Jolla phone (Long-term review)

Used: February 2014 – October 2017 (switched to Sony Xperia X with Sailfish X)

First, the obvious question – why would anyone want a Jolla phone? Or more precisely, the Sailfish Operating System since we’re not really buying just a phone but the whole app ecosystem as well. So why get an obvious underdog with less support?

Short answer: Some kind of national pride (“ex-Nokia sympathy”), the sense of freedom from installing whatever you want on your phone and the possibility of a hardware keyboard – because the Nokia N900 was my previous phone – are things that spring to mind. And I’m always a sucker for cheering the underdog.

Long answer: after owning a few gadgets, the one thing I find important to me is long-term use. I want to use a computational device until it is *completely* broken and unfixable or too old to run any crucial piece of software so I ask myself: can I do that with this device or will the company behind it force me to upgrade through planned obsolescence? Just like one might hate buying clothes that can only be worn for a year that get thrown away / recycled because the workmanship or materials don’t hold up. Somehow I felt what Arnie meant when he said the (only memorable) line in Terminator Genisys: “Old, not obsolete”. Yeah yeah, so I’m getting old too, but esp. in mobile technology lifespans tend to be very very short compared to human lives and even computers in general. Mobile phones seem to be made to resemble beautiful, fluttering tropical butterflies that only live for a summer or so and then you need to have and stroke on your palm.

In my slightly ideological view it is important to consider ethical, economical and ecological choices that  imply using the expensive stuff you buy until the very end of its life, a reason why the Fairphone 2 for example is a really welcome product. And if the software of the phone is as open as possible, even if the company abandons it the *community* can still update the system and its software for as long as there is, well, theoretically even one active user alive. The benefits of a (homebrew) community was obvious when switching from the practical Nokia E71 to the Nokia N900, my first real smartphone – which I still use as an MP3-player/backup-camera.

When Nokia abandoned MeeGo (and the excellent N9-phone, of which I would have gotten the keyboard version had it ever come out), I was really pissed of and OF COURSE I  knew then that that was the end of Nokia’s mobile phone business (at least with its own OS, now they’re back with Android), because Nokia made the idiotic shift to Windows Phone. Oh please, *anyone* could see (or at least say so in hindsight) that Microsoft’s too-late addition to the game had nothing new to bring to the table that iOS or Android already didn’t offer.

Then Jolla came along, the tail-wagging underdog-phone from those exiled Nokia N9 & MeeGo- engineers, which even had a small ace (or maybe rather a jack) in the sleeve in the form of The Other Half -concept (TOH) that made it possible to build all sorts of “gadget cases” for it. Of course this meant there might be a keyboard case made for it eventually. And I really wanted a phone with a keyboard. Because Nokia N900.

OK, so Jolla’s Sailfish isn’t perfect when it comes to openness and freedom – the company is still ex-Nokia in many ways and they want to make money by licensing the OS so they can’t just “give it away” (as the Red Hot Chili Peppers put it) but it is still one of the least restrictive alternatives that has a reasonable following of developers.

So that, put simply, is why I bought the Jolla.

The Phone itself

300 € is my upper price limit for a phone, because there is a larger risk for a device that small and frequently in use to be accidentally dropped in the sea / forgotten in a taxi / stolen. As of yet, only the first two have ever happened to me. Well, at least this limit stands when buying with my own money, any employer is free to offer me an iPhone! (edit -that actually happened, now I have an iPhone SE as my work phone 😛 ) So I bought the Jolla in February 2014, when the price was 299 €.

The Jolla phone was initially criticized as having lackluster hardware for the price and it is true that you’re paying extra for a small company offering – Jolla doesn’t have the production volume advantage of the big boys/girls at the gym. Despite this, I think the phone is well balanced for the quite minimalistic OS with a good enough design, processing power, battery life and display. It is a harmonious whole, a good effort for a small company. Also, after three years in use I have to say it still works for all intended purposes, unlike the Nokia N900 which got painfully slow for web browsing over the same time span. Otherwise I might still be using the N900 since it really is a true classic, the swiss knife of phones.

But back to the Jolla; from the average hardware the most positive piece I can single out is definitely the display. A couple of friends have commented that they like the color reproduction of it, and I like it too – colors look vibrant enough when watching the occasional video.  The resolution is low but the text is perfectly readable and the 4,5″ size of the screen is about the maximum I’d want from a pocketable device anyway. As a reference: the 4″  iPhone SE is more pocketable and has a much better screen, but watching videos from the Jolla is actually more pleasing thanks to the screen size.

