Woe is the smartphone carrier and manufacturer that tries something new, apparently. That much was apparent from the comments before, during and after Sprint's unveiling of the Kyocera Echo dual-screen smartphone at a special event in the Edison Ballroom in New York City. You folks out there certainly made your feelings known.
But we've actually had some time with the Echo. And it's certainly not as far to one end of the spectrum as you might believe. After the break, we get into our initial impressions of the Sprint Kyocera Echo and its crazy two-screen self. Read on!
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Let's talk about the form factor a little bit. On one hand, you have what for all intents and purposes is a fairly normal mid-level phone. One 3.5-inch screen, three capacitive buttons (we prefer four) volume rocker, power button, 3.5mm headphone jack. Qualcomm Snapdragon processor at 1GHz, 512MB of RAM. Typical smartphone.
But tucked under is that second 3.5-inch touchscreen. It's got a clever hinge mechanism that allows it to tilt toward you slightly, much like a laptop with two panels might. Or it can lock into place, giving you one massive 4.7-inch display. As you might suspect, it's not a seamless display when you're rocking all 4.7 inches -- there's a thin bezel that bisects the screens. It's not as pronounced as you might think, but neither is it as invisible as Sprint and Kyocera might have you believe. Chances are you'll get used to it over time, but it's certainly noticeable.
Let's just cut to the chase: The screen (erm, screens) is somewhat of a novelty. Is it cool to be able to have the Facebook app in one pane, and Twitter in another? Sure. Just how useful that is depends depends on your needs, we guess. Sprint calls it "Simultasking."
In Google Maps and Street View, it's pretty darn cool. But, again, that bezel. Not the end of the world, but it's just not the same as having a really large screen. E-mail and text messages were actually pretty cool, however, with your inbox on one side and the messages on the other. Add in some of the "fragment" features we saw in the recent Android 3.0 Honeycomb demonstration, and this could turn out pretty sexy.
There are a handful of gestures with which you can manipulate how apps display on the screens -- whether it's one app on both screens, two apps on two screens, swapping, etc. Do we remember them? Nope. Let's hope there's a tutorial on initial setup to walk users through them.
Where we can really see the dual screens being useful is with games. And let's face it -- the Echo pretty much looks like a Nintendo 3DS. Sprint says it'll be releasing an SDK for developers to really take advantage of those screens, and that it'll be available before the phone launches "this spring."
The phones we got to play with were all preproduction units, so there were a few hiccups here and there. But for the most part, interacting with the two screens was pretty smooth. Obviously, tossing a dual-core processor into the mix (again, we need those damned Honeycomb APIs) wil make things even better, but the Echo as it stands should be pretty useable. The hinge mechanism has a half-dozen patents involved. And for as complex as it is -- it does take a little geting used to forcably snapping the two screens apart to go back to a more normal phone mode -- it's also very sturdy. It kind of made us think of some of those high-end car stereo displays that fold out and fold under. Complex, but they work.
Where we do worry a little bit is with battery life. Pushing pixels is tough work, and doing so on two screens is doubly tough. Sprint's generously included a second 1370mAh battery with the Echo, and it also comes with a handy external charger that lets you juice up a spare battery to swap in at your leisure. (To that end, removing the battery cover is a breeze.) Or, you can use it as a battery bank and plug the charger (and charged spare battery) into the Echo, no mucking about with battery swaps.
Exactly how will the battery perform in real-life use? We'll just have to see. But at least Sprint's being proactive with a potential problem. Give them credit for that.
In talking with Sprint and Kyocera executives, they both describe the Echo as a Version 1 product. It's a bit of an experiment, for sure. But in a world of black slab after black slab, it's at least entertaining to see something a little different. It will be interesting to see how Sprint markets the Echo -- if they get some major gaming developers on board by launch time, it could possibly get more traction. Maybe the phone will take off. Maybe it won't. But we'll tell you this -- you need to at least try it before badmouthing it. There's possibly a market out there for it. How big? We'll have to see.