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YotaPhone 2: Finally, a New Way to Last All Day

YotaPhone_Suite

If you're like everyone else – and who isn't these days? – you love your smartphone but hate its poor battery life.

Me too. I've been on a search for a smartphone that can stay powered all day on a single charge since, well, since I bought my first smartphone.

That's why I was so anxious to test the YotaPhone 2, a new smartphone from Russian electronics supplier Yota Devices. It tackles battery life in a novel way: by moving activity off the power-hungry screen and onto a low-power e-reader display on the flip side. And it's always on. That, more than all-day battery life, could turn out to be a groundbreaking feature that makes the smartphone far more accessible and useful than it is today.

Save for a few advanced features, the YotaPhone 2's spec sheet reads like many of last year's top-of-the-line Android devices. And yet, it's only now making its way into the US. It just went on sale last week on the Indiegogo crowdsourcing site for delivery in August.

The rear-facing electronic paper display is a little smaller than the color display. It supports 16 shades of grey – not enough for a full-length film but plenty for these purposes. And it does support touch. And, as I mentioned, it's always on.

More precisely, it's mostly off. The e-paper display burns little power because it doesn't need to be refreshed. So unless something changes, it's just sitting there drawing about as much juice as a chalkboard. A color display refreshes dozens of times a second, whether there's change or not.

From the minute I opened the formidable packaging, I was captivated by the rear display. It's almost other-worldly. The screen blends so well with the back cover that the crisp white images seemed like silk-screened branding. I actually stared at the clock widget to see the time change, just to prove to myself that it actually was a display.

Back-screen images remain viewable even when the phone is powered down, which is a little creepy at first. It's kind of like staring at someone sleeping with their eyes open.

The rear display can either work independently, or function as a gray-scale version of your front-facing setup. You can configure any number of pages, and then leave the one you're interested in.

The default home page features an attractive clock face, weather and alert widgets. But there are many possibilities, and many more coming.

Soon you start to appreciate how valuable the second screen can be. Like for keeping tabs on sports scores, reading books and tracking fitness.

And to be able to do all that outside is freeing. Indeed, the reflective display really shines (sorry) here in the intense desert sun. Reading the paper or doing crosswords by the pool just isn't possible with a color screen. It's hard enough just to see who's calling.

It is sometimes difficult to read the rear display in low-light situations. And it certainly won't be your go-to display for playing games or watching videos. I actually tried watching a YouTube cat video on the rear display. Passable, yes. But I'm over the novelty of that. Now I just flip the phone over and use the color display.

Possibly the biggest drawback of the Yota Phone 2 is that there's glass on both sides. Which means that the phone will careen across your dashboard faster than a tennis ball. It also means that you've got twice the number of glass panels to crack. For both reasons, the optional protective bumper is not an option. It's an absolute necessity.

So, does the YotaPhone 2 get you that all-day battery life? Possibly. I did make it all day a few times. One day, though, I leaned heavily on the GPS to navigate San Francisco's urban canyons. I ran out of juice around dinnertime and had to ask directions. I had to ask directions.

A couple of variables make that difficult to judge. For one, I have a phone with very early firmware. That cuts both ways. Later revisions are bound to be better at managing power. But it also hasn't spent much time on my carrier's LTE network, and LTE burns more power than 2G and 3G.

One final consideration. I'm not very good yet at making the best use of the rear-facing display. That's not a knock on the phone. It's actually well implemented and easy to learn. It's just that old habits die hard.

For example, I catch myself lying the phone down on the always-on display so that the now-dark color screen faces up. And even when I remember to point the backside upward, I sometimes flip the phone to check messages even though I've got visible alerts on the always-on display.

I don't mind learning new habits. Not when I can sense the payoff. And, I suspect, you won't mind either.

Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of this phone has been showing it to others. I love watching their faces as they take in the concept and begin to comprehend the possibilities. It's been quite a while since a feature or device has captured imaginations like this.

Yota execs also understand how big this always-on concept can be, and they want to be sure they get it right. They supply a few basic apps to get us going, but their hope is to entice developers to write for the rear display. They'd much rather have a Kindle reader and an ESPN scoreboard than their own home-grown apps. They've already signed several, like MusixMatch and Bookmate. And more are on the way.

And to think, the only thing I wanted from the Yota Phone 2 was all-day battery life.

** This is an updated version of the original, which was published in USA TODAY. **