Jolla smartphone review: Gadget Watch

When it comes to the tech sector, a Finnish smartphone start-up called Jolla produced one of the feel-good stories of the summer.

Jolla was founded by a group of engineers originally from Nokia’s elite MeeGo-N9 smartphone unit.

Back in 2011, the team released its first smartphone, the Nokia N9, running Nokia’s answer to iOS and Android, known as MeeGo. It quickly developed a cult following among the Nokia faithful.

However, the new device was quickly cut down to size when Nokia’s then-chief executive, a man named Stephen Elop, announced the company would use Microsoft’s Windows Phone (rather than MeeGo) as the basis of its new Lumia range of smartphones.

For reasons explained in far greater depth by former Nokia executive and industry analyst Tomi Ahonen, the Lumia series failed to live up to expectations in terms of sales.

The engineers from MeeGo-N9 formed their own start-up, named Jolla.

Soon after, the start-up revealed it had secured a contract with China’s largest phone retail chain and raised $US258 million in funding. Meanwhile, Microsoft agreed to purchase the mobile assets of Nokia, along with a licence to use its patents, for $US7.2 billion.

In late November, in the face of many doubters, Jolla began shipping its first smartphone across Europe. The company plans to ship to more markets later this year.

Let’s face it – who doesn’t love seeing an underdog succeed? Needless to say, many in the tech industry wish the plucky start-up well.

Of course, all this raises the question: Is their first smartphone any good?

What is it?

While the company has not yet released its Australian price, the Jolla retails for €399, unlocked and unsubsidised, in Europe.

It measures 131×68 mm, is 9.9 mm thick and weighs 141 grams.

The 4G/LTE device features a Qualcomm Dual Core 1.4GHz processor, 16 gigabytes of storage, MicroSD, a 4.5-inch IPS qHD display with a resolution of 960 x 540, and an 8-megapixel rear camera.

In perhaps its most innovative feature, the smartphone features replaceable back covers, known as the “Other Half”. The phone automatically changes its colour scheme and background based on the colour of the Other Half cover you’ve attached.

What’s the consensus?

Over at Forbes, Ewan Spencer warns the software on the Jolla has a number of ‘rough edges’ that have long ago been smoothed on more established platforms, such as Windows Phone, iOS or Android:

The Jolla handset is a work in progress. Do not buy this handset if you are looking for something that ‘just works’. It’s not yet a platform that can return Finland to the top of the smartphone sales chart. But it is a handset that Finland should be proud of. It has shipped, it broadly works, and there is a feeling that Jolla the company is constantly at work to improve their handset every day.

The ecosystem really does remind me of the later days of the PDA, when Palm and Psion were king, when there were bedroom coders making a living, and everyone was contributing and sharing projects, hints, and advice. If Jolla can build on that through the years, they should have a strong niche to market to in the future.

All these good intentions counts for nothing if the first handset is a lemon, and I’m glad to say that after weeks of use, the Jolla handset is a plucky performer. If this was the only piece of tech I had which had an internet connection, I could easily manage my online life and stay in touch without too much fuss, although I would need to be cautious around some of the rough edges in the handset, mostly in software.

CNet went into more depth about the all-touch, swipe controlled interface on the Jolla with its clean, minimalistic theme – and some of its downsides.

For one, there are no navigation buttons, so making your way around requires you to use various gestures. A double tap will wake the phone up and show you notifications. Swipe up and you’ll see your recent apps, and keep swiping up to make your way to a grid of app icons. To return home from an app, swipe in from the left and it’ll place the app in a multitasking panel. When going through menus or text message conversations, simply swiping back will return you to the previous page. A swipe up from below the screen shows a notifications panel.

It’s a fairly attractive interface, full of modern, minimalist text and rounded app icons, but there will be a sharp learning curve for those of you used to the simplicity of iOS. A quick user guide takes you through some of the key gestures when you first start the phone up, but you’re still required to remember them all.

In my few hours with the phone, I felt I was able to get to grips with the basics, but performing simple tasks like connecting to Wi-Fi networks was awkward, and required an extra tap or swipe than it would performing the same task on Android.

While the Jolla only uses a dual-core processor, PC Advisor says it generally holds up well against more powerful rivals. Photography, however, is a different matter:

The Jolla is powered by a 1.4GHz dual-core processor made by Qualcomm and 1GB of RAM. That used to be about right for a mid-range smartphone, but these days the devices like the Nexus 5 and Moto G have quad-core chips. Dual-core can offer just as good performance with software optimisation and while apps generally open and close without hesitation and navigations animations are smooth, we’ve encountered some hiccups.

The camera app is sluggish to load and web browsing isn’t flawless, with pinch-to-zoom unreliable and a noticeable lag when rendering pages. Games don’t perform well either with Fruit Ninja playing at a depressingly poor frame rate.

Over at The Verge, Vlad Savov liked the smartphone’s design, but found the software – and especially its compatibility with Android apps – rough going.

So what does that 399 euros get you? The immediate first impression is a positive one. The Jolla phone feels light and compact, though it’s no category leader with a weight of 141 grams and a thickness of 9.9mm. It’s also got a blocky, utilitarian design, which nonetheless appeals with its quirky sandwich look — courtesy of the swappable Other Half back covers — and subtle Jolla branding set in an inviting cursive typeface.

The Jolla’s strength is in having a lighter software stack — underpinned by the Qt framework, which provides the basis both for its native apps and its UI — than Android while still being compatible with Android apps. Alas, not being an actual Android device, it lacks access to the Google Play Store, so you’re left to fend for yourself with the limited Yandex and Jolla app stores and the downloadable Amazon Appstore. You can sideload app APKs if you wish, but that’d require that you understand what the process involves and where to find the requisite software. It’s rough going.

Should I get one?

The big problem with Jolla’s smartphone – as with most new software and platforms – is that there are still many rough edges that need to be smoothed over.

If you’re a tech-savvy Nokia loyalist who doesn’t mind a few rough edges and you are happy with the Android apps on offer through the Amazon Appstore, the Jolla is certainly worth looking at. It might just be the N9 upgrade you’ve long been waiting for.

But for everyone else, you’re probably better off sticking with an iPhone, Android or Windows Phone/Lumia smartphone.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Jolla team come up with next – and I have no doubt they have the talent to improve significantly on their first effort. In the meantime, it’s a better bet to stick with something that will just work.

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