With more and more smartphones released on the market each year, it becomes even more difficult for a handset to stand out from the competition. Some manufacturers have attempted to attract customers using specialist software and hardware features – like the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 4 – but for others, standing out has been difficult and we’ve seen many companies struggle to make their mark.
In the case of Russian company Yota, they saw an opportunity to show that e-ink displays – which have been present on eReaders for a while now – could also be used in a smartphone and whilst the YotaPhone was designed like a wedge, the YotaPhone 2 aims to be different by offering a Full colour display and a unique e-ink display all in one smartphone. It’s one of the most expensive handsets on the market but is it worth it and can e-ink displays be useful on a smartphone or is this just a phase? Let’s find out in our full YotaPhone 2 review.
Hardware and Design
The front of the YotaPhone 2 features a 5 inch AMOLED display with Full HD 1080p resolution which offers a pixels density of 442 pixels per inch; this figure is similar to other 1080p handsets on the market and is comparable with other devices at a similar price. The rear of the handset features a full-touch 4.7 inch EPD with qHD (960 x 540 pixel resolution) which we’ll cover in more detail below.
Like many other devices that use on-screen keys, the YotaPhone 2 has large bezels both beneath and above the display. In the case of the YotaPhone 2, the bezels make up approximately 32 percent of the front body of the handset, which sports a screen-to-body ratio (sbr) of approximately 68.2 percent. The front-facing camera is a 2.1MP snapper that can capture Full HD 1080p video.
The power and volume buttons are located on the right side of the YotaPhone 2 and the recessed buttons provide tactile feedback despite being difficult to press due to their small size. On the left, the handset is free of any buttons resulting in a smooth bezel finish that’s pleasing to touch.
The headphone jack sits on the top of the YotaPhone 2 whilst the bottom features the microUSB port and speakers. Both the headphone jack and microUSB v2 connector provide solid performance with no difficulties in inserting or removing the headphones or charger. The speaker achieves average performance but is drowned out by large background noise and we would recommend keeping the handset on vibrate so you don’t miss a call.
The YotaPhone 2 is on the thicker side (compared to rival devices) at 9mm but this is largely due to the Electronic Paper Display on the rear that makes the YotaPhone 2 anything but conventional.
That EPD screen
The 4.7 inch always-on Electronic Paper Display (EPD) rear display offers 960 x 540 pixels resolution which is relatively low compared to other displays on the market but it suffices for the uses the display is designed for.
The EPD display is the highlight of the handset and comes with three primary functions: YotaCover, YotaPanel and YotaMirror. Each function is progressively more feature-rich than the previous and you can switch between YotaCover and YotaPanel by pressing the middle button of the on-screen navigation bar.
YotaCover is an always-on wallpaper that comes with four shortcuts – phone, messages, email and notifications. You can customise the wallpaper on the YotaCover including choosing from Facebook, Instagram, the preloaded collection or Yota’s online collection which can be accessed and downloaded from without charge. The gallery below shows the various YotaCover options including the online selection.
Once you’re using YotaCover, it sticks on the back of the handset and is actually quite useful if you want to lock your handset but not have any of your panels (which may contain private information) showing. We really liked YotaCover as it allows you to customise your handset whenever and wherever you want.
Each YotaPanel is designed to serve a different purpose and the handset comes with e-reader, social and shortcuts panels selected by default. Within the YotaHub app, you can customise up to a maximum of five panels with either a range of preset panels or create your own using grids and widgets.
The range of preset panels includes ones that focus on notifications, accessing and communicating with contacts quickly, a range of calendar views and a lot more. In the gallery above, we’ve shown all of the preset panel options.
If you choose to create your own custom panel, there are nice grid options available to choose from. The grids provide a framework with specified places to fit widgets and shortcuts to applications or contacts. The range of widgets available includes games – the EPD comes with Checkers, Chess and Sudoku preloaded – communication, clock, contacts, calls, calendar, weather, music player, social and apps launcher. See the gallery above for all the widget and grid options and the gallery below for the games.
