Jolla and Sailfish OS – an interesting option?

Window Phone, Tizen, Firefox…there have been plenty of pretenders in the smartphone arena all trying to muscle in on Android’s dominance and take a piece of the market, but thus far none have managed it, and none have deserved to. Even the old options of Blackberry and iOS don’t seem to have an answer for the rise of Android despite the latter’s core user base of still bizarrely devoted followers of Apple.

I’ve tried a few of the old and the new, but in the end, none of them quite live up to expectations. There are problems with all of them, whether it be lack of imagination (iOS), lack of ease for one-handed use (all of them), lack of apps (everything outside Android & iOS)…take your pick, they all have them, even my current OS of choice, Android, has its issues including a lack of intuitive use – I regularly get questions from friends and family about how to do some relatively simple action on it, because while I do enjoy using it, it isn’t simple OS to just pick up and learn.

Jolla: Origins

And so we turn our attention to one of the newer kids on the block…well technically one of the old kids on the block who has found renewed life under a new name. Rising from the ashes of the Meego project and the Nokia offloads from their tie-up with Microsoft back in 2011, the Finnish firm Jolla was created and decided to take a different route for their phone and OS development.

The result was Sailfish OS, an evolution of MeeGo with about 80% of its code comes from the Mer (Meego Reconstructed) core, and the Jolla smartphone. Both of these were firsts for Jolla, and something we haven’t seen in the smartphone market for a while – a small, independent company with a new open-source (ish) OS and a new self-made phone. I found the whole thing rather intriguing. With the launch of the new phone and OS in November 2013, Jolla had proved they could at least bring something to market, but there have been plenty of pretenders to Google’s throne in the smartphone arena before. The real question is how do they stack up against the likes of Apple, Microsoft, and Google?

Hardware

The Jolla Phone
The Jolla Phone with accompanying white Other Half

From a specs perspective, I don’t think anyone would say the Jolla smartphone was a market leader. On the physical side, the phone has a metal frame that is neatly curved on the sides but flat at top and bottom. In a nostalgic pull-back to days of yore, the back of the phone is part of Jolla’s “Other Half” campaign which allows the user to change the back cover of the phone to suit their personal preference (more on this later!) – the phone has a white plastic back out of the box which contrasts the metal frame with a curved top and bottom and straight sides, which can make it a little awkward to hold.

The Jolla phone
The Jolla Phone flanked by a Nexus S and its distant ancestor, the Nokia 3310

The front of the device is adorned with a relatively small (by today’s standards) 4.5″ 540 x 960 pixel IPS screen. Nowadays that should result in a neat little device but the Jolla phone is surrounded by a pretty substantial bezel which makes the phone much bigger than it probably should be, especially as there are no navigation buttons either physical or capacitive in Sailfish OS, which makes the big black block at below the screen only holding a notification light seem much larger than it is. The only other intrusion on the front is a 2mp from facing camera to the left of the earpiece.

Aside from this “other half“, the back is clean apart from an 8mp rear facing camera capable of recording at 1080p positioned in the upper centre of the back of the phone accompanied by an LED flash. The power button and volume rocker are placed high up on the right hand side of the phone, with the nothing on the left. The top has the 3.5mm headphone jack towards the right, with the micro-USB charging port placed in the middle, and a Jolla logo on the left. The bottom holds the dual speakers.

Under the covers, the phone runs Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chipset with a dual-core 1.4Ghz Krait 300 CPU and Adreno 305 GPU. In terms of connectivity, it has 802.11 b/g/n wifi, GPS and GLONASS and NFC. The phone uses a micro-SIM and can connect to GSM, HSPA and LTE networks, including in the UK. There is 16gb of built-in storage with support for a microSD card up to 64gb and the device is powered by a 2100mAh removable battery.

Software

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Sailfish OS lock-screen with basic notification visibility
I have been pleasantly surprised about the phone’s real-life performance. Despite the somewhat low-end processor, the phone actually performs really well. Much of that is down to the slickness of Sailfish OS, and probably the symbiotic relationship you tend to get when the software and hardware developers are the same.

The basics of the OS are remarkably simple. The lock screen shows you some basic notification icons, the time and date, and whether you’re on silent. Pulling down on this screen brings you four short-cut options with sound profile and three customisable ones that you can change to your preferences. Swiping up unlocks the phone and takes you to your home-screen with four icons at the bottom (again all customisable). This isn’t just an empty home-screen though.

