Sprint, Kyocera's Echo Phone Gives Android New Hardware

Sprint and Kyocera introduced the dual-screen Echo smartphone, running Android 2.2. But can the unique-looking device combat the iPhone 4, plus other Android upstarts?

More screens means greater efficiency. That's the theory behind installing two of them side-by-side on your desk at work, or a Wall Street maven's bank of flat screens in their workspace. Laptops are starting to get in on it, too, whether in the form of an upcoming Acer laptop with dual touch screens, or other manufacturers' models whose screens telescope out for a wraparound effect.

Now, evidently, it's time for the dual-screen philosophy to make its way to smartphones. On Feb. 7, Sprint hosted a high-profile event in New York City to debut the Kyocera Echo, an Android smartphone with two 3.5-inch WVGA touch screens connected by a hinge. All in all, the Echo is 4.53 inches long, 2.23 inches wide, and 0.68 inches thick.

Depending on that hinge's angle, those screens can perform multiple functions. Slide one over the other, the Echo looks and feels like a somewhat thicker single-screen smartphone. Slid flat and side-by-side, the smartphone offers a 4.7-inch screen (broken by the hinge) for displaying movies and other media (each screen offers 800x480 resolution). One screen tilted at an angle to the other allows for typing on a virtual keyboard, on one screen, while viewing, say, e-mail or Facebook on the other.

The two screens can also run two applications "simultaneously and independently," as Sprint CEO Dan Hesse told the audience at the New York City event. In other words, there's high potential for versatility here. For business users, the smartphone will support Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, in addition to POP and IMAP e-mail accounts.

The Echo relies on Android 2.2 and a 1GHz Snapdragon processor as the foundation for its various functions. That's generally the standard for Android-based smartphones these days, and it suggests the Echo will be able to perform with the same speed and power as other devices in its class. For the particularly gadget-happy, the Echo can act as a WiFi hotspot for up to five devices.

In a Feb. 8 conversation with eWEEK, Sprint and Kyocera executives seemed intent on separating the Echo from other plus-sized devices walking the line between tablets and smartphones, such as the Dell Streak. The Echo's "tablet mode emulates some functionality of a tablet, but it's not a tablet," said David Owens, Sprint's vice president of consumer acquisition. "It's a phone first."

Those executives offered eWEEK a brief up-close look at the Echo, including a run-through of its video-playing capabilities (using "Avatar," inevitably), e-mail (you can sort through an e-mail box on one screen, while viewing individual e-mails on the other) and games (The Sims). Unlike many smartphones currently hitting the market, the Echo doesn't feature front- and rear-facing cameras for video conferencing; there's a single 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, paired with the usual Google software for image-snapping and storage. The Echo will come with an 8GB microSD card and support up to a 32GB card.

Sprint likely hopes the Echo's form-factor will distinguish it within an increasingly crowded Android smartphone market. Certainly the carrier needs a new top-tier smartphone in the spirit of last year's Evo 4G or Epic 4G, powerful devices in their own right but ones that, given the rapid pace of smartphone evolution these days, risk looking antiquated. Indeed, with rivals busy rolling out 4G capability, once touted by Sprint as its primary competitive differentiator, the company needs something altogether new and shiny to maintain its market niche-and evidently, that means dual screens.

It also means stretching the battery life. Kyocera apparently plans to ship the phone with two batteries, alongside a charger capable of charging the phone and a second battery at the same time.

The Echo will arrive sometime this spring for $199 with a two-year contract and a $100 mail-in rebate. Whether it manages to wrest market share from the Verizon iPhone, Windows Phone 7 and its Android cousins remains to be seen. One thing's for certain, though: Sprint and Kyocera will have one of the more unique-looking devices on the market.