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Yota YotaPhone Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Always-on e-ink display

The Bad

  • Average performance
2

The YotaPhone is the debut phone from Yota Devices, the Russian-based mobile broadband and now mobile phone maker. 

Determined to make a mark, the Android-running YotaPhone launches with not one, but two screens – a typical colour LCD panel on the front and a monochrome e-ink panel on the back. 

The main selling point of the second screen is that you’ll be able to read ebooks, RSS feeds and check notifications on the go while not denting the battery as heavily as you would if you were using the regular screen. 

Conceptually, it’s brilliant. You can constantly keep updated with emails, Facebook messages and you’ll get more battery mileage to boot. No more lugging a spare charger around with you wherever you go. But are there more facets to this two-faced phone? What else does it have up its sleeve? Is it really worth £419? Let’s find out. 

YotaPhone Design: Second screen, sans buttons

At a first glance, the YotaPhone looks like a hybrid of Nexus 4 and Kindle Paperwhite that’s been artificially grown in a lab. That low-power display on the back is eye-catching, but that’s not the only attempt at wheel reinvention Yota Devices has made. 

For a start, the YotaPhone does away with the standard Android trio of buttons at the base of the main screen. Instead of having keys for home, back and apps, you action these commands by swiping and tapping on a touch-sensitive strip that sits beneath the screen. The only physical controls the YotaPhone actually has is a volume rocker and power button. 

It’s a bold move, launching a phone with no obvious way to control it. It recalls the anecdote about how Steve Jobs wanted the iPhone to be entirely button-free, but really doesn’t exhibit much of Apple’s magic. The absence of any buttons doesn’t really make the YotaPhone stand out from the pack either: it’s a fairly uniform-looking black phone. 

The convex back, which tapers down to 9.9mm from base to top, feels more like a design decision dictated by a desire to be different, rather than ergonomics. It makes the YotaPhone marginally less of a pocket monster but it doesn’t make it any more comfortable or easier to hold. 

In fact the YotaPhone is actually quite a cumbersome device to operate with one hand, compounded by the fact you have to swipe at base of the screen instead of tapping at buttons. It’s really not easy to sweep your thumb from the top left corner to bottom right. 

Sadly it doesn’t end there. The power button, housed in a unit which also contains the SIM tray, is also difficult to press at times, as it’s virtually flush with the rest of the phone. And rather oddly, the camera lens is housed at the base of the phone, instead of the top where you might expect it to be. This can lead to some accidental fingers covering the lens or the flash until you get accustomed to the bizarre configuration. 

YotaPhone Screens: LCD on the front, e-paper on the back

The main display of the YotaPhone is a 4.3-inch LCD panel that boasts a resolution of 1280×720 (720p HD). The screen is richly detailed, colours are vibrant and brightness levels are excellent. We were able to easily read texts and webpages in daylight, even though the reflective coating of the screen does tend to reflect sunlight (or the glare of office lights) back at you. 

However, the real talking point of the YotaPhone is its secondary screen, this one an e-ink panel like the Amazon Kindle’s display.  This low-power Kindle-style display lets you keep track of things like emails, social media updates, missed calls, messages and so on. And while the resolution isn’t as high as the main screen (640×360), the e-ink panel serves its purpose well enough – you can easily check notifications and read text on it. 

The main idea of having a secondary e-ink screen is that you can save battery power by not having to check the main screen every five minutes for updates. As such, it doesn’t have a backlight of its own, making it useless for reading at night. 

The YotaPhone is by no means the first phone to tout a second screen offering notifications – ye olde clamshells like the Sony Ericsson Z10i flip phone had them – but it’s the first phone of the touchscreen era to do so. 

Remember how we said that the back display is Kindle-esque? Well it just so happens that a key feature of the Yotaphone is that you can read ebooks on it too. But that’s not all – there’s several other uses for that second screen, which we’ll go into now. 

YotaPhone Apps: Ebooks, RSS, shopping lists

Seven apps that make the most of the e-ink panel come pre-installed on the YotaPhone. The best of these are the Internet Hub (an RSS reader), a notepad and Bookmate, an ebook reader. 

Internet Hub lets you sift through articles using the volume rocker to scroll up and down through articles. The notepad is useful for making shopping lists and pinging them to the e-ink screen, as opposed to the usual screen. Again using the rocker keys, you can sift through the lists and tick each item off as you go. 

Bookmate comes pre-loaded with a handful of free titles in English and Russian including War and Peace plus plenty of Sherlock Holmes adventures. Right now, there’s no way to buy any books in English, so unless you’re a fluent Russian speaker living in the UK, this will be of little interest. We understand that is changing, but in the meantime, you’ll also be able to import any ebooks you own in any format and Bookmate will be able to open them. 

It works well enough with the e-ink screen but we’d be more excited if Amazon updated its Kindle Android app with fully integrated YotaPhone support.  

Other apps that leverage the YotaPhone’s signature second screen include a calendar, one that lets you change the wallpaper, and TeachMe, a language app that comes with English-Russian, German-Russian and Spanish-Russian dictionaries. If you persevere with this, you could conceivably solve Bookmate’s linguistic hurdle. 

YotaPhone OS and User Interface: Chalk and cheese 

Much like the physical design, the YotaPhone simultaneously manages to be both new and different as well as old and familiar. 

The YotaPhone runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean and very little has been done to deviate from the default Android look and feel. If you’ve used an Android-based phone before it won’t take long to get to grips with the it. If you can persevere with the gesture-driven interface that is.   

As we said before, there’s no buttons here, just a touch-sensitive strip roughly a centimeter tall and the same width of the screen. To go back, swipe left. To jump to the home page, swipe right. To call up a list of apps that are running in the background, double tap in the middle of the strip. 

This takes a little time to get used to. More than once we found ourselves accidentally swiping left and right on the touchscreen of the phone itself. Luckily, the tutorial that you get taken through during set-up can be reviewed at any time, should you need a refresher. 

A really cool feature of the YotaPhone is how it takes screengrabs. On many phones you do this by holding down the power key and pressing another button. Here, you just drag two fingers down from the top of the screen and the YotaPhone will instantly take a snapshot of whatever is on your screen. 
Round on the back, you’ll employ similar gestures to dismiss notifications and flip through pages on ebooks on another touch-sensitive strip. 

It’s disappointing to learn than for a phone that costs £419, you don’t get the latest version of Google’s OS – 4.4 KitKat. Instead you’re stuck with 4.2 Jelly Bean. This will give you services like Google Now, but you won’t be able to do things like make apps go into fullscreen mode, take advantage of improved speech recognition and enjoy the other refinements that are available on much cheaper phones such as the Motorola Moto X.

While you don’t get bleeding-edge Android with the YotaPhone, you do get a slick operating system that benefits from key Google functions and services (Search, Maps, YouTube) and access to the all-important Google Play app store.

YotaPhone Performance: Ace battery, average performance

The YotaPhone isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but it doesn’t drag its heels either. It packs a dual-core 1.7GHz processor and 2GB of RAM, enough to confidently power through everyday tasks. The camera loads quickly, we had no problems browsing the web and thumbing through Twitter is a nippy as it needs to be.  

When playing heavy duty games or streaming HD video however, the YotaPhone struggled to handle everything smoothly. 

Compared to phones like the HTC One (M8), which seems to action every command with gusto and power, the YotaPhone doesn’t come close. Which would be fine, were the price for this thing not so high. 

Whatever you end up using your YotaPhone for, at least you can be confident that the battery will see you through the day. The official spec sheet doesn’t say how much talk and standby time you’d get out of the 1800mAh cell, but when during the time we’ve had the YotaPhone we’ve easily been able to get a day out of it, using various WiFi points, data turned on and using GPS with Google Maps. 

During this time it should be said that we used the YotaPhone as its creators intended – in other words, we eschewed the main screen in favour of the e-ink panel when it came to checking for notifications and the like. 

Storage-wise, you get 32GB of internal storage, of which roughly 28GB is available to play with. That’s a fair amount of free space, but sadly you can’t expand this as there’s no microSD card slot. If you’re planning to store a lot of pictures, video, music and apps on here, be prepared to regularly rearrange things. 

YotaPhone Camera: Lack of focus

The YotaPhone brings two cameras to the party – a 13-megapixel main camera and a 1-megapixel front-facer. 

The main camera is, as previously mentioned, oddly positioned at the bottom left of the phone, the opposite of where you’d expect it to be. As such, you’ll find the fingers covering the lens on more than one occasion when you first start using it. It also means that you can’t hold it in portrait position like you normally would on other phones, because your hand will be obscuring everything. 

While the YotaPhone loses points for having the camera in a dumb position, it makes up for it by being actually quite good. 

In bright, well-lit areas and outdoors, the YotaPhone delivers crisp, detailed images. Colour fidelity is impressive. The camera doesn’t focus quickly on its own, but it responds well when you tap to focus yourself. While there’s no physical camera button the blue virtual shutter key responds quickly. 

Dark and poorly-lit areas aren’t anywhere near as good however, while the single LED flash serves mainly to bathe everything in a slightly sickly, yellowy-green light. Similarly, the HDR mode can make colours look oversaturated, something which you sadly can’t mitigate by tweaking the settings. 

The front facing camera isn’t the best we’ve seen either. Vanity shots are okay, but it’s very noisy and like the main camera, performs poorly in dimly-lit locations. 

The YotaPhone records 1080p Full HD at 30fps which looks pretty good on the phone itself; even better on a monitor capable of displaying Full HD video. Again, focussing isn’t especially fast, meaning results vary. 

YotaPhone Verdict: A brave misfire

As much as we love what Yota Devices has gone for with the dual screen concept, the YotaPhone fails first and foremost at being a decent phone. 

It’s blocky, uncomfortable, hard to use and the specs are underwhelming considering the price. For the money Yota Devices want you to part with (£419) you might as well buy a Motorola Moto G (£130-£150) and a Kindle Paperwhite (£170). You’ll end up with a better phone and have a hundred quid left over. If you want a higher-end phone, you can get a SIM-only HTC One for around £360-£400. 

We love the idea of having a second e-ink screen on the back of a phone, given that poor battery life plagues virtually every modern phone out there.  The YotaPhone is a brave attempt to solve this 21st Century bugbear, but really fails to impress elsewhere. Hopefully follow up phone the YotaPhone 2, with its curved edges and (hopefully) good old-fashioned buttons, will win our hearts and minds.  

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