YotaPhone Gets Serious with Rear E-Ink Touchscreen, Better Specs

Never mind the old YotaPhone, here's the real YotaPhone.

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Yota Devices

A lot of look-alike smartphones will come out of Mobile World Congress this week, but the second-generation YotaPhone isn’t one of them.

The YotaPhone has a standard color AMOLED display on the front side, but flip it around, and you get a black-and-white e-ink display that’s always on. The e-ink screen uses hardly any power, so you can leave it on a desk or table for glancing at notifications (or a photo of your pet/loved one).

The second-generation YotaPhone should be a vast improvement over the original, adding a full capacitive touchscreen for the e-ink display and new features to go with it. Users will be able to respond to text messages, accept meeting invites, make calculations or play simple games like Sudoku or Chess, all without turning on the color screen. While we’ve some iPhone cases with e-ink screens on the back, it’s clear that YotaPhone can do more by building this functionality into the phone.

The next YotaPhone is also bulking up on tech specs compared to the original. Both displays are larger with higher resolutions (five inches and 1080p for the color screen, 4.7 inches and 960-by-540 for the e-ink screen). The processor is a much faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip, and the battery is larger. There’s still an eight-megapixel camera in back, but the front camera is now two megapixels. RAM and storage are unchanged at two GB and 32 GB, respectively. The phone also supports NFC and wireless charging, and it has a rounded design that should be more comfortable to hold.

If you’ve never seen or heard of the first-generation YotaPhone, which launched in December, that’s apparently intentional. Vladislav Martynov, CEO of Russia-based Yota Devices, said in an interview that the original YotaPhone was just a product for early adopters. It’s only available in Russia and a handful of European countries, and Martynov doesn’t intend to sell more than 100,000 units within the first six months. (Those who purchase the original YotaPhone will get a discount on the second-generation model.)

“We decided that the first generation would be more proof-of-concept,” Martynov said. “I would prefer that the product get in the right hands than have higher numbers.”


Jared Newman for TIME

The original YotaPhone

In the time I’ve spent with the original YotaPhone, I can understand why Martynov doesn’t want the whole world to see it. There aren’t currently a lot of useful applications for the e-ink screen, and the way you control it–by swiping on a touch-sensitive strip below the screen–is not intuitive. It’s still a delight when it works properly, but it’s a rough draft of what Yota wants to do.

Even if Yota wanted to mass-produce the original YotaPhone, it might not have been possible. Martynov said the biggest lesson Yota learned over the last year is how challenging it is to establish a supply chain.

“You can have a great idea, and even brilliant engineers who know how to get this idea to reality,” he said, “but to find a reliable supplier of components … and make sure they execute within the timetable and provide you with a competitive price, this is probably the biggest challenge in particular for a startup.”

Martynov said he spends much of his time meeting with suppliers in Asia, and is looking for long-term partnerships to build the next YotaPhone at a larger scale. That’s one reason Yota is announcing the new model well ahead of its intended year-end launch. He’s hoping the company can sell 1 million devices in a much broader range of countries, starting with Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Will we see the YotaPhone in the United States? Yota says that a version is coming in early 2015, but the company still needs to make deals with wireless carriers. Otherwise, Yota will have to sell directly to consumers at unsubsidized prices. (This isn’t as horrible a prospect as it used to be, with AT&T and T-Mobile both offering discounted service when you bring your own phone.) If Yota can make good on what it’s promising today, it might actually have a chance of standing out among high-end smartphones.