YotaPhone 2 review: this is what the Fire Phone should have been
If you’re like me, the first thing you think of when you see an E-Paper display is an e-reader like the Kindle Paperwhite. While Yota Devices definitely had that use case in mind when it designed the original dual-screen YotaPhone, its sequel is no one-trick pony. With benefits ranging from extended battery life to always-on widgets to virtually unlimited customization, the YotaPhone 2’s second screen brings something we’ve been craving –innovation– and actually makes something useful out of it. As the saying goes: “new minds, fresh ideas.”
But there’s another saying too: “the more they overtake the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” There are some very real compromises involved in cramming dual displays into a very thin handheld, so how well has Yota Devices walked the line between innovation and practicality? And is the two-faced smartphone the phone for you? Find out in our YotaPhone 2 review!
YotaPhone 2 Review Video
Hardware & Displays
The most striking thing about the YotaPhone 2 is just how normal it seems at first. Despite its unique dual-screen arrangement, it’s actually a very comfortable, conventional-looking smartphone: just under 9mm thick, massing 145g, and made of dark gray glass-reinforced plastic with a smooth matte finish. There’s hardly a sharp angle to be found on the hardware, the top and bottom edges defined by pronounced curves that recall the Nexus 4 or Nexus S – but it’s at once narrower and sleeker than either, making it very easy to use one-handed. Branding is confined to a small lower-back tattoo. Casing penetrations are limited and logically grouped, with the speakers sharing a bay with the USB port and the volume rocker doubling as a SIM tray. Probably the best word for the YotaPhone 2 hardware is “understated.”
Despite being the less interesting of the two, the primary display is definitely the better-specced. It’s a 5-inch 1080p panel, with a 442 pixels for every inch and the pronounced contrasts and deep blacks we’re used to seeing from AMOLED technology – though it’s perhaps not as flamboyant as some of Samsung’s prettier efforts. Since the YotaPhone 2’s design dates back to the beginning of 2014, the cover glass here is Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 rather than the new fourth-generation material – a fact borne out by the hairline scratches already starting to show up on our unit at the one-week mark thanks to some hard drops and scrapes.
To see what really sets the new YotaPhone apart, you’ve got to turn to the back – except there is no back; there’s just another front. The secondary display is also protected by Gorilla Glass 3, but there the commonalities end. The finish is matte instead of gloss, lending it a satiny feel, and the screen beneath trades organic pixels for an E-Paper Display (EPD). At 4.7 inches and 960×540/235ppi, the EPD is both smaller and lower-res than the front panel, and instead of 16 million colors, it offers just 16 shades of gray. It doesn’t have a backlight, it’s flanked by very wide bezels, and like most E-Paper screens it also has a fairly low refresh rate.
In exchange for these sacrifices, you get one thing mobile mavens have craved since the first smartphone rolled off the assembly line: battery life. Yota says the EPD offers up to seven times more power efficiency than the main display, good for 100 hours of reading. And if you’re not the type to devour whole books in a single sitting, you’ll still find uses for the EPD: Yota quotes 18 hours of battery life in GPS navigation mode when using it. Don’t drive much? No problem; almost anything you can do on the front side, you can do on the back. All it takes is a flick of the thumb to activate YotaMirror, which will toss the entire interface from front to back as soon as you turn the phone over in your hands.
Naturally, using stock Android on a screen with a low refresh rate and only 16 levels of grayscale gets frustrating pretty quickly; fortunately Yota thought of this and provided software specifically designed for the EPD. “YotaPanel” offers streamlined widgets for simple functions like telling the time, checking the weather, listing recent notifications and so on – and because the E-Paper Display only uses power when changing states, you don’t need to worry about it timing out like every other smartphone. Instead, you’re free to leave the screen on all day long as a glance-and-go calendar/clock without burning power (which makes us feel like we’re getting away with something).
The only thing more frugal than a seldom-changing screen is one which is entirely static, and that’s where “YotaCover” comes into play: you can throw any graphic you want on the EPD to decorate it as you see fit, whether that’s an image downloaded from the web, a photo you’ve snapped yourself, or images synced from your Facebook or Instagram galleries (YotaCover provides tools for both). When notifications come in, they’re announced with a variety of eye-catching animations. Locking and unlocking the rear display is accomplished via the same button as the front one. And if you’d rather post something useful in place of a logo or pattern, a flick of the thumb will imprint a screenshot of whatever’s on the AMOLED onto the EPD – handy for movie passes, train tickets, or QR badges.
Yota’s use of this extra canvas is very creative, and in a field that can so often seem stagnant, it’s also very refreshing. Even in the most conventional E-Paper application –reading books– it excels: We devoured an entire novel on the YotaPhone’s EPD in a single day, on a single charge, and it was the most comfortable reading experience we’d ever had on a smartphone. Also, the company’s restraint is commendable here: despite all the custom code required to run the aft display, there’s precious little bloat on the “normal” side of the phone: from a UI perspective, it’s as close to stock Android as you can get without buying a Nexus.
That’s not to say there aren’t rough spots. The custom software that powers the EPD is both inconsistent and unintuitive at points, and responsiveness on the back panel is often laughably slow. The YotaPhone 2 is a bad phone for keeping secrets, too: several times we’ve taken voice calls without realizing that an old webpage or calendar reminder was still plastered on the rear display, so busybody passersby could easily see our next calendar appointment, or the name of the last person to send us a text message. Also, the YotaCover seems to flicker when refreshing notifications, which makes for an annoying desktop companion at times. And all this customization is bound to slow down the Android update process: our review device is stuck on version 4.4.3, with no firm timetable for a Lollipop update at press time.
