A closer look at the Jolla phone: good intentions, bad delivery
Jolla's self-titled and first smartphone launched in partnership with Finnish carrier DNA this week, with a few hundred handsets finding their way to early pre-orderers. Today, a couple of familiar faces from the company stopped off in London to let us play with the final hardware and get to grips with Jolla's Sailfish OS, which is based somewhat on Nokia's old MeeGo platform. If you caught our tour of the Jolla prototype earlier this year then you've got a good idea of what the handset looks like. In fact, the only differences we can see aesthetically are slightly smaller bezels above and below the screen, and that the rear camera has moved from right flank to center stage. Internally, the core specs are: A 1.4GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 (MSM8930), 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage space (expandable), a 4.5-inch, 960x540 (qHD) IPS LCD display, an 8-megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel shooter on the front. We only had a few hours to probe Jolla's first device, but head past the break for our initial impressions.
Jolla phone hands-on
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As we've said, the handset's design hasn't changed much since the prototype stage. Jolla's phone is angular, solidly built and at 141g (nearly 5 ounces), has an industrial quality to it. While its appearance may be preferable to curves for some, the lack of rounded edges doesn't make for the most comfortable hold. The sharp edges tend to dig in to your hand; the bottom corners especially. We not sure we like the seam that separates the main both of the phone from the 'other half' either, which in our case was a white, plastic shell. Currently, there are various colors of shells, each with an NFC chip on the inside edge. Switching covers will automatically change the 'ambience' -- Sailfish's color themes that pervade the UI -- and Jolla imagines third-parties creating their own shells and accompanying ambiences.
What's more intriguing is under the shell. There's a removable 2100mAh battery, micro-SIM and microSD slots, but it's the bare connectors we're more interested in. One's for power, which we assume will allow for extended-battery cases, and the other is for general hardware interface. To explain how this could be used, Jolla's Marc Dillon gave the example of a shell with an integrated keyboard. The company wouldn't confirm what other half peripherals it's working on exactly, but intends third-parties to get creative, too, when the necessary developer tools are released in the near future.
It's a dull day in London, so we were unable to fully assess sunlight readability, but the 4.5-inch LCD display (protected by a sheet of Gorilla Glass 2) is bright and colors look pretty good. The 245 ppi served up by the screen's 960x540 resolution is adequate, but nothing special. Pixelation is sometimes an issue, which isn't helped by the skinny font Jolla's chosen for the UI.
As for the camera, again, it's a bit of a mixed bag. As you can see from the sample image above, with a decent amount of light, color representation is good. Step out somewhere less well lit, however, and things do start to deteriorate. We took an assortment of snaps indoors and out, and as you'll see, the results are inconsistent. Low light causes the sensor to struggle, and the flash doesn't do much to improve the situation. That said, the images actually appear to look worse in the gallery/on the phone's display than they actually do once you get them off the handset and onto your PC. A task that actually caused us quite a few problems, with USB, Bluetooth, email and attempts to share via the memory card all tripping us up (eventually, sending via email suddenly kicked into life). We'd love to spend more time with the camera to give it a fairer crack of the whip, but our first impressions weren't entirely positive.
Jolla phone samples
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Like Jolla's hardware, its Sailfish OS isn't markedly different from when we saw it running on a Nokia developer device almost a year ago. It's structured vertically, so you scroll up from the lockscreen to get to the multi-tasking screen, then to the app drawer. The interface is very gesture-heavy, so minimizing applications to the multi-tasking panel is done by dragging inwards from the left or right bezel. Similarly, dragging down from the top bezel closes an app, and coming up from the bottom bezel brings the notification and social network quick-access panel up. Some apps have 'pulley' menus that open when you swipe downwards on the screen, and long presses in some contexts opens up a separate option menu.
If all that sounds kind of complicated, well, it is. We got better at knowing what to do next even during the short time we spent with the phone, but it's that learning curve we take umbrage with. It wants to be intuitive -- as the Jolla folks put it, they want you to do something, rather than press a button that does something -- but ends up being mysterious and sometimes confusing. The big smartphone platforms are much easier to navigate, partly because we're used to them before, but also because they do a good job of guiding you. Sailfish isn't friendly to novices, and the swipe gestures don't feel like a natural or particularly efficient way of interacting with the UI. There were a few occasions, too, when we just couldn't find that setting, or this option. Sharing a picture shouldn't be a chore. However, Jolla says it's committed to listening to feedback and intends to build on this initial release with updates. One such update that'll be arriving fairly shortly will enable LTE on the handset, which is limited to 3G at the moment.
Another problem with Sailfish is that performance just isn't as slick as other platforms. Poking around the OS is fast enough, but most apps take a second or two to load, when there are no crashes or quirks. Strange WiFi behavior and other problems like struggling to free our camera sample images show that there's a lot of polishing to be done. The Android integration, too, needs some work. Android apps appear in the regular app drawer, so there's no confusing disconnect there, but they all run very laggy. The selection in the Yandex app store itself is a little deflating also, but there are rumblings it's possible to install Amazon's App Store and others like Atoide. Sailfish's dedicated app store is extremely sparse at this time, but Jolla says there are a bunch in development. The company's general software strategy is to Android performance and stock up its own marketplace.
We were excited to get an extended look at a brand new smartphone player that's building its own products and OS. However, we came away a little underwhelmed. The handset is distinct, but not remarkable, although we're yet to see what can be done with the 'other half.' The OS is admittedly a work in progress, but now the Jolla phone is a retail device, we have conclude that the user experience just isn't up to scratch at this point. Perhaps mixing in some more traditional UI elements will make us appreciate the gesture system more, too.
The company has plans beyond their firstborn, as more handsets will be made in the future. Jolla were keen to report, however, that the focus currently is to improve Sailfish and support this initial device, not move on to other things now they've got this launch out of the way. All pre-ordered handsets are shipping across Europe at this time, but the phone will be available internationally through Jolla's website soon. Sailfish might end up in other devices not of Jolla's design, too. Dillon told us that prior to this handset's launch, Jolla had been in discussions with several Android smartphone makers. Now the company has delivered their own hardware, we're hearing some of those discussions just got a lot more serious.
We're working to get the video up, so check back soon. James Trew contributed to this report.