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A closer look at the YotaPhone launch: Too pricey for the specs?

The continued popularity of Kindles and other eBook readers makes it clear there is still a lot of interest in E-ink displays even as tablet sales soar. However, this display technology is severely limited – it’s hard to imagine leaving the house with only an E-ink screen. If the YotaPhone proves to be a success, you might not have to choose between the battery savings of E-ink and the power of LCD. This device, which has just been launched by Russian company Yota, runs Android 4.2.2 with a regular LCD on the front and an E-ink screen on the back.

The rear-facing 4.3in screen is not simply a dedicated e-reader, though. Carrying a phone that contains all your personal information around in your pocket leads you to wake it up quite a lot – sometimes just to check the weather or time. You don’t really need a backlit LCD screen refreshing 60 times per second to check email notifications, right? Cumulatively, this works out to be a big drain on battery life over the course of the day, as Android’s stock battery usage monitor will tell you. The YotaPhone puts relevant content on the back E-ink panel so you don’t have to fire up that power-hungry LCD as much.

Yota will include custom software designed to work with the rear panel that can show you Twitter notifications, email, SMS, RSS feeds, or even Google Now. The company is also working on an API for developers to create new E-ink apps for the YotaPhone. One thing that will be a sticking point is the lack of an official eBook service in most countries. The device is on sale in Russia first, but will then expand to other regions. Yota is partnering with Bookmate in Russia, but there’s nothing in the works with Amazon for Kindle support. (Read: The smartphone is the PC of tomorrow).

The YotaPhone was first shown off at CES almost a year ago (we subsequently spent some hands-on time with it at MWC 2013), and the specs listed at the time were definitely high-end. However, in the intervening year Android devices have continued their rapid advance in the hardware department, leaving the YotaPhone looking a bit dated. This phone packs a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro (first-gen Krait cores clocked at 1.7GHz), 2GB of RAM, a 4.3in 720p LCD, and an 1800 mAh battery. The E-ink screen is the same size, but only 360 x 640 resolution.

The YotaPhone is priced like a premium handset too – it’s going for €499, or around £415. For that price, other Android devices are shipping with quad-core ARM chips based on faster processing cores and 1080p screens. Even factoring in the reported 15 per cent increased cost for the E-ink screen technology, this is still a pricey device for the specs. The battery might seem a little small too, but that’s kind of the idea. You should not need as much juice with the YotaPhone.

Yota plans to sell the device in Europe and the Middle East after the Russian debut, but any plans beyond those are unclear. Maybe this handset is a gimmick, or maybe it’s a revolution – we shall just have to wait and see.