Yourneying with Jolla - First Impressions

June 27, 2014  —  Filed under: jolla, sailfish, technology, mobile, gadgets

As of last week, I’m a proud owner of a shiny new Jolla mobile phone. My Geeksphone Peak finally bit the dust, and after hearing lots of good things about the new Sailfish OS being developed by the Finland-based phone company, I decided to try it out. Spoiler alert: I’m extremely impressed!

Before jumping into my impressions of the device, a few frequently asked questions:

Aren’t you a Firefox OS fan?

I stuck with my Geeksphone Peak, which ran Firefox OS, for as long as I could. Unfortunately, a worsening hardware defect prevented me from using the phone for more than thirty seconds at a time without it being plugged in. I could have ordered a replacement (or sprung for the new Revolution) but I’ve also been disappointed in recent times with how Geeksphone has handled lots of things, from new device releases to customer support. Finally, I felt I had taken Firefox OS for a spin and, while I’m pleased to see the platform progressing as it can, wanted to try something with a bit more power and a wider range of options.

But wait, don’t you live in Canada?

Yes I do - I was clever enough to order the phone shipped to a friend that lives overseas, who in turn sent it back to me. While the Jolla Store didn’t seem to accept a non-European billing address, Amazon.co.uk was happy to, though they only have the Jolla with an Other Half in white.

Keep in mind that even if you find a way to get your hands on a phone, there’s no guarantee it will work with your carrier. The Jolla handset operates on LTE (4G) 800, 1800 and 2600 MHz (bands 20, 3 and 7). On 3G it operates on 900 and 2100 MHz. These frequencies are common in Europe but not in North America. So you will need to make sure your provider in your home country supports these bands.

I was lucky enough to be with Rogers here in Canada, which is one of only two carriers in North America (the other being Bell Canada) that supports LTE for the Jolla. So unfortunately our American friends are out of luck for the time being, unless they are willing to stick with 2G support.

Background

For those who don’t know, the Jolla (pronounced “Yolla”, hence the title of this post) is a mobile phone produced by a collective of former Nokia employees, taking on the now-defunct MeeGo operating system. They reinvigorated this OS into the new “Sailfish OS” mobile operating system, which uses Qt-based technologies for development and application design. In keeping with the cult status of the Nokia N9 mobile phone, they created the first Jolla phone with many of the same design cues that made the N9 so popular. They are just starting out but already have made decent progress on their first phone… and rumour has it that they are already planning to launch another model for 2015.

The Device

Quite simply, the Jolla looks amazing. I’m a big fan of the design they took - clean, crisp lines, a nice contrast and not too terribly enormous compared to some of the more popular Samsung phones today. The phone is built to highlight two halves: the front in black is the business end of the device, with a screen, earpiece, forward-facing camera and bevel. The rear half is appropriately named “the Other Half”, and is a plastic cover that hides the battery compartment. The Other Half comes in multiple colours from Jolla, and different “ambiences” (i.e. wallpapers and colour schemes) can be unlocked for the device depending on what Other Half you choose. So it’s not just a plastic cover!

The screen is durable and generally shows colours in good detail. It smudges easily but shows absolutely no hairline scratches, buffs or wear from the first week of testing. Holding the phone at an angle makes the screen take on an odd sepia tone, and it loses a lot of its colour… this makes it a bit awkward to use if you’re laying on your side, for example, so if you want the most clear experience be sure to use it when you are fully facing the screen.

The sound apparatus (speaker, loudspeaker, microphone, etc) also work well. My experience is that the loudspeaker is a bit quiet for my taste, but as I so rarely use it, this is far from being a problem.

The battery life is good. I haven’t worn it down to zero yet, but my estimate is that it would take a full day of rather heavy use on LTE (4G) before you would be in danger of coming close to running out. Average or light use will easily get you a couple days worth of time.

The cameras aren’t half bad, certainly better than I’ve used on anything else before. Overall I’m pleased with the quality of the rear-facing camera: better than any phone camera I’ve had before. I’ve read that the front facing camera is not set to use as high quality as the hardware allows, but perhaps this will be addressed in a future update. iPhone users will probably be disappointed, though that’s not new as they arguably have the best phone cameras out there.

