By Michael Fisher | December 24, 2013 7:01 AM
We think it’s pretty cool that the last device to hit our review desk in 2013 was the flagship for a new smartphone platform, one we’d been eagerly anticipating for the better part of a year. Jolla’s Sailfish OS isn’t just a confluence of MeeGo, Maemo, Moblin, and a bunch of other made-up words; it’s a sign that innovation in new platforms isn’t dead yet. If you’re bored of iOS, Android, and Windows Phone and you’re not too sure about BlackBerry, Jolla is here to soothe your contrarian soul … and all you need do in return is tolerate a little Beta tag.
We weren’t able to render a full review of Jolla in the time we had with the device, but we have been able to deliver some initial and final impressions for your viewing enjoyment. While we certainly don’t love everything about the Sailfish OS experience, the new platform does offer a handful of really compelling features that we’d love to see honed on the next Jolla … before they’re poached by the bigger fish out there.
Here then, for your holiday reading pleasure, are our five favorite Jolla features.
Double-tap-to-unlock is awesome. We’ve been talking about the buttonless unlock method at least as long as the Nokia N9′s been known to the world, and probably a fair bit longer. I’m so jazzed by the notion of screen-tap unlocking that I wrote an entire piece about it not too long ago. And when the feature finally started filtering down to more popular devices like the LG G2 and Nokia Lumia 1020 this year, I was stoked beyond belief.
Until I realized it didn’t work every time. Instead, with the G2 or the 1020 (or even the otherwise-excellent G Flex), double-tapping isn’t a sure thing. Sometimes it works, but sometimes the phone just sits there as though nothing’s happened. Even if it only happens once every five times, that’s still a pretty frustrating recurring problem – and it’s one I didn’t run into once with Jolla.
Every time I tap twice on Jolla, the screen obediently pulses to life, awaiting the unlock swipe to give me access to the software. It’s so consistent and so quick that I never think twice about it anymore … which makes returning to a phone with a 4-out-of-5 record that much more frustrating.
Reaching to the top of a 4″+ smartphone screen, for any reason, is at least mildly uncomfortable. The fact that platforms like iOS and Android continue to place critical features up there, like notification curtains and back buttons, is asinine. We’ve been saying this for a long time, but it wasn’t until BlackBerry 10 arrived earlier in the year that a major manufacturer finally did something about it. BB10 anchored its “peek” gesture down at the bottom of the screen, and Sailfish OS has done something similar: swiping up from the lower bezel opens the notifications panel, and swiping back down closes it. It’s very simple to remember, and it’s also very comfortable.
But Jolla didn’t stop there. Also cozy and easy: the pull-down menu options situated atop most Sailfish screens. Additional options for certain apps are nestled behind the earpiece up above, keeping them out of the way until they’re needed – at which point a simple thumb drag downward anywhere on the screen exposes them, with a release of the thumb acting as a click. It’s so simple you’d think someone would have come up with it sooner – and it helps make Jolla a very comfortable phone to use.
Opening apps directly into actions
It’s not one of Sailfish’s most obvious shortcuts, but the cards symbolizing running apps on the home screen pack a hidden feature: they pack quick-jump abilities. That means if you want to open a new tab in the browser, it’s just a one-step operation of flicking to the right on the card: the browser opens directly to the URL bar, ready to receive input. If you want to refresh your email inbox instead, it’s a swipe to the left on that card. The card doesn’t maximize because it doesn’t need to; it’s performing the refresh behind the scenes. And if you’re listening to music and want to skip tracks, you can do that in the media player’s card.
In this way, the home screen becomes less a repository of static apps, and more a launching pad for specific actions. The possibilities range from the mundane to the extremely useful, and the time you’re able to save really adds up once you get used to the shortcuts.
While we didn’t like all of Sailfish’s OS-level gestures (sideswipe-to-home has gotta go), there was one we immediately fell in love with when running our first UI tutorial: swipe-to-accept. In apps where it’s enabled (which sadly isn’t all of them), the traditional “OK/Cancel,” “Yes/No,” or “Accept/Skip” buttons are abolished. Instead, where a binary choice is required of the user, a swipe of the screen is used to convey the yes or no – right for the former, left for the latter. Whether this gesture is available is indicated by icons in the upper portion of the screen.
It’s hard to describe how much more enjoyable this is than hunting for a button or delicately pecking at a small touch target. Like the double-tap-to-unlock feature mentioned above, it’s a small convenience – but one you really, really miss when it’s gone.
One of the best features of the late great webOS was Synergy, the then-groundbreaking Palm service that fetched all contact info from every social and sync source you had and populated your phone’s contact list for you, saving you the hassle of managing your own phone book and instant messaging accounts.
Most platforms do something similar these days, but Sailfish does it in a way that’s so subtle it’s almost invisible. Once you give Jolla your email login credentials (and once it decides to actually keep you logged in – see video below), it logs you in to the relevant instant-messaging service and advises you of new messages in Jolla’s own onboard messaging client (which also supports features like presence indicators). It’s similar to what Windows Phone does with Facebook Messenger, but here it’s somehow even more seamless because you’re given no reason to expect it during the setup process. The first indication I had that I didn’t need to download a Hangouts app was when Taylor Martin IMed me during an episode of the Pocketnow Live, and the Jolla next to me obediently chirped.
It’s that kind of surprise and delight that new platforms need to make an impact in a world saturated with entrenched competitors, and Jolla has it in abundance. Here’s hoping the company does what it can to enhance the delight while eliminating the disappointment in 2014.
Wondering what further delights (and disappointments) the new Jolla phone delivers? Check out the love/hate video above, then tune in for our Jolla-focused episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast!