Jolla was formed in late 2011 from a number of former Nokia Engineers who had been working on a number of Linux-based operating systems and handsets (including the Nokia N9). Just over two years later, their first handset (the self-titled Jolla) shipped with their Sailfish OS. I’ve been using the Jolla handset since mid-December, and it’s time to look at the handset in some more detail.
Reviewing the Jolla handset does put me in a quandary. As I discussed in my first impressions piece at the end of 2013 (which you can read here), the Jolla handset is a work in progress. While the hardware is fixed, the full functionality is not available or addresses yet by the operating system. The Jolla’s OS (Sailfish OS) is the key reason to buy this handset, and it still requires a lot of work to bring it up to modern UI standards in terms of flow, connectedness, and ease of use.
So the first point to note from this review should be clear, but let me stress it. The Jolla handset is a work in progress. Do not buy this handset if you are looking for something that ‘just works’. It’s not yet a platform that can return Finland to the top of the smartphone sales chart. But it is a handset that Finland should be proud of. It has shipped, it broadly works, and there is a feeling that Jolla the company is constantly at work to improve their handset every day.
Over the air updates are very easy to install, and I’ve seen three of them now – one of them simply to update a few store certificates. There’s no feeling of being left alone with this handset to get on with it, there is a strong focus on interaction with the company, and with the growing Jolla community.
The ecosystem really does remind me of the later days of the PDA, when Palm and Psion were king, when there were bedroom coders making a living, and everyone was contributing and sharing projects, hints, and advice. If Jolla can build on that through the years, they should have a strong niche to market to in the future.
All these good intentions counts for nothing if the first handset is a lemon, and I’m glad to say that after weeks of use, the Jolla handset is a plucky performer. If this was the only piece of tech I had which had an internet connection, I could easily manage my online life and stay in touch without too much fuss, although I would need to be cautious around some of the rough edges in the handset, mostly in software.
I’ll come back to those rough edges shortly, let’s start with the hardware. The Jolla is very much a mid-range handset, and is not going to stretch the envelope in any way. The Snapdragon 400 dual-core processor is two generations back from the current leading edge smartphones. Running at 1.4 GHz, you can feel the slower speed in some of the transitions and especially when launching an app. With 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage it meets the mid-range expectations, but again, it’s not stunning and there are times I wish the memory had been bumped up to 2GB, notably when running Android applications on the handset.
At 960×540, the qHD screen, much like the camera, is acceptable but not stunning, the IPS LCD display has quite a tight viewing angle and the colours can wash out a touch. Those with sharp eyes may spot the pixels, especially with Jolla’s chosen font being rather thin.
The camera in the handset is a passable 8 megapixel shooter at the rear, and a 2 megapixel forward facing camera for video calls. If you are in daylight, or somewhere with strong light, then you’ll get a decent reproduction but low light performance is not a strength of the Jolla handset.
While the handset does have the hardware to run 4G LTE, this is an area where the OS is not yet ready to make use of it. The current build of the SailfishOS is limited to 2G and 3G connectivity while out of Wi-fi, but 4G LTE support is on the roadmap. Here’s the positive and negative of the handset in one breath. It’s not ready yet, but it will be, and when it is you’ll have it delivered to your handset over the air.
If that sound fun, cutting-edge, and something you want to be involved in, then the Jolla is the handset for you.
Design-wise I’m enjoying the split nature of the Jolla. Holding the device it looks as if there are two thin sections of plastic together (the screen itself is the now expected Corning Gorilla Glass). The front of the handset is black plastic, with a flat short edge and rounded longer edge. The plastic to the rear has the flat and rounded edges switched around, and in the case of this first retail variant, it came in plain white. It’s not strictly speaking two sections, as the white case is a cover that wraps around the protruding back of the device but it’s a good illusion of two halves coming together – hence the name ‘The Other Half’ that Jolla has given this system.
Through an embedded NFC chip and some circuitry, the Jolla handset knows what sort of ‘Other Half’ it is sporting. This allows a range of peripherals and third-party accessories to use the Jolla handset in the future and is a good example of the potential the handset has.
There’s also an issue with the current builds of the OS in regards the power drain that the NFC chip is drawing thanks to the other half system. As with everything in the Jolla, I come back to the ‘beta’ nature of the handset and the software. The community has come up with a number of temporary solutions to the issue, and it’s on the big list of things to look at for the OS developers.
While the specifications of the Jolla may not be stunning, the look of the device and the promise of modularity that it could offer in 2014 and beyond says a lot about the project. It’s not the lightest handset (weighing in at 141 grams), and neither is it the smallest handset, but for a limited run device with out the opportunity to work in significant economies of scale, it does the job. The hardware is a means to an end. THe Sailfish OS is the true differentiator in the Jolla handset.
The Jolla ecosystem splits nicely into three parts, all of which have an impact on the final feel for the end-user; the underlying OS, software developed directly for Sailfish OS on mobiles (including Jolla’s own applications), and the Android support engine to allow native Android apps to run on the handset.
The home screen of the Jolla is more like a stack of screens that you can flick up and down. Sitting on the top of this column is the opening screen, with the time, status indicators, and notification icons. Below this you can see your running applications in smaller windows. Some apps may show just their icon, others may show a detailed status screen depending on how they are programmed. Up to four apps are show in a 2×2 grid, before moving up to a 3×3 grid if you have up to nine apps running (any more than nine and the oldest app will slide off this screen, but is still running in the background.
If you’ve seen how BlackBerry’s BB10 displays running apps, it feels a lot like that.
Jolla makes a lot of fuss over the gesture based interface. Swiping in from each of the four sides of the bezel performs a different function. In deference to left or right -handedness a swipe in from the sides of the screen will return the user to the three screen high stack that is the home screen of Jolla OS. The application that you were previously using will remain running. You can also do just a partial swipe to ‘peek’ at the home screen and see the status of your device.
Swipe down from the bezel and you will again return to the home screen stack, but this time you will do so by closing the current application. While other mobile operating systems have done their best to hide the ability to close an app (instead relying on the OS to close apps only to free up resources) the Jolla OS retains this mode of operation.
Your notification screen is found by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, which will show the alerts received on your Jolla, and also a quick access menu to posting your status to the social networks set up on your handset.
The other swipe moves start with your finger inside the screen. Pull down and you have the main menu options reveal themselves above the apps’ screen. You can either move the highlight down to the menu option you want to select in the same swipe movement, or you can swipe it all the way down to ‘lock’ the menu so you can select an option with another tap.
I’ll go back to BlackBerry’s BB10, as well experiences with Windows 8 and the older Nokia N9 handsets, all which have gesture based interfaces. I don’t find them any faster in day-to-day use than a physical home button or three soft keys at the bottom of the screen, it’s just different. It does have the knock on effect of reducing the impact of buttons on a UI, be they accommodated in the hardware or giving up screen real-estate to make them accessible at all times. After a few days the muscle memory kicks in and it becomes second nature to make the correct swipe when you decide to open another app, close an app, and so on.
The limitations that I found with the gestures was they are physically tied to something happening on the screen. I found myself reacting to what was happening on the screen, instead of chaining a number of inputs together for speed. What the gestures clearly offer is a point of differentiation in the Jolla when it is compared to the numerous iOS and Android devices in the world.
Every operating system has its recommended way of creating apps and working through the carious screens. The flow through an application in Sailfish OS is clunky at best, and does not feel unified over the first party applications. The principle is that each app is a series of screens, and you move between these screens through swipes from right to left. Where you are in the app is indicated by a series of lit or unlit dots along the top of the screen. This is not as smooth or as clear as the panorama screens in Windows Phone, and unless you remember the short tutorial when you first switched on your Jolla, there is no obvious feedback on what to do next.
For a smartphone in beta, that’s probably acceptable, but I feel this needs a lot more work to be usable by the general public. Be it through expectations set by Android, or the subtle pointers in iOS, mainstream handsets are very user-friendly. While Sailfish OS has some indicators on what you can do, they are not intuitive or always present. Jolla need a lot of feedback from a wide range of users to improve this – and again one reason to have this handset out there with an engaged community is to gain such knowledge.
