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Kyocera’s Echo offers faint attempt at a tablet

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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Given the huge success of Apple Inc.’s iPad, it’s no surprise that everybody with a circuit board and a soldering iron has started building their own tablet computers. They’ve served up a variety of alternative designs, but nobody’s gone wilder than the engineers at Japan’s Kyocera Corp., creators of a tablet computer that fits easily in a shirt pocket — because it folds in two.

The new Kyocera Echo, available only from Sprint Nextel Corp. for $199.99 with a two-year service contact, is an offbeat little gadget that could burnish the little-known company’s reputation for technical innovation. But cool as it is, it’s hard to imagine the Echo catching on with consumers. This bulky, power-hungry device is twice the phone most of us need, and half the tablet we want.

The Echo isn’t a true tablet, of course; it’s a touchscreen smartphone that runs Google Inc.’s Android operating system. But the Echo’s dual screen design opens out into a mini-tablet that displays Web pages and images on a much larger scale than with standard phones.

It’s all made possible by a lovely little hinge. When folded up, the Echo looks lean and clean, but thicker and heavier than the latest smartphones. Slide the upper screen to one side, and it neatly exposes the second screen underneath, then snaps tightly alongside it. Instantly, you’ve doubled the phone’s visual real estate.

Nintendo Co.’s handheld DS devices taught us the joys of dual-screen gaming. The Echo might be even better as a gaming device, thanks to its larger, brighter screens. There are only a few compatible programs, alas, but I enjoyed a fairly challenging billiards game, and even liked The Sims 3, a “human simulator’’ game that usually bores me silly. But unless the Echo sells by the million, we’ll see very few new games developed for it, so Nintendo has nothing to fear.

Game play isn’t affected by the unavoidable gap between the two screens, but that little seam gets in the way of other applications. It’s not so bad when reading Web pages, but a downright nuisance when viewing videos.

You can always run an app in just one of the two screens. In fact, you can run a different program in each of them, at the same time. Along with a husky one-gigahertz processor chip powerful enough to handle multitasking, the Echo includes a suite of seven “simul-tasking’’ apps, including the Web browser, e-mail program, video player, and phone.

You can run a different Web page in each screen, or run a video in one screen while you surf on the other. Want to send a text message or e-mail? The program takes over both screens while you’re typing out the message, but your video or Web page instantly reappears when you hit the send button. It all works surprisingly well, but apart from hyperactive teens, how many of us need to run two apps at once?

Multitasking while on the phone seems more practical, but here the Echo falls short. After placing a call, the app frees up both screens for other tasks. That’s fine if you’re connected to a local Wi-Fi hotspot for Internet access. But if you’ve only got access to the Sprint network, you can’t chat and surf at the same time. Blame Sprint, not Kyocera. Sprint’s 3G cell network, unlike that of AT&T Inc., can’t handle simultaneous voice and data.

Mind you, Sprint’s advanced 4G network can do phone calls and Internet access all at once. But the Echo isn’t 4G-compatible. It’s a lamentable defect, but an understandable one; 4G is a merciless battery hog, and the Echo already has enough trouble in that department because of its dual screens. I logged on to YouTube to watch an old science fiction movie, with the image spread across both screens. After about 100 minutes, I was down to about 15 percent battery life.

Kyocera deserves credit for facing up to the problem. Each Echo includes a spare battery that snaps into a pocket-sized charging device. With a USB cable, you can feed power from the charger to the phone without having to swap batteries.

In all, the Echo is a decent smartphone and a lousy tablet, bound together by a host of clever engineering gimmicks. As a lover of gimmicks, I found it delightful. But I couldn’t imagine buying one.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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