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Yota YotaPhone 2 Review: In Depth

4
We love that Yota has the balls to do something different...

The Good

  • Vastly improved rear screen
  • Prolonged battery life
  • Capable camera

The Bad

  • Second screen can be fiddly/glitchy

We review the Yota YotaPhone 2, a unique and innovative smartphone with a second e-ink display that corrects a lot of problems with the clunky original.

One of the biggest disappointments with the original YotaPhone was also its unique and most interesting feature - the secondary screen housed on the back, using the same e-ink technology as Kindle ereaders.

While promising to extend your phone’s battery life with a much lower drain, it was also a complete bastard to use, thanks to the lack of touch support. Thankfully Yota listened to our complaints and it’s back with an all-new sequel, the YotaPhone 2, which now rocks a touch-sensitive second screen and a host of other brand new features.

Design

For a start, we’re really impressed by the sleek and slender design of the YotaPhone 2. It’s incredible that a dual-screen device can be so slim, not to mention just 145g, while the attractive Nexus-like finish lends a serious visual appeal to the device.

The minimalist design stretches to the edges, which are clutter-free. Aside from a power and volume rocker on the right edge, and a headphone jack up top, there’s nothing along the sides except for rubber bumper. You can’t prise open the YotaPhone 2, but ingeniously the SIM card slot has been built into the volume rocker, to keep everything tidy.

We’re also confident that the YotaPhone 2 is rugged enough to survive a reasonable amount of everyday abuse. The plastic frame feels suitably solid and you’ll find Gorilla Glass 2 covering both screens, including that rear display which is gently curved. That curving means the phone is still comfortable to clutch, despite the dual screen setup.

AMOLED display

The main 5-inch AMOLED panel is stiff competition for the slew of flagship phones, with their super-crisp and colourful screens. For a start it’s Full HD (441 pixels-per-inch), producing images so crisp that even excessive squinting won’t help you to pick out individual pixels. Colours are quite bold, but photos also look pleasingly natural; the YotaPhone 2 doesn’t quite reach Galaxy S5 levels of epic vibrancy.

On top brightness, the screen isn’t quite as eye-gouging as we’d like, but it can still cancel out a fair bit of irritating glare. And viewing angles are wide enough for more than one person to watch a video.

E-ink display

That rear screen on the original YotaPhone was a great idea, but executed terribly. The fact that it wasn’t a touch-sensitive panel made it more awkward than a Sunday sermon in a brothel, while the limited number of supported apps seriously impacted the whole point of it. Thankfully both issues have been corrected in the YotaPhone 2, which now rocks a touch-sensitive rear screen that supports all Android apps.

There are two ways to swap to the secondary 4.7-inch screen. Firstly, you can just turn off the main screen and then flip over the YotaPhone 2. You’ll notice that the rear screen stays on constantly, usually displaying photos from your phone’s storage or your Facebook/Instagram account. Drag your finger up from the base of the screen and the screen unlocks, giving you access to your Yota Panels (more on these in a sec).

Alternatively, you can activate mirror mode from the main screen by dragging a finger up from the base of the display. You’ll be instructed to flip the YotaPhone 2 over, at which point your app is thrown straight over to the second display. This means that you can use any app on the e-ink display, not just native ones.

Of course, this 960x540 second screen isn’t designed for any app involving constant screen refreshes, as that’ll suck as much power as the main screen, which kind of defeats the point. Rather, you’re supposed to use the e-ink screen to check emails, read ebooks, listen to music and other tasks that need only the occasional refresh. If you’ve tried browsing the web on a Kindle device, you’ll know that it’s quite an unresponsive, awkward experience, akin to playing a game of chess with a cocker spaniel. The same is true with the YotaPhone 2’s e-ink effort, so limiting yourself to the simple things is best to keep a safe blood pressure level.

You can set up the rear screen's hibernation state, to display your favourite photos from online or your phone's storage

The rear screen isn’t backlit either, which means at night time and in dingy locations you’ll have to stick with the main screen anyway. And at this early stage we did notice a couple of little glitches when using the rear display, but they were quickly sorted with a double-tap of the power button and should be ironed out entirely by software updates.

The e-ink screen has its own version of desktops called ‘Yota Panels’, which can be set up however you like. You can have a maximum of four at any time, populated by a number of widgets including calendars, app shortcuts, popular contacts and so on. However, we were disappointed to see that you can only set up three app shortcuts at any time, meaning you’ll need to use mirror mode for the rest of your apps.

Some examples of the Yota Panel desktops you can set up

Notification pop-ups on the second screen are also useless, as they simply instruct you to turn on the main screen. We’re not really sure why, as that rear screen works perfectly fine for Gmail and the like. Your best bet is to just add widgets for your email etc instead.

