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Jolla smartphone review: On an alternative path

12 October, 2014 4:35 AM
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The writer has posted comments on this articleAnupam SaxenaAnupam Saxena,TOI Tech | Oct 12, 2014, 10.05 AM IST

Finnish startup Jolla recently introduced its Sailfish OS-powered smartphone with the same name in the Indian market, offering consumers an alternative to Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry and iOS (iOS is exclusive to Apple's high-end phones though) platforms.

For those unaware, Jolla was founded by former-Nokia employees involved with the development of MeeGo OS and the ill-fated Nokia N9 phone it powered. The group of employees decided to take forward the Linux-based OS to the next level and ensure that it doesn't die a death of oblivion following Nokia's abandonment of MeeGo.

The company announced the Jolla smartphone in May 2013 and started selling it in November in select markets. It's interesting that Jolla chose India, a largely Android-dominated and less mature smartphone market, to offer its smartphone. Also, the company has priced the phone much lower than what it sells for in other markets. Is the Jolla phone a good alternative when it comes to real world use? We try to find out in our review.

The Jolla phone takes design cues from the Nokia N9 with its almost rectangular shape, partially rounded edges and sharp corners. The phone is not particularly big, however, it is a little thick, partly because of its smart back cover. In fact, you could even mistake it for two different slim phones stacked on top of each other if you look at it from the sides.

More so because the front panel's edges are rounded at the left and ride sides while the back panel's edges are flat. It's the opposite at the top and bottom edges. The phone is essentially made from premium quality plastics and feels good to hold. Some people may have an issue with the sharp corners but we did not find them to be intimidating.

The back cover of the phone, which Jolla calls 'The other half' is NFC enabled and not only lets you customize the physical appearance of the phone but also changes the phone's theme, wallpaper and other UI elements. The first 90 customers get three such covers, free of charge.

The front of the phone is devoid of any hardware buttons though it does feature a discreet LED notifications light, while the right edge sports the Power and volume rocker key. The plastic keys offer good tactile feedback and are pretty responsive.

The 3.5mm headset jack and the micro-USB port sit at the top and the speaker outlet is placed at the bottom edge. The white back cover on the demo unit had a smooth matte finish. It sports the camera lens and the LED flash. There's very little Jolla branding on the phone.

Removing the back cover reveals micro-sim and microSD card slots and the battery compartment which houses a 2100mAh removable battery.

Overall, the phone is pretty well built, however, compared to other options, it does look boxy and a little out of place in a market that is witnessing the entry of slimmer and sleeker devices.

The front of the phone is dominated by a 4.5-inch qHD(960x450p) display. For a device that costs more than Rs 15,000, we would have expected a 720p display but the panel is not really bad to look at. Text and graphics don't look very sharp but the system app icons and screens don't look pixilated. Having said that, viewing angles were not very wide.

Sunlight legibility was average and shooting pictures on a bright, sunny day is a little difficult. The default system font also doesn't suit the display.

The key highlight of the phone is its Sailfish OS, an open source platform based on MeeGo that also supports Android apps. The navigation is totally gesture based, somewhat like BlackBerry 10.

You unlock the phone via a double tap gesture and navigate across three different screen panels - the lock screen displays the time, notifications and status bars, the second one is the Home screen that presents a live view of running apps and the third one is Launcher that features app shortcuts.

You exit apps by swiping from the left edge towards the right or vice versa, explore additional options and settings by swiping towards the bottom and get notifications by swiping towards the top. Swiping to the left takes you back a step in navigation.

There's also a pulley menu indicated by a glow at the top of the screen. Whenever you see the glowing bar, you can simply swipe down across the screen to see other options and select one of them. Some apps also have this menu at the bottom.

Instead of a pull-down notification tray, Jolla offers an Events view which can be initiated by simply swiping up the screen from the bottom bezel. It displays all notifications including social network feeds. The social feeds screen also lets you post to respective social networks.

Although there's a tutorial that guides you about the basics, we feel there's a learning curve attached to the OS, especially if you're used to an Android, Windows Phone or iOS device. It takes time getting used to the gestures and understanding the design language of the UI. Once you're familiar with it, you'll not have problems navigating around. However, we feel it could have been made simpler. For instance, after locating the app of your choice in the Jolla Store you'll need to pull down and find the install button via the pulley menu when this could have been a one tap process. Shouldn't the UI focus on making things more intuitive and reducing the number of steps to perform an action?

Similarly, the gesture for minimizing apps and going back one step inside native apps is very identical, leading to confusion.