The panels are accessed via a swipe either side and when using an application, tapping the right navigation button takes you back to the Panels view. The range of customisation options is vast and we used this view for a majority of our time with the YotaPhone 2.
You can access the dialer and see the recent calls list on the EPD but we weren’t able to access the full contacts list. You can also read messages, view emails and see the number of new notifications but to access the full notifications list, you need to flip over and look at the main display.
YotaPanel also comes with a mandatory eBook reader called Yota Reader which allows you to upload and read e-books on the rear display. The EPD also comes with a YotaRSS app that syncs with your Feedly account and displays the latest articles on the rear screen.
YotaMirror is accessed by a swipe up from the bottom and tapping the option to the left of Google Now and allows you to mirror the entire Android OS on the rear display. However, the display isn’t designed to be used with a colour OS and whilst the results might be useful in some cases (hello selfie lovers!), the results aren’t pretty. The feature is there whenever you wish to use it however, which is a plus point.
Whilst YotaMirror allows you to mirror the entire Android OS, YotaSnap allows you to take a screenshot of something and have this show on the rear e-ink display. This can prove very useful as the e-ink screen only uses refreshes once to display the image which means if your battery is running low and you need to access directions/notes or a list etc, you can take the snap and have it display on the rear display even if the phone has run out of charge (as the e-ink display only uses battery life when refreshing the page).
Yota Energy Saver
Whilst not exclusive to the rear screen, the EPD come with a dedicated widget to switch on/off Yota Energy Saver which displays the estimated remaining battery life (or remaining time until fully charged). You can configure Yota Energy Saver and how it behaves from Settings and when enabled, Yota claim it will offer up to five days battery life from a single charge.
The e-paper display comes with capacitive touch sensors but the e-ink technology has its limitations which result in somewhat laggy performance. The rear display isn’t the fastest as it can take a few seconds for the image to be displayed and every few pages, the screen refreshes itself to clean the ghosting effect.
The YotaPhone 2 runs the Android 4.4.3 KitKat operating system and as Yota have dedicated their research to developing the rear display, the interface is almost identical to stock Android. With the exception of a few Yota features (which are mostly dedicated to configuring the rear display), the handset uses the stock Android interface.
The handset comes with just a handle of applications preloaded including Twitter (which powers Twitter on the rear display), YotaHub and YotaRSS to customise the rear display and a collection of games including Chess, Checkers, Sudoku and 2048. Other than these small additions, the interface is as default and the Google Keyboard comes preloaded by default.
Overall the interface is easy to use and presumably Yota adopted for stock Android to keep the interface (and hence the rear display) as fast as possible. Even with moderate to heavy usage, the YotaPhone 2 shows no signs of slowing down and although we’d have liked them to tweak a few things with the stock OS – which is a personal preference rather than professional recommendation – the overall interface is mostly positive.
The YotaPhone 2 comes with a 8MP rear camera and 2.1MP front facing camera. The rear camera can shoot Full HD 1080p video as can the front camera and in the camera settings, Yota has provided an option to set the resolution that both photos and videos are recorded at.
The camera comes with the stock Android camera app which provides a clean and simple interface from which to capture those moments. Swiping in from the left of the handset opens a switcher to change mode or access the settings menu whilst a toggle menu at the bottom (or the right if holding the handset in landscape mode) offers quick access to settings shortcuts.
The rest of the settings are nested away inside the settings menu although again, the available options are quite sparse. There’s the option to change the resolution and quality of your still-image and video capture, the option to enable geo-tagging and the ability to enable manual exposure (the only setting under the Advanced menu).
The single most annoying thing about the camera interface is the viewfinder as the camera shutter button is housed in a black inset that takes up almost 40% of the screen display. This limits the size of the viewfinder to an almost-square-shaped rectangle and also means, in some views, you can’t see the entire image before capturing it.
Let’s take a look at some of the camera samples, we captured on the YotaPhone 2:
As with all cameras, the 8MP sensor performs best when used in bright, sunlit conditions but even then, the images are noticeably washed out and lacking any real depth of colour. The HDR mode (covered below) is almost a necessity to keep on all the time as it adds the depth and vibrancy missing from the daylight images.
