Being different can make or break you. Apple decided to do things different back in 2007, and now they make almost all dem smartphone monies. But being atypical for no real reason also means certain death. Yotaphone 2 lies somewhere in the middle—a great idea wrapped up in a phone you just don’t want.
The YotaPhone 2 is a Russian smartphone and Indiegogo darling that has this one really weird thing—it’s also an e-ink reader. So basically, it’s a two-for-one display special with a regular run-of-the-mill LCD display on the front and e-ink display on the back.
Why add an e-ink display? It’s all about battery life. If you’re able to to train your brain to turn on the e-ink display when you text, read articles, or ever browse the web, your phone could last much longer than your average smartphone. It’s much more than a Kindle affixed to a phone. You could almost do everything on that e-ink display without ever going to the bright, pixel-laden side of the device.
But you’ll pay for the option. It costs $600 to get your hands on one of these, so it’s not an easy decision. This fledgling phone company is asking you to forsake a lot of great smartphones out there to try its weird hybrid. That could be a hard sell. Particularly when the company abruptly cancels the US version of the phone.
The YotaPhone 2 is hard to pass up for those whole love the “weird, what is that?” conversations that some gadgets inspire. More than any smartphone I’ve ever used in my entire life (and I’ve used a lot), this one garnered the most “oohs” and “aahs” out of all of them. If you also find yourself, constantly juggling your iPhone and a Kindle, then this is one of those two-birds-one-stone situations.
The first time I held the YotaPhone 2, I was surprised. It felt good. Rounded corners and soft-touch plastic made it comfortable to hold. It’s design doesn’t compare to the iPhones, HTC Ones, and Galaxys out there, but it feels intentionally simple, forcing the phone’s features speak for itself.
And in some ways it does...and in others, it definitely doesn’t.
A big part of this smartphone’s design is the 4.7-inch e-ink display slapped on the back. Making the YotaPhone 2 overly ornate would only distract from the infinite types of customization that you can apply. When you dig into the software, YotaPhone 2 pleasantly runs a very, very close version of stock Android. The only noticeable differences are a few YotaPhone specific apps, like a reader and the YotaHub, an app that controls the e-ink display on the back.
So, there real question is why you’d even want an e-ink display on the back of your phone. The easy answer is battery life. If you’ve ever spent more than a day with a Kindle, Pebble or any other e-ink device, you know their battery life is often measured in days, not hours.
Once you pop open that app, you’re introduced to a bunch of different panels and features you can build the way you want. You can set custom backgrounds, get quick access to certain apps, email, texting, ebooks, weather, recent contacts, etc. etc.
YotaPhone is designed to bring that e-ink screen front and center, leaving everything else framing that display—the camera, speakers, and hardware buttons—relatively unremarkable.
Unlike any smartphone, the YotaPhone 2 has a learning curve and you have to rethink the way you use your phone if you want to benefit from its inherent battery-saving benefits. Despite my initial excitement to test drive this weird little device, the Yotaphone 2 is great at being weird, but pretty terrible at being a phone.
Mostly because you’d better be using that e-ink display every chance you get if you want to see great battery life out of the phone.
The Yotaphone team developed a shortcut from the home menu called YotaMirror that lets you send anything on your phone’s AMOLED display to the e-ink bank around back. That’s all cool and neat-o, but you’re going to obviously make huge sacrifices in resolution and responsiveness. It’s not at all uncommon to have to swipe two or three times to get the YotaPhone e-ink display to register, compared to the color touchscreen around front.
Alternatively, you can use YotaPhone specific templates—pre-built displays that funnel your email, texts, and phone calls, like this one...
...but they only use stock applications. So if you use Hangouts for texting, Outlook for email, or Handcent for your dialer, you can’t swap them into these templates—and that kind of sucks.
Responsiveness issues aside, the e-ink display has some nice advantages. For one, receiving and answering notifications is super simple. I never realized how often my phone lies face down until I had the back of my phone lighting up with important friend-related digital ephemera. If you’re not one to proudly display who just messaged you, you can turn off e-ink notifications within the YotaHub app (along with lots of other notification tweaks).
The YotaPhone 2 is incredibly personal in great and weird ways. Once, my phone died while I was out with friends and when I looked at the e-ink back, it pulled the last image that was in my photo gallery—a picture of two close friends in the park at my birthday party—to display on my phone as it died. How nice (though potentially awkward if you’re a serial sexter. Yikes.)
In another instance, I tried to take a picture of a friend with YotaPhone 2 and the e-ink panel displayed an old-school camera with the word “smile.”
Wow, I didn’t even know it could do that!
YotaPhone 2 has that wonderful sense of discovery because it’s literally like nothing you’ve used before, and that’s rare when it comes to a smartphone.
Sadly, the camera uses a pretty stock version of Android’s camera UI, and the images from the 8 megapixel camera are only so-so and low-light looks not so great at all. Here’s a few test shots:
The feeling of exploring new smartphone territory has an expiration date, when you start seeing the shortcomings. In short, the YotaPhone is simply bad at being just a phone. I ran into many issues with the YotaPhone that I just didn’t have with other phones—things I don’t even usually need to test because I just take them for granted.
The absolute most annoying one was the 3.5mm headphone jack. I listen to music through SMS earbuds—these, actually—and without fail, the YotaPhone would lose connection with my earbuds and my music would pause. After pressing play, since my headphones were very much still attached, the music would start playing out loud for all to hear and I’d have to suffer the embarrassment of everyone on a south-bound Brooklyn bus knowing that sometimes I rocked out to Sia. (Which like, I don’t even care, “Chandelier” is a great song).
This is a small thing, I know. But it’s not the only thing. The YotaPhone has a plethora of graphical issues and sluggish responsiveness that’s more akin to smartphones half of YotaPhone’s asking price. The absolute final straw was when YotaPhone 2 would not—no matter what—connect to a data network. Luckily, I was still able to call and text, but data was dead in the water. I was finally fed up, death by 1000 glitches. I switched back to my Galaxy S6 the very next day.
Nope. Not even if you were the most adventurous person in the world looking for any reason to scrap your busted-ass Kindle. This phone just doesn’t quite feel ready for the big time, especially considering its $600 price puts it in unfavorably close competition with some of the very best smartphones out there. Add in the fact that Yota Devices has now canceled the U.S. version of this phone—the one that would be equipped to handle 4G LTE speeds—all those negatives begin to add up to one big NOPE.
But part of me loves this phone and some of the ideas YotaPhone dreamed up to make something different and useful. It’s not quite there yet, but I still want what Yota’s trying to sell.