Now then, the biggest hardware letdown for most people would have to be the camera. The 8 megapixel shooter simply isn’t very good by today’s standards, although on a sunny day you can take some passable shots with it. But indoors and evenings, well, this is just not a good match for Instagram-lovers. Curiously, snaps taken within Android-emulated WhatsApp seem nicer than the pics that Sailfish’s native camera app produces, so the camera software is probably a bit lacking too.

The Operating System, good things…

OK, so the hardware components are strictly average – or rather, were average 3 years ago, now you can call them relics – but that’s not a selling point for the Jolla. Neither is the quirky metal-plastic sandwich design which isn’t a classic but still has more personality than your average Samsung. The Jolla ain’t great to hold comfortably but not bad either and it is thin and light enough.

No, the selling point is Jolla’s own Sailfish OS which has gotten the touch interface more right than Apple or Google, because if we’re supposed to interact with an unresponsive flat surface then *swiping* is the way to go. Once you get the hang of swiping from the edges in order to exit or close down apps or select pull down menu items, it becomes so much nicer than what the other OS’s offer.  Apple’s iOS is second best (and pretty OK actually) but even though Steve Jobs forced touchscreens on us he left one big physical back/home-button on the device.  Android and Windows Phone missed the boat completely with their three back/home/shit happens -buttons… no, a touch screen device should work with NO buttons.

(well OK, of course hardware power on/off buttons and such are still nice and safe to have…)

Swiping works great and coupled with the true multitasking nature of this system you can easily switch between open apps. On the main screen you see miniature screens (“covers”) for each open app; the covers  typically let you do some things like update the weather or change the song playing by pressing the app-specific cover action buttons. In Android terms, you could say that all Jolla apps run as same-sized widgets on the home screen.

I like having a few select applications on at all times and quickly switching between them at the speed of thought (which isn’t fast in my case, heh) and that is the kind of workflow that Jolla has nailed with Sailfish. So kudos for that, even if many sites “reviewing” the Jolla in the early days found the OS unintuitive. Well, only took me an hour to get the hang of things so they must just have been playing like 5 minutes with the review phones…

As this is a long-term review I’ve of course had plenty of time to get used to swiping, but the important thing is: I don’t want to go back to pressing buttons and menus on the screen anymore!

…and bad things.

OS updates have been pleasingly frequent, which was great because there have been constant bugs everywhere all the time and that was in the beginning a reason not to recommend the Jolla to any normal person just wanting a device that works. There was a point in 2015 when Jolla was very close to going out of business, and it is a small miracle that the company is still around. A couple of new updates have already appeared in 2016, so it is great that the device from 2013 is still receiving updates. However, the future doesn’t look very secure, if I’m honest, even if there are now new licensed devices that arrived in 2016.

It is maybe happening too slowly, with Microsoft having almost exited the smartphone business as well with their much larger resources, but with these small independent linux-based OS’s there are always surprising openings – so we’ll have to wait and see how the Russia-thing plays out, for example. Maybe the bet on becoming an OS for China, Russia & Africa will pay dividends, but development is slow and Android & iOS are constantly progressing at breakneck speed.

The worst bug during my first two years with the phone was some strange memory buffer glitch (?) that made the phone crash once or twice a week, depending on usage. This might have to do something with the 1 Gb of main memory not being quite enough or some other hw-components, but I’m not really completely certain of the fine points of this problem. The only certain cure is turning the phone off and restarting it. Sometimes you don’t notice when the problem begins, but people might not be able to call you even if the phone looks like its working. Then apps start crashing when you start to use them, and there are warning messages like “Critical problem with app registry”. (Having a system monitor -app running has been helpful in diagnosing the problem, as the system monitor starts telling “NO DATA” for memory, battery etc. when the problem begins, telling you the memory is F.U.)

Usually the problem happened sooner when you browsed the internet for a long while (which also makes the phone slightly hot, btw), and can be frustrating but recent updates since Saifish 2.0 have made the problem a lot more tolerable. Like a mechanical watch requiring you to calibrate the time on it once a week, the Jolla phone requires you to er… shut it down once a week, so if you like odd routines in your life, you’re in luck. Otherwise, this is the single biggest technical flaw with an otherwise carefree phone.