The still-image performance is exacerbated further when trying to take a close-up shot as the YotaPhone 2 often fails to focus on the subject. The handset won’t focus unless approximately 10 to 15 cm away from the subject and when closer to the subject, the camera appears to focus properly before slipping out of focus as you press the shutter button. Below is an example of the image captured when too close to the subject.
As you might as expect given the daylight performance, the low-light performance is below average on the YotaPhone 2. Whilst the image on-screen appears to be in focus, the images captured (as seen above) are out of focus and look inferior to that displayed on the handset screen.
The YotaPhone 2 comes with a single LED flash which is average in performance. When trying to capture a wide area with little natural light(above left), it fails to provide any noticeable advantage but when focusing on a small indoor scene (above right), it does illuminate the area enough to capture an in-focus image.
The YotaPhone 2 comes with a HDR mode and as mentioned above, we wish there was an option to enable it by default as it’s the only way to produce good images with the 8MP camera. Although the YotaPhone 2 is powered by a 2.2GHz processor, the lag to process and save the HDR image is considerable and it takes up to 30 seconds for the camera to be ready to take another picture.
Panorama / Photo Sphere
The YotaPhone 2 comes with both Panorama and Photo Sphere modes preloaded in the stock camera application. The former (image sample above) allows you to stitch a horizontal or vertical scene together by panning with your handset whilst the latter (image sample below) expands on the Panorama function by stitching together images to create a 360-degree view of the scene.
The problem with using both of these modes is the camera itself which struggles to focus and remained focus when panning using either function. As a result, there are large parts of both images that are out of focus and the unique way of capturing images and stitching together (instead of panning the scene) often means bits of the image are chopped out in post-processing. As with HDR, the handset is quite sluggish to process and save the resulting image in either mode.
Overall the YotaPhone 2 camera is definitely average, especially in comparison to its competition. For a £550 handset, we’d certainly expect better performance and as fun as it is to capture selfies using the rear display, there’s a lot of work needed to improve the camera. Here’s all the camera samples captured with the YotaPhone 2:
We’ll leave you with this image that shows the rear screen being used with YotaMirror as a selfie-viewfinder!
The YotaPhone 2 can capture Full HD video but with the still-image performance being average, it’s no surprise that the video recording is as bad. On paper the YotaPhone 2 is capable of recording 1080p Full HD video at 30fps (frames per second) but the results suggest it is recording at a much lower frame-rate.
The camera struggles to keep focused when panning and the auto-exposure setting is even more erratic as it adapts constantly and ruins the overall video. In low-light, the video comes out slightly better than still-images but again it leaves a lot to be desired. Audio capture isn’t amazing but it is satisfactory; although slightly muffled, it’s clear enough to hear what’s going on in front and behind the lens.
Connectivity & SIM
The YotaPhone 2 uses a Nano SIM and comes with a range of connectivity options including LTE Cat 4, dual-band Wi-Fi n/ac, NFC, FM Radio and Bluetooth v4.0. As the handset uses stock Android, the various options for these connections are all located within the settings menu.
LTE Cat 4 offers maximum download speeds of 150 Mbps with upload speeds of 50Mbps but in usage, we found that the network antenna strength is weaker than its rivals with the handset only picking up one or two bars of signal in an area where other handsets show four to five bars.
Performance & Benchmarks
Running stock Android means the performance of the 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB RAM and Adreno 330 graphical processing unit is very smooth with little lag even after downloading apps, capturing images and video and adding to the browser and social caches.
Whilst actual usage performance paints one picture, it doesn’t give us the technical answers so we turn to four popular reputed benchmarking applications to paint the full picture.
GeekBench 3 is a cross-platform benchmark which tests both single-core and multi-core performance using a range of workloads that simulate real-world scenarios. In our test, the YotaPhone 2 achieved a single-core score of 888 and a multi-core score of 2734. Both scores are comparable to other phones and tablets with the single-core score ranking between the Galaxy S5 and the Ascend Mate 7 and the multi-core score ranking between the HTC One M8 and the Apple iPhone 6 Plus.
