When Sprint put on its Kyocera Echo magic show, I was there at the New York City press event to get a first-hand look at the dual-screen smartphone, which mixes innovative operational modes like "simultask" and "tablet" with tried-but-true older technologies like 3G wireless. I also uncovered a few imperfections to the distinctive device, including a thick-ish form factor, a rather irksome black line, and battery life that's still being finalized.
"Extreme multi-tasking can be magical," maintained Kyocera Senior Executive Officer Junzo Katsuki, taking the stage alongside Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, following a magic act by professional illusionist David Blaine.
In a formal presentation and information hands-on demo afterward, Sprint and Kyocera unveiled the Echo, a smartphone featuring a pair of 3.5-inch LCD displays that can be manipulated into four modes: standard, tablet, optimized, and simultask.
"The Echo is yet another key device" in Sprint's ongoing quest for innovation, according to Hesse, who placed the 3G phone in the same league as Sprint's WiMAX-enabled Samsung Epic 4G, HTC EVO 4G, and EVO Shift 4G.
Although the Echo isn't going to be the world's first dual-screen phone, it will be the first to support "true simultasking," letting you run and view two applications at the same time, officials contended at the event. You can turn the phone into a "mini-tablet," too.
A quick look at prototype versions of the Echo revealed that Sprint's new smartphone certainly will make much better use of screen real estate than another recently rolled out dual-display device, the Samsung Continuum, which combines a 3.4-inch main display with a 1.8-inch secondary display.
The Echo achieves its magic through an unusual metal "pivot hinge" that lets you flexibly manipulate the two 480-by-800 LCD pixel touchscreens into a number of different configurations, including a tablet type form factor where the two screens are temporarily forged together.
Joseph Kelly, a briefing consultant for Sprint, told me during the event that the Echo represents a joint development effort between Sprint and Kyocera, a consumer electronics manufacturer that acquired feature phone maven Sanyo a couple of years back.
Mike Hine, Kyocera's marketing manager, pointed to a number of ground-breaking "firsts" for Sanyo, including the first cell phone with a color screen and the first with a built-in camera.
Despite this heritage of innovation, some of the Echo's other specs, while adequate enough, are not all that forward-thinking: a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor; a single 5-megapixel camera with 720p HD video recording; the aforementioned 3G wireless; mobile hotspot capabilities for up to five devices; and 1 GB of internal memory, expandable by up to 32 GB through a built-in SD slot. Aside from the dual-screens, the Kyocera model is comperable to a number of other smartphones that have been on the market since the middle of last year.
Highly Functional and (Frankly) Fun
Still, though, I discovered that the distinctive Echo smartphone is a highly functional -- and quite honestly fun-to-use -- device.
During the hands-on sessions with a number of prototype units, I got a closer glimpse at the four operational modes. Sprint and Kyocera provide hardware and software buttons to help you toggle between the four.
For standard mode, you move one screen behind the other to create a traditional smartphone, although the resulting configuration isn't as thin as you might ideally prefer.
Tablet mode, on the other hand, requires you to manipulate the hinge so that the two displays are flat and lying side-by-side. Together, the two screens form a single display area 800-by-960 pixels in size, measuring 4.7-inch on the diagonal, Kelly noted.
For simulcast and multicast mode, you can either leave the two displays lying flat, or tilt one of them slightly towards you in what's known as an "open tilt" so that the phone takes on the tinge of a mini-laptop.
In simulcast mode, you can literally run two apps concurrently, displaying one app on each panel. In optimized mode, on the other hand, you run just a single app, displaying a main view on one screen and secondary or complementary features on the other.
When the Echo ships this spring, it will come with seven main apps supporting simultask: E-Mail; Photo Gallery; Phone; Browser; Messaging; Contacts; and VueQue, an app created by Kyocera that lets you view videos on the top screen and lists related clips on the bottom screen.
In the optimized E-Mail app for instance, you can view your inbox on the top screen, while diving down into individual messages on the other.
Read on for Part 2 of this preview, which is named "Nothing's Perfect" and covers the drawbacks of the Kyocera Echo.
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