Yotaphone 2

I really like e-ink displays. I’m not a huge fan of OLED displays, though; they’ve become much better in recent years, but they can still be difficult to read in bright sunlight. Conceptually, the Yotaphone 2 made a ton of sense to me. I’ve been using one for a month now.

The hardware itself is beautifully designed. It looks fantastic. Because there’s no home button, and because the SIM card slot is hidden behind the volume buttons, the device itself seems almost featureless.

It’s very thin, particularly considering that there are two screens in that thing. The phone’s edges are bent inwards, which looks amazing, and makes it easier to hold.

The back screen is slightly curved along the left and right edges, which is cool and makes it easier to hold, but can be annoying when you actually use the screen. The back screen has an antireflective coating, which also gives it a bit of grip. It’s still a pretty slippery phone, though.

All in all, I think this is one of the most beautiful phones on the market right now.

Battery Life

The phone has a 2500 mAh battery, which is kind of anemic by today’s standards. The phone I carried previously, a Galaxy Note 3,1 released back in 2013, came with a 3,200 mAh battery. As a result, battery life is not great. I usually get around 14 hours of life out of the device, which means that the phone typically doesn’t quite make it through a day. It’s about on par with what I got out of the iPhone 4S I used to own,2 and quite a bit worse than the Note 3.

Ostensibly, the e-ink screen is supposed to fix this problem; just avoid using the OLED screen, and battery life will skyrocket! Reviews of the phone claim that you can easily extend the phone’s battery life from one day to two or even three. To me, this doesn’t seem plausible. On average, my Yotaphone claims that the OLED screen is responsible for about 25% of its battery usage. If I only used the e-ink screen,3 that would extend battery life from 14 hours to maybe 20 hours — nowhere near two days.

The battery problem is compounded by Android’s terrible standby battery usage. iOS barely uses any battery if the device is in standby mode. I can let an iPad sit on my desk for a week, and it’ll still have a charge when I turn it back on. The same can’t be said for Android. Unless I turn my Android devices off, they keep draining battery at a pretty astonishing pace.

All of this means that even if I avoid using the OLED screen whenever possible,4 the Yotaphone still has pretty mediocre battery life. That doesn’t mean that the e-ink screen is irrelevant to battery life, though. Having it means that I can read a book on my phone without draining the battery in a few short hours.

In other words, the e-ink screen doesn’t allow me to easily make it through more than a day on a single charge, but if I do something on my phone that requires me to look at its screen for long periods of time, it will prevent the battery from dying prematurely.

Hardware

The phone doesn’t have a replaceable battery or an SD card slot. I don’t mind the battery part that much, though I would prefer to be able to swap the battery. The missing SD card slot, though, is a bigger problem. The Note 3 I used previously had 32 GB of internal storage, and I added a 128 GB SD card. The internal storage held apps, the external storage held downloaded podcasts, photographs and movies taken with the phone, and similar data. As a result of this, I effectively did not have to care about storage space. Going from not having to even think about storage space to having to actively manage storage space sucks, and just shouldn’t be necessary anymore.

The phone’s front screen is covered with Gorilla glass 3, but for some reason, I’ve already noticed some faint scratches. They’re barely visible, but still; this is something I haven’t seen on a phone in a long time. It’s a 5 inch AMOLED screen with 1920 × 1080 pixels, which is more than good enough, even though it seems comically small after using 6 inch screens for years.

The back screen is also covered by Gorilla glass 3; at 4.7 inches, it has 960 × 540 pixels, a resolution of 235 ppi. I’d like it to be slightly higher, but it’s certainly good enough for most situations. The back screen is curved at the edges, which looks really cool (and makes the phone easier to hold).

Unfortunately, it can mean that it’s harder to find a position where there’s no glare on the back screen — a problem that Yota’s own picture of the phone shows beautifully.

The back screen’s texture makes it less reflective and helps make it less slippery, but when holding it «backwards», you’re effectively holding a slab of glass. This is particularly problematic when you put it down backwards on a table or sofa. If it’s not entirely flat, the phone will just slide away.

One issue I’ve noticed with the e-ink screen is that the Yotaphone is not great at detecting when it should do a full refresh. E-ink screens show a visible ghost of the previous image. To get around that, e-ink devices refresh the screen from time to time (turning the full screen white, then black, then white, resulting in a visible flash). Yotaphone’s built-in apps that are specifically designed for the e-ink screen know when to do that, but if you use normal Android apps on the e-ink screen, the phone seems to have some basic heuristics for deciding when to refresh the screen. Sometimes, this works well, but other times — when using the Kindle app, for example — the refresh is barely ever triggered, and ghosting starts to accumulate.

The only thing that should be visible on this screen is the book page’s text, and a page number and progress percentage at the bottom. Everything else is ghosting.

It’s not a huge problem, just a small detail that could likely be improved with a software update.

The device has 2 GB of RAM, which is not quite enough to run Android well. The Note’s 3 GB of RAM meant that I could easily run multiple apps and switch between them, but on the Yotaphone, I can barely switch between two apps without the first one being auto-killed.

The camera on the phone produces quite beautiful pictures, even in most low-light situations. It’s not quite fast enough — from lock screen to taking the first picture can take a few seconds, and there’s perceivable shutter lag. The camera sometimes has problems auto-focusing on objects close to the lens, but tapping on the screen to manually focus, and then taking a picture, usually fixes the problem.

Like the iPhone, the phone doesn’t have an LED. Personally, I really like notifications LEDs, since I tend to leave my phone lying around, and the blinking light tells me if I’ve missed any notifications. No such luck on the Yotaphone, though.

