Samsung, Apple, HTC. We troll and snipe over tiny differences between top-tier phones. We even get into fisticuffs over these handset heartthrobs (three words: LG balloon launch). But the fact is the Ones, Z1s and S4s of this world are actually very similar, playing it fairly safe with every new iteration.
What we want is something a bit risky. Something to take a gamble on. An indie, alterna-OS phone with heart. Something like the 4.5in Jolla, the very first smartphone from the company of the same name.
As with its cohorts in 2014's New Wave of slightly bonkers, exotic phones - the two-screened YotaPhone and the CyanogenMod-friendly Oppo N1 - it has a fresh OS, is cheaper than regular high-end handsets and still runs in relatively tight-knit circles. You won’t see a line of heads bent over Jollas on the 08:27 to Raffles Place any time soon.
That said, there’s only a small percentage of people we’d recommend the Jolla to. Why? Because if glowing dots in swipeable email apps don’t get you hot under the collar, there are many better specced, more straightforward and stable smartphones out there for the money.
So what does Jolla do differently? And why do we love it despite it's many, obvious limitations?
Thumb, Meet Sailfish
Android is out. This Linux-based smartphone runs Jolla’s own Sailfish OS - a gesture-based beta with a debt to Nokia’s (and Intel’s) doomed MeeGo OS. Not surprising considering Jolla was created by ex-Nokia employees - a big chunk of the internet thinks the Jolla is an unofficial Nokia N9 resurrection.
Sailfish isn’t an OS that you’ll lust after having spent five minutes with - coming from Android or iPhone, the swipes and shortcuts feel unintuitive and it’s easy to get lost. There are no physical or capacitive buttons on the front of the Jolla, either.
But spend a week with it and it’s easy to come around to Sailfish. It’s far from perfect but the simple idea of letting your fingers and thumb stay on the touchscreen the whole time (rather than moving to press buttons) makes for a speedy, non-stop experience.
So how does it work?
A basic notifications list is a swipe up from the bottom of the screen: fairly standard. But swiping left from the right of the screen minimises the app you’re in and takes you to a homescreen of open apps, like BB10’s Active Frames. Only nine are shown on the one ‘home view’ screen, but as you hold down and delete, other open apps take their place.
Pulling the screen down in most Jolla apps brings up a list of options for things such as changing settings, sharing, search and sending messages or emails - this is the ‘getting things done’ gesture. And finally glowing dots in the top left hand corner show you which page you’re on like tech Tinkerbells guiding the way. Swipe left or right for forwards and backwards. For exampls, when viewing a photo you can swipe right once to return to Photos and right again to the main Gallery menu.
Learning the system is an investment, but use the Jolla for three to four days and your thumb will take on a life of its own, racing around Sailfish with fluid efficiency. And it’s a very well presented, pretty UI with glowing sliders and toggles, grids of letters and teardrop-shaped icons. There are design flourishes everywhere - we set the time more than once because we enjoyed it so much.
Still, niggles abound. The browser needs more work as navigating is a bit of a chore, and while most apps are see-through (iOS 7-style) to show your ‘Ambience’ (i.e. homescreen background) some, such as Email, switch to a boring (but more readable) monochrome design in-app. It's just not consistent yet.
Sailfish does have the basics covered - easy-to-use People, Messaging, Email and Media (music) apps, plus HERE Maps, which (like Calculator, Notes and other essentials) has to be downloaded from the Jolla Store. Nothing is pushed on users, which is largely great, but apps are also a bit of a mess overall.
Remember we said Android's a no-show? That's doesn't quite tell the whole story...
Operating system - Sailfish OS beta
Processor - 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core
RAM - 1GB
Screen - 4.5in qHD with 540x960 resolution (245ppi), Gorilla Glass 2
Camera - 8MP rear (with AF, LED flash), 2MP front
Storage - 16GB (microSD expandable by up to 64GB)
Connectivity - Wi-Fi, 3G/4G, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS
Battery - 2100mAh
Dimensions/weight - 131 x 68 x 9.9mm/141g
Jolla apps with a side of Android
There’s no getting round it - it’s slim pickings on the Jolla app store. With about 200 or so to choose from, if you want a battery or data tracker you’re in luck. If you want a casually addictive side scroller, not so much.
The Store itself is laid-out to help you see what other Jolla users are downloading, but a quick swipe brings up more traditional categories. A few Stuff recommendations: Tweetian, a Twitter client, SailBox for Dropbox, and Bluewhale for Evernote are all useful workarounds, and the esteemed Snake makes an appearance.
It’s not enough, though, and Jolla knows it - which is why the smartphone runs Android apps, too. By installing third-party Android app stores such as Jolla’s go-to Yandex store (which actually played up rather a lot for us during testing), Amazon and Aptoide, the Jolla gets access to "proper" apps such as Netflix, Facebook, Kindle and Jetpack Joyride. It’s straightforward even for Android n00bs, Yandex problems aside, and the choice is there. Phew, right?
Well, yes, but also no. Android apps just don’t run as smoothly here as we’re used to, even on budget and mid-range Droids. And to get full access to Google Play you need to dig into developer mode and risk bricking the device - Jolla tells us it will still fix your phoneif that happens, but it does void the warranty.
