Living with the Jolla Tablet: a promising device with few apps

There's no question that the Jolla Tablet is an odd duck. It's a crowdfunded, first-generation slate running an unfamiliar platform (Sailfish OS), and some of its features are based on your input -- if enough of the Sailfish community votes for an interface tweak, you're likely to see it become reality. But does that mean this tablet is a refreshing break from the status quo, or a quirky device that will make you wish you'd bought something commonplace? I've been living with the tablet for a few weeks to find out, and the truth is somewhere in between. As you'll soon see, whether or not you'll like it depends largely on how willing you are to live on the bleeding edge.

Before I dive in, it's important to get a feel for what Jolla is trying to do. Effectively, the team (founded by ex-Nokia staffers) is carrying the torch for fans of the late, iconic N9 smartphone and the MeeGo platform at its heart. Much like Jolla's inaugural smartphone, the Tablet aims to preserve both Nokia's reputation for slick hardware design as well as MeeGo's reliance on swipes for navigation instead of the usual buttons. This isn't a me-too manufacturer -- Jolla is more interested in following its unique philosophy than reaching the widest possible audience.

The hardware, at least, lives up to that lofty goal. It's not the thinnest or lightest tablet I've held at 8.3mm thick and 13.5 ounces, but it manages a level of quality that you don't usually find in tablets around Jolla's standard post-crowdfunding price (€267, or roughly $300), let alone something that cost Indiegogo backers a mere $239. The 7.85-inch, 4:3 aspect ratio LCD gives it just the right proportions for a small tablet, and the display's output is bright, color-rich and sharp, with a pixel count of 2,048 x 1,536. It's not something you'd want to use one-handed very often, but it's comfortable and well-balanced. In other words, it won't fly out of your hands if you grab it gingerly.

This attention to hardware quality translates to the performance, for the most part. While the quad-core, 1.3GHz Atom chip and 2GB of RAM aren't anything special at first glance, I found both Sailfish OS and its native apps to be glass-smooth. The battery drains faster than I'm used to with some tablets (including my iPad Air), but it's more than up to the job of handling an evening's worth of web browsing, messaging and gaming. About the only letdowns are the 5-megapixel rear and 2-megapixel front cameras. Neither is especially sharp, and I was disappointed by their muted colors and dodgy low-light performance -- they're good enough for photographing receipts and selfies, and that's about it. Although I wouldn't treat the camera as a major deciding factor in a tablet, it'd be nice if I could take at least a few brag-worthy shots, you know?

The Jolla Store

It's a tougher call when it comes to software. Sailfish OS and its swipe-based navigation are, as a whole, enjoyable to use. Flick your finger around the home screen, which doubles as a BlackBerry 10-style multitasking view, and you'll get an app drawer, a notification screen with quick task shortcuts and "ambiences" (read: themes) that can change both the look and sound of your tablet. You frequently swipe through menus, too, including pull-downs that stand in for buttons. The overall package isn't as immediately intuitive as Android or iOS, but there's a refreshing, uncluttered feel to it and a surprisingly gentle learning curve. I quickly found myself zipping around Sailfish, and those swipes were helpful when I wanted to quickly switch apps or couldn't use both hands. My only major beef is that Jolla tends to lean a little too much on those pull-down menus. I shouldn't have to guess which important commands are hiding just off-screen.

However, there's no question that Sailfish is still a young platform, with some buggy behavior to match. The web browser is very quick, but it will make the occasional rendering mistake you rarely see elsewhere, such as refusing to show story images on Engadget's main page. It wouldn't show me one Android app portal (more on this in a bit) until I reset the device, and I've never successfully updated the OS. I'm not expecting Jolla to produce flawless software so early into its life cycle, but these are the kinds of hiccups you'd expect a tablet maker to catch before it sends out review units. At least the company is good about releasing frequent patches, so there's a chance these issues will be resolved by the time you read this.

Apps are another story altogether. Don't get me wrong; the core apps are elegant and (outside of the quirks I've mentioned) by and large useful... it's the third-party selection that falls short. The catalog of Sailfish-native apps is pretty threadbare, and there are some very conspicuous gaps. Good luck finding native Twitter or YouTube clients, folks (they exist, but they're hard to find without knowing them by name -- part of the problem, really). You're more likely to find niche titles, like city-specific travel planners and ports of years-old MeeGo games. It's understandable that Sailfish wouldn't have as rich a catalog as its heavyweight rivals, but Jolla really needs to do a better job of getting the apps that people tend to use every day, like social networking clients.

Jolla Tablet on its back

Android app support isn't quite the cure-all it's made to be, either. Jolla offers easy access to three third-party Android stores (Aptoide, China's AnZhi and Russia's Yandex) that stock many of the apps you'd otherwise be missing, but the titles you get don't always behave the way they would on a true Android tablet. Twitter's app wouldn't bring up the keyboard to let me write a new post, for instance (I had to download Plume), and games like Pac-Man 256 and Threes didn't run as well as they should on the Jolla Tablet's very capable hardware. Frankly, it was a chore to get enough functional apps that I could use my tablet for longer than it takes to visit a few web pages or check email.

And that last part is why the Jolla Tablet is more of a promising device than something I would recommend when someone asks for buying advice. The design is ahead of the pack in this category, and the software is at once intriguing and accessible. It's easy to imagine Sailfish becoming mainstream at some point down the line. I can already see the appeal for tablet newcomers who have light demands, yet are willing to spend a little time wrapping their heads around the gesture-based interface concept.

However, Jolla will have to tackle the app deficit before it gets a breakthrough hit. There was more than one occasion where I asked, "Well, now what?" after using the tablet for only a short while -- I'd already run out of things to do. That's no good for a market where many simply assume that an app exists for whatever they need. While Android compatibility is a decent crutch in the short term, Jolla needs to attract enough native apps that this device appeals to more than just early adopters and first-timers. If that happens, the Jolla Tablet could easily live up to its potential.