E-ink paradise: The flip side of the YotaPhone 2

What does a second e-ink screen actually get you?

All e-ink displays have a few things in common — they work great in sunlight, the refresh rate isn't the best thing ever, and sometimes it's fun to put silly things on them just to see what happens. When the YotaPhone 2 slid across the desk, the first thing that surprised everyone was just how functional the e-ink panel is. The software driving this second display is the only thing that could even jokingly be considered bloat on the squeaky clean version of Android 4.4.3 being used here, and that software lets you use the e-ink display in some interesting ways.

The handful of apps that drive YotaPhone's e-ink panel are designed to make widgets a priority for users who need them, with tools to make switching back and forth between the two screens as effortless as possible. More importantly, the setup lends itself well to users who value personalization above all else.

The primary use for this secondary display is as a quick glance for notifications or music. The primary UI offers you four different panels that can be configured in dozens of different ways, giving you the ability to prioritize things like your calendar, Twitter, music playback, etc. without needing to wake the primary display and consume the extra battery life. Configuring this setup is easy, but has to be done on the color side though the YotaHub. You also have the ability to set a YotaCover, which acts as a sort of lock screen that reveals very little personal information. You can set your image of choice here, and the four bubbles at the bottom give you a quick glance at notifications.

YotaPhone Notifications

Actually interacting with notifications on the back panel is somewhat hit or miss. If you have a widget loaded on your YotaHub for things like SMS or email, you can choose to respond to messages or remove them like you would anywhere else. For more generic notifications, including apps that provide you with SMS or email but don't play nice with the Yota widgets, you're given an icon that tells you there's something waiting but tapping it prompts you to flip the phone over and interact on the color side. The only real convenience here is that the phone knows to just wake/unlock and let you access the notification just by flipping the phone, but otherwise it's fairly limited. The moral of the story is to set widgets in the YotaPanel for things you know you will use regularly, and you'll be rewarded with a glanceable experience that rarely requires your color screen be on while at work or out and about.

Outside of notifications, the Yota apps play very nicely with Google. Pressing play on the music player grabs whatever the last track you were playing in Google Play Music, the selfie camera on the black and white panel is straight from the Google Camera app, and you can choose to use Google Play Books out of the box for when you decide to use the e-ink side for reading. There's an included e-pub reader that handles third party formats a little better than Play Books, but both apps are within a thumbs reach when setting the panels up. The only real difference is positioning - YotaReader is set up as a full screen widget that you can use as one whole panel, while Play Books is an icon that launches the app on the e-ink side. Outside of the clumsy refresh rate that occasionally left us tapping twice or swiping one more time then necessary, the apps all performed exactly as expected. Occasional misfires aside, being able to look at directions in Google Maps or skipping to the next track in your playlist without really waking the phone is a fantastic experience.

A surprisingly big part of using the back panel of the YotaPhone 2 is screenshots. Recipes, ToDo lists, and really anything else you could want to stare at repeatedly without having to worry about the screen timing out or your battery draining is perfect for this second display. There's a special screenshot function built into the OS that makes it so you can swipe up as though you were headed to Google Now, and when the screenshot has been taken it is immediately pasted on the back panel.

YotaPhone Screenshot

The regular volume down + power method of taking screenshots still works, and there's a widget in the YotaPanel that allows you to sift through your screenshot gallery in case you have more than one thing going on in your life, but no matter how you get to it this is a fantastic way to make screenshots actually useful.

While the software driving the YotaPhone 2 offers up plenty to do on the e-ink side that is better optimized for glancing than a black and white version of the Android desktop, accessing that UI is not particularly far from the surface. You can navigate through the entirely of your phone from the back panel if you really want to, and in most cases the experience isn't bad. The low refresh rate means you see a lot of artifacts left over from the previous thing on the screen when swiping around, but it works. Video playback through apps like YouTube and Google Play Movies was the only thing that didn't work, but there's no real reason to assume it would. You get audio just fine, but the video never plays and you're left with a black screen. The one place this experience is absolutely amazing in is direct sunlight. If you want to do a quick search or send a message in Hangouts, the e-ink panel will beat your traditional glass-covered color display every time.

There's still a lot to explore with this phone, which is what happens when you have two displays with two mostly different interfaces, but as first impressions go the YotaPhone 2 gets plenty of style points. There's some bold claims in the UI about battery life management in YotaEnergy mode that we'll be taking a look at, as well as the rest of the bits that actually make this a phone. More than anything the e-ink side justifies any argument made in the future for a device with just this panel, which is a fun thought to have for the future.

Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • Would be nice if you were a heavy reader I guess and only wanted to carry one device. I am not though and would probably use a Kindle if I was into reading more. Would make for nice, high res selfies. Also, I bet always onscreen notifications would be pretty easy on the battery if you could set up such a thing.
  • Don't you... read this site quite often? ;)
  • And logic gets a square....and silence. Zenwatch rhymes with Winwatch. Coincidence? I think not.
  • Wondering if there will be clear cases for these phones. It is going to be kind of tough to do. I'll keep using my Note 4 with GrayScale in power saving mode active. Rooted LG G2.
    Rooted GS3, Stock Galaxy Note 4
    If it ain't Tech, it ain't Right!
  • As an avid reader, I'd get a lot of mileage out of this phone. Would have come in handy last week when I was stood up for lunch.
  • There are actually so many potential uses for this screen outside of reading ebooks. You can use it for writing documents, emails, SMS / IM, cooking recipes, maps... even social apps like Google+ / Facebook / Twitter would be okay, at least for the text portions.
  • Long battery life. You could keep that screen on the whole time with minimal battery use.
  • Absolutely - that's the primary advantage of the screen aside from how viewable it is in daylight. Using this screen well, the phone probably lasts comparatively forever!
  • Word on the street is that Tmo is getting this phone.
  • The street is wrong. Posted via Android Central App
  • Wrong Street! Posted via Android Central App- Via HTC One
  • Seseme is the street that has the word. Zenwatch rhymes with Winwatch. Coincidence? I think not.
  • Can someone please explain to me what the point of these cases are? ???
  • Customization.... Rooted Galaxy S III, Stock Galaxy Note 4
    Rooted LG G2
    If it ain't Tech, it ain't Right!
  • Make absolutely no sense.. All it does is mirror the main screen.. Pointless
  • Wow, did you even read the article??? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Did you even read it?
  • Not quite sure what you mean by "cases".  This is a phone.  The idea of the eInk panel is that eInk requires *zero* power, except when it is redrawing itself.  That means that you could pull up a map, and a book page, etc and it can sit visible on that screen all day without the display using an ounce of power. Could be great for things like notifications, too.  How often to "wake" your phone to check for eMails, SMS messages, etc?  With this device, they could just be visible on the back of the device 24/7, if you wanted.
  • This is truly revolutionary. Just wish it we made by a company that i know will still exist in a few years. I hope the big boys are taking notice and considering ways of adding e-ink to their phones. I'd really like it on the front as a very thin bar at the bottom that could display the Android notification bar when the phone was off, as well as the navigation icons when the phone is on. That'd be better than the static icons that HTC and the like use.
  • They could still exist if you bought their phones instead of waiting for another company to copy their idea. Plus, the Yota 1 was released in 2013 and they are still here standing.
  • Thought the first was a great idea, but this seems to execute the whole experience really well. I would definitely get one if it were cheaper. 95% of what I do would be better on eInk and make for fantastic battery life. The only way to do this better would be with a single high quality dual mode display and we are years away from that.
  • Now if someone would actually put out an e-Ink Android Wear watch. THAT is something I would buy.
  • Mirasol.... I need color. Rooted Galaxy S III, Stock Galaxy Note 4
    Rooted LG G2
    If it ain't Tech, it ain't Right!
  • Whatever. Some of us are just fine with existing e-Ink tech on a watch display. I use it for time, control, and notifications... none of those need color.
  • Man, I would love one of those new Dell tablets with an e-ink screen on the back.
  • What's the latest on color e-ink? I'd love to see a company take a chance on a low-end/mid-end e-ink only smartphone whose biggest selling point would be extremely long battery life.
  • The only color e-ink display I'm aware of is Mirasol, but it leaves a lot to be desired.  It can't do as many colors as your LCD screen does, the colors are *very* dull and you still have the same refresh problem of e-ink, in that it's very slow (compared to an LCD screen, anyway).
  • I wonder if there will be a Android Wear Widget? That would seem ideal for this. Posted via the Android Central App
  • This would be great as a shopping list when browsing in a store, not having to turn on screen a lot
  • Oh man, yeah. This would play really nicely with Keep and Evernote. Sent from my Nexus 5, behind six proxies
  • This honestly looks fantastic. I'm hoping this becomes normal in a lot more phones, just like dual front-facing stereo speakers. BUT!!... Maybe I missed a little detail in the video (watched it quietly), but that back panel is exactly where my fingers go most of the time. Does it only react when it's E-Ink facing up? Can you disable touch altogether on the back panel and have a neverending customizable back panel for just widgets and wallpaper? I'd sign up even if it was just that...
  • You have to swipe up from the bottom to activate the e-ink screen. Galaxy Note 4 Galaxy S III
    LG G2
  • The phone definitely seems to track which screen is facing up, so I imagine that it disables touch on the e-ink side, when that screen is facing down.  That said, e-ink screen *usually* have a plastic cover (don't know for certain about the YotaPhone) rather than glass and I'd be interested to see what the oils from your fingers do to that plastic after continuous, prolonged contact.
  • So you could do this with project Ara? Have an eink screen? Posted via Android Central App on 1+1
  • Just one question never asked and answered. Is the e-ink screen of the yota phone 2 support multi-touch ? It seems to support only single touch, right ?
  • I thought this was a terrific idea when it was first introduced!
    Even if some Android publications (*ahem*) didn't take it very seriously...
  • Me also.
    I hope it's still early days for this tech. Reading regular 'blue light' led screens 5 hours a day is not good for eyes and brains.
    More please.
    Can we have 5 way wheels and switches as well? (Or is that going back?) Posted via the Android Central App
  • Bigger size and the same price can do better i think, maybe the size of Galaxy Note 4. Other than that i suppose there is nothing to complain. It is definitely one of the best designs of these two years.
  • This looks really well executed! Any word on image quality from the cameras?
    Hope it becomes available in Scandinavia. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I would be very annoyed that that ad gets saved to the ink screen. Just my two cents. Posted via the Android Central App
  • You can only look at one side at a time. Unless you carry a mirror with you wherever you go. Pointless, tacky, gimmicky feature. Posted via BlackBerry Classic
  • I wouldn't go that far, but I'm not fan of this device, either. Posted via AC App on HTC One