Gimmick or breakthrough?

That’s the dichotomous question you’re face with when considering the Kyocera-made Sprint Echo, the first dual-screen cellphone in the U.S., unveiled last night in New York. It’ll go on sale this spring for $199.99 with the usual two-year contract.

Each of the Echo’s two screens is an iPhone-sized 3.5-inch; combined, they create a square 4.7-inch diagonal display with an eight-inch seam down or across the middle, depending how you hold it.

The philosophy behind Echo is what Sprint calls “simultasking” – each screen can run a separate specially-configured app or a single app split across both screens.

Echo, which runs Android 2.2 and powered by a 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, is not a tablet, however. The two screens are layered atop each other like a day bed. Closed, Echo looks like a standard full screen smartphone, only around twice as thick. You then sort of lift and slide the top screen up and over until the second screen clicks into place to create a flat surface. Or, the top half can be tilted at about a 30-35-degree angle when tapping on a full-size three-line touch QWERTY keyboard on the bottom screen when inputting text.

Sharp Echo's dual screen email app

Optimized dual screen apps assign specific tasks to each screen. For instance, when opening the email app while holding the screen with the seam running vertically, your inbox is displayed on the left screen and an open email on the right. Reply to an email, turn the phone so the seam runs horizontally, and the top displays the blank message screen, the bottom the QWERTY.

But the two-screen idea is really meant for running two apps at once. You can be Twittering on one half of the screen while Web surfing on the other; emailing on one screen, mapping on the other; Facebook on one screen, watching a YouTube video on the other. You also can swap the screens on which the apps are displayed.

Sprint Echo home screens

Two screens necessitates a lot of power, which means short battery life. Sprint addresses Echo’s power-sapping potential with a supplementary three-way battery charger that will be included. This charger will charge a spare battery, it will charge both the spare and your phone simultaneously (naturally) and allow you to swap batteries without having to turn off the phone, and operate as an auxiliary power source when you’re away from an AC jack and the main battery begins to fade.

Is cell multi-tasking a good idea?

Why would you want/need to run two apps simultaneously? It’s not as silly an idea as you think, or at least as I thought. How many of us have two PC screens at work? How many of us watch TV and futz with some other technology at the same time? We are turning into gadget multi-taskers, and Sprint hopes the Echo taps into this simul-busy zeitgeist.

Does the idea work? It’s definitely a weird idea. Physically manipulating the screens feels a bit Rube Goldberg clunky, although the patent-pending steel hinge assembly feels sturdy enough. I was constantly rotating the Echo to figure out if the seam should run vertically or horizontally (it depends on the app).

You will have to learn a couple of extra gestures, primarily the double-tap – tapping both screens simultaneously by forming an upside-down U with your index finger and your thumb – to bring up the “dual app” menu, a screen with icons of the apps optimized for dual screen, each indicated by a tiny dual-striped bug on each optimized app icon.

Sprint Echo dual apps menu

You’ll also have to get used to the schizophrenia of manipulating two apps simultaneously. Both my demonstrator and I found ourselves frenetically waggling our thumbs over the screens as we endeavored to touch the correct screen or controls the correct way to perform a function, our brains being pulled in two too many directions at once. There was something – wrong – with the whole thing, even though intellectually it seems like a practical idea.

I suspect most users will take advantage of the two screens for single apps, such as Gallery thumbnails on the bottom screen and a full-size photo on the top screen, or the aforementioned email side-by-side array. Sprint is making the dual screen API available for developers.

Sprint Echo dual screen Gallery

Throughout the demos and hands-on, I kept thinking about the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, how first he indicated to Dorothy that going one way was a good idea, but perhaps the other way had its advantages, then finally admitting some people liked going both ways.

Echo is for this final simultasking group.

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