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Sailfish OS home screen with live tiles
Unlike the trio Android, iOS and Windows Phone, this screen will start to fill up with shortcuts once you have opened some apps, with tiles gradually appearing, the size of which will vary depending on how many you have open. Some of these tiles will be live allowing the information to be updated for the weather or music to be played, paused etc for the music app. As far as I can tell, these live functions only work with apps built specifically for Jolla and the Sailfish Store. If you no longer want the app to be open, you simply hold you finger on the tile until an X button appears beneath it and you press the button.

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Sailfish OS app drawer… just like every app drawer
Accessing the app drawer is a simple as swiping upwards on the screen with vertical scrolling enabled to quickly move between each 4×6 page of apps. The apps can be rearranged or deleted by the user simply by once again holding your finger on the app icon. A small X button will appear beneath the app if you want to delete it, or you simply re-hold the app and drag it to the position of your choosing. Personally I would’ve liked a quick option to alphabetise the list, but it isn’t much of a hardship to do it manually if you simply keep on top of them as they are installed.

As for navigation, this will sound a bit complicated so bear with me – swiping up from off-screen onto the screen on any page brings down the notification tray. When in a native app, swiping on the screen right and left takes you forwards or backwards in the app, pulling down on screen to bring up the menu and swipe from just off screen onto the screen to minimise the app and have it placed on the home screen.

It sounds awkward and slightly complicated when written down, but it is actually very simple and is a very simple method of navigating. It all comes back to Jolla’s philosophy on simplification and ease of use for the user. There is not back button, there is no menu button or separate settings menu and menu button, there are only gestures. Even if you have smaller hands, you never have to resort to two-handed use, you never have to really stretch, everything is available at the flick of a finger or thumb, and it all works pretty much perfectly within the native Sailfish OS and apps.

Performance

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Sailfish OS’ clean and simple dialer
Most importantly for a phone, even a smartphone, I have had no issues with call quality or dropped calls at all. It connects to 4G on both EE and Three with no problems. The Jolla phone syncs relatively easily with Google and Microsoft accounts, giving you access to your contacts in the dialer app, like much of Sailfish OS, it is clean, efficient and simple to use. You simply pull down to access your contacts menu which appears as an alphabetical grid. Press the appropriate letter to bring up a list of contacts starting with that letter. Select the contact and make the call.

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Sailfish OS keyboard is basic but accurate
Text messaging is also pretty standard using the default messaging app. The Jolla keyboard is pretty quick and accurate even when I was typing on a much smaller screen then I am used to. Unfortunately there is no gesture typing option yet, nor can you install third party keyboards so I cannot even switch to my preferred Swype keyboard for that option. But despite that, it is perfectly adequate keyboard and works perfectly well.

Despite the slightly underpowered specs, the phone is incredibly quick and slick in use. The gesture based navigation is a neat way to get around the phone and allows a nice level of uniformity. It improves the user experience massively once you’re used to the process and makes app switching simple and quick. A couple of flicks of the thumb and you’ve switched, or gone to the home screen, or unlocked the phone. It is perfect for one-handed use, but is still comfortable enough for two-handed use if you prefer. The phone simply zips through apps and processes with ease, making every other OS feel slightly laggy afterwards. The lightness of the OS and the manner in which is works together results in a genuinely pleasant experience when using the phone every day.

Apps

Jolla app store

You can download additional apps from the Sailfish app store, or to give it its official name, the Jolla Harbour. As with all relatively new ecosystems, the Harbour is somewhat sparse when compared to the mobile behemoths of Apple and Google. There are a handful of first party apps developed by Jolla to cover the essentials, things like a calculator, weather app, calendar etc, all of which follow the Sailfish design language perfectly and work seamlessly with the rest of the OS.

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Sailfish OS app store aka the Harbour
There is also a growing number of third party app, and while they are still relatively few in number, the developers tend to be quite active in seeking feedback and improving them. You can find apps covering most of the usual social networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as one for Google Hangouts and Reddit, all of which adhere to the Sailfish design language.

Unfortunately, these third party ones can be a bit hit-or-miss in terms of quality and functionality which is a little disappointing, but not entirely unexpected given the relative youthfulness and limited user base.