Pic through a window with the rear-facing camera Attempt at a pic with the front-facing camera. Not bad(?)

Reception is great: I’ve been around several neighbourhoods of the city and have never had iffy reception, a marked contrast from my Geeksphone.

In summary, the build quality of the device and the amount of attention that went into it definitely shows. I’m really very pleased with it! The phone is rather expensive for its technical specifications, but you really need to use it to see that it will more than likely surpass your expectations.

Sailfish OS: Form and Function

Sailfish OS lock screen

It’s difficult to put into words just how much I like Sailfish OS. The interface is clean, clear and simple. It isn’t without its occasional quirks, but even with those in mind, it is volumes better than what Android or iOS have shown lately.

The interface will remind you a lot of Microsoft’s visual styles, both new and old. I found the most accurate description to be a mix between today’s Windows Phone OS and older Zune interfaces too. I’m a fan of uncluttered spaces using “flat” styling and smart typography, and for that reason Sailfish OS aligns very well with my preferences.

I will say however that I wish apps could give themselves different “ambiences.” The use of a standard design palette isn’t unheard of, but if they are all using even the same colours for all elements including backgrounds, it makes the experience a bit tiring after awhile. Gotta shake it up a bit!

One thing you will have heard of if you’ve ever heard of Jolla and Sailfish is its navigational style. It works differently than any other OS you’ve seen so far. Many people say that it’s confusingly different, but I disagree. It only took me about a day to learn how to move about within the interface, thanks to the very helpful Tutorial app that can always be launched again later if you need a refresher. One of the other cool things is that, if the OS thinks you are trying to do something but not doing it quite right, it will coach you how to do it properly. I won’t go into too much detail on how to use the swipe system, only to say that I found it great for increasing productivity and avoiding having to move your hand too much for unnecessary pokes and stabs. And again that it is not nearly as complex/frustrating as some in the tech media might have suggested!

A couple minor things that (hopefully) will be fixed in future updates: Changing the volume lights up the screen for a moment, holding volume keys up/down would be a nice way to quickly change the current track, the notifications screen is a bit hard to get to and doesn’t show much useful information, it would be nice to swipe things out of the notifications screen… heck just put notifications on the lock screen, why not! Also, before I forget: the keyboard is your standard smartphone keyboard with predictive text. The prediction works very well, though it doesn’t make automatic corrections for non-recognized words – you have to explicitly select each time. Perhaps an option to replace common typos would help. Also hoping to have a Swype option in the future.

Sailfish OS: App Ecosystem

The thing I like the most about the phone, hands down, is the great amount of quality native apps that there are for such an early stage in the ecosystem’s development. It’s nothing like what Firefox OS has to offer, even though Firefox OS has arguably a larger reach and more resources. I was able to find native Sailfish apps for not only basic things (email, music/videos, file browser, etc) but also more advanced tasks (Google Auth, web radio, Reddit, IRC, XMPP and more).

Tweetian is a fantasic Twitter client, perhaps one of the best I’ve used on any device. Clean, fast and feature rich like the rest of the phone.

Tweetian (Twitter app)

The Maps application uses Nokia’s HERE Maps, like Firefox OS does. The contents of the maps can occasionally be rough around the edges, and misses directions via public transport, and I also found the swipe interface a bit confusing with respect to this application. Nevertheless, it does work with a bit of patience.

Maps

If you needed any more reason to choose Sailfish OS, you can run Android apps on it too! Performance is great with those apps as well (I was a bit worried about having only 1GB of RAM here, but it can take everything I can throw at it while multitasking). Since there are only three Android apps I actually need to use (Tumblr, Instagram and SendHub), this is even less of a problem.

Home screen, showing apps running in the background

One page of app list

The (Non-Final) Verdict

Overall I’m very pleased with my Jolla phone and its Sailfish OS. The design is fresh and interesting, navigation is a breeze, and the phone’s physical construction seems sturdy and striking. It has a strong showing of native Sailfish applications, and for those outliers that aren’t quite available yet, you can run Android apps too with decent stability. The version of the OS that shipped with the device was pretty unstable, but after updating the system to the latest version available, it made a world of difference.

If you are in the market for a new phone, can afford it and can use it in your country, I highly recommend it!


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