Integration

The Yotaphone 2 runs stock Android with some added features related to the e-ink screen. There are basically four different ways you can use the e-ink screen:

  • YotaPanel puts interactive widgets on the e-ink screen (alternatively, you can put a picture on there, but, weirdly, you can’t have a picture and some widgets)
  • You can take a screenshot of the front screen, and put it on the e-ink screen
  • Special e-ink apps can be launched from Android, and then take over control of the e-ink screen
  • YotaMirror allows you to use regular Android apps on the e-ink screen

Of the four, YotaPanel and YotaMirror are the most useful. The e-ink apps are cool, but there are only a few of them. Putting a screenshot on the back panel sounds useful (you might think that could take a screenshot of a train schedule, for example, and always have it available on your phone — even if it runs out of power), until you realize that the screenshot only stays on the back screen for a few mintues, until the phone decides to go back to showing your YotaPanel widgets. And once the phone starts running out of juice, it automatically puts an «I’m in battery saving mode» picture on the back screen.

YotaPanel and YotaMirror are really cool. Just being able to see the time without turning on the phone is actually more useful than I thought. I can’t help but think that there’s more you could do with a touchscreen on the back of the phone, though. How about using the back touchscreen to send touch events to the front touchscreen, for example? That would allow you to play games without covering the touchscreen with your fingers.

One interesting aspect of the Yotaphone is how the phone figures out which screen you’re using. Through experimentation, I’ve come to the conclusion that it uses both the phone’s orientation and its touchscreens to decide which screen you’re looking at. If your hand covers one of the screens, it assumes that you’re looking at the other screen. If it can’t tell based on that, it assumes that the screen pointing up is the one you’re looking at. In everyday usage, this works surprisingly well; at times, it’s almost spooky how well the phone knows what I’m doing. Lock the phone, turn it arouhnd, unlock it — now the other screen is unlocked. It’s not quite perfect, though. Every few days, I’m looking at the OLED screen, and it suddenly goes dark — because the phone somehow interpreted my hand movements as an attempt to unlock the back screen.

Android

Yotaphone’s e-ink screen has caused me to neglect my Kindle a bit, and do more reading on my phone. This has given me a renewed respect for Android, and really reminded me of why I switched from iOS to Android. Just the Kindle app alone is so much better on Android than iOS. It can use the volume buttons for turning pages, which works beautifully on the Yotaphone. And it has a built-in, fully integrated store!

But using it has also reminded me of the issues I have with Android, particularly with its hardware ecosystem. There are a ton of different Android phones, but they’re all variations on the same theme. The few phones that do something special typically only do one thing. You can get the waterproof phone, or the phone with the pressure-sensitive pen, or the phone with the superhuge screen, or the phone with the e-ink screen, or the phone with the multi-day battery life, or the phone that’s rugged and won’t break if it falls, or the phone that has a fantastic, fast camera, or the phone that has two SIM card slots, or the phone that has a lot of internal storage — but you can’t get a phone that does all — or even more than one or two — of these things.

My phone is probably my most used electronic device I own. I want to do sketches on my phone, but for that, I need a pressure-sensitive pen and a larger screen. I want to take my phone everywhere I go, but for that, it should be waterproof and rugged. I want to read books on my phone, and use it in bright sunlight, and for that, an e-ink screen is a fantastic feature. And so on.

The phone I want doesn’t exist.

Conclusion

The Yotaphone 2 is an incredibly beautiful phone with one incredibly useful feature. I just love going for a walk in the sun, turning on the OLED screen, seeing almost nothing, turning the phone, and being able to see its screen perfectly. I particularly love reading on this thing.

But this is also a phone that has quite a few flaws, and that I can’t easily recommend to most people. Unless you do a lot of things that work well on the e-ink screen, this phone is probably not for you.

For me, I love e-ink screens so much that I will put up with the phone’s problems, at least for now. In the long run, though, I wish that Android phone manufacturers would stop making «one special feature» phones, and instead start making more well-rounded phones that are aren’t kind of mediocre in every aspect except one.

Update

The Yotaphone has always been running quite hot. Now that it is summer in earnest, it often gets painfully hot. I could live with that; unfortunately, the phone seems to be throttling the CPU when it gets too hot, which, given the current weather, seems to be the case almost constantly. As a result, my Yotaphone has become quite slow recently. After a day in a hot office, it sometimes gets so slow that it takes the phone seconds to respond to any touch input.

Something else I’ve noticed is that the recent update to Android 5.0 has introduced a very odd bug in the Gallery app: it can take hours for pictures I’ve taken to show up in there. The main other problem the Android 5.0 update has caused is that the phone now seems to be even more memory-constrained, killing background apps even faster.


  1. By the way, comparing the Note 3 to the iPhone 6 plus makes the 6 plus look a bit ridiculous. It’s quite a bit larger than the Note 3, but its screen is visibly smaller; side-by-side, the 6 plus looks bulky, and its design seems wasteful. back

  2. And carry in a Mophie Juice Pack. back

  3. And assuming that the e-ink screen uses zero battery. back

  4. Technically, you could use the device without ever turning on the OLED screen. All you need to do is add the Android launcher as one of the apps that can be launched from the back screen, then unlock the back screen and start the Android launcher — voilà, you’re running Android on your back screen without ever turning on the OLED screen! In reality, some apps don’t work well on the back screen, because they require colors or a higher resolution than the e-ink screen provides to be properly usable. back

If you require a short url to link to this article, please use http://ignco.de/699

designed for use cover

But wait, there's more!

Want to read more like this? Buy my book's second edition! Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web is now available DRM-free directly from The Pragmatic Programmers. Or you can get it on Amazon, where it's also available in Chinese and Japanese.