09
Jan
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This year's CES sucks. But that doesn't mean there can't be a few genuinely cool things floating around out there in an otherwise dull ocean of 4K and touchscreens. Case in point: YotaPhone, which sadly isn't even on the CES show floor at all. We covered the announcement of the YotaPhone, but really, seeing and using it in person does the idea so much more justice.

On paper, it seems pretty straightforward: a phone with a screen on both sides. A traditional LCD panel on the front, and an e-ink display on the back. In fact, it sounds incredibly gimmicky on paper - a crazy idea bound to be clunky and poorly executed. The thing is, though, the YotaPhone doesn't feel half-baked, unlike so much of the tech we see here at CES. I, too, wasn't expecting much at all - I was prepared for the worst, if I'm honest. I really did think it was going to be terrible.

But we went hands-on with a prototype, and while it's far from perfect, the YotaPhone as a concept and an idea was, frankly, a "wow" moment for me. Check out the video below.

As you might be able to tell, I like this thing. A lot. YotaPhone claims to be aiming for a Q4 release this year, and with the sort of internals it's packing, that might doom it to commercial irrelevance outside its home market (Russia). Even so, I do hope they get enough market traction to pursue a second generation, and keep the ball rolling on this brilliant idea.

What's so brilliant about it? For me, a new technology is truly innovative when it makes me think "this could legitimately make my life easier or better." And that's the feeling I had within minutes of our meeting with Yota - they found a problem with existing products (all of them), and they fixed it in a way no one had thought to before. First, though, let me talk about the phone.

The YotaPhone has two displays - both are 4.3", and the e-ink display on the back is on at all times (since it consumes essentially zero electricity when it's not being refreshed). Yota has implemented a really interesting replacement for Android's navigation buttons, too - gestures. Swipe all the way across the bottom of the phone for the equivalent of the home button, swipe halfway for back, and press and hold for the recent apps menu. Actually, I quite like it - no more worry about where your buttons are.

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The phone is a little on the hefty side, but by no means is it bulky. I like the curved Gorilla Glass over the e-ink display on the back, too - it's striking. The software right now is pretty beta, but Yota already had some neat things to show off. For example, just drag two fingers from top to bottom, and whatever's on the screen is saved as a screenshot and displayed on the e-ink display on the back. It could be a webpage you want to read later, or a map, or some information you need to remember. Apps designed for the e-ink display work like widget settings menus, and when you have them configured as you want, you simply press a button to send it to the back. The e-ink display has a small touchpad as well, for flipping pages in ebooks, or for multitasking between items displayed on it (eg, if you want to go back to your weather widget once you're done reading). Yota has really thought this out.

That brings us back to our question: what's the big problem the YotaPhone solves?

Information at a glance. You know what bugs me about every smartphone in existence? When I want to check something quickly - be it the time, the weather, or how many new emails I have, I am required to go through a process. That process, at the least, requires two actions. For checking the time, I need to pull out my phone and press the power button. Email takes more - I need to pull it out, press the power button, pull down my notification panel (unless I'm using some kind of email widget on the lockscreen), and read. Weather could be the same as the clock, though it could take more, depending on the phone.

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These kind of actions are ones I repeat ad nauseum dozens, if not hundreds of times a day. Add up all the battery life and time wasted, and it becomes significant. Sure, these are simple activities already, but they have by no means been reduced to the most simple paradigm possible.

The YotaPhone is a blueprint for this reduction, and I genuinely think we'll be seeing this idea in various incarnations in other products in the coming years. The information you want at a glance can be on the back of the phone - always. The e-ink display will retain its image even after the battery dies, it's readily visible in sunlight, and consumes very little power.

Let me put it this way. Imagine you pull your phone out of your pocket (or simply have it lying face down in front of you), and glance at the back - you see the time, the weather in the last 30 minutes, the number of new emails you have at each account, or new social interactions, or your calendar. That, to me, is a legitimate step forward. You don't have to press a button - you just look.

