What is the YotaPhone?

The YotaPhone is a 4.3-inch Android smartphone with a difference. Up front it has an LCD display and when you turn it around it has an e-ink display a bit like the one you'd find on an eReader like the Amazon Kindle.

If you are wondering what the beneifts are of having two screens, the Russian manufacturer behind the YotaPhone believes the two-screen _phone_ will help improve overall battery life by transferring tasks like reading and viewing notifications to the less power-consuming e-ink screen - e-ink displays only consume power when changing image.

While it's a refreshing to see a company outside the likes of Apple, Samsung and HTC try to do something really different, it's disappointing that the YotaPhone doesn't deliver despite all of its innovative promise.

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YotaPhone: Design

Two screens aside, the YotaPhone is a pretty plain-looking handset. It's all black with a matte bezel on the e-ink side and a more glossy finish surrounding the LCD display. The bezels below the screens are noticeably thicker to accommodate the gesture-based controls, so there’s no physical or capacitive buttons to press here.

The chassis is not the slimmest, though far from thick either. Measuring in at 9.9mm it's a smidgen thicker than the HTC One but slimmer than the Motorola Moto G, the latter of which is roughly the same weight - the YotaPhone weighs 146g. It’s a bizarre wedge of a handset as well where the thicker edge is actually at the top of the phone when you'd expect it to be at the bottom, with a gentle slope on the e-ink side of the phone.

Looking around the phone, the headphone jack sits up top alongside the microSIM card slot which also doubles as the on/off button. Over on the left is the volume rocker with the microUSB charging port on the bottom of the device. Sadly, there’s no microSD card slot to expand on the 32GB storage, something we know many phone users crave.

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The most peculiar design decision is the positioning of the camera sensor. It sits on the back in the bottom right hand corner. Clearly this has been done to make room for the extra display and the gesture-based surface below. The problem is, when it comes to taking a photo your fingers will naturally cover the sensor so you’ll need to flip it around for portrait mode shots.

Despite some of its flaws, the YotaPhone is reassuring to hold and the e-ink surface doesn't feel uncomfortable resting on the palm of your hand. When you consider that this is a phone that costs over £400 though, the direct 4.3-inch screen comparisons are the Sony Z1 Compact, which offers impressive build quality and waterproofing, and a number of cheaper options such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, HTC One Mini and the substantially cheaper Moto G. The latter in particular shows that you can make a high quality phone on the cheap and the YotaPhone in comparison is dull and uninspiring. With such an interesting concept it’s a shame that Yota didn’t decide to give it all an equally nice-looking home.

YotaPhone: Screen Quality

Up front, the YotaPhone has a 720p HD screen so it doesn’t match the likes of the Full HD screen-toting Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One. When you consider that cheaper phones have similar quality screens, it's not leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. It’s a solid performer, just not the best you'll see.

Despite its lower specification, the 4.3-inch display squeezes in 341 pixels per inch which does give it a higher ppi count than the iPhone 5S and the Moto G and ensures text and images are nice and sharp. Overall brightness is good and colours are on the whole accurate although can look muted in places. It definitely lacks the punch and vividness of the S4 or the Xperia Z1 Compact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include IPS display technology so viewing angles are not particularly great and it does suffer from glare outdoors.

That of course is where the e-ink display comes into play. The 4.3-inch e-ink display has a 640 x 360 resolution, which when compared to the Kindle Paperwhite that has a 1,024 x 768 resolution E-ink screen, doesn’t sound too impressive. The Paperwhite has a larger 6-inch screen of but the resolution for the YotaPhone doesn't exactly make good reading.

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The contrast ratio - essentially the difference between the brightest and darkest elements - is not particularly fantastic leaving font looking grey and far from sharp. There's no integrated light so viewing in the dark is a problem and it suffers from ghosting, whereby the image doesn't fully change, leaving behind faded impressions of what came before. It does work well outdoors, but considering this is the YotaPhone's key feature it's riddled with issues.