Unlike Windows Phone, Firefox OS, Tizen, and in fact almost every other start-up mobile OS, if you cannot find what you want in the Harbour, you are not completely stuck. The Linux basis for Sailfish, and some neat work by the folks over at Jolla, means that you can run Android apps on the Jolla phone.

MOAR app stores!

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Android app stores available in the Harbour
This can be simply done by downloading one of the android app stores available through the Harbour with Aptoide, Yandex and Anzhi app stores all available as official Jolla-certified app store partners.

There are also a number of app stores that aren’t official partners like Amazon, but which still work on the Jolla Phone. Between them these give you access to a whole host of different android apps which should cater for a lot of people until a native Jolla app arrives.

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Google Play Store can also be sideloaded
The Play Store isn’t officially supported by Sailfish OS because it isn’t part of AOSP and isn’t running Android.

Officially Jolla warn users off installing the Play Store as it can apparently cause some serious problems, and services etc that need access to Google Services may not work.

But if you’re willing to accept those risks, and you are feeling a little more adventurous, you can install the Google Play store on the phone with a little tinkering. This allows the user to install official Google apps like Gmail and Calendar as well as accessing the vast collection of apps, games and services that Google offer, including Google Play Music, but as Jolla warn, they might not all work perfectly.

Conclusion

The Jolla Phone has been a bit of a surprise. Expecting another also-ran and with rather middling specs even for a phone released last year, it has been a rather pleasant surprise. The hardware is a tad basic compared to most high-end devices nowadays, but the lightness of the software means that performance is probably the smoothest of any mobile OS.

The gesture based navigation does take a little getting used to if you’re coming from one of the major mobile operating systems, but after a little use, it quickly becomes so simple and easy to use that you’ll wonder why no one has been using it. Seriously, after using this phone for a few minutes and going back to an Android or iOS, I struggle with just how unintuitive their button based systems are.

The native app store still needs work, as do some of the native apps, but it is a relatively new OS, currently restricted to a single first-party device and ported to a handful more devices so that is hardly surprising. Add to that the fact that Jolla and the Sailfish Alliance don’t have the same money as say Microsoft to throw at developers to get their apps into its app store, and it is unlikely that there will be a massive influx of native Sailfish apps any time soon. But thankfully, that doesn’t really matter, at least in the short term because it supports Android, and there are plenty of Android apps to go around.

What’s next

The next big step for Jolla and Sailfish OS will be the launch of the Jolla tablet. The result of a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo which raised more than $2.5m, the Jolla Tablet could help take the firm, and its software to the next level both in terms of quality and customer base. It will be the launch device of the next iteration of software with Sailfish OS 2.0 which, Jolla claims, will offer better multi-tasking (including split-screen functionality), simpler gesture interactions and a more fluid user experience – having tried it out an early release of 2.0 on the Jolla Phone, it is definitely an improvement both in terms of performance and user experience and should translate well to a tablet.

It is also keeping up on the hardware front with the tablet sporting a 7.85″ 330ppi IPS screen, 32gb storage as standard (with micro-sd card support), 2 gb of ram and running off a 64-bit 1.8GHz quad-core Intel Baytrail processor. While the inevitable crowd funding delays seem to have crept into the tablet’s production, early builds of the tablet are now makign their way into developers’ hands and anyone who missed out on the campaign but now wants a look can pre-order the 32gb version for only £200-ish (€267), and a 64gb version for £220-ish (€299).

Android users who want to give the software a try-before-they-buy can even download a Sailfish OS launcher from the Play Store, but be warned, it doesn’t work on that many devices and for some reason has an Angry Birds’ theme. And if you’re the sort who likes to flash custom roms, Sailfish has also been ported to a number of different handsets.

Irrespective of what your preferred OS is for phone and tablet, competition in that space can only be a good thing. With the domination of Apple and Google, the slow demise of Blackberry, and the apparent inability of Microsoft to progress significantly in the sector, it may well be up to the likes of Jolla and Sailfish to take things forward to the next level, and if the performance of the Jolla Phone is anything to go by, we would be in good hands!


 

Ash

Ash is a technophile and Tolkienite at heart and has read the Silmarillion more than once – yes really, he’s one of those – with an enjoyment of the wider Sci-Fi and fantasy genres amongst others! When not engaged in hobbity pursuits, he is an avid gamer and movie watcher, and has had an affinity with all things technological and some things sporty.