CES 2013: From Russia with e-Ink - hands-on with the YotaPhone

It will officially roll out at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February

The Russian-built YotaPhone

The Russian-built YotaPhone

If you're a serious Android-watcher, you've probably heard of the YotaPhone - the Russian-built Android phone that packs a rear-mounted e-Ink display in addition to a standard touchscreen.

It's a deceptively simple gimmick that could allow the YotaPhone to surprise a lot of people - not just serious Android fans - in the US when it's released in late 2013.

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YotaPhone CEO Vladislav Martynov and COO Lau Geckler met up with Network World at CES to show off the firm's creation.

Aside from the e-Ink display, the YotaPhone looks much like any other recent Android flagship - it runs on a Qualcomm 8960 SoC, packs 2GB of RAM and 32GB of Flash storage, front and rear cameras, and 4G connectivity. It uses a largely unmodded version of Jelly Bean. It's not the sleekest design in the world, given the fetish for ultra-thin phones, but it sits comfortably enough in the hand and isn't too weighty. The phone seemed responsive and performed ably in the little time I had to play around with it, with few surprises for anyone familiar with Android 4.1 running on solid hardware.

But the second screen, obviously, is the main event. There's a touch-sensitive pad on the same side as the e-Ink reader that lets users program what will be shown on that display - I saw everything from simple clocks and weather displays to live Twitter feeds and a counter that said "18 days since I last had a cigarette." Additionally, swiping with two fingers from the top to the bottom of the main screen instantly mirrors whatever's being shown onto the e-Ink display. While I could see life with a secondary display taking some getting used to, it's easy enough to tinker with and adapt.

There are a lot of reasons for the e-Ink reader's presence on the phone, according to Martynov and Geckler, but most of them boil down to battery life and information accessibility.

"We looked at what's most disappointing today about current smartphones, and realized that there are a few things - because of some limitations, particularly battery limitations, it's always off," Martynov says.

This means, he says, that most phones effectively keep content further away from users than they need to. If you've got a picture of your daughter as a background, for example, you're really only seeing it for a few seconds a day when you actually turn the device on to use it. Similarly, notes Martynov, a text message sent to an iPhone, for example, is only visible for a few seconds without having to turn the screen on and get into the messaging app.

The e-Ink screen is YotaPhone's solution to this problem - it doesn't use power except for when it's updating itself, so keeping whatever content the user wants front and center isn't a drag on the battery. No more burying yourself in your phone just to check up on Twitter.

"People are using social media much more extensively, but they're becoming less social," says Martynov.

The YotaPhone will officially roll out at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February, but US customers likely won't be able to get their hands on the device until near the end of 2013, as Yota looks for a partner from the ranks of U.S. carriers.

"The advantage we have is that we already have existing products," Geckler notes, referring to Yota's line of 4G networking gear. "We're fairly well known within the carrier community for our IT experience, and that's helping us in getting the dialogue in the first place."

Martynov didn't give an exact price, but stated that the YotaPhone would be "competitive" with other high-end Android devices.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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