There’s little choice outside of the duopoly that Google and Apple hold over the smartphone market. Apart from Android and iOS, choices are hard to come by, and buying new handsets preinstalled with anything but the big two is nigh on impossible. However, there has been a small Finnish company plowing away at the alternative smartphone operating system market since 2011.
Jolla is a company founded by ex-Nokia employees, many of whom worked on a defunct OS called MeeGo. MeeGo was used to power Nokia’s successful N9 smartphone, but the company decided to push ahead with using the Windows Mobile system instead, which suffered a slow death until support for that ended in December 2019.
It must feel ever so slightly sweet that the MeeGo’s successor, Sailfish, is still going now that Windows Mobile is dead and buried, but it has not been easy. The company has had to suffer money troubles, including an ill-fated Jolla Tablet Indiegogo campaign, which some backers still report that they received no tablet or refund for their investment. Jolla has had many ups and downs (maybe more downs?) but it’s 2020 and they’re still here.
Due to a lack of funds to create their own hardware, Jolla has been using the Sony Open Devices Program to port their operating system to new devices. Over the past few years, Sailfish has been officially ported to the Xperia X, X Compact and XA2 series phones, and more recently, the hefty Xperia 10 and 10 Plus. So we decided to check it out.
First, we took a look at the physical handset. The Xperia 10 range is a mid-range handset and it’s followed the trend of having as little bezel as possible. The 10 Plus has a bizarre, super long screen, with someone recently telling me it looked like a television remote. Despite its big size, it’s actually fairly easy to hold.
A little info on the 10 Plus running Android, and it’s not particularly pleasant reading. The camera isn’t great, it’s fine, but nothing special — the three year old Xperia X with its single camera still takes a better picture than the 10 Plus with its dual cameras. The screen is a little washed out, with colours feeling faded in comparison to similar smartphones. Also the battery is very bad, with medium to high use draining the battery 30% over a three hour window. One good point: the screen tech feels very accurate, with every tap feeling like it’s hitting the right place.
So we installed Sailfish on the Xperia 10 Plus using Windows. As someone who has never done that before, it actually went very smoothly thanks to a handy guide from Jolla. So, Sailfish has undergone a few UI changes since I last looked at it in an attempt to bring it up to modern smartphone OS standards. The dialer now features tabs to bring up contacts and call history, while ending a call will result in the option to send a text or redial. Just minor changes, really.
As for the system, it runs just as I remember, smooth and simple, exactly what a modern smartphone system should be. However, I did recently take a look at my Jolla 1 phone (released in 2013) and found the more recent update on the 10 Plus felt ever so slightly more laggy. There’s also the odd bug here and there but I expect those to be ironed out in time.
The camera has always been a sticking point with smartphones. As someone who wants a good camera on my smartphone, but doesn’t necessarily want a digital camera, I’ve felt it difficult to replace the Karl Zeiss powered Lumia range, and Sailfish powered phones never could match up (nor could CyanogenOS powered Wileyfox Storm).
However, thanks to piggz’ Advanced Camera app, I was pleasantly surprised. The Xperia X had a powerful camera but due to Sony’s proprietary image enhancing technology being locked to Android, the X always struggled to take good photos without good lighting. The Advanced Camera app seemed to fix the focus issues, and seems that it is continuing to work on the Xperia 10 Plus.
While there were a number of pictures that featured noise and blurring when zoomed in, some pictures actually came out really sharp. While they’re not the best pictures in the world, they do the job. It should be noted that only one of the two rear cameras are currently working with the ‘Bokeh camera’ malfunctioning, so don’t expect any soft fuzzy blurring in the background of shots.
One reason to upgrade from Sailfish on the Xperia X to the Xperia 10 is Android support. Alien Dalvik, which allows users to run Android apps on Sailfish, has currently stopped at 4.4 and won’t be upgraded to 8.1 on the Xperia X, unlike the 10 and XA2 ranges. It also seems to be getting harder to get hold of Android apps, with many services that usually allow downloads of Android APKs either not working at all or not having key apps. Finding my banking app proved totally impossible.
Also, apps that I had used previously, such as eBay, now no longer work. It seems that Google is intent on cracking down on people trying to use Android apps without Google Play Services. Many Sailfish fans reading this will ask, “why not just use native apps?”, and to be honest, it is possible to get around most issues.
There’s a decent, native eBay app called Markat, which I really like. While I couldn’t get my banking app, I was easily able to log in through the browser. But sometimes it’s hard to find an alternative. Mapping apps, for instance,. While I am aware there are some apps available on the Storeman store, I simply couldn’t find one I liked, and always preferred to use Here We Go on Sailfish.
Luckily, there is a work around by installing an app store called F-Droid and following a tutorial by Sailfish podcaster Leszek Lesnar. I installed something called MicroG, which mimics Google Play Services, giving me access to a working version of Here We Go and Google Maps, if you’re into that sort of thing.
There will be many reading this that will decry the use of Android apps, and I’d agree that using native apps is a much smoother experience, at least in general. However, Sailfish is unique as it is a system seperate to Google’s Android, yet still allows users to run Android apps. Alternatives either have no access to these such as Plasma or Ubuntu Touch, and have to rely on a tiny amount of basic, native apps or are Android fork such as Lineage or /e/. That’s not meant to be a slur against any of those systems, I just wanted to point out the uniqueness of Sailfish.
The fact is, anyone looking to move from Android to an alternative may struggle with apps. People use them and they like them. Telling someone that wants to de-Google that they have to lose access to all the apps that has made their life easier, potentially for the last decade, is almost a deal breaker.
Sailfish’s browser has been a bit of a sticking point since what feels like day one. Today the browser feels much the same as it always did: a little slow and lagging behind the competition. There are a couple of native alternatives, but often I found myself using a lightweight Android browser such as Opera Mini.
Finally, it’s back to that dreaded battery, how did it perform? As you can imagine, it didn’t get any better with the installation of Sailfish. Running the same test as before showed it losing around 45% in three hours of medium to heavy use. More than the device running Android, but by the looks of it, battery life is probably the worst feature of the Xperia 10 Plus.
It is difficult to recommend Sailfish for Xperia 10 Plus in its current state. While it works well and Sailfish feels as modern and sleek, the battery life is a real kicker here. Jolla have improved battery life on Xperia devices before, but as the 10 Plus seemingly has poor battery life anyway, it’s difficult to ascertain how much better it can get.
As it stands, I’d watch this space. Xperia X is still the superior handset to run Sailfish on, but the lack of running updated Android apps may put some people off. I’ve not used the XA2 range so I cannot comment on how well that works vs the X. But if you’re holding out for the Xperia 10 Plus, then maybe hold on a little longer and see how Sailfish develops.
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