Also, 4G was really problematic when switching between 3G/4G resulting in crashes, although this seems to have gotten better in late 2016 as well. But 4G is quite useless anyway for mobile phones, though, so I regret switching to a 4G subscription…

The App Situation

Now, how the OS works and what you can actually do with it are two different things. One dealbreaker for many would then of course be the official app store – Jolla’s own store is still badly underdeveloped after all these years, and there is no support for paid apps. This would be nice to encourage more developers to develop (there is Flattr support now but I find their monthly payment scheme a bit fiddly – gimme PayPal any day).

Jolla and MeeRunStill, the great community has provided many nice apps that fill most of my needs, although I might see how lots of people might find the apps to be more “amateurish” in execution – but I was used to the Nokia N900 and the GP2X gaming console, so I like quirky homebrew. A good RSS-reader (Tidings), a weather app (MeeCast) and the sports tracking app MeeRun were there to save the day.

But even if there are many apps that fill most needs, I do recognize the fact that the missing big dogs in the native app world is a thing against recommending the Jolla to a basic user. However, that’s where the built in Android app support comes to the rescue! Because both OS’s have an underlying Linux-architecture in common, there is an commercial “emulation” framework that Jolla has licensed for running Android apps. Initially I thought this was an unnecessary gimmick, but I’ve changed my mind – without the Android support, Jolla would have been an even harder sell! So while it’s sort of sad to rely on another OS for apps it has been a lifesaver for particular needs, like WhatsApp or Yle Areena (the finnish national broadcasting company’s TV-offering). The Android support has improved a lot with the years, although these emulated apps still drain the battery more quickly than native apps.


The Other Half – or “TOH” among friends – concept of the original Jolla phone had some potential, as it involves detachable back plastic covers with some kind of small data/power delivery interface in them so the covers can have electronic properties using the phone’s battery power as well. But in the beginning that feature was just used for different colored covers with phone themes (“ambiences”) changing when you changed the cover, even if the talk of a keyboard Other Half was there from the beginning…

A Dutch guy named Dirk was really the only source of other TOH-covers showing of some potential of the concept, with LED-light or solar panel covers available. Dirk and his friends then made the dream come true –  they made a crowdfunding campaign for a TOH keyboard that was actually a two-part cover attaching to the phone, with the keyboard part being slideable or even completely removable thanks to some brilliant use of magnets. This was also the first (but not last) Kickstarter campaign I ever participated in, and and it was very well managed.

So I got the keyboard at last, but the final product – despite some good ideas – makes me appreciate the effort that went into Nokia’s keyboard phones even more. Making a decent keyboard like the N900 is f-ing hard, it seems like, as the quality of the keyboard-TOH is a bit uneven. Some buttons require harder pressing than I’d wish for and the printed case sometimes snaps off breaking the bluetooth connection with the keyboard but quality control issues like these are always a problem with small operations. Still, it remains a nice concept, but I haven’t really used the keyboard. It works best as a fridge magnet.

Anyway, it looks like the “The Other Half”-concept – similar to what LG recently tried with the G5-phone and its modules ( didn’t really take off and new devices running Sailfish seem to have abandoned this completely. A shame, as it was a promising concept – imagine a keyboard-cover, a new zoom-camera/flash-cover, a gamepad-cover…

Now my most used cover on the Jolla is the nice leather & wood Lastu protective case, which I also bought for the iPhone SE.

Oh, speaking of accessories – buying an official spare battery is a cult classic topic with Jolla people. Luckily, my battery is still going strong since 2014 even after nightly recharging…

Final verdict – and this ain’t completely easy

Long-term score:

65 / 100

The Jolla phone still has an evolving OS with a great interface and the original hardware was pretty well balanced, so it has remained usable in daily life after 3 years – with certain limitations. All these years have been marred by bugs that have made daily life a bit unpredictable and the phone has been hard to recommend to “normal” users at any given time. But for me personally, things have worked and the Jolla still supplies me with weather reports, time tables, news, messages and frequent phone calls from my mother.

Sailfish has not evolved as quickly as I hoped, and the future looks, if not completely dark at least quite gray. If a suitable Sailfish replacement phone comes along (maybe the Sony Xperia X?), I will probably still jump aboard (as I did), as there aren’t any enticing OS alternatives out there either. But sometimes it would just be so much easier to give up and be assimilated. Maybe resistance in the end is… futile? Especially if all you need is communicating with your friends on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, with added fast web browsing and a premium camera experience.

We’ll, if you have the luxury of having a separate work phone you can still have the best of both worlds and at least have one foot in the alternative/punk camp while enjoying the mainstream.

Sounds lame, yeah, but so am I 🙂