From Providence to Lahaina: the Jolla review

Down in the crowded bars out for a good time
Can’t wait to tell you all what it’s like up there.

Few devices advertise so elegantly which audience they target. When you open the shipping packaging of the Jolla phone and take a look at the phone’s box, you’ll be greeted by a plain white box, with an engraved silvery Jolla logo. The logo is surrounded by text – but upon closer inspection, you notice it’s not just text; it’s code. Right there on the box, you can find part of Sailfish Silica‘s code. Even before you open the box, the tone has been set.

This continues when you browse through the photos and videos that are stored on the device. Photos and videos from Jolla’s employees, which (of course) convey an atmosphere of community, fun, and adventure – not at all unlike the stories about the early days at the technology giants of today. Obviously, they don’t show pictures of stressed-out, overworked programmers in a total state of panic over a bug a day before shipping – but hey, we’ll cut them some slack.

Together, the code on the box and the photos and videos on the device make it clear that this device is not targeted at the ‘average’ iOS or Android user – if such a user even exists – but at early adopters, willing to, and perhaps even longing to, try something different. The Sailfish operating system is labelled as beta, further confirming what we already know.

Now that we’re in the proper mindset, expectations set accordingly, it’s time to actually look at the phone and its new operating system.

Jolla phone

Now that the industry has settled on slabs when it comes to smartphone design – whether we like it or not – it’s become increasingly difficult for smartphone manufacturers to differentiate themselves. Especially the fronts of phones, the part we look at most, are virtually all the same. Given this limited room to manoeuvre, it’s surprising that Jolla’s designers have managed to create a pretty unique device.

The Jolla device consists of two halves stuck together. The front halve – where the display sits – is relatively generic. It’s made out of a metal shell and a glass display embedded in a plastic ring. There’s quite a bit of bezel here, which makes the phone appear larger than its 4.5″ display implies. In addition, the front of the device looks a bit cluttered due to the thin plastic ring separating the glass from the metal shell. It’s a far cry from the cleanliness of the N9, or even the edge-to-edge nature of many modern smartphones. Perhaps the engineers opted for this construction because it’s simpler and cheaper. The long sides of the front halve are rounded, while the top and bottom are flat.

The back halve of the phone – The Other Half, in official parlance – is where the more interesting things happen. It snaps onto the front halve and can thus be removed, providing access to the removable battery, SIM slot and the MicroSD slot. The long sides of the backplate are flat, while the top and bottom are rounded – the exact opposite of the front halve. The backplate will eventually be available in a whole slew of colours, but for now, you’ll have to settle for white, while us early adopters also received a limited edition backplate in an orange-red colour, with “The First One” written on it. The orange-red colour is very striking.


Unlike the front, the back is about as clean as a phone can get. There’s no cheesy fake-metal ring around the camera (the only blemish on the N9’s design), no bulges or ‘designer lines’ – it’s almost completely flat, edge-to-edge, and only tapers ever so slightly to the sides, but this effect is so subtle it takes effort to notice it. It’s made out of plastic, but not the cheap-feeling slithery kind you find on Samsung’s devices; it more closely resembles the slightly sanded-down plastic of the Find 5 or the quality stuff that Nokia uses for its Lumias. It’s pleasant to the touch, in any case.

On virtually any other phone, that’s all you could possibly say about a backplate. On the Jolla, however, the backplate has another trick up its sleeve. On the back of the inside of the phone (so after you remove the backplate) you’ll find six tiny metal contact points that provide I²C so it can interact with the device’s hardware in interesting ways. People have already made hardware keyboards and added wireless charging to the device using this interface, highlighting the extensiveness of it. There’s a lot of potential here for both hobbyists and companies alike.

The two halves put together make the phone look like liquorice allsorts. The combination of the bright orange-red and the dual nature of the design really draws people in – when you pull this thing out of your pocket, people immediately get curious. A Galaxy or iPhone won’t raise any eyebrows; the Jolla will. For some strange reason, people familiar with Jolla almost always immediately try to pry off the backplate. Curious.

Like the N9, there are no front-facing buttons on the Jolla. There’s not even a brand mark on the front of the device, and the Jolla mark on the backplate has the same orange-red colour as the plate itself, just a tiny bit shinier, so that it’s barely noticeable. This lack of ostentatious branding is a small characteristic I find particularly classy. Its power and volume buttons are sandwiched between the two halves, as are the available ports (headphone jack and a micro-USB port). Two speaker grills are drilled out in the bottom of the front half, but since it only has one speaker, one of the two exists just for show.

All in all, the phone feels solid and sturdy, but it doesn’t have that rock-solid feel of an iPhone or the Find 5. To be honest, I never expected as such, either; this is the company’s first product, after all. Whether or not the phone is built to last I obviously cannot say, considering I’ve only owned it since early December 2013. For what it’s worth, I’ve not yet encountered any hardware-related issues or faults.

Specifications-wise, the Jolla is clearly a few generations behind what the competition has to offer. It’s got a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 dual-core 1.4GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. It has all the sensors and connectivity options you’d expect from a modern smartphone, including 4G LTE (which is, at the moment, not enabled in software though). Proving that specifications are just that – a bunch of meaningless numbers – the phone never seems to be short on power. Sailfish flies, but I’ll get to that later.

The display is 4.5″ in size with a resolution of 960×540. This is decidedly low-end by current standards, and to be honest, it shows – text and other objects are often rendered with fuzzy edges. Only a few short years ago, nobody would have batted an eye at this, but times change, and even the cheapest smartphones come with sharper displays than the Jolla does.

Furthermore, the display’s other aspects are not exactly stand-out either. I’m not a display specialist or anything, so I don’t know all the proper terminology, but Jolla’s display is a firm step back from the quite honestly insanely good display of my Find 5 (trust me – the Find 5 has the best display I’ve seen on any phone). It only bothered me the first week or so though, and now that I’m used to it, it’s no longer much of an issue. All you need to know is that the Jolla’s display will most likely be a step back from what you’re currently using.


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