2014-10-12

A Jolla phone for my daughter

I received my Jolla phone in January '14. The last step of the delivery gave me (and the Swedish postal service) some problems but the late Christmas gift to myself reached its final destination safely anyway. Wonder why it had to take the detour to Roissy?

As soon as the advanced Linux-based smartphone became my main phone people could see the changes. This was the first time I could carry a complete computer in a pocket. ...and my daughter inherited a better phone too.

I love my daughter. She surprises me all the time. One of these surprises was that she didn't wish for an expensive new phone. She was eagerly waiting for my old phone. And why not? The Nokia 700 still is a very nice device. She is an almost as heavy user as I am.

But during this year her phone has started to deteriorate. It was used from the start and it is a Symbian device so Microsoft is slowly "letting it go". So sooner rather than later she will need something better to carry in her pocket. ...and she likes my Jolla, so... 

Chances are very small that she will get a Jolla as her next phone, but nonetheless one must try. She deserves to have a technically advanced device. She's not a kid any more, but a Nerd in Training. Besides, her personal integrity is important to me.

So this is what I imagine her phone to be like.

Jolla Phone 3

The third device from the innovative Finnish smartphone makers Jolla is a bit of a surprise. The current trend in the phone market is to increase the size of the display, but this phone takes a step in the opposite direction. Aand nobody expected that the J2 would be the bigger handset of a pair.

"Jolla phones are meant to be used even with just one hand", explains one of the users at the company forum, "and there are smaller hands out there too". There was a certain logic to create not just one but two phones at once. The J2 was anticipated but the J3 was a complete surprise, at least to us the mobile media people. The closely knit Jolla community knew (or maybe they hoped). Rumours have it that the idea of creating a smaller device actually originated there.

The hardware is impressive for the price, I must admit. Rumours had it that the J2 would be powered by a Snapdragon SoC but now we now that all this time Jolla has been talking to Intel. The newly announced x3 series remains untested in mobile devices. So how fast are the two new members of the Jolla clan? Well, I haven't tested the J2 yet but the quad-core x3-c3440 gives the smaller phone more than enough oomph - even at heavy use. This four inch phone is not a toy, despite its size, it should be as fast as the larger sibling. But is it snappy only because of the processor? No, not really. The speed is possible mainly through the efficient Sailfish operating system. A fully multitasking system that is stripped of all bloat makes the user experience fluid even as the user becomes more demanding over time. The multitasking combined with the tiny "desktop" of SailfishOS lets the apps be simpler and more streamlined for a single task. Instead of having a single app perform all duties, the user simply assembles a set of apps. Yes, it takes a while to get used to, but if you think of it as a customizable dashboard then you're not too far from the truth. There's quite nothing like it on the market, save for the first phone and tablet from Jolla. The Jolla tablet made quite an impression at MWC earlier this year, mostly because of the wonderful user experience of the Sailfish operating system. The J3 is the smallest device to run Sailfish so far, but trust me, nothing feels cramped.

So the J3 is a smaller phone with a smaller display. Four inches diagonally and it has a resolution of 720 by 1280 pixels. This is more pixels than on the first Jolla phone and - yes, you guessed it - on par with the J2. There's always some info on the screen, without draining the battery thanks to amoLED technology. Nothing really revolutionary here, but nice. The graphics are hardware accelerated. It is common to use graphics hardware for video and games but the Jolla phones all use it for the user interface itself too. The J3 is no exception.

The touchscreen supports multi-touch up to five points. It could have been more sensitive for gloved-finger use, but without the gloves the touch never misses.

This device has sockets for dual SIM cards, which probably makes it more attractive in some markets. The cards are the micro variety and hot-swappable. When inserting the second SIM card a second contact book shows up in the apps, but there is a user setting that allows the contacts to be merged. The merged icon is a yin-yang-ish one, btw. A simple solution that works well out of the box.

There is no headset in the tiny product box, but there is a cable that Jolla calls a microphone extender. It looks like a simple audio cable but there are control buttons and a noise-cancelling microphone at the end of it. Attach your favourite earphones and your are set. A cleverly unlike solution indeed. Jolla also has an "unlike" bluetooth headset in their shop but more about that piece of hardware in a later article.

Next to the headset socket there is a reversible USB type C connector. These are the only sockets on the J3, but they have more than one use each. The audio socket has a digital mode with surprisingly good audio qualities, as an example. There's a volume rocker on the right side of the phone that doubles as shutter control in camera mode, and there is a power button above it. There's a cable available in the Jolla shop that hints that the phone may be connected  to a TV or other HDMI display, and yes, there is full HD video out. Jolla hinted that the phone might be used as the heart (and touchpad) of a desktop computer. We are keeping our eyes open for more news about that so stay tuned, OK?

If you're seriously into photography then this device might not be for you. Don't get me wrong, the camera takes wonderful pictures and does so swiftly too, even in quite dark environments. But the camera lacks in some areas. It's probably the strangest aspect of this Jolla phone. There are some good and some bad news.

Taking quick photos are really quick. Lightning fast! Probably one of the fastest cameras we've tested here. There's absolutely no waiting after pressing the shutter. And all pictures are in perfect focus unless you shake the phone when taking the shot. 

The photos can be processed afterwards to add synthetic focal blur and much more because all pixels have depth information.

Jolla J3 is the first phone that I've tested that is equipped with Pelican Imaging's new piCam technology.  There's an array of sixteen micro cameras that are combined with some calculations to create a photo. The array of cameras add depth to each pixel and that information does make some amazing photo manipulations possible. It also removes noise in the process.

The lack of hardware zoom is why I can't recommend the piCam setup for serious photography. There is of course digital zoom but for serious photos that simply won't do.

The upside is that the Pelican Imaging technology adds some extra uses for the camera. Since it calculates depth data in real-time it can be used for gesture input or motion-detect photography. The piCam can be used for measuring (there's an app for that in the new Jolla software manager) and for creating copies of three-dimensional objects by filming them. The camera isn't every photographer's dream but it puts almost visible lightbulbs over the heads of geeks. The camera is both the weakest and strongest part of this phone, in my opinion. So far the users seem to like it, though. The camera gets the shots. No waiting, no blur but lots of fun.

That pretty much sums up the hardware. ...except for one thing. The J3 does not use the OtherHalf active back cover concept. (If you want that or even need it then choose the J2). Instead there's modularity. The construction is a collaboration with (also Finnish) Puzzlephone. There is no back cover at all. The modules are snapped into a frame. Together the pieces form the J3. Is the battery replacable? Yes, and so is the camera. If you want to have a more vanilla 8Mp unit then there is one at the Jolla store. The camera module covers the memory card and the two SIM cards so I guess you could call them hot-swappable.

What do we think of the J3? Jolla phones are still a bit of odd creatures, mainly because of the choice of operating system. Sailfish OS is reaping rave reviews right now, but it's still an underdog in the OS market. If you were dreaming about the "leaked" J2 and thought that it was a bit too large for your hand then look no further than this small wonder.

If you're still a bit hesitant about buying the J3 then check out the next part of this review: The soft side of a Jolla phone.

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