AnTuTu is one of the most comprehensive Android benchmarking applications available and it runs tests on the performance and graphics of your CPU, GPU, Database and storage. In our tests, the YotaPhone 2 achieved a score of 38831 which is lower than older devices such as the Apple iPhone 5S, which scores 42406.
The YotaPhone 2’s score of 38831 is ranked higher than the Exynos version of the Galaxy Note 4 (which scores just 33781) but is inferior to other rival devices at the same price point such as the Snapdragon Galaxy Note (46772), Motorola Nexus 6 (47342) and the iPhone 6 (49357).
3D Mark is a different benchmark to both AnTuTu and Geekbench and it tests the CPU, GPU, rendering and memory. The Ice Storm unlimited test takes several minutes to complete as it runs through a range of scenarios and in our testing, the YotaPhone 2 achieves a score of 16010.
In this test, the YotaPhone 2 manages to beat both the Huawei Ascend Mate 7 (14177) and Apple iPhone 5S (15157), offers similar performance to the iPhone 6 (17510) but is far inferior to both the Galaxy Note Edge (19240) and the Motorola Nexus 6 (23114).
Overall there are no performance issues to note in the actual usage of the main display and the performance is comparable with but inferior to other devices at the same price point as the YotaPhone 2. The rear EPD display shows signs of performance issues and ghosting – due to the nature of the e-ink technology and slow refresh rate – with heavy use (and specifically when using YotaMirror) but other than these small issues, the YotaPhone 2 is fast, easy to use and offers a smooth experience.
The YotaPhone 2 features a non-accessible 2500 mAh battery that Yota claim offers up to 41 hours talk-time on 2G (it’s 26 hours on 3G and even less on Wi-Fi or LTE browsing). In standby, the battery should be capable of offering close to 400 hours (which is around 16 days) whilst the music playback is quoted as being up to 92 hours.
As with all smartphones, these figures can only be achieved under laboratory conditions and in real world usage the battery doesn’t quite reach the advertised levels. As a power user, I’m often running out of charge and when using the YotaPhone 2, I found I can use it for a full day and a little into the next before needing to find a power socket. I confess that I haven’t used the e-ink display as much as Yota might have imagined but if I were to increase my reliance on the rear display, the battery could conceivably last two days or more.
When testing the YotaEnergy mode, I found that it had a marked effect on increasing battery life. With heavy usage, it extended the battery life by a few hours but when combining the YotaEnergy mode with predominant use of the e-ink display, the battery lasted for over three days of use. The YotaEnergy widget also gives you an indicator of how much battery life is remaining and we’ve found this to be mostly accurate in its predictions.
Concluding the YotaPhone 2 is very much like concluding a game of cricket with two very different innings. On the one hand, the cost (£550 / Rs. 52585 SIM free and unlocked) is prohibitively expensive and the handset has a mediocre camera with average battery life and none of the gimmicks features on other flagship devices.
On the other, it’s completely unique, the rear EPD screen can be incredibly useful and the real-world performance is excellent. From the moment I switched the handset on, the single thing going through my mind has been how cool this handset is. Having used most of the smartphones released on the market over the past five years, I can safely say that this is the single coolest smartphone I’ve ever used.
The unique rear display is certainly a head-turner and having shown it to a few strangers, the overall feedback has been a mix of adulation and envy. With most other smartphones offering the same features with little to differentiate them, it’s a real pleasure when a company does something different and the YotaPhone 2 is exactly that.
It’s not the perfect device as take away the rear display and you have an average smartphone with lots of work required to polish the interface but the rear e-ink display is inherently useful. Playing a YouTube video or a game on the screen makes no sense but the point is that if I wanted to, I could. That seems to be Yota’s message – explore the screen and use it however you like.
If you’re looking for a phone that’s unique and completely different, this is it. It’s single-handedly the coolest phone ever made.
- Dual-screen marvel in engineering
- E-ink display is actually useful
- Excellent AMOLED display
- Top-tier performance
- Very expensive
- Unlikely to appeal to the mass market
- Average camera
- Software is disappointing