YotaPhone 2 hands-on: this two-sided phone is doubly impressive

Yota Devices has turned many a head during its short tenure as “the maker of a smartphone with an e-ink screen on the back.” But the company is looking to move beyond gimmick, and potentially into North America, with its latest smartphone, the YotaPhone 2.

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While the Russian company has backed away from the eyebrow-raising report that it was moving its moving its headquarters to Waterloo to take advantage of engineering talent jettisoned from BlackBerry, at CES this week, Matthew Kelly, Managing Director of the Americas for Yota Devices, told us that he’s had positive talks with numerous Canadian carriers to potentially bring YotaPhone 2 to Canada.

YotaPhone 2 is better seen than described, since the utility of adding an e-ink display to a smartphone may at first appear limited. But the devil is in the details here, and Yota Devices has pulled off quite an accomplishment, creating a great Android smartphone first that happens to be enriched with a rear-side monochrome display.

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Of course, the first thing you think of is that the 4.7-inch e-ink display would be perfect for reading books in the sun, where typical LCD panels are at their worst. But the panel has more utility than that: it has a select number of native apps that run without engaging the front panel at all; and it can mirror content on the LCD display in real-time without consuming the same amount of battery, potentially extending the phone’s battery life.

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The front of the device — the true front — has a 5-inch 1080p LCD panel, and it looks great. The quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor keeps things moving quickly, and there is 2GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage to ensure things don’t get bogged down with too much content on-board.

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The phone runs a modified version of Android 4.4 KitKat, and the company has released an SDK so developers can build native app experiences on the e-ink side. Kelly told us that he expects people will engage with the e-ink display more than they realize, especially as companies like Kobo, which he has spoken with, build native apps for YotaPhone 2.

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The handset looks like a slightly larger Nexus S, is kept going by a 2,500mAh battery, and appears to be much more well-made than its predecessor, which had a lot of problems.

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At the moment, the YotaPhone 2’s biggest issue is its constrained availability. Kelly says that the company is building as many of them as they can, but production is slow and resources limited. A North American push appears to be imminent, but at the moment the only way to get one is to order it from the company’s UK portal for £555.

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