Am I saying YotaPhone is going to be the product that turns the industry on its head with this idea? Well, no. Almost certainly not - first generation products rarely do. And even if it does, that revolution likely won't be televised in the US, or most of the rest of the world. But other people - other companies - will see this idea, and they'll see the excitement around it. And they'll start tinkering. Samsung, Apple, Microsoft - whomever, I guarantee they're all watching - the possibilities are already floating around in my head.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/ron-amadeo/ Ron Amadeo

    This thing was pretty cool. It used the e-ink screen as a kind of new-age printer.

    It's a shame the carriers will never let it see the light of day in America.

    • ProductFRED

      Sure it will. It'll just have "VERIZON 4G LTE" permanently on the e-Ink display :)

      • paleh0rse

        ^^Best reply of the day, hands down.

      • ChumbleSpuzz

        Dude, your are on a roll. #slowclap

      • legend618

        +1

      • Kenny O

        Lol

      • rST

        haha...This is one of the best comments i have come across recently. On the other hand i loved this phone. brilliant idea and the back looks so cool with its display and curved shape.

    • stef

      I don't get this. Why do you and so many other people stick to what carriers offer? Why don't you just buy the phone you like and then get a prepaid sim? I feel way more freely when I know I can change the carrier, contract and phone whenever I want to. And it is often cheaper too.
      Maybe I'm missing something or something may be different than in Germany where I come from. Please wise me up.

      • r3drox

        Its just America where this subsidised phone thing works for a majority it seems. Not sure. In Kenya the market is 90%+ contract free. We will drop hefty change for flagship devices but our prepaid no contract bills end up much cheaper.

      • Cuvis

        It's an American thing. Generally, an unsubsidized phone of any quality costs an arm and a leg here, and the big carriers don't charge you any less per month if you bring your own phone, so most people just go with it. T-Mobile is trying to change things up, though, and the Nexus 4 hit a big chink in the armor.

        • stef

          I see.. thanks :)

        • Spedrickson

          It's still a bit early to say the nexus 4 hit a chink in the armor. Its barely been out for a few months, and has been plagued with availability problems from the start. As far as I know, only diehard android fans who already wanted the new nexus device regardless of what it actually was got one. Sure it looks like a quality device, but if people can't buy it they'll go for something else.

          • Cuvis

            I disagree. Of course, it'll be difficult to truly say until we see sales numbers, but Google has never had trouble keeping a Nexus device in stock before. Definitely not on the same scale as now, where it's been out for two months and is still nigh-impossible to buy (except at an inflated price from an eBay scalper, of course).

      • carlisimo

        Cuvis gave the major reason – only the 4th largest carrier (T-Mobile) charges you any less money per month if you buy an unsubsidized phone. In addition, unlocked international phones only work well with one of our four major carriers (AT&T). A lot of people have sworn off of them though, due to poor service in certain areas (like San Francisco). Those phones sort of work with T-Mobile – voice works, but in many regions you’re limited to 2G data speeds. T-Mobile claims that this situation will improve. Verizon and Sprint (and some other minor carriers) only work with phones designed for those networks.

      • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

        I think I can give a more complete answer. The real problem is that the subsidies have become very entrenched in the psychology of people in this country. If you look far enough back to the days when cell phones were just becoming normal (when pagers were just falling out of style), the carriers were looking for any way to convince people to sign up with them, so they started cannibalizing their profits to give signing bonuses. At the time, it was a month or two free, a discount on a feature, or discounted / free phones. As phone prices went up, that became the popular choice.

        Fast forward to the start of the smartphone revolution (Windows Mobile and Blackberry), the prepaid options didn't offer data or Blackberry Services (an actual paid feature for most carriers)...so you had to go with major carriers, who, as Cuvis points out, don't usually give discounts if you buy your phone off contract.

