The YotaPhone 2, the successor to the original YotaPhone, was developed by a Russian company called Yota. Yota started off as a Russian mobile broadband provider and slowly began producing various pieces of hardware including smartphones. What really brought their attention to the rest of the world, however, was in 2013 when they demoed the original YotaPhone prototype at MWC 2013. They've since produced the YotaPhone 2 and I've managed to get my hands on one for review.
If you would like to see a gallery of photos of the smartphone, check out my unboxing and initial thoughts here.
The YotaPhone 2 measures in at 145mm x 69.4mm and it's 9mm at it's thickest point. It definitely doesn't feel 9mm at all though - the back of the phone curves off towards the edges making the phone feel very natural to hold. In fact, the entire device - barring the front display - has some sort of curve to it. It weighs in at a total of 145g (a little bit over 5 ounces) and features a 5" front display. Throughout this review I'll be referring to "front" and "rear" displays, because if it isn't already clear, this smartphone has displays on both the front and back. The rear display measures in at 4.7" inches. The rear color of the smartphone is a similar grey to that of the e-Ink display letting the rear display blend very naturally with the rest of the phone.
If Apple designed an Android phone, this would be it.
The front of the phone has no marks at all barring the front camera and speaker grill. The speaker grill has a horizontal oblong shape. Moving to the rear of the phone, it is also largely free of marks and completely smooth. There is a rear camera, a flash, and a small mark at the bottom identifying the phone as a YotaPhone. Aside from the aforementioned, there are no other marks, shapes or breaks on the front and rear panels of the smartphone, which makes it feel extremely luxurious. If Apple designed an Android phone, this would be it.
Moving on to the edges of the smartphone, there is a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, a volume rocker and power button on the left, and a speaker, microphone and mini-USB slot at the bottom. That's it. There are no other holes, no other buttons, nothing else around the phone. The SIM card is inserted inside the volume rocker - you literally eject the volume rocker with a small pin and place the SIM-card in the attached tray - and there is no expandable memory slot or a way to remove the 'back cover.' In essence there is no back cover - the back cover is a screen.
This phone has two displays - a front and a rear. The front AMOLED display measures in at 5 inches and has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, or 1080p. This gives it a pixel density of ~442 pixels per inch making everything as clear as you could imagine. The colors of the front display are vibrant and it really brought games like Asphalt 8 to life. The brightness is also great - for the first few days I hadn't messed with the default setting, but when I finally did, I was surprised that it was actually at a somewhat low setting which spoke, to me at least, as to how bright the display is. The blacks are very deep and I didn't have much trouble using the front display in sunlight.
The rear display is always on - even if the smartphone's battery is taken out.
Moving to the back of the smartphone, we get the rear display. The rear display is a true e-ink screen and measures in at 4.7 inches. It has a resolution of 540 x 960 giving it a pixel density of 235 pixels per inch and is able to display 16 different shades of grey. While this might appear off-putting at first, it is more than enough for its intended application and it works pretty great. The rear display is always on - even if the smartphone's battery is completely flat - and can be configured to display different pieces of information. On my specific setup, I found that having it report the remaining battery life, time, weather, music controls and notifications to be the best mix. This can be changed to a number of things, however, and we'll get to that later in the review. Be aware that this display isn't intended to be used to watch videos or play games - it has a very noticeable lag like any other e-Ink display. For reading books or playing a game like Chess, however, it is more than adequate. I found the digitizer on the back to have some issues, where sometimes when tapping on something it wouldn't register that it was touched and I'd have to tap it again.
The viewing angles on both displays was great and even at very extreme angles it was still as clear as it could be.
The smartphone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC. It has 2 GB of RAM, as well as 32 GB of internal storage. Inside the SoC, we have a 2.3 GHz quad-core Krait 400 processor and an Adreno 330 GPU. For the connectivity, it supports the latest 802.11ac WiFi and the standard Bluetooth 4.0, and it also has things like a FM radio receiver. It has Android 4.4.3 installed, which is just shy of the final KitKat build, but Yota informs me that the smartphone will be getting Android Lollipop in the near future as an OTA update.
I fear for how future-proofed the phone is.
The benchmarks were pretty surprising to me - I don't remember the Snapdragon 800 being able to perform so well. It hit a home run in almost every benchmark I threw at it, which is a great sign of the device's performance. The Snapdragon 800 is still a little bit disappointing though, as I fear for how future-proofed the phone is. Sure it can keep up with the last generation smartphones, but how about the next generation? for such a highly priced smartphone I would have expected at least a Snapdragon 801 or even a Snapdragon 805. At this point, the Snapdragon 800 is about two generations old.
UPDATE: Yota has informed me that it actually has a Snapdragon 801, not a Snapdragon 800 as mentioned above. This makes the SoC a lot more reasonable.
Games ran without issue - Asphalt 8 was completely lag free on the highest graphics settings.
