YotaPhone: Worth a Second Look

The Two-Sided Device Heads to the US

YotaPhone2_lFrom cameras to hand-held games consoles, dual-screen devices come along every once in a while — some with real purpose, others as technology demos. There have been several new implementations in handsets throughout the years, and one of the most interesting has come from Russian Yota Devices.

Yota’s Android-based YotaPhone has a five-inch touch-screen AMOLED display on one side and a 4.7-inch touch-screen electronic paper display on the other. It’s on its second generation, and is beginning to grab the media’s attention in a growing number of countries.

Yota has begun an Indiegogo campaign to bring the YotaPhone 2 to the US. It almost immediately reached its $50,000 goal then quickly surpassed $115,000, indicating volumes of about 220 units. It’s a start.

The smartphone is distinctive in an age of homogenous Android devices, and we suspect that many early supporters are willing to pay up for its unique features alone. But this is more than a two-faced circus act. CCS Insight has had some hands-on time with Yota’s devices, and recognised some clear and clever uses for a power-efficient e-ink display in addition to a standard colour screen (see our video from Mobile World Congress 2013). We’ve briefly tried the YotaPhone2 several times, and believe it’s a significant step forward from the original device.

Yota provides a software development kit for the creation of Android apps optimised for the touch-screen e-ink display interface. Apps and services like Twitter feeds, maps and weather that can make do with a greyscale experience could fair well here. We expect that it will also make a great reading screen, in a similar way to Amazon’s Kindle devices.

However, Yota faces challenges. The company’s small volumes will make it very difficult to create broad support among developers, and the phone is coming to market for an unsubsidised price of $525 at the same time as many quality unlocked phones are being introduced in the US. The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3, for example, has comparable specs but is available at less than half the cost. Extending battery life is important, but the e-ink display has more than a marginal effect on the bill of materials at current production rates.

There’s little doubt the smartphone market could use a design refresh. Yota has introduced one of the few devices that manages to be both useful and unique, and it’s something to follow as the YotaPhone hits more markets. It’s a niche, but shows possibilities.

The Yota device isn’t the first to use e-paper (Motorola launched such a phone almost 10 years ago), but the Russian company is taking the feature to a new level. Here, e-ink is used to create something distinctive and practical. The always-on ability of the screen can provide users with a feed of information without the need to unlock their device, and the ability to create e-ink wallpapers provides infinite device customization. It’s worth noting that a growing number of e-ink cases like the PopSlate and Oaxis InkCase are emerging for iPhones and Android devices. Huawei recently announced an e-ink shell for its new P8 flagship smartphone, and Alcatel OneTouch showcased a similar solution for its Hero phone. These aren’t as refined as Yota’s offering, but demonstrate a growing interest in how the technology can be used.

E-ink displays are finding a home in e-readers and watches, but Yota has shown the potential of the component as an exciting way to complement the standardized smartphone experience. It’s a development worth following. Competitors shouldn’t fall behind.

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