From Providence to Lahaina: the Jolla review

Miscellaneous notes and issues

There are a number of issues with Sailfish which I decided to lump together in a separate section, since I’m pretty sure they are either bugs or simply features not yet implemented. In addition, I also want to highlight some random things that stood out to me while using Sailfish.

First and foremost, my biggest issue is that Sailfish does not (yet) allow for changing the default applications for file types or URIs. So, links are always opened in the limited default browser, instead of the more advanced (landscape mode – the next issue I will cover) third-party Webcat browser, links to Tweets or Facebook will open the web versions of these services instead of the native Sailfish applications, and so on. This is frustrating, and definitely atop my list of issues with the platform as it currently stands. I’m pretty sure people with low-level knowledge of Linux and Mer can change default applications, but it really needs a proper front-end and user exposure.

The second biggest issue is the almost complete lack of landscape support. Save for a few exceptions like the photo application and the camera, there’s no landscape support to be found anywhere, and third party applications that do have landscape mode make clear why: landscape mode is incomplete. Take landscape mode in the WebCat browser – the moment you tap the URL bar to enter an address in landscape mode, a section of the screen disappears.

The first big feature update in 2014 – due to arrive any moment as of writing – reportedly will bring landscape mode to several applications, but for now, you’ll be stuck with portrait mode. My guess is that adapting Sailfish’ gestures to landscape mode is not a simple thing, and as such, they decided to postpone it beyond the shipping date. Understandable, but in the meantime, it’s still a huge miss.

Speaking of the browser – if there’s one application that I’m not happy with it’s the browser. I already mentioned the lack of landscape support, but there’s also an issue with how it handles background tabs. Background tabs are not kept in memory; instead, they are closed every time you switch away from one, and reloaded once you switch back. This means that if you are, say, writing a comment at OSNews, only to check another website to make sure your claims are accurate (*), you’ll lose the contents of your comment. This is done for memory reasons, but it’s just downright annoying and archaic.

A smaller issue is that I have no idea how to actually make the URL bar pop up. I just randomly jiggle the webpage around a bit to make it appear, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the way to do it. I tried tapping, swiping up, down, left, right, I tried invoking the powers of the Magic Unicorn, but nothing seems to consistently work. A small issue, but combine it with the lack of landscape mode and the sub-par tab management, and you arrive at a browser that’s just not very pleasant to use.

Luckily, it didn’t take long for a third party browser to arrive – the aforementioned Webcat – which addresses many of the issues with the native browser by adding landscape support and allowing background tabs to stay resident, among other things. In addition, Webcat is based on WebKit, whereas the default browser uses Gecko. These days that’s almost a distinction without a difference, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless.

I’m also not a huge fan of the keyboard – like the pulley menu, it seems to be overly sensitive, and especially compared to the delightful keyboard of Harmattan on the N9, it’s a huge step backwards. It’s also got a weird bug – if you’re a typing a word, and delete a single letter, word completion will start over, ignoring the first few letters you’ve already typed. You also cannot select misspelled words to fix them afterwards.

The amount of bugs I ran into while using Sailfish is surprisingly small; only two recur often enough to warrant mention. First, wifi connection will randomly drop several times a day, with connection re-establishing itself after a few seconds. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it didn’t also tend to lock up the user interface for a few seconds. This could be an issue specific to my wireless setup, but considering I’ve seen it while connected to other wireless networks as well, I’m pretty sure it’s a Sailfish-specific bug.

The second bug I run into a few times per week is what I can only describe as a total user interface crash – sometimes, the screen will turn dark for a few seconds, after which the UI loads up as if you freshly booted up the device. All your applications will be closed as well. This seems to be quite random, so I’m not really sure what causes it.

With the bad notes out of the way, there are also a few fun little things to mention. Deleting something in Jolla is done in a rather innovative way. Say you tap and hold an email and select the delete option. Instead of the email being deleted immediately, the email itself turns into reverse progress bar with a countdown timer; if you tap the email again within five seconds, the deleting is cancelled. This little trick is used throughout the operating system.

Animations and sounds are used relatively sparingly in Sailfish, so you won’t be bothered by stuff swooshing all over the place all the time. Peeking, for instance, is achieved through transparency, instead of the sliding animation that Harmattan uses.

Not a huge surprise, but still worth noting: you don’t need any special software to manage your device from a computer. Plug the USB cable in, and it’ll be mounted as a regular USB drive. You can drag and drop your stuff to it just like you can to any other USB drive.


You can leave it all behind and sail to Lahaina

Few devices have a history as complicated as the Jolla and Sailfish. The ten-year journey from the Nokia N770 to the Jolla was long, arduous, filled with focus shifts, mergers, and other complications. Like the nameless protagonist in The Last Resort, in order to step out of the shadows of the old world, Jolla had to leave Providence behind, traverse the Great Divide, cross the Rockies to reach the Malibu, and set sail across the Pacific to end up on the pearly white beaches of Lahaina.

However, also just like the nameless protagonist, they found that the natural beauty of Lahaina had already been framed and plasticised by hotel chains and fast food restaurants. It is in that environment that Jolla must make a stand and survive – because there’s no more new frontier.

The question now is if Jolla will be able to do just that. I think the answer depends on how you frame said question.

The cold and harsh truth is that if you distance yourself from what Jolla and Sailfish stand for, and compare them to the competition, there can really be no doubt about it: Android, iOS, and even Windows Phone will provide a more complete experience at a lower price than Jolla can currently offer. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t feel particularly strongly about the ideals of Jolla, you’re better off buying a device with a more established platform. This answer will surprise none of you.

Still, despite the above, Jolla has done something only a few (very large) companies have managed to do: make a complete smartphone, including hardware and software, that is both compelling and promising. Mozilla hasn’t managed to do that yet. Canonical has, so far, failed miserably. BlackBerry is crashing and burning. Nokia had to sell its failing devices division. In the Android world, only a few companies are making a decent profit. iOS is iOS.

This is a very harsh world, and being able to stand out in a truly compelling way between the hotel chains and fast food restaurants of the smartphone world is a huge achievement in and of itself – it’s just that the compelling nature of Jolla is not something you can summarise in review scores, quantify with benchmarks, or illustrate with a huge number of applications. It’s something intangible – something you either understand in a heartbeat, or something you won’t understand in a lifetime.

If you belong to the latter group, Jolla is not for you. If you belong to the former group, however, you can safely order your Jolla. You won’t be disappointed. Like the N900 and N9 that came before it, this platform has a healthy future not because it’s backed by a huge company – but because it isn’t.

In the meantime, Sailfish has become my mobile operating system of choice, and I have zero desire to back to Android.


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