oddly.
6. Contacts. Going into contacts will just take you to the contacts tab of the phone application.
7. VueQue. This is a great app. Essentially a modified version of the Android YouTube player, VueQue lets you watch a YouTube video on one display, while queuing up more videos to watch on the second screen. It’s great for those that like to watch a lot of YouTube.
Photo quality taken with the 5MP camera of the Kyocera Echo was quite good. While the autofocus was a bit slow, and the shutter speed was way low, the resulting images were clear and crisp with good color. The camera app, when used in two-screen mode, shows the camera viewfinder on one screen with the last-taken image on the other.
Oddly, there’s no way to change the video recording resolution; you can only record in 720p. Video recording was also quite good, with clear audio and decently-saturated colors.
Day-to-day performance of the Echo was satisfactory. Apps open relatively quickly and gaming is smooth. But as you can see in the below benchmarks, the Echo isn’t a high-achiever. Not only that, but at times the device becomes slow and unstable when you’re trying to do a lot at once, like look at two graphic-intensive websites side-by-side.
Smartbench 2011: Productivity 1215, 899 Games
LinPack Pro: 32.79 MFLOP, 2.56 Seconds
CALL QUALITY/NETWORK SPEED
Over Sprint’s network, the Kyocera Echo provided fantastic call clarity with no dropped calls. In terms of data speed over Sprint’s EVDO Rev-A network, we clocked about 800kbps down and 600kbps up on average, which is pretty typical for Sprint’s 3G network.
Does two times the screens mean two times the battery drain? If you turn off automatic screen brightness, it does. It you leave automatic screen brightness on, you’ll get through until dinner before needing a recharge with heavy usage. With medium-light usage, you’ll get through an entire day before needing a recharge. Since the Echo comes with two batteries, battery life becomes less of an issue, but most people don’t want to deal with keeping a second battery charged and ready.
PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY
The Kyocera Echo can be had for $199.99 on Sprint.
+ Software that enables dual-screen use is well thought out
+ Photo and video quality is above-average
+ Comes with two batteries
+ Easy text entry with a full screen devoted to the on-screen keyboard
+ Terrific speakerphone
+ Boxy shape allows you to rest phone on any side
- Device is thick, heavy, and ugly
- Significant shutter lag in camera
- No 4G
- Unstable and buggy at times
- Screen becomes black when viewed with polarized sunglasses
- Simul-task apps, like browser, don’t work with multi-touch
- Runs last-generation Android 2.2
- Awkward/impossible to use with one hand (in dual-screen mode)
- Proximity sensor is buggy
- Battery life is below average with heavy use of both displays
The million dollar question is: Are two screens better than one? The answer, in the form of the Kyocera Echo, is no. While the idea is interesting, and while it’s true that studies have been done to prove that in the case of desktop computing, two displays are better than one, we can’t make the same argument for smartphones. At least, not yet. There just weren’t many situations while testing the Echo, where we thought “Gee whiz, doing
The Echo is a prime example of a novel idea, but a poor execution. The device is ugly, thick, and heavy, and it feels underpowered. We’d love to see a company with more hardware experience, like Samsung or HTC, come to the table with their version of a dual-screened smartphone. With more power, a bigger focus on fit-and-finish, and maybe even a next-generation screen technology that would allow more versatility in design (we’re thinking flexible AMOLED), we might finally have a reason to declare that two screens are better than one in a smartphone.
We rate the Kyocera Echo a 2.5/5.