Sprint Kyocera Echo Android Smartphone Brings Quality to Novelty

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2011-04-19

Sprint Kyocera Echo Android Smartphone Brings Quality to Novelty

It's hard not to look at the Kyocera Echo from Sprint as anything but a novelty device.

The Android 2.2 smartphone, which went on sale April 17 for $199.99 with a two-year contract, is a chunky little brick of a smartphone with two 3.5-inch WVGA capacitive touchscreens (800 x 480 pixels) stacked atop one another.

The screens are separated not by magic or wizardry but by a patent-pending pivot hinge that swings out and snaps into place to let the two screens sit side by side and form a 4.7-inch (800 x 960 pixels) display when opened. If this sounds tablet-esque, well, it is, but Kyocera calls it the industry's first dual-screen smartphone.

It's the type of device that would make Apple CEO Steve Jobs cringe because, far from being a sleek, simplistic device, the Echo tries to do a lot, straining toward conspiciousness. Open this phone on a bus or subway or in a Starbucks and you will call attention to yourself. And yet... it does most of these things quite well in spite of the funky form factor.

The Echo, which weighs a hefty 6.8 ounces and is 4.5 inches long, a narrow 2.2 inches wide and more than half an inch thick, can be used in four modes, all driving data with the help of a speedy, 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.

There is the traditional single-screen mode, which lets users consume apps, make calls, text, email and the litany of tasks users do with their smartphones these days. This use scenario performed well, allowing us to flit cleanly across five customizable home screens and access apps preloaded on the phone from Sprint, Kyocera and the Android Market.

Check Out This Kyocera Echo Photo Gallery

There is also the tablet mode, which sports a single application spread across both screens for a full 4.7-inch viewing area. This worked well for Google Maps and YouTube videos in landscape or portrait mode, despite the skinny frames that separate the displays.

To test data integrity between the Echo's dual screens, I downloaded Google Maps update in single-screen mode, then popped the hinge to tablet mode with both screens and the app finished downloading without delay.

Optimized mode is interesting because it lets users run one app across both displays with "complementary functionality." For example, when you text or email with both screens parallel, the compose window sits in the top screen in landscape mode, with the virtual keyboard commanding the second display.

In dialer mode, users can view the phone's contact directory on the top screen, and type phone numbers via the virtual dial pad on the bottom. Users can also scroll through thumbnail images on one screen while viewing an enlarged image on the other.

Kyocera even included an app for optimized mode called VueQue, which lets users watch a YouTube video on one display while browsing, queuing and buffering additional YouTube videos on the other display. This worked really well in a few tests.

The keyboard, by the way, was a joy to use. The Echo featured rich, large keys or integrated Swype gesture input, which is pretty ubiquitous on Android phones these days, for those who prefer it.

Kyocera Echo is a Multitasking Monster

Finally, there is the phone's raison d'??┬╝tre: multitasking via "Simul-task," a trademarked practice for running two different apps on each screen at the same time. Users may simul-task with seven core phone apps: VueQue, Web browser, email, contacts, photo gallery, text messaging and phone. Users can run two apps by tapping each screen at the same time.

This worked surprisingly well--pretty much like you'd expect apps to run on two different phones side-by-side with minimal latency or data delays. We checked ESPN.com scores on screen and Facebook News Feed. We composed and sent an email on one screen while a video played on VueQue.

This multitasking capability is the hallmark of the Echo and yet... it feels strained. Try watching videos while texting or playing the included Bandai Namco Pac-man app while e-mailing and you will certainly run out of patience, battery life or both.

Doing two things at once is hard, and while we can appreciate Sprint and Kyocera's efforts to market a multitasking phone, we're not sure it's needed. Indeed, there are plenty of debates about whether multitasking is really possible or if it just drains our attention.

Back to the Echo, which with 1GB of onboard memory and an 8GB microSD card for the external memory card slot, expandable up to 32GB, should meet most users' data needs.

Call quality on the Echo is fine and not at all echoey, with Sprint's 3G network solid in Fairfield County, Conn. But you have to be able to get over the fact that the phone is thicker than your typical smartphone.

That can be a challenge; you'd have to make calls comfortably with this phone and I'm not sure that's going to be the case for anybody but burly male users. It's too bad the phone lacked a front-facing camera to enable video chats so we didn't have to raise the phone to our ear; we found ourselves on speakerphone for a lot of calls.

The Echo-as-tablet use case is another matter. When the Echo's two screens are lying flat, the device presents the dainty tablet experience you might experience from a singular 4.7-inch display. Using the Echo in this manner was much more enjoyable.

In that department is a modest 5 megapixel camera with flash, autofocus and 2x digital zoom, with 720p HD camcorder capabilities. The Echo's camera won't be mistaken for the 8 megapixel cameras in its Android predecessors. Pictures we took and videos we shot were serviceable if unspectacular.

There is the requisite WiFi hotspot capability, which Sprint will let users access up to five computing devices for an extra $29.99 a month.

The battery life on the Echo is poor. You won't get through a full day with this 1370 mAh power source,  particularly if you are generating and consuming a lot of multimedia in simul-task mode on both Echo screens. That's why Kyocera offers not only a back-up battery but a cradle charger that plugs into an outlet to let users replenish the drained battery.

While this solves the power outage problem you have to ask yourself if you really want to be the guy who brings an extra battery to work at 8 and has to switch it out between noon and 3 p.m. If you're fine with that and you want people to look at your smartphone/tablet hybrid, you won't find a better gadget than the Echo.


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