Running Android apps also turns the Jolla into an OS and app experience of two halves - you can’t swipe from the right out of Android apps, icons spoil the grid of teardrops and you even get the Android back button and multi-tasking screen.
Talking of two halves, like a chunky wafer in a black and white movie or a stretched out liquorice allsort, our black Jolla comes with a white rear panel that can be removed for access to the microSIM slot, microSD card slot and swappable battery.
Jolla’s additional backplates, selling for around US$30, are, in fact, NFC-equipped smart covers that can add ringtones and ‘ambiences’ (themes) via NFC tags to the phone in a quasi-modular system. We haven’t tried out The Other Half accessories yet but Jolla’s released an SDK to 3D print cases with instructions of where to place the NFC tags. It’s a fantastic idea but one without a killer use just yet - we want to see a ‘work mode’ Other Half, 'guest mode' Other Half or even in the future a wireless charging Other Half.
With a similar size to the HTC One, the Jolla is neither skinny at 9.9mm nor featherlight at 141g, but its chunk does make it easy to hold. With a case snapped on it’s sturdy, too, and looks eye-catching in a retro sort of way - opposite curves on the two edges, big bezels, everything 2014 smartphones don’t do, but it works, and it doesn't look quite like any other phone. And isn't that why you went all off-piste with your handset choice?
Pixels Working Overtime
There’s no HD screen but the Jolla’s 4.5in 540x960 display is still surprisingly lovely. Colours are accurate and not too overcooked, blacks look inky, there's good contrast, and although it misses some of the finer details due to downscaling, it can play 720p and 1080p videos.
If you’re going to use the Jolla for reading lots of text - catching up on tech news, say - the low resolution quickly becomes apparent. We’d like it to go brighter, too, both for watching movies and for when you're using it as a camera viewfinder. Viewing angles are also only so-so.
That might be fine on a bargain basement blower, but this is a S$695 phone, which means Jolla’s simply a bit behind in the pixel wars. Having said that it is responsive, Sailfish itself looks great and Gorilla Glass 2 gives it good protection.
It’s not just pixels that are missing: on paper the Jolla doesn’t look too powerful either, with an ageing dual-core 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor and 1GB of RAM.
Day-to-day it’s respectable, and playing the best of the Amazon App Store’s games doesn’t fluster it - but as we mentioned earlier, Android apps trip it up and the Jolla can get stuck on pulldown options.
Downloads of apps and files from Dropbox are fairly nippy, but we did have some connection problems to both Wi-Fi networks and a portable hotspot. And browsing isn’t as fast as we’re used to, with the Jolla scoring a mediocre 1583.1ms on the Sunspider 1.0.2 benchmark.
It’s not all bad news: the Jolla supports 4G - not always a given at this price - and has a microSD card slot for expanding storage by up to 64GB. It might be a little slow but in other ways it’s great value.
Sun in Jolla's Eyes
The Sailfish UI designers have high standards and the Jolla’s camera app looks lovely, with a drop-down grid of options including mode, flash, white balance and focus type. It’s limited compared to most Androids - no scenes or effects, for example - but both auto-focus and tap to focus are fairly quick and for most casual snappers it’ll get the job done.
Pics are a mixed bag - they don't look brilliant on the qHD screen itself, but on a monitor you can see that the 8MP camera actually captures a lot of detail, more so than the HTC One’s UltraPixel cam, in fact. Some people might prefer more pumped-up colours but the Jolla’s palette is nice and accurate. Contrast could be better, though, while low-light snaps appear fairly grainy and the f/2.4 lens often struggles to expose correctly in daylight compared to superior smartphone cameras. The 2MP front-facer is fine in decent light but unlike HTCs and LGs it won’t magically brighten-up dark living rooms.
The final straw? The Jolla’s battery life just isn’t quite good enough. This is a phone that’ll do just fine if you use it lightly throughout the day, thanks to a good, solid standby performance (battery percentages stay put overnight), and on an HD video rundown at half brightness it manages 7 hours 12 minutes.
But this screen really needs to be above half brightness to be most usable and if you hammer the processor for a couple of hours it drops a panic-inducing 30%. Forgiveable on otherwise flawless phones - think HTC One - but a phone with as many "quirks" as the Jolla needs to keep its icons glowing longer.
But despite the flaws we can't help but find ourselves rooting for the little Jolla.
There’s alternative, and then there’s alternative, and while the almost as swipetastic - and also MeeGo-inspired - BB10 on BlackBerry was surprising in the way that red-faced businessmen in bumper cars are surprising, the Jolla’s fresh the way hip Scandinavians swigging jam from whiskey jars in password-protected bars are fresh. In short, it’s cool.
Jolla’s slogan is ‘we are unlike’, and if that’s your only criteria for your next smartphone you should jump for Jolla and never look back.
But this is not a phone for everyone. In fact, it's just about as far away from that as it's possible to be without being a phone for absolutely no-one. If you care about the screen, camera or apps you need to forget the quirky Jolla and go for a "proper" phone such as the Nexus 5 or Xperia Z1 Compact, both of which can be had for the same sort of money.
Jolla’s experiments will keep the big smartphone makers nimble and we're grateful for that. We also can’t wait to see a leaner, meaner Jolla 2 in the next 12 to 18 months. For now, the Jolla is a funky statement phone or iPad companion for tech hipsters, but as a standalone device for "normal" people, it’s just not there yet.