That said, here are the benchmark scores:
- AnTuTu 5.6.1: 37,884
- 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited: 15,018
- Epic Citadel: Average of 58.7 FPS
- Geekbench 3: 883 on single-core, 2544 on multi-core
- Quadrant Standard: 17,255
The smartphone has a 2,500 mAh battery and although it has a 1080p screen, the battery doesn't struggle much. Unless you expect to play long 1080p videos then there wouldn't really be a situation where the battery life nosedives. I found that with all of my typical usage, on-screen time spent checking and replying to emails, playing games, using Twitter and making calls, I was still able to have battery left over at the end of the day.
The YotaPhone 2 does have a feature called "YotaEnergy mode" which claims to squeeze several hours out of the last 15% of the phone's battery. It automatically turns itself on once it reaches 10% (this can be set to a different percentage if wanted) and it works exactly as claimed - I'm able to go several more hours with a very small amount of battery life. The mode doesn't use voodoo or magic to achieve it though, it just switches off various radios, throttles the CPU, puts the phone into 2G mode, kills haptic vibration and reduces the brightness, among other things. It limits the smartphone to calls and text messages, which is useful in emergency situations.
The rear smartphone camera is a bit of a hit and miss. The camera is 8 MP, includes auto-focus and an LED flash. It has serious white balance issues which might be fixed if someone was willing to tweak it, but for the purposes of this review I left it as is. This wasn't always strictly a bad thing, especially outdoors where photographs turned out very nice. Indoors is where it suffered the most, though, even with natural lighting. I found that the camera wasn't able to correct well enough for it and photos came washed out. This may be fixed by using a different camera app (in the case of the YotaPhone 2, it uses the stock Google Camera app) but, to be honest, I tried to use different apps and the issue persisted. In the images below, you can clearly see the white balance issue on the food and PiPO X7 photos. The other photos were taken in direct sunlight, barring the photo of the glass which was taken with a flash at night.
You can actually use the rear camera to take selfies.
The front-facing camera was surprising though. Maybe its just been my luck, but most front-facing cameras I've played with have been fairly horrible. The YotaPhone 2's front-facing camera is only 2.1 MP, however, is extremely detailed and captured features surprisingly well. It suffers from the same white-balance issue as the rear camera, but it picks up details very well and the photos it takes are really crisp - much more than I would ever expect for just a 2.1 MP camera.
You may think that's the end of the story for the camera, but this is the YotaPhone 2! One thing I found really cool was that, because you're able to mirror the screen, you can actually use the rear camera to take selfies. What it means is that you can have the same higher-quality photographs of the rear camera to take the perfect selfie too - a really interesting and potentially unintended side effect of having two screens.
The YotaPhone 2 has Android 4.4.3 and it looks to be somewhat frequently updated - after first turning on the smartphone there was an OTA update available. Yota also informed me that a Lollipop update is on the way, understandably it has taken some time to produce because of the smartphone's mirroring software.
The launcher is largely stock KitKat, aside from the extensions for the rear screen. All of these modifications are under the hood, however, and you maintain the normal Android experience. This is something I'm fairly happy with as, at least personally, I view the stock Android experience to be more preferable than TouchWiz by Samsung and similar skins.
I won't focus on every app, however, I will focus on the app that customizes the rear display. This app is called YotaHub and occupies it's own tile in the home screen (removable, of course). It allows you to set up two things: YotaCover and YotaPanel. Basically, the rear display has two modes. One mode is largely static and displays an image with basic notifications (YotaCover) and the other is dynamic and can display whatever you want it to display based on your preferences (YotaPanel).
For YotaCover you can select any image or set of images you want (YotaPhone 2 comes with a bunch of them already supplied) or you can select photo albums from Facebook and Instagram. On top of the image there are four small notification bubbles, one for calls, messages, emails and 'everything else' in that order.
For YotaPanel, however, it allows the user to organize something a lot more complex.
For YotaPanel, however, it allows the user to organize something a lot more complex. There are 9 different 'grids' to choose from, each having a different layout with different numbers of sections. Within each section in the layout, a user is able to add in widgets. Some widgets can only be displayed in certain sized sections (such as the clock and eBook widgets) however most widgets can go into any sized sections. The YotaPhone itself comes with a set of about 14 default layouts.
The widgets include apps launchers, a calls widget, a calendar, clocks, contacts, music controls, weather, and so on. In total there are about 20 or so different widgets to choose from, and also include widgets for things like Twitter, RSS and various games. Most of the widgets have a rich settings menu allowing the user to customize them with a high level of detail, including how often they're updated (if at all).
Most would probably be asking at this point what the benefit of the YotaCover is if the YotaPanel is so feature-packed, and the answer to this is simply privacy (for both of them). When on public transport or in a meeting you may not want to have certain 'constantly updated' information be shown to the people around you. This could be emails, RSS feeds, or SMS messages. On the other hand, a user may not want to show a family photograph or similar on the back of the phone and can quickly change to something more general like a clock.
