Kyocera Echo in tablet mode

In all honesty, I don’t know what to make of the Kyocera Echo for Sprint except to say that it’s the second coming of the Motorola MPx. The circa-2004 MPx was a Windows Mobile phone with a dual-hinged clamshell design, a touchscreen, and about a million buttons. On paper, MPx could do it all, from flip phone convenience to touchscreen precision to full QWERTY ease of typing. In reality, MPx was way too much hardware for its software – and its user base – and barely saw the light of day. Sometimes an interesting idea is just too much too soon.

Sprint’s Kyocera Echo is a curious beast of the same ilk. On the one hand I scoffed at its introduction, wondering how two touchscreens joined by a giant, complicated mechanical hinge could possibly be better than a single large slab. On the other hand, I’ve been dreaming about exactly this sort of Transformers-esque shape-shifting gadget for years. Literally dreaming about it. I’m that geeky.

So which is it, Echo – are you an interesting idea gone wrong or the smartphone of my dreams? After a week with you, I think I’m ready to tell it like it is. Read on …

Echo Pros:

  • It’s unique
  • The software works well
  • Two touchscreens = Much flexibility
  • It’s unique!

Echo Cons:

  • Really, really thick and bulky
  • Double-width bezel splits the screen with plastic in tablet mode
  • Upper screen is wiggly in laptop mode
  • Who’s to say how robustly the software will be supported?

Best For:

Folks who really dig the unique concept.

Web Site: Sprint Product Page

Suggested Retail Price: $199 (on contract price)

Echo Design

Kyocera Echo single pane viewEcho’s whole raison d’etre is its unique dual-touchscreen form factor. Folded “shut,” Echo acts like a standard touchscreen Android phone, albeit one with an extra-thick profile. The 3.5-inch, 800 x 480 multitouch display is flanked by three capacitive touch buttons along the bottom edge, and more or less acts like a regular stock Android device. Using the phone in this single screen orientation is fine, though again, at 17.2mm from front to back, Echo is noticeably thicker than other Sprint Android phones like the Evo 4G (13mm), and a little chunkier than the QWERTY side-slider Evo Shift 4G (16mm).

But Echo wasn’t made to be used in single screen mode, at least not all of the time. Activate that hinge and suddenly you’ve got double the displays, double the physical and pixel screen size, and twice as many of those capacitive touch buttons (even if they’re just the same three buttons repeated). Echo was built to be used in either of two dual-screen modes: Angle the second screen up about 45 degrees from the first for a mini-laptop, or extend the second display all the way and flatten the thing out to form an “extended screen” tablet.

In theory this is a great plan, offering the best of all possible worlds in a way that the MPx couldn’t pull of in the pre-capacative age of touchscreens. In practice, Echo suffers from two design flaws that have stood in the way of its destiny throughout my testing of the device. First, in “laptop mode,” that upper screen wiggles. It’s loose enough that when I’m touch typing on the lower screen, the upper screen rocks back and forth just a little. This isn’t a deal breaker on its own, but given how solidly the phone snaps into tablet orientation – and stays put once it’s locked in – I was expecting more from this configuration.

Second, and more importantly, when Echo is folded open into tablet mode, the two displays are separated by a good eighth-to-quarter inch’s worth of black plastic bezel. Maybe you won’t care, but I found this to be a huge distraction. I tried to ignore it, honest, but when you’ve got a 960 x 800 display in your hand and your browsing the Web or playing Pac-Man and the screen is broken up right down the middle by a shiny black strip of plastic, well, it’s kind of hard to ignore. I really found myself quickly bored by the novelty of dual screens and instead wishing for a big screen phone like Evo or a true tablet. I think Kyocera did a pretty nice job with the hinge, I just wish they’d found a way to cut way down on the bezels.

Echo also features a 3.5mm headphone jack, microSD card slot, and 5MP camera with autofocus, flash, and 720p HD camcorder. I don’t mean to give any of those features short shrift, but really, the circus came to town advertising The Amazing Two Screen Phone, and that’s really the thing to focus on here, design-wise.

Echo Performance

Echo runs a heavily customized version of Android 2.2 Froyo. On the one hand you could complain about a phone that’s meant to be top shelf running an older branch of Google’s mobile OS. On the other hand, the amount of work that had to go into customizing Android’s UI and several apps to run on Echo’s various screen configurations dictated that Kyocera and Sprint go with a system version that’s been out – and stable – for awhile now.

Whoever logged time coding Echo’s software deserves a ton of credit; they did yeoman’s work and the system generally runs really, really well, dealing with single and dual screen setups, “extended” and “Simul-Task” configurations, and accelerometer-triggered auto rotations spanning all permutations of the above. But, like I said above, the software suffers at the hands of both Echo’s physical design and it’s raison d’etre in general.

Simul-Task is an arguably okay idea (it ain’t for me, but I could see how it might be for you), but it suffers from the reality of how small a smartphone really is. The feature allows selected applications to be run two at a time, one on each of the phone’s screens. Having two separate windows open on a 23-inch monitor or even 13-inch laptop screen is one thing, but when I was dealing with 3.5-inch displays, I found myself really just wanting to focus on one thing at a time – there’s only so much “at a glance” info to be gleamed from darting one’s eyes back and forth at dual handheld displays. Consuming Web/video/photo content on one screen while messaging someone about it on the other was, to me, the most practical use case.

Extended, or tablet, mode with a single app stretched across all 4.7-inch of display space suffered from “bezel interruptus” as previously described. I’d rather have a big phone with a big screen than deal with the annoyance of graphics and messages split down the middle by a quarter inch of black plastic.

The use case I was most excited about was Optimized Mode. Select of Echo’s apps, like Email, make use of both screens at once. A custom Email program allows you to flick through your Inbox on one screen while viewing the selected message on the other, or compose a missive with your content on one display and the soft QWERTY board in the other. Generally speaking this idea worked alright, but various issues crept up across the various apps that, again, left me wanting for a normal phone with only one screen. For example, that custom Email app just isn’t as nice to use as Android’s standard version, and the content on top/QWERTY on bottom scenario was only really useful with the device opened up to tablet orientation and held “the wide way.” Mini-laptop mode left me with an upper screen that wiggled and wobbled too much while I typed on the lower one, and tablet mode in portrait orientation yielded a soft QWERTY board crammed into only one of the two side-by-side displays. Without getting further into it, similar issues left me with the same overall feeling: Interesting idea, but just not worth dealing with in its current implementation.

Again, at the risk of glossing over the rest of the phone’s functionality, it works fine. Battery life is well below average if you use both displays on a regular basis. Echo doesn’t work on Sprint’s 4G WiMax network, but 3G and Wi-Fi data work well. Overall OS performance, Video playback, and still/moving image capture are pretty much on par with other mid-to-high end Android devices. Echo ain’t an Evo 4G, performance-wise, but it’s no slouch when it comes to the basics.

Conclusion

Kyocera Echo hinge

The rest of this review got so long that I’ll keep the summary short: Unless you’re really, really into the idea of a dual touchscreen phone, pass on Echo. Sprint is to be credited for continuing to push the envelope when it comes to trying to innovate on mobile products and services, and along with Kyocera they’ve certainly come up with a unique design. But for all of the hard work put into Echo’s software, its hardware is just too big, bulky, and prone to getting in the way for me to enjoy the experience.

Buying a device that relies on such a heavily customized version of Android – a unique version that, unlike HTC’s Sense, isn’t deployed across many devices – is a bit of a gamble for the consumer. Who’s to say how much support Kyocera and Sprint will put behind bug fixes, optimizations, and system upgrades once Echo is two, six, or twelve months old? Unfortunately, even the best software upgrade couldn’t fix Echo’s two main hardware problems: That big bezel and the upper screen’s tendency to wobble when folded into mini-laptop mode. For me, those are deal-killers, plain and simple.

Motorla’s MPx was a phone whose concept was ahead of the technology of its day. Kyocera’s Echo, on the other hand, may just be a phone whose concept came too late. For all it tries to do with hinges and layers of screens, I think a “plain old” giant touchscreen device really serves the same purposes better.