There are only a handful of first party apps available on Jolla when you switch it on for the first time, and you have to jump into the Jolla Store (which is installed) to bulk out the phone with the expected apps such as an email client, file browser, media player, and a notes app. I suspect that loading up fewer apps meant that handsets could be flashed quicker to ship them out as quickly as possible, so it’s not worth making too much fuss over it.
While the operating system works, and everything is handled well in terms of connectivity, handing off between cellular and wi-fi data, and keeping all the apps in order without bringing down the whole device, Sailfish OS feels like each application is in their own little world. While they are not locked away in their own silos, they rarely talk with each other. Open up the contacts app and there’s no quick way to look back in a message history. Look in the email app and there’s no links between an email sender and the address book. And while you get notifications in the Jolla OS, you’ll be handed over to the web browser and the social network’s mobile website to continue interaction.
I’m not going to hit the first party apps too hard in this review, because again it comes back to the idea that the Jolla ecosystem is still early in its life. For Jolla it was more important to focus on the hardware and the operating system than polishing the applications for this hardware release. That’s not to say they should stop. I would hope that the applications are improved over the next six months and are brought up to the same level of usability, speed, and consistent UI that you can find in iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.
Then there’s the Android compatibility. Jolla’s ecosystem is not completely reliant on applications specifically coded for the Sailfish OS. Via the Jolla app store, you can download an Android support app. This will allow you to run Android compatible applications, but there are a few caveats that dull this experience.
The first is that the Android support is at the levels of the Android Open Source Project. There is no direct support for the Google Play store, and that means many of the hooks and API’s that popular apps and games rely on are simply not present. Yes there are hacks to get Google Play onto the device, but they’re not coming from Jolla. Jolla’s recommendation is to side-load applications, or look at alternative Android App Stores. Support for Yandex comes with the Android support app, and it’s a simple enough matter to install Amazon’s Android App Store, but be aware it’s not a perfect environment.
The other issue is that running Android applications breaks the app mode impressed on users by the native applications. You see, no matter how many Android applications you actually run, they are all running inside the Android support app. That means you could have Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Dots, and the BBC Weather app running as Android apps, but only the app that is in the foreground of the Android support app is the one that shows up on the Sailfish OS task manager in the home screen stack.
From a technical point of view this makes sense, there is one Android emulator running so you see the thumbnail of what the emulator is doing at the time. It just feels wrong from the point of view of someone using the Jolla handset. Neither are alerts and notifications passed out from the Android emulator to the Jolla’s notification system. And while 1.4 GHz and 1 GB of RAM would be fine in a standalone Android handset, not all of that is available in the Android support app in Sailfish. Frame rates are lower, apps do not run at full speed, the lack of memory is noticeable, and demanding apps will result in a black screen as the Android support app crashes.
The inclusion of Android support is welcome, and it means that the Jolla handset is not going to be left with any huge gaps in terms of applications that people want, but it is not the solution to a strong ecosystem. It needs to have better integration with the Sailfish OS and users should realise that if the Jolla handset is mid-range, then the Android support app will feel like a low-end Android handset.
All of that said, the Jolla handset has me excited. I’ve been following the project for some time, I ordered my device in May 2013 as part of the first wave of orders, and I knew that when it was delivered to me in December I was not getting a finished product… just a Finnish product. The Sailfish OS at the core of Jolla’s vision is delivering a stable environment and handles the mid-range specs of the Jolla handset relatively well. With another six months or so to iron out the bugs, improve battery life, and polish the user interface the core experience will be ready for the consumer market, as long as the first party apps are updated with the same attention to detail.
Do not buy the Jolla handset if you want a robust smartphone environment where every problem has been dealt with and everything is laid out for you. Buy the Jolla handset if you want to live out on the cutting edge with a bit of handholding from a dedicated community and a responsive manufacturer. Buy the Jolla handset if you are happy with gaps in an ecosystem and are ready to work around them in the short term.
Buy the Jolla handset if you want to see what one possible smartphone future could be, and to help Jola’s vision come to fruition.