The YotaPhone 2’s camera isn’t bad – but it’s also nothing special. Here again we see the age of the phone’s design poking through; without a single standout feature, the 8MP sensor with its puny single-LED flash and lack of optical stabilization seems a bit weak for a high-end Android phone in 2015. There’s no special software to speak of; the Google Camera app is the viewfinder Yota went with, and it’s fine.
Bright indoor lighting and daytime photos are also just fine; they’re fairly authentic and sharp enough, assuming you can get the viewfinder to focus properly (autofocus is a little on the slow side). Low-light shots are prone to significant noise and color accuracy problems, but for what it’s worth, we’ve seen worse.
Any distinction here comes courtesy of the YotaPhone’s most standout feature: the EPD. Pressing the rear panel into service as a viewfinder means you can use the primary camera and its LED flash for selfies, rather than the flash-less 2.1MP shooter up front. It’s a little tougher to frame a shot on the EPD due to the low contrast and lack of a backlight, but so few phones offer the ability to easily take a primary-camera selfie that we can’t call this anything but a win.
For all its innovation, the YotaPhone 2 is sadly somewhat uneven when it comes to the basics. While its 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, backed up by 2GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC storage, is plenty capable of running 3D games and delivering a slick stock Android experience, there’s one major failing: the keyboard. It’s impossible for us to type at high speed on the YotaPhone 2. No matter what keyboard we install (stock, Swiftkey, Swype) or what screen we’re typing on (AMOLED or EPD), the phone can’t keep up. Spaces appear where they shouldn’t or refuse to appear where they should, causing the text prediction software to generate string after string of nonsense. If you’re a slower-than-average typist, or you don’t use predictive text, or you force a slower typing speed by only typing in landscape, you’ll probably be fine … but it’s frustrating that amid all the innovation of the YotaPhone 2, something as fundamental as the keyboard has such an irritating flaw. (We’ve reached out to Yota Devices for comment and will update this review if and when the company offers it.)
Speaking of fundamentals, voice quality is also just okay: we tested the YotaPhone 2 on AT&T over seven days in the Greater Boston area, and while clarity was fine, we almost always wanted the earpiece to be louder. Same goes for the speakerphone and the earbuds – but kudos to Yota for including those in the box. Reception seems on-par with the competition, but keep in mind that LTE support on this European-market device is confined to bands 3, 7, and 20, so we were confined to HSPA and WiFi for the duration of our testing.
The high point of the YotaPhone 2 experience, from a day-to-day standpoint, is battery life – assuming you use the EPD to its full effect. If you totally ignore the backside and just use it as a typical Android smartphone, you can expect about 4 hours of screen-on time with moderate use, or a bit more if you activate the YotaEnergy saver and its extensive suite of power-saving measures. For a device with a full-HD screen and a 2500 mAh battery, that’s pretty typical stamina. Make the most of the E-Paper, though, and you can expect truly excellent endurance: after switching to the EPD for browsing, tweeting, and reading, we were able to hit almost 8 hours of screen-on time after 15 hours off the charger – with 20% battery left to spare. And when the time came to recharge, we didn’t have to fiddle with cords: the YotaPhone 2 packs Qi wireless charging, so we threw it on our Aukey Luna and let it charge up via induction like the futuristic device it is.
+ Best daylight reading experience of any smartphone
+ Exceptional battery life using rear display
+ Smooth, comfortable, well-made hardware
+ EPD makes an entirely new user experience possible
– Falls short in some basic areas like keyboard responsiveness
– Older hardware for a flagship-class device
– Older software with no defined upgrade schedule
– Relatively expensive
Pricing and Availability
According to rumor, the YotaPhone 2 is due for an official US carrier announcement any day now – but at press time, American buyers looking to snap one up were still required to import the UK model at a price of £555.00. That’s about $840 American, a steep price when you consider that an unlocked Moto X and a Kindle Paperwhite would run you just $620 … and you’d be able to read in the dark with either.
The YotaPhone is available directly from Yota Devices here.
So we come back to the question that started us off: is “the two-faced smartphone” the phone for you? And for most people, up to and including hardcore phone geeks, the answer will probably be no. Sure, the YotaPhone 2’s battery life is very impressive, but it demands that you use Android on E-Paper to achieve that. Then there’s the dated hardware – the Snapdragon 800 is great for now, but its age will start to show as 64-bit SoCs become standard on flagships over the coming year. Most damning, there are just too many cheaper smartphones on the market that are more practical and more consistent. Like the Fire Phone before it, the problem with the YotaPhone isn’t the YotaPhone; it’s the price its maker is asking.
But in a very important respect, the YotaPhone 2 succeeds where Amazon’s ill-fated effort didn’t: it’s an unparalleled reading companion. If the Fire Phone had adopted this design, its legacy might have been a very different one indeed. For someone who loves reading, someone who always juggles their smartphone with their Kindle, Nook or Kobo, the YotaPhone 2 is the best combination since Percy and Mary Shelley. That’s a narrow category of customer –certainly narrower than Yota is gunning for– but it’s the only one likely to make the most of this very special device.
With the YotaPhone 2, Yota Devices proves it’s capable of growing a mildly intriguing concept into a compelling and useful product. That makes us very excited for the next generation … and very hopeful for a price cut in the meantime.