Our biggest concern with the e-ink screen, though, is the fact you can't write or type on it. It's almost the first thing you'll attempt to do and instantly be disappointed that you can't. It is as least being addressed with the second generation YotaPhone 2, but this certainly limits the first generation YotaPhone's powers.

YotaPhone: Software

The YotaPhone runs on Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean so it’s a little behind the latest Android 4.4 KitKat update. It is at least a relatively untouched vanilla version of Jelly Bean so you can still expect a clean, slick-looking operating system. There’s access to Google Play and you'll find the settings menus and key characteristics like notification bar are just as you’d expect to find on a standard Android Jelly Bean smartphone.

The quirks come courtesy of the gesture-based controls. The touch zone is situated below both screens but controls are not consistent across both. On the front you can swipe left to go back a screen and swipe once more to go back to the homescreen. Double-tapping in the middle of the surface brings up multitasking, and swiping two fingers down from the top of the screen sends a screengrab to the back of the e-ink display. Around the back, you can simply swipe right or left to skip through pages of an eBook for instance.

Finding the sweet spot is often very difficult and it's all too easy to miss the gesture altogether. We've lost count of the amount of time we spent trying to swipe two fingers on the screen only to pull down the Android notification bar instead.



YotaPhone: Apps

The YotaPhone, along with the usual Google suspects like Gmail and Google Play Video also includes nine YotaPhone optimized apps that live in their own drawer in the app launcher. They are easy to spot thanks to their black and white coloured app icons (apart from the MapsWithMe and OfficeSuite applications). They are a definitely a mixed bag in terms of their usefulness and some are still built for Russian users and have not been optimized for English-speaking users.

Bookmate is the dedicated ereader app made up of a free service and a cloud based subscription service. Currently it’s only available in Russia and the free books include a handful of classics including HG Wells’ Time Machine. An icon at the top of the interface lets you quickly send the ebook to the back screen without gesture swiping and you’ll be able to skip through pages on the e-ink side.

Internet Hub focuses on sending social network streams like Facebook or Twitter and RSS feeds to the back. It can be set up to launch alerts in the morning giving you a quick overview before turning on the phone. For Twitter this works nicely and lets you sift through three pages of tweets although you obviously can’t click to open them.

YotaPhone photo samples


Additionally, there’s a pretty basic notepad app, the language learning TeachMe, a Tutorial to help become more familiar with the phone’s gestures and a really nice Wallpaper mode. Here you can use existing photos or download some directly from Facebook for example and give them the black and white treatment.

The apps work well but at the same time are limiting and not the full package, especially the Ereader application. There are some good ideas in there like sending notifications to the back but it lacks one really killer app that would convince you to swap LCD for E-ink.

YotaPhone: Performance

The YotaPhone runs on a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon Processor with 2GB RAM which sounds like respectable specs for a mid-range smartphone and in theory makes it more powerful than the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini and the HTC One Mini.

It does give the YotaPhone a nice zip switching between homescreens and launching apps but it’s a far more laboured experience for web browsing or when you begin to multitask. Pages are slow to load over Wi-Fi and 3G and trying to run multiple apps begins to have an impact on performance.

For gaming, there's an Adreno 320 GPU which is more powerful than the Adreno 305 GPU in the Moto G and the HTC One Mini and does manage to handle more visually demanding games like Real Racing 3 well with little signs of lag or framerate issues.

In the Geekbench 3 multi-core benchmark tests it scores a 1106 which is slightly lower than the cheaper Moto G (1155). Compared to the similarly priced Xperia Z1 Compact based on a more impressive Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor the Sony scores 2836. Putting it under the 3D Mark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark tests it scores 10578, which compares to 19012 for the Z1 Compact.

For the money, you can definitely get a much slicker experience elsewhere and is something Yota needs to address if it's to make an inroads.