        Coincidentally, a lot of people in the US aren't very good at managing their money (let's be honest, it's true), so they see the high price tag of a flagship phone off contract and they instantly shut out the idea of prepaid carriers. They like the idea of getting something cheap and don't do the math to figure out how much they could save. Not only that, but a lot of prepaid carriers in the past have done a lot to ruin the reputation of the entire business model, especially the ones who resell with Sprint's network. There's also a bit of a social stigma that "poor people and drug dealers" use prepaid (yes, I know a girl that said exactly that).

        It sucks, and information is slowly getting out to people that they can save money and get phones as they want them, but it's happening too slowly to make a difference. Also, LTE is the new battleground between prepaid and contract carriers. The prepaid carriers that own and operate their own network are completely behind on LTE, and none of the MVNOs (network resellers) out there have been able to license the rights to put their customers onto the national carrier's LTE towers. In other words, for the next couple of years, if you want LTE in the US, you're stuck going directly to one of the contract carriers for service; and once you're paying the higher prices, you might as well buy one of their phones with the subsidy they offer. It is extortion, but it's not going away...

        • http://twitter.com/homncruse Aaron Burke

          Wow! You summarized that quite elegantly. I'm going to go out on a limb here and ask you to contact me - aaron@whyprepaid.org. I'd like to know if a) you'd like to write a guest post along this line on my blog regarding the benefits of prepaid service, or b) if you'd rather not put forth that effort, if I can take your post mostly as-is with a few editorial adjustments and integrate it into a post of my own.

      • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/ron-amadeo/ Ron Amadeo

        I bought a Nexus 4 carrier-free and that's how I'll be doing all my phone purchasing from now on.

        I was just saying that if a carrier doesn't pick it up, it probably won't be released in America at all. You'd have to import it. I'm not an expert on imports or anything, but I would imagine they run into network compatibility problems.

  • hyperbolic

    Looking forward for that.

  • http://twitter.com/misterE33 Mr E

    Lol, how do you really feel about CES? ;)

    This thing is kinda cool. I'm not sure how I feel about the dual screens, and on opposite sides of the phone, but it could work. I guess it's an easy way to customize the back of your phone, if nothing else!

  • Hilman_ca

    Very cool idea.

  • tjennhw

    I wonder if the e-ink is easy to scan with barcode readers.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      I'm sure it is, yeah. They showed us putting a boarding pass on the back, for example.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      It's pretty much the same as looking at paper. It's very easy.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jordan.richesin Jordan Richesin

        Thank you for that. Would the camera effect the display at all? And what type of screen is over the E-ink display if you know.

        • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

          If I understood the video right, it's Gorilla Glass on front and back.

          • http://www.facebook.com/jordan.richesin Jordan Richesin

            So I would be putting my phone down on both faces at some point? Two screen protectors, a dual sided case, more screens replacement fees? This all makes me very skeptical.

          • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

            Most of the same issues people brought up about the iPhone 4 and the Nexus 4. A bumper or a case with a swinging door could solve some of that. Quite a few Nexus 4 and iPhone 4 screen protector packs ship with 2 for the front and 1 for the back. As long as you don't trash your phone, the screens should never need replacing.

            If it counts for anything, and I might be mixing this up with another device (too much CES news), I think I remember reading/hearing that the e-ink display was covered in matte glass instead of glossy glass, which might reduce the visibility of scratches. I don't know if it really makes it better or might even make it worse, but that would help with glare and visibility outdoors.

            All of this would be solved if they put a ridge around the screen like the Lumia 900 has. It's just barely there, so it doesn't interfere with screen presses. It's enough that it keeps the screen from resting on the surface below, and it's a great tactile guideline.

      • HopelesslyFaithful

        it is all about contract and those have plenty and don't flicker or refresh ^^

  • Eric Jones

    Very interesting. That is until super capacity batteries show up, then it's pointless. Super capacity batteries should be here any day now right? Right!?

