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Hands on: YotaPhone combines your phone and Kindle into one dual-screened device

YotaPhone had one of the most striking stands at Mobile World Congress. Constructed from vertical chrome bars and swooping metal shapes, examples of its first smartphone were suspended in futuristic, glowing egg-like glass containers. Unlike most other stands where you can wander on and off, here you had to pass through an entrance, but not before your pass was scanned. So what phone could possibly warrant going to so much trouble?

At first glance, the YotaPhone is a rather ordinary Android device, as it has a 4.3-inch, 720p resolution screen running almost stock Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. It’s only when you flip the phone over you realize just how unique it is, as on the back is another screen, only this time it’s a 4.3-inch E ink display.

Initially, you’re bowled over by the concept, as there’s no denying it’s extremely cool, but this is soon replaced by wondering why you’d need a phone with two screens – isn’t one enough? However, it clicks when it’s explained what the second E Ink screen can be used for, as it’s all about making information more accessible. Think of it as a more advanced, more information-packed version of those tiny screens on the front of closed flip phones, which displayed little more than the time and any outstanding notifications.

With the YotaPhone, almost anything can be transferred to the back screen with a simple two finger swiping gesture down the primary screen. By way of a demonstration, an airline boarding pass was zapped onto the E Ink screen, where it remains visible all the time, even after the primary screen has gone to sleep. As E Ink screens don’t refresh until you change the image, it doesn’t draw any power either.

YotaPhone - Android screenA series of specially made apps enable you to put your own messages on the screen, or it can show your Twitter feed, news or at its most helpful – SMS messages, missed calls, the weather, time and location data. E Ink screens are more commonly found on e-readers like the Kindle, and as you’d expect, e-books can be read on the YotaPhone’s second screen. Because it’s E Ink, the YotaPhone’s rear screen can be read in direct sunlight, making it easier to see important information quickly.

Yota isn’t a fan of buttons, so the YotaPhone is almost entirely devoid of them. They’ve been replaced by small gesture areas – both front and rear – which are less than ideal, and were annoying even in the short time we spent with the phone. It was also possible to active them just by holding the phone, an unfortunate by-product of its dual-screen design. All this will need refining before the phone goes on sale – particularly on the touch strip below the E Ink screen – especially if you want to use the phone as an e-reader.

YotaPhone - curved designThe Yota is quite thick at 9.9mm and weighs 140 grams, but it feels great in the hand no matter which way round you hold it, thanks to a curvy, ergonomic shape. It has a dual-core, 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor, 2GB of RAM, NFC, 4G LTE connectivity, a 12-megapixel camera, and it’ll come with either 32GB or 64GB storage space.

You’ll be able to buy the YotaPhone towards the end of the year, and as Yota has already built a relationship with carriers through its modem business, we don’t think it’ll only be available as a SIM-free (unlocked) phone. The YotaPhone is exactly the type of boundary-pushing, highly innovative product we want to see at shows like Mobile World Congress, and as a piece of cool tech, it’s really exciting; but we still need convincing about the real-world, everyday benefits of the second screen.

(Photos by Ben Nelson, Envision Studio)