A Week with the Jolla Smartphone
One week ago today I received my Jolla smartphone. In case you haven’t heard of them, Jolla is a small upstart Finland based company, founded by former Nokia employees, and they just very recently released their first product, the much talked about Jolla smartphone, which can be seen as the successor of the Nokia N9 with the MeeGo operating system. Here’s my review.
The hardware specs are midrange (1.4 ghz dual core processor, 1 GB of ram, 4,5″ screen, 16 GB data storage), and the Jolla is priced at 399,- €. So far it’s only available for sale in the EU via the Jolla webshop and additionally in Finland it’s distributed by one provider.
The Jolla has an interesting concept called “The Other Half”. The back cover is replacable and communicates with the phone via NFC, this makes it possible for Jolla or 3rd parties to offer “Other Halves” in the future which add features to the phone, say wireless charging or a physical qwerty keyboard or maybe something radically new (if anyone is reading, I’m in the market for a green “Other Half” with rounded sides by the way).
The feel of the hardware is decent. Not excellent, but not horrible either. The battery is user replacable and you can insert your own micro-sd card.
The base OS
The Jolla is running SailfishOS, which is a GNU/Linux system, based on Mer Core (the continuation of MeeGo), using systemd and running Wayland. It comes with all the basic commandline utilities that you expect from a proper GNU/Linux system, and enabling developer mode in the settings provides you with a terminal, and offers you to set a root password and enabling an SSH daemon – no need to hack your own device to have a bit of control over it. Officially the OS is still beta.
It includes some SUSE technologies e.g. libzypp is used for package management and Open Build Service is used in the development process. Zypper is not installed by default, but can easily be installed (‘pkcon install zypper’).
SailfishOS provides real multitasking. When you minimize apps they will keep working in the background until you actively close them.
Interacting with the Jolla is done with swipe gestures, which is great for one-handed operation (e.g. swipe from the top to lock or close apps, swipe from the side to minimize apps, swipe from the bottom to see event notifications etc.), much like the Nokia N9. But the Jolla takes the concept even further, with “pulley menus” and “cover actions” allowing you to perform certain actions on minimized apps. I absolutely love it.
The UI is developed using Qt5 and it is incredibly fast and smooth. Significantly more so than the Nokia N9, which wasn’t bad either.
Coming from the N9 there was hardly any learning curve migrating to the Jolla UI, but it might take more effort if you’re switching from a different phone. You should save yourself some time and trouble and check out the instructional videos to learn all the neat features. A few of which are not very discoverable.
As you would expect from a brand new operating system, the number of (native) apps available for it is quite limited. And the apps which are available are still pretty basic. But they show quite a lot of promise and for me at least they get the job done. You can contribute by writing your own Qt/QML apps with the Jolla SDK of course.
Additionally the Jolla comes with an Android runtime enabling you to install and run Android apps. By default the Yandex store is included which offers roughly 75.000 Android apps, you can install other Android app stores, such as Aptoide or even Google Play. Or you can acquire the .apk files and install them by simply clicking them in the File Transfers view, or by manually copying them to /data/app/ – I promise you it feels good to install Android apps on a non-Android device using ssh/scp. I didn’t try installing any paid apps.
Running apps in a non-native environment usually isn’t optimal, and this is no exception. For me roughly 1/3 of the apps work flawlessly, 1/3 work with limited functionality (front camera upside down, only works with wifi but not with 3g, no sound etc.) and 1/3 are not usable at all. Usually the problems are related to hardware features (GPS, sound, cameras etc.), i.e. apps not requiring hardware features are more likely to work well.
I did manage to find some useful Android apps which work very well, including Navfree, an offline, OpenStreetMap based voice navigation app. The Jolla Maps app does not have full fledged voice navigation, only route planning.
Out of the box the battery life is not good at all. At the time of writing there’s a bug meaning the battery gets drained very quickly, luckily an official update fixing the issue should be out soon, and there is a fairly simple workaround in the meantime. Applying that workaround improves battery life significantly, and puts it on par or better, with the dominant smartphone brands, though still not quite as good as the Nokia N9.
The Jolla is still missing some good power saving settings, so I manually turn off wifi/3g connections at night or in other situations where I don’t need them.
Besides the issues mentioned above with battery life and apps, the Jolla has some more issues as you should expect from a brand new product, from a small upstart company running an OS labeled as a beta.
When I got the phone it was unable to update, that was solved pretty easily, but still, this means SUSE Linux 10.1 is no longer the only OS in history too broken to patch itself.
There are still some pretty dire limitations. No support for 4g and MMS (will be provided via updates later). The default web browser doesn’t support landscape mode yet (a WebKit based browser supporting landscape mode is availabe in Jolla Market), the sms/texting app also doesn’t support landscape mode yet, which means I’m unable to text using two fingers, luckily texting is not my main occupation, or this would be a serious problem.
I actually bought the Jolla as an investment for the future and to support the company, even though my Nokia N9 is still good as new only two and half years old, and doing everything I need it to do just fine. I was unsure if the Jolla was ready to replace the Nokia N9 yet, or if it needed some time to mature first. But I very quickly retired the N9 and I’m absolutely thrilled with the Jolla. I’m happy to recommend it to any moderately technical and slightly forgiving user, for whom a few papercuts are not showstoppers.
For aunt Tillie the Jolla is not quite there yet, but the potential is huge, and it will be very interesting to follow the progress.