    • HopelesslyFaithful

      those nanowire/nanosphere cells are "shipping to manufactures for testing 2012" i am still patiently waiting.....Amprius needs to hurry up. Not sure which kind they will use or if there is another design i missed in their technical articles on their site.

    • HopelesslyFaithful
  • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

    The Maps usage concept is great, as long as it can be set to auto-update. It would save a ton of battery, and the fact that you can't touch it means you can't mess it up by accident with your fingers or clothes, all while having the display on (the e-ink one).

    Car mounts become a bit of an issue if you want to use both, unless I get one that auto-rotates with a press of a button (or mind-controlled). Still, so many possibilities.

    • infogulch

      Having an e-ink display underneath the normal one would solve the car dock issue. (See my other comment)

      • Ian Triggs

        Having it under the normal one means that the e-ink display then has to deal with glare. That's why e-ink displays with a touch screen film over the top of them suck.

    • Sergii Pylypenko

      Android framework does support multiple displays since Android 4.2, so there are no technical obstacles to do what you've described. It will need just a bit of interaction from Google.

    • PINJ

      Yeah The No Battery Consuming Feature Of The E-Ink Is Great. Just That The Screens Are On Either Side Are Is Annoying.

    • HopelesslyFaithful

      just have a button or switch on the side that locks the screens touch capabilities

  • http://twitter.com/SvenDaWhoop Sky Sailor

    What about the Quick settings swipe down?

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/ron-amadeo/ Ron Amadeo

      Fantastic question! The phone ran 4.1, so it doesn't have quick settings.

      • http://twitter.com/Moo_Guy_ Javier Fernandez

        Well I actually checked the website and other sources and it says it will come out with 4.2.

  • Elias

    Can I dream of a Nexus?

  • Julio M

    This phone, I like.

  • infogulch

    I wonder if it's possible to have an e-ink display *underneath* the normal display. Doubt it would work for LCD but maybe OLED, I've seen fully transparent OLED screens before.

    • http://twitter.com/cthonctic Cthonctic

      That's a really interesting idea if you could ensure that the OLED part is all transparent while the e-paper is in active use, and vice versa the e-paper needs to be totally black while the OLED pixels light up. Probably very challengingfrom a technical standpoint but if it could be pulled off the possibilities would be endless.

    • PINJ

      Thats Not Possible.

      • PINJ

        I Mean It Is, But Its Not Properly Usable.

      • infogulch

        Not properly usable? Please explain.

    • http://jordanhotmann.com/ Jordan Hotmann

      I had the same thought. This would be the best solution because then if you pull out your phone and see you have a new email or something that you wish you act upon, you don't have to flip your phone over to do things. Just power on the screen and go.

  • TK

    I would buy it. One thing though, how is swiping the entire way across a screen easier than touching a screen at one spot for home and another spot for back?

    • http://www.facebook.com/vivecuervo7 Isaac Dedini

      Might not be easier, but there's a bit of extra screen/less bezel because you don't have buttons, and I think that's enough to make the gestures a great idea.

      • TK

        Not really, at least not in the video. He said there's a dedicated area to swipe, which was a black strip at the bottom of the screen where he did it. Feel free to correct me.

        • http://www.facebook.com/vivecuervo7 Isaac Dedini

          You're right. I had read the article but didn't watch the video until today. With gestures, I really don't understand the need to have a dedicated swipe area.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      It's not easier. It's cleaner and different (reminds me of WebOS though).

      • Del Morrison

        WebOS was fantastic, and its nice to see someone else using gestures

        • PINJ

          Ah Man I Loved WebOS. Shame On You HP, Shame. On. You. Happy That Chat Got Released For Android Though.

      • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

        I'm just going to say it...way harder for drunk people to use :)

        • Sootie

          That could be a good thing

    • carlisimo

      So you don't accidentally push those rear buttons all the frickin' time!