The phone ships with the Jolla store and some preloaded Android apps including Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Snapdeal apps. The Android apps come with a navigation bar with a back button but also support the swipe to exit gesture. It's worth pointing out that major online services don't offer native apps for Jolla.

The phone comes with non-removable native apps for phone, messages, browser, camera, People (contacts), Gallery and settings, and removable apps for calculator, calendar, clock, email, media player, notes, documents (a viewer), and Here maps. All Android apps are also removable.

Just like BlackBerry 10, the native apps become live widgets in the running apps view offering some information, but Android apps display a static frame of the last accessed screen. Simple Android apps and games run smoothly on Jolla and it never feels there's an emulation layer. Having said that, the native apps look really beautiful and integrate the ambience of the UI in a much better manner. We tried a few third party clients for apps like Facebook and Twitter and found them to be really good looking although they lacked full functionality. There were also issues with notifications while using Android apps as they're not integrated with the system.

One of the strengths of Jolla is its integrated Messages app. It reminds you of the Windows Phone messaging app but this one also brings in support for Google Hangouts in addition to Facebook Messenger and XMPP-based services. Messages are received and send instantly and you can see all your communication threads on a single screen.

The Jolla keyboard offers a good typing experience and has a minimalist look. It offers scrollable word suggestions and option to switch the language.

Overall, the Sailfish operating system looks fresh and the gesture-based approach to navigation is interesting albeit a little cumbersome to use at times. Other than the novelty and the founders' promise of not sharing users' personal data, there aren't many reasons to choose the platform over Android and iOS.

Jolla phone features an 8MP rear camera alongside an LED flash, and a 2MP front-facing camera as well.

The Jolla camera app offers a number of granular settings but misses out on Panorama and HDR modes.

The camera takes good quality pictures in daylight with accurate colour reproduction and good amount of detail. The pictures don't look good on the phone due to the low display resolution but transfer them to a PC and you'll realize that the phone has a very capable rear camera especially for pictures taken in optimal light conditions. Even low-light photos were decent though these pictures were not as rich in terms of detail. There was very little noise.

The rear camera is capable of shooting 1080p video but video quality was average.

Powered by a 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, the Jolla smartphone comes with 16GB storage expandable via microSD card. 13.7GB storage is available to the end users.

We found navigating across the home screen, launching and switching between apps to be very smooth. Compared to other phones in the same price range, the hardware is modest but we have to say that it is well optimized for the Jolla OS and you don't come across stutter or lag while using native apps. Casual Android games like Cut the Rope and Subway Surfers run smoothly but we were not able to install games such as Riptide GP 2 or Asphalt 8 due to requirement of additional files not available via third-party Android app stores. You'll not be able to install Android apps that integrate a Google service or rely on Google Play for payments. Some Android apps crash frequently.

In terms of call quality and network reception the phone performs well and the other party was able to hear us loud and clear thanks to the good quality microphones.

The phone was able to play HD videos and supports most popular video formats.

The phone comes with GPS and A-GPS for navigation and maps and was easily able to lock a signal. It also comes with NFC connectivity to initiate file transfers to other NFC-enabled phones and receive data from NFC tags.

Coming to battery life, the 2100mAh battery of the phone helps in achieving a respectable backup. With the phone's brightness set to automatic and intermittent use of WiFi and 3G, the phone lasted a full day (9-10 hours) with usage comprising few hours of phone calls, casual gaming, an hour of web browsing and accessing Twitter and Facebook, in addition to clicking a few pictures.

At a price of Rs 16,499, the Jolla phone offers an alternative ecosystem to users who maybe tired of Android, iOS or Windows Phone and are open to experiment and try a less evolved, community supported platform. Jolla phone could perhaps be a good secondary smartphone used mainly for messaging. If you're a smartphone enthusiast and have been been waiting to buy this phone, you'll find the price very attractive (the phone sells for 349 euros in Europe).

We'd not recommend the Jolla phone to users who're just switching from a feature phone as it feels like a work in progress. The Sailfish OS has a steep learning curve and doesn't offer a good number of native apps. If you have to rely on Android apps to get work done, we're not sure why you wouldn't use an Android phone that comes with the Google Play Store. You'll get access to all Android apps and better performance.

In the same price range, you can consider Micromax Canvas Knight, Asus ZenFone 6 and HTC Desire 616, if you're open to buying an Android phone. The new Nokia Lumia 730 is also a great option if you don't mind a Windows Phone option.

Source: timesofindia.indiatimes.com

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