Being two-faced is rarely an attractive quality, but Yota Devices might be about to flip that on its head. The YotaPhone is the first to feature an E Ink display on its rear, designed to provide glance-able information without sapping your battery.
The phone’s main display runs stock Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, but with a few custom Yota apps included. The rest of the phone’s specs are as you’d expect: There’s a decent enough 13 megapixel camera (although it’s position is slightly odd, at the bottom of the handset’s rear), a dual core processor and a body that, while diminutive by modern Android standards, fits well in the hand, and leaves room in even the smallest of pockets.
In practice, the YotaPhone’s dual-screen works well. The gently curved E Ink display is readable in direct sunlight, and serves as a handy addition, particularly when navigating places where signal is weak. We sent maps to the rear screen and had them to hand as soon as we stepped off a train, getting on our way even while the mobile network caught up. It’s a talking point too. Save a "hilarious” wallpaper to the YotaPhone's E Ink screen, and you’ll have all your mates asking questions about the curious greyscale gadget.
Certain YotaPhone apps have an icon to send information to the monochrome display, so you can read e-books, news headlines, maps or notes to the rear screen and interact with them using gestures, or you can send a screen grab of any app by swiping down from the top of the phone with two fingers. We found ourselves using this much more often, sacrificing interactivity and using the E Ink as a snapshot for easy reference later on - you know how Google Maps always seems to let you down just as you get off a train, and fails to get a lock on your location? Worry no more.
The size too, feels just right. Reading on the e-ink display is a little like flipping through a pocket book. Much bigger, and it would feel like a clumsy wannabe-Kindle, but this is just right. For an e-reader, it's a compromise, but for a phone it’s a happy medium.
Overall, the YotaPhone just invites admiration. It’s a solid, almost featureless black slab. By hiding its controls and curving it’s backside, Yota has made the mobile’s shape feel solid, mysterious and futuristic all at once.
What’s less impressive is the YotaPhone’s control mechanism. There are no visible buttons, and all navigation is handled by a pair of touch-sensitive panels on the phone’s front and back. Their sensitivity is a little on the low side, and we found the margin for error quite large, needing to press down to ensure our swipes registered first time. We couldn’t help thinking that some light-up icons would’ve helped, or at least reduced the confusion. Needing to memorise gestures, just to get to the home screen, is no fun.
Once you’ve got the knack things start to feel less clunky, but the idiosyncratic gesture controls do make the YotaPhone almost impossible to pass around. The uninitiated simply won’t be able to use it without a quick induction first. That’s not to say the gestures are complex, but the fact the YotaPhone comes bundled with a tutorial app should speak for itself.