Sprint's Kyocera Echo meets initial skepticism

While Sprint's new dual-screen Kyocera Echo smartphone is an industry first, its debut is being met with some skepticism.

Sprint to sell dual-screen smartphone for $199

Sprint is selling the Echo as a sort of hybrid between a smartphone and a tablet, as the device has an innovative hinge design that allows it to open up to display two separate touchscreens. This will let users multitask more easily than on regular smartphones, Sprint contends, as you'll be able to use one screen for Web surfing and video watching and another screen for e-mail and text messaging. You also have the option of putting the device into "tablet mode" and have one app spread across both screens.

While this is all very cool, the unique design of the device has forced some design compromises that could hinder the device from becoming a hit like Sprint's popular HTC EVO 4G device that debuted last year. In the first place, the device doesn't take advantage of Sprint's high-speed WiMAX network, which was the EVO's initial claim to fame. Instead, the device will run on Sprint's 3G CDMA-based EV-DO Rev. A network.

Sprint spokesperson Stephanie Greenwood says Sprint wanted to get the Echo out to the market quickly and integrating WiMAX connectivity into the device would have meant the company would have had to wait significantly longer to release the device.

"The product development for such a groundbreaking device is understandably greater," Greenwood says. "We are confident that 3G speeds will be sufficient for the ways in which Echo will most likely be used."

Another potential pitfall for the device is its battery life, as the device's two screens are sure to suck up energy at a rapid clip. The device's battery life is apparently such a concern that Sprint is actually shipping a free extra battery with the Echo that will let users replace the used-up phone battery with a fresh new one without losing connectivity. As PC Magazine's Lance Ulanoff notes, the battery power used on the Echo makes it unlikely that Sprint will ever release a WiMAX-enabled version of the device since "a 4G model would last for just a few hours." Ulanoff concludes in his initial review that the Echo is a clever experiment that is unlikely to reshape the smartphone market as past devices have.

"The Sprint Kyocera Echo is not a disaster; it's just a tad-too-unusual phone with one big potential Achilles' heel," he writes. "A smartphone that is unlikely to draw consumers away from their EVO's, Droid X's and iPhones."

Other pundits around the tech media offered similar takes. ComputerWorld's Barbara Krasnoff praised the Echo as a "clever idea," but qualified it by saying that "clever doesn't necessarily mean useful." In particular, she singled out the fact that the Echo will require software developers to utilize a new software development kit if they want to take full advantage of the device's dual-screen capabilities. Although Sprint will be providing developers with the SDK on its Web site, interest in making applications for the device could hinge upon "how popular the idea of a two-display phone turns out to be," Krasnoff notes.

PC Magazine's Michael Miller similarly admires the device's original design but also doubts that it could really provide an experience on par with tablets such as the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab.

"I don't really see people using it completely like a tablet: you wouldn't want to view a video or read text with a bezel in the middle of it," he writes. "On the other end, Sprint showed applications like e-mail with one panel showing a list of messages and the other showing the preview, and that's cool."

PC World's Brent Rose really admires the way the device applies multitasking over its two screens and says the implementation of Android and other software on the device is "pretty fantastic." However, he also says the device could be hindered commercially by not only its lack of WiMAX connectivity but also its single-core processor, which he said wasn't quite up to the task of operating on two screens at speeds users have come to expect.

"It'll be interesting to see how consumers will embrace this dual-screened beast," he says. "It's different, and cool in a lot of ways, but right now, speed is king, and one can't help but wonder if this one may be left behind the pack."

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