Three months with an Ubuntu phone

Well, it happened. After several years of promises, speculation, and a spectacular but ultimately failed IndieGogo campaign, Canonical finally managed to get a couple of smartphones powered by Ubuntu GNU/Linux released.The super-duper fancy one that the tech journalists are raving about is the Meizu MX4, a powerful PDA that can also make phone calls which I didn’t buy because it’s quite pricy (albeit not to the same extent as iPhones or high-end Galaxies), and you have to import it from China.

The other Ubuntu phone is the BQ Aquaris E4.5, a midrange smartphone with the default Android replaced by Ubuntu Touch. Notably, it was first released late last year in a limited edition of 200,000 for a flash sale, which sold out in minutes. Finally, a couple of months ago, they made a proper production run with no limits to the number produced. Since the screen of my Galaxy Pocket Neo, to which I shall be comparing the Aquaris, had developed a pretty massive patch of dead pixels, I decided to support GNU phones and buy an Aquaris. Total price was €190 including shipping.

phone1.jpg

Sorry about the low-res photo, but I had to use my webcam as my actual camera had died.

Physical aspects

Physically, this is a pretty decent phone. It’s all plastic, so it’s easy to clean and it won’t shatter, though it does dent easily as I discovered after dropping it several times. Still, it kept right on working, so that’s a plus. Sound comes in loud and clear. It holds two SIM cards, accessible by the use of a tiny pointer that comes in the box, which is handy if, like me, you want to use Meteor’s unlimited call plan and Three’s unlimited data. Irritatingly, the battery cannot be removed. There is also no physical home button, but this has