It allows a high level of personalization - something which is always welcomed.
Regardless, a user is able to set up (as far as I can see) as many as they want of either of the above, and navigating through them is as simple as pressing one button on the back of the phone. A user can set up multiple different panels to display different information and cycle through them as needed. It allows a high level of personalization - something which is always welcomed.
The OS wasn't all sunshine and lollipops, however. I found a bug where the smartphone's screen can be activated via touches and swipes. I don't believe this is a feature of the phone, as it doesn't always work and it's not easy to replicate. But when it does work it can lead on to a worse bug I discovered where the smartphone's display simply stops responding to touch. After activating the screen by swiping about a dozen times, I found that the digitizer simply became unresponsive. I was able to unlock the phone with the physical button, but no soft interaction with the front panel was responsive. I tried switching the smartphone off, but even after holding the power button, I was only greeted with a menu on the display asking whether or not I want to turn the phone off. Because the digitizer wasn't responding, that menu was obviously useless. I tried fiddling around with the rear display, but wasn't able to get to an option that would allow me to switch the smartphone off. I eventually asked a friend to send me an SMS message (just out of the hope it would let me do something) and after some more playing around, it suddenly became responsive again. I'm not sure if both of those bugs are related, or if it's just a one-off situation, but it was enough to ruin an otherwise extremely fluid experience.
The smartphone comes with the standard array of Android apps, as well as the full range of Google apps like Gmail, Google+, Photos and Drive. It features its own in-house created apps placed on a folder on the homescreen titled YotaApps. These apps revolve around the rear display, and include an RSS reader, a Chess game, a Checkers game, Sudoku, a game called 2048, an eBook reader and a tutorial app showing how to set up and use the smartphone's second display. The Yota apps can only be used on the rear display, and trying to use them on the front display asks you to turn your phone over and user the rear display.
I really dislike the bumper, even if it is a necessary evil.
The smartphone comes with headphones and, at least in my case, it came with a bumper as well. I really dislike the bumper, even if it is a necessary evil. The bumper takes away from the 'premium' feeling of the phone, it makes the phone feel a bit stranger to hold, and it also makes the phone feel a lot heavier. One thing I really found annoying was that the bumper felt loose around the volume and power buttons. It made pressing the buttons (a lot) more physically tougher and 'squishy.' I kept it on for almost the entire two weeks I had with the phone - having two screens you can't really not use it. Any drop could be catastrophic, and you need some sort of barrier between the smartphone and the displays so that you're not resting the smartphone directly on the screens.
Just in case: that stuff on the ear buds isn't something out of my ear. That image is from the unboxing and was some sort of dust.
The headphones sounded great, and they looked really nice as well, maintaining the premium feel of the smartphone. Although not really accessories, I'd like to comment on both the SIM-card pin and the charger. It is clear that Yota really dug deep into the details - the charger looks extremely well made and it is designed extremely well. The SIM-card pin - the thing you use to eject the SIM-card - is encased in rubber with a hole that would allow it to be attached to a key ring. This is great foresight from the company and speaks to the premium and luxurious elements mentioned earlier.
The YotaPhone 2 is definitely ahead of it's time, for good reasons and for bad ones. I found the rear display extremely useful and the customization to be flexible, but outside of superficial benefits I can't see it as being something I can't live without.
In one case, I did miss having the rear display as I got used to turning my phone over to see the time, but otherwise it leaves you hungry for more. I want to use the full Android OS with it, but the slow refresh and lags make that very difficult. The rear display is sometimes unresponsive, so you have to press on something more than once, and nothing is more annoying than a display not registering a touch. All of that is not the root cause for the disappointment though: the smartphone itself isn't very special.
Outside of the rear display, everything else is fairly average. The camera isn't mind-blowing, the Snapdragon 800 SoC is somewhat outdated, it doesn't have dual speakers, it doesn't have unbelievable battery life - it simply doesn't do anything, outside of the rear display, which justifies the price tag. The YotaPhone website prices it at £555.00 which is about €757 and USD$859. In Australia, Expansys (who provided the smartphone for review) is selling the YotaPhone 2 for AUD$854. Compare this to ~£350 for a Samsung Galaxy S5 and it leaves a lot to be desired. Although the technology is wonderful, it appears that the cost of producing such a phone is still too high to be competitive with the standard single display smartphones.
Still, if I was willing to spend such a high price on a new smartphone, I would definitely go for the YotaPhone 2 before I would go for the similarly priced iPhone 6.
If you would like to see a gallery of photos of the smartphone, check out my unboxing here.
UPDATE: Yota has informed me that it actually has a Snapdragon 801, not a Snapdragon 800 as mentioned in this review. This makes the SoC a lot more reasonable and in line with various other smartphones.