  • falter

    Is there something to protect the e ink display from scuffs and scratches when putting down on surfaces?

    • infogulch

      Gorilla glass.

      • GraveUypo

        sand and dust

    • ChumbleSpuzz

      I'd think the method of operation for this would be to put the traditional screen side face down so that you could instantly glance at the e-ink for status updates, time, etc. Same answer though, gorilla glass, or perhaps a bumper cover.

  • adi19956

    The e-ink display idea is great. I think it would be great for flashing up notifications just like an LED shows you have one now.
    Would love to see this on the 2014 Nexus, doubt we will

  • http://twitter.com/cthonctic Cthonctic

    Very cool, would love to see this in more future handsets. I have become quite the fan of always-on power-sipping e-paper displays (and hyphenated expressions too, incidentally)

  • stef

    I like the idea a lot and I hope there will be more phones that use this. It would be very nice if they handle to integrate the e-ink absolutely perfect in the design.
    However I can't get to like putting the phone with the display down. The 2-in-1-solution as infogulch mentioned would solve this.

  • QwietStorm

    OK we get it you didn't like the show, but you're bringing an immature vibe to the whole coverage if you keep bringing up that it "sucks."

    • Keith Newman

      Yet he's the one there and has the blog you're visiting. Stop reading. Personally it's clear that this year blows. There has been nothing industry changing whatsoever... Curved TV's? Uh. Prepaid Sprint? Déjà vu... Galaxy Note 10.1... OK that's just retarded now. He's right it sucks.

      • Keith Newman

        Just to add... This product might be the only thing I'm actually interested in and it's still too small (GN2 user and maybe thinks that is too small)

  • http://www.facebook.com/phillip.white.946 Phillip White

    One of my main uses of my phone is as an e-reader on my morning commute. If you could use the back as an e-reader for your own library on your sd card, this would be cool.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001144455023 Michael J Carroll

    Dilbert!

  • spydie

    I'd buy that in a heartbeat. I can't read very long on my phones/tablets. They hurt my eyes and I lose my distance vision after a few minutes...but not on my kindle or my paperwhite kindle. I'd love to read a book on my phone without the vision loss. I'd love to have time/weather and other notifications there all the time without going through a process to check these things. This is the coolest idea since the Galaxy Note. Take my money, please.

  • Jan Mikolajczak

    loved the idea when i first saw it, makes ebooks all the more apealing on phones too, only to make sure it works as well from the software side! Really hope this catches on :)

  • Chris

    Don't think I would buy it as a first gen device- but if it's still being improved two years from now when I come off of my contract, I think it could really be a useful thing to have.

  • poisoned

    All problems you mention were already solved on Nokia N9, 2 years ago.

  • PINJ

    Too Annoying To Use. Im A Lazy User. They Should Just Make It One Screen: The e-ink Display. Also I Would Feel Weird Grappling One Either Screen When Using The Other.

  • Freak4Dell

    I don't care about the e-ink display, but those gestures are sweet. That would be an excellent compromise between real buttons that everyone else hates and software buttons that I hate. No wasted space on the screen, but still customizable for people that claim that's an important thing about software buttons.

  • bigzam

    quick, patented it! or else something bad coming (you know what I mean) lol

  • Ken

    You could be a hand model David. Impeccable digits you have there

  • http://resbo.dk/ Søren Resbo

    seriously, stop whining about CES.

  • King of Slavs

    Yobaphone? Seriously? Russia manufacturing anything? Infa 100% this will only be possible if it were made in China.

    • Sergey Lokshin

      Invented, designed, patented and stuffed with software by Yota Devices. So it's as Russian as iPhone is American.
      HW platform is, of course, not Russian but Qualcomm's 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus (MSM8960), assembly by some Chinese/Taiwanese company.

  • CaibreGreyblade

    I know I want at least two of these.

  • snedwos

    Could this become the Nexus 5?

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