YotaPhone: Camera

Taking care of the main camera duties is a 13-megapixel sensor with an LED flash to help in low lit conditions. Up front is a below-par 1-megapixel camera - enough to take care of video calls but not so great for selfies.

The camera app doesn’t shy too far away from the stock Android version with some minor cosmetic features like face detection and an HDR mode to enhance some of your more lacklustre images. However, it does have the ability to shoot Full HD 1080p video.

It’s very easy to use although the design flaw with the postitioning of the camera sensor means it’s often impossible not get your fingers in the way of setting up the shot.

YotaPhone photo samples 6

In good light, the 13-megapixel manages to capture reasonably sharp images and accurate colours


YotaPhone photo samples 4

The slow focus can sometimes cause images to blur and affect overall sharpness


YotaPhone photo samples 3

HDR mode improves the colour accuracy although can look a little overprocessed


YotaPhone photo samples 1

The LED flash copes well in low-lit conditions but its sluggish nature makes it difficult to instantly get a good photo

If you compare phones at the same price point it’s a little off the quality of the S4’s 13-megapixel snapper for instance. Images are solid enough but they pale in comparison to what the Nokia Lumia 1020 or Xperia Z1 are capable of. Detail levels are okay but HDR images can look a little over processed. The LED flash does a reasonable job in low light, however it’s so slow into action that it’s difficult not to end up shooting a lot out of focus photos before a getting a decent one.

Video recording is more than capable, producing detailed and accurate footage and is not far off the kind of quality you'd get from the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One.

YotaPhone: Call Quality and Speaker Quality

A feature often neglected, call quality for the YotaPhone is good but not fantastic. Disappointingly it lacks the clarity and the richness of top-end phones. Calls come out reasonably clear and it doesn’t suffer greatly in busy environments, but it would really benefit from active noise cancellation to help block out exterior ambient noise.

It doesn't get much better in the loud speaker department. The sole speaker sits below the e-ink display and doesn't break the mould for smartphone speakers. It’s reasonably loud but lacks clarity at top volumes with some minor distortion. Our advice would be to stick the headphones in if you are planning on watching a video or listening to music.


YotaPhone: Battery Life

The YotaPhone has a 1,800mAh battery which is again below par - even the £135 Moto G has a 2,070mAh battery. Yota made bold claims about the YotaPhone promising 50 hours in reading mode and 85 hours flight mode. That’s sounds impressive, but users are unlikely to just use this for reading.

The aim of including the e-ink display is to take some of the strain off the more power-sapping LCD display but in truth when there’s limited reasons to use the black and white screen, you’ll soon find that the battery life is pretty disappointing.

You can just about squeeze in a day’s use but that’s really pushing it. We had to plug-in the charger pretty much as soon we got home. In more strenuous testing running Netflix continuously on 50% brightness it manages on average 6.5-7 hours.

On a more positive note, it does at least charge quickly. From a fully drained state it actually jumps up 40% from a 30-minute charge and is at full capacity in just over two hours.


Should I buy the YotaPhone?

The YotaPhone is a phone with a really interesting idea but it falls short in the areas it promised to excel. The design isn't the most exciting, the battery life is far from great and there are simply not enough captivating reasons to swap the LCD display for the E-ink one.

For around the same price as the YotaPhone (£415) you could get a the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact. It has the better specs on most fronts, is waterproof and simply is arguably the best 4.3-inch Android phone available. If you are willing to go bigger, the 5-inch Nexus 5 is still great value at £279 and is so much more sleek than the YotaPhone. Our current budget favourite, the Moto G would even be a great alternative.

If you are truly sold on having a two screen phone, then it might be worth holding out for the YotaPhone 2. The Russian company has already announced the next generation handset with a slimmer, nicer design, a higher resolution screen, quad-core power and crucially, the ability to actually write on and interact with the e-ink screen.

Verdict

The YotaPhone is a clever two-screen smartphone, but it needs to get a whole lot smarter and more powerful before we'd consider buying one.