Yota Devices YotaPhone dual-screen smartphone meets eBook reader pictures and hands-on

Russia: the first country to send a man into space, and now Yota Devices - a Russian firm little known outside of the Motherland - is set to be the first to launch a dual-screen smartphone - codename YotaPhone - to the market.

The YotaPhone is an Android smartphone with a 4.3-inch 720p HD display on the front and a 4.3-inch Kindle-esque E Ink screen on the rear. The best of both worlds?

Pocket-lint met up with Yota Devices' CEO, Vladislav Martynov, and COO Lau Geckler, to get a hands-on with a fully operational YotaPhone well ahead of its 2013 release.

First impressions? You know what, this isn't a bad idea. You've got all things Android to keep you entertained in that familiar fashion, as powered by a 1.5GHz dual core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor; flip the phone around and you've got the lower power consumption of an E Ink screen that's easier on the eye for reading. Both screens can run simultaneously but do individual tasks, and both sides of the phone have gesture control panels for dual control.

But don't throw away that Kindle or Nook just yet. The biggest hurdles we think the YotaPhone will face are all to do with the ongoing formats (cold) war, as well as the small-ish screen size.

READ: Barnes & Noble Nook HD review

In Russia sites such as Bookmate - which is available online, for Android, iOS, Windows Phone and more - are starting to cut through the format lock-down, but that's in the Russian language.

In the UK there are already both Kindle and Nook Android-based apps and Yota ensures us that these will be compatible with the device, including gesture-based page-turning abilities, without the need for the app to be updated. It would be great if that were to happen, but for now we'll just have to wait and see. As the E Ink screen isn't capacitive from top to bottom - only the lower panel can be used for off-screen control - this may make it tricky to sensibly turn a page when in the landscape format. But all this is yet to be seen as - at least where these particular apps are concerned - it's hypothetical for the time being. 

READ: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite review

At present there are a number of other novel (excuse the pun) uses for the E Ink screen, as supported by Yota's own built-in apps. Whether it's something simple like having a reminder on display, a permanent real-time calendar to sit face-up on your desk, or just a black-and-white wallpaper on the phone's rear, it's all possible. Standard apps, including Twitter, can also be mirrored on to the screen to update in real-time.

It's possible to flip through the various open panels on the E Ink screen as shown in a three by three grid-like display. Swiping between panels isn't particularly quick, however, which is a product of the less-than-swift E Ink concept.

There's one particularly clever quirk related to the E Ink display. As the screen can show a frozen-in-time frame even when the phone's battery has died, it may act as a saviour for those battery-depleted moments. Imagine, for example, the battery is running on empty and you need that all-important address, phone number, shopping list, or whatever it may be but know there's not enough juice left in charge. Not all is lost. With the YotaPhone a double-finger downward swipe motion on the main LCD will render an image on the E Ink screen that will remain there even if the battery has depleted. That could be a screen from Google Maps with a pinpoint marker, a copy of a boarding pass from a PDF document, or simply a grab from the contacts book.

An SDK will be available to developers so there's the potential for more specific apps to surface that make specific use of the second screen.

Although the YotaPhone is an Android phone at its core, Yota has made the decision to oust the standard three-button soft keys found on the front of the majority of Android smartphones. Instead, the company has implemented its own gesture-based system, with four main commands: a right-to-left swipe returns to the home screen; a half-way right-to-left swipe goes back a screen; a press-and-hold action brings up the multi-tab menu to jump between open apps; and a two-finger swipe from the top to the base of the main LCD will ping the screen or app over to the E Ink screen.

This set of controls might take a little getting used to, but Yota assures us that the phone will educate its users how it operates from the moment it's first switched on. We're not sure the gestures are entirely needed, though the screen-to-screen swipe motion is a firm favourite.

We snapped the YotaPhone next to a cased-up iPhone 4S to give a sense of scale. In the hand the YotaPhone feels sturdy, the slightly curved design is comfortable to hold; it's a good size and, at 140g, it's very similar to the Samsung Galaxy S III.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S III review

The prototype version we saw had a mag connector for charging, but this will be dropped in favour of mini USB when the final product goes into production. The battery is built-in, as is storage - 32GB and 64GB versions will be available - while the SIM slot is tucked away under the on/off switch to the top.

There are also two built-in cameras, a 12-megapixel main camera and a front-facing HD camera for face-to-face calls. We don't expect it'll be quite the Nokia Lumia 920 beater, but it sounds similar to the Sony sensor found in the latest Xperia S and Xperia T models, so should match up to those.

READ: Sony Xperia S review

Price-wise, Mr Geckler commented that the phone will be priced "like a premium Android product", so we anticipate that the YotaPhone will retail for a similar price to the Samsung Galaxy S III's original RRP upon its launch.

Worth the price? By the end of 2013 we think it will need a refresh to still be considered a premium device, because a year is a long time in the world of smartphones. Double the fun? We'll have to wait to find out just how well the final YotaPhone's E Ink display will hold up when pressed with UK apps - it's all about Kindle and Nook and how these translate on to that second screen.