With those negative points out of the way, we were still happy to use the e-ink screen for simple tasks. It’s responsive enough to bash out an email at a decent typing speed, which works surprisingly well. We also found it perfectly fine for instant messaging, texting, checking our calendar and so on, while readers and Feedly fans should enjoy taking in a novel or the latest headlines on the glare-free panel.

It’s good to see there’s still a small selection of native apps that are specially designed for the second screen, including the easy-to-use YotaRSS, which streams news direct from your Feedly account (also works fine without), plus a couple of simple games such as chess and Sudoku. Expect a handful of developers to come up with more specialised apps soon, as Yota has released its SDK out into the wild. For instance, Mantana, a Kindle Store competitor that offers ePub files DRM-free, should be making an appearance soon (and the existing Kindle app works fine).

Other features

The YotaPhone 2 packs 32GB of storage, but there’s no microSD card to expand, just like Google’s Nexus 6. No biggie, as 32GB is still enough for plenty of music, video and apps, although you’ll have to do some memory management if you want to carry a decent stash of goodies around.

As for the usual features, the YotaPhone 2 thankfully packs 4G and NFC as you’d expect. However, it’s currently sat on Android KitKat and Lollipop is likely to be a lengthy wait, as there’s lots of back-end work to be done first. That means you’ll have to hang on for multiple user support, bluetooth unlocking and so on.

Performance and battery life

A Snapdragon 800 processor is backed up by 2GB of RAM, and we didn’t notice the YotaPhone 2 struggling with anything we threw its way. It’s a shame that a more modern chip such as the Snapdragon 805 didn’t make it into the mobile, especially given the premium cost, but we’d expect the YotaPhone 2 to last the life of a contract.

A 2,500mAh battery is a serious step down from most flagship phones, which these days often pack a cell over 3,000mAh, but space inside the YotaPhone 2 was obviously at a premium thanks to those dual displays. Of course, that secondary e-ink screen is supposed to limit how much you use the power-sapping main display, thus preserving battery life - so how does that affect the YotaPhone’s longevity in the real world?

Well, first off, if you completely ignore the second screen, you can still expect a day of use between charges. And if you stream video non-stop, you’ll get over six hours of life, which is a little better than average for a premium phone.

Using the second screen to check emails and messages, as well as catch up on the news via RSS, we found had a seriously positive impact on battery life. We only turned on the main screen for the occasional bit of web browsing and to use the camera, and we easily got a full weekend of use on one charge.

If that’s not good enough, then Yota’s Energy app is a surprisingly in-depth power saving feature that allows you to toggle all kinds of power-draining features, not just the usual Wi-fi, Bluetooth and so on. For instance, you can limit CPU frequency, ditch 3G for 2G, disable account syncing and plenty more besides. It can automatically activate when you drop below a set percentage level, and we found it helped to stretch out the final 10% of battery life by another hour or two, handy in a pinch.

Camera

An 8-megapixel rear camera proves just as premium as the YotaPhone 2’s price, producing gloriously crisp photos that pack in an incredible amount of detail. We did struggle occasionally to get the lens to focus on close-up subjects, but when it finally played ball, we were impressed by the results. The lens thankfully copes well with dark conditions, making sure that your snaps aren’t murky messes.

You also get a 2.1-megapixel front facing camera for video chats, but you won’t need to use that for selfie snaps thanks to that rear screen. Just aim the 8-megapixel front camera at your face and you’ll see the shot appear on the second screen, so you can line it up just right before you take the photo. It’s a simple idea and obvious when you think about it, working very well in practice.

Verdict

We love that Yota has the balls to elbow its way into a crowded smartphone market and do something completely different, with the YotaPhone 2’s innovative second display. But does the e-ink screen make enough impact to the overall experience to justify its presence?

Well, just about. Some of this year’s big flagship phones such as the LG G3 and the Xperia Z3 comfortably make it through a day and a half on each battery charge, but the YotaPhone 2 can basically double that if you’re restrained enough. And if you already use your mobile to read books or constantly stay up-to-date with the latest headlines, then that secondary panel is going to be all the more enticing.

Of course, the YotaPhone 2 isn’t cheap. At £555 or 700 Euros it’s as expensive as the very best flagship phones, which could be a hard sell for something that’s so different. We’d suggest having a play before throwing your cash down, to make sure this funky mobile is right for you.

Key Specs

  • 5-inch (front), 4.7-inch (rear)
  • 442ppi (front), 235ppi (rear)
  • 145g
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 8-megapixel
  • 2.1-megapixel
  • Snapdragon 800
  • 2GB
  • 32GB. Non-expandable
  • Yes
  • Rear e-ink screen

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