Sprint's dual-screen Kyocera Echo: A 'gotta-have' or a gimmick?

In the popular musical Gypsy, a trio of strippers sing how "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" in order to make yourself stand out amid the crowd. The gimmick in Sprint's new Kyocera Echo Android smartphone is that it is a dual-screen device with a hinge that lets you move the two 3.5-in. touch displays around in various configurations -- a normal single-screen phone, a dual-screen 4.7-in. tablet, a laptop-like form with one flat and one tilted screen. Cool, right?

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It's a clever idea, certainly. But clever doesn't necessarily mean useful.

At Monday's much-ballyhooed introduction in New York City (the show started off with an illusionist, which struck me as a bit ominous, actually), Sprint representatives proudly showed off the Echo to the crowd of journalists. They demonstrated how you could see your e-mail listing on one screen and preview your messages on the other. You could use one display to type on and the other to see what you're typing. You could scroll through your photos on one screen, and see a close-up of each photo on the other. You could play a game where you had a close-up of your character on one screen and a map of where your character is going on the other. You could use both screens together to watch a video or surf the Web. Or have two separate apps on two separate screens (which the reps called "Simul-Task Mode").

(A video of one of the demonstrations can be found at our sister publication, CIO.)

After the presentation, I got some hands-on time with the phone -- and to tell the truth, while I couldn't help admiring the technology, I found the actual implementation rather awkward.

The two displays are attached by a hinge that allows them to swivel into their various configurations. When in single-phone mode, one display sits on top of the other, with both displays facing in the same direction. You then pull the top display up and to the side, and swivel it to the position you want it to be in.

Although I didn't have too much trouble once a representative showed me the ropes, the transitions didn't feel smooth to me, and there were too many ways in which you could do it wrong and have to correct yourself. It seemed to me that users would spend a lot of time moving the displays up and around into their various positions. Even the staffers demonstrating the phones had trouble; one, trying to show me how you could snap the screens into place so that you'd have a miniature laptop configuration, had to try at least three times before he could get it right.

And I couldn't help wondering about the durability of the device, especially considering how many times that hinge was going to be moved and twisted. A rep assured me that it was made of a strong metal that wouldn't give way under the punishment of day-to-day use. I assume that a lot of testing has been done to assure just that. But it simply didn't feel sturdy to me.

There are a lot of other questions that will have to be answered for consumers who might be considering the Echo. For example, when the two displays are in a flat configuration, one right next to the other, there is a seam in the middle -- it looked like about 1/8-in. to me -- that the Sprint rep assured us that your eye gets used to. But I couldn't see watching a video or even a Web site with that in the middle of it.

Then there are the power issues. The Echo will ship with a second battery and a charger power pack -- which can be considered either a nice addition to the package, or a sign that Kyocera isn't all that confident about how long a battery can last with two separate screens pulling power.

Finally, a lot of the usability of the Echo is going to come from the apps that are available to take advantage of the dual-screen format. Sprint will be actively encouraging developers to create applications for the device; it will be offering an SDK and developer guide on its Web site. Whether developers will respond may depend on how popular the idea of a two-display phone turns out to be -- and whether there will be any more coming down the pike.

Now, you can't really judge a phone either by the razzle-dazzle at its introduction or through a 15-minute trial. We hope to run a full review of the Echo when it ships in the spring and offer a more complete assessment.

And I do want to add this: However doubtful I sound about the ultimate success of the Kyocera Echo dual-screen phone, I must admit that I find it very encouraging in at least one aspect: Manufacturers are trying to think up new and innovative ways to push mobile technology.

If I'm wrong, and the Echo turns out to be the Next Big Thing -- great. But even if I'm right, I'm hoping that there will be more devices like the Echo -- weird, interesting, experimental -- and with any luck, some of those might turn out to be really revolutionary.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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