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Ubuntu Mobile hands-on review

We look at how Canonical’s open source Linux OS performs on a smartphone
Mon Mar 03 2014, 13:37

CANONICAL ANNOUNCED earlier this year that the first Ubuntu smartphones will be made by BQ and Meizu. That created a wave of interest in how the open source Linux operating system (OS) distribution will look and work on a smartphone or tablet.

We tested the Ubuntu Mobile OS running on a Google Nexus 4. Upon powering up the device we were confronted by a user interface similar to the one seen on Ubuntu tablets.

Ubuntu smartphone home screen

Opening the phone from its lockscreen required us to scroll right from the phone's bezel. Once in, we were confronted with the main Ubuntu Mobile homescreen. Unlike iOS or Android, Ubuntu Mobile doesn't have multiple menu windows and is managed directly from a central homescreen. The homescreen is separated into paneled sections, and includes panels for things like recently used apps, contacts, music, video and messages. The order of the panels can be customised to suit the user's wishes. Scrolling down brings you to the full app library, which shows every app installed on the phone.

Testing the phone we found navigating Ubuntu Mobile is entirely touch and gesture based. Accessing new features is done by scrolling up, down, left or right from a specific point on the phone screen's bezel. A short scroll from the left bezel brings out the Ubuntu Unity Application launcher - a menu similar to the one seen on Samsung's Touchwiz Android skin, while a short scroll right brings out the last open application. A longer scroll right brings up a new window showing all open applications on the phone.

While the system felt alien at first and far different than the multi-window Android and iOS mobile operating systems, we soon got used to it and found it intuitive and quick to use.

Apps and multi device functionality
The demo device we had a play with featured a number of Ubuntu telephone, text, contact and web browser apps. Sadly we didn't get to test any of these during our hands-on, as the handset did not have an active 3G or WiFi connection.

Ubuntu smartphone file manager

We were impressed by how many apps there were, with the device featuring everything from a custom note-taking app to Openoffice, calendar and weather services, all of which matched up nicely when compared to their Android and iOS equivalents. For example, firing up the phone's calendar app, we were met with a clean user interface that displayed meetings in a manner similar to Google's Calendar app.

We were also impressed by Ubuntu's file manager. The file manager can either be opened using a shortcut on the homescreen or with a quick swipe from the right-hand bezel. The user interface is similar to that of any file manager system, displaying file shortcuts to various items like pictures, video, documents, music and downloads. We found that the addition was a definite bonus, as gaining access to the same feature on an Android device requires you to plug it into a PC, and it made it quicker and easier to manage the files stored on the device.

The open nature of Ubuntu also means that the selection of mobile apps will likely increase after launch. This is because Ubuntu's open Linux nature makes it very easy for app developers to create or port apps to the system. A key reason for this is the Linux support for a variety of coding languages, with Canonical listing support for everything from HTML5, Javascript and CSS to C++. The support also means means that Ubuntu Mobile can seamlessly run both web apps and native apps.

As an added bonus, Ubuntu Mobile also lets developers set up their own third-party marketplaces and sell their wares outside of Canonical's Ubuntu Software Centre.

Enterprise services
The flip side of an open source project like Ubuntu is that the freedom it offers can benefit hackers as well as legitimate developers. This trend was most most recently showcased by Android, which is being besieged by mobile malware.

Ubuntu smartphone open apps

However, Canonical has worked hard in recent years to ensure that Ubuntu is enterprise ready with a variety of security services. The most important of these is Canonical's proven systems management tool Landscape. The tool is designed for enterprise users and lets IT departments monitor and control what actions can be executed on Ubuntu devices.

Another big draw for businesses is Ubuntu Mobile's potential to turn phones into full-on PCs. Canonical has worked hard to make sure that Ubuntu Mobile is a converged mobile operating system. This means that users should theoretically be able to turn a Ubuntu phone into a PC by connecting it to a full-sized screen and attaching a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. Sadly we didn't get a chance to test this during our hands-on.

The only issue we noticed during our hands-on was that the Nexus 4 demo device we were using to try Ubuntu Mobile did feel fairly buggy. During our hands-on the handset often lagged and at times stopped working altogether. However, to be fair to Canonical we were testing Ubuntu on a fairly old, beaten up Nexus 4 and the issues we noted easily could have been hardware rather than software based.

Ubuntu smartphone shortcut

First impressions
Overall our first impressions of Ubuntu Mobile as a mobile operating system are positive. While the operating system's swipe based user interface is very different than anything we've seen before, it is fairly intuitive. The open nature of Ubuntu Linux and its support for web apps as well as native apps means it is very developer friendly.

However, from what we've seen so far Ubuntu Mobile didn't run very smoothly and there were definite performance issues on the demo device we tried. This means that the success of the OS could largely be determined by BQ and Meizu, the companies that are building the first wave of Ubuntu smartphones, and their ability to create devices capable of showcasing Ubuntu's finer points. µ


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