Rating: ★★★½☆

For me, a full blown tablet is nice real estate wise, but it can be tedious to type on. By contrast, a smart phone is nice and handy for thumb pecking out email and posts to Facebook, but the screen is so darn small. If only there could be something in the middle which would offer larger screen real estate and still let me type on the go. Enter the Sprint/Kyocera Echo.

The Echo is an interesting, dual screen smart phone, with twin 3.5” WVGA screens which separate thanks to an ingenious hinge, allowing for single screen phone use or dual screen tablet mode (where it stretches out to 4.7 inches square). And I have to say that the hinge had me a bit worried when I read about it. I had this ugly image of the hing breaking after a few months use, leaving angry users stuck with an expensive repair or replacement bill because they aren’t eligible for a new phone. But Kyocera has made the hinge design pretty robust and after a few months of daily use, it isn’t even loose. Hats off for making a tough design.

In addition to the tablet mode and single screen mode, there’s also a SimulTask app, which allows you to use the screens independently, or in concert with one another. This is easily seen with the Billiards game app which shows an overhead view of the pool table on one screen, and the playing view on the other. Or the YouTube screen which gives you the video on one screen and a list on the other (YouTube can also play in Dual Screen mode). When in dual screen mode, the Echo enjoys a full 960 x 800 screen resolution keeping it in league with its big brother tablets running Android 3 (Honeycomb). But in full screen mode, users do have to accept that line of separation in the middle between two screens.

The Echo uses Android 2.2 (Froyo), and that’s where there’s a bit of a drag. It’s an older version of the Android OS, and that makes it feel a bit like last year’s news since the world has moved on to vs. 2.3 (Gingerbread) and beyond. Even though it’s powered by a 1GHz Snapdragon processor with 1GB of RAM on board, it still doesn’t have the latest Android software update – which it is by no means alone. In a rush to get phones out, manufacturers have been willing to go with last year’s OS with the promise of an eventual update. But even then, updates like Gingerbread are being stalled by carriers who are skittish about being in the rapid fire update cycle that is Android.

On the other hand, the Echo’s advantage is that it’s pretty close to a pure Google experience. It isn’t bogged down with annoying overlays like TouchWiz. But frankly, as an Apple snob, I’m still not an Android fan. I can see how others are, mind you, Android is to PC as iOS is to Mac. But for me, the iOS interface is simply more elegant and intuitive. Still, the Android OS and its market downloads work well, and with its market saturation, it will take over the smart phone world. And that’s OK by me, as it will leave me and my precious little iPhone right where we belong, in the niche market.

Another lagging indicator is that unfortunately, the Echo is a 3G phone – meaning it won’t work on Sprint’s emerging Wimax 4G universe. Therefore, speed wise, it’s definitely in an “also ran,” second tier category. No real need to go into details here. If you have 4G now, you know. If you don’t, then you don’t really know what you’re missing. But since the Echo came out about the same time as 4G, I’m a bit puzzled as to why Sprint didn’t ride the unique train one stop further and push for 4G in the Echo. But I would have a hunch that battery life is at least part of it since 4G users complain they can’t get through the day. Add a second screen and the Echo at 4G would be abysmal.

Other features include a single, rear facing 5MP camera with flash, auto focus and a 2x digital zoom that shoots HD video in 720p. Again, this is where the Echo feels like yesterday’s news as it won’t be able to enjoy one wireless’ growing new applications – video chatting. Without a front facing camera, a user is simply left in the dark being unable to do video Skype or Tango with their friends and family. Digital stills with a 5MP camera are marginal in an 8MP+ world, which is really too bad. But at least its a camera that can capture that “Kodak moment” when it comes, and you can’t juggle the phone to dig the still camera out of your bag. But you’ll be wishing you had, as the Echo’s camera provides picture quality that’s just OK. Last year, it would’ve been tops.

As for battery life, here’s where things get interesting. When we first saw the Echo unfold and turn on (which takes longer than we had hoped, BTW), we were convinced it would suck the life out of its 1370mAh battery faster than a 10 year old downing a Slurpee from 7-11. After all, running dual screens should mean twice as fast. But we were surprised that with modest use, (checking your email, doing some surfing, and then a session or two of Angry Birds just to break the day up) the Echo could last the day. But with heavy use (like when I gave it to my son Cody and told him to play games and watch videos till it was dead), it ran out of battery life by lunchtime making heavy use of the dual screen for entertainment albeit guaranteeing you’ll be plugging it in to recharge at least once throughout the day. Or, you can use the backup battery unit that Kyocera includes which plugs directly via microUSB (a rather quirky option) and also doubles as a charger. And what I like about this addition is that while phones like the HTC Thunderbolt lived in denial about its bad battery life until it was forced to provide an extended life battery (at an additional price, mind you), Kyocera is up front about it saying with a dual screen … it is what it is.

So, what is there to say about the bottom line of this odd little duck? Well, to be frank, it’s more a toy than a phone. It works fine as a phone, but it seems to me that makes for a better mobile media/gaming device than a workhorse smart phone. But that isn’t all bad. If you definitely like the eclectic, like the idea of a larger screen when you need it and longer battery life when you don’t, the Echo gives you the best of both worlds. But if you want speed, higher performance from your camera and options like video chat, then it’s time to move on to a 4G phone with dual cameras, not dual screens.
Pros:

  • Dual WVGA Screen that can be used in tablet mode or separately.
  • Collapsible for regular phone calls and to fit conveniently in purse or pocket.
  • Slim in dual screen mode, but bulky folded up.
  • Standard MicroUSB charge/sync cable
  • Extra battery unit

Cons:

  • “The line” of the dual screen
  • Android. 2.2 makes it yesterday’s news (update: 2.3 is now available)
  • As does its single 5MP rear facing camera.
  • Not 4G
  • Battery life, depending on if you’re a heavy user or not (but at least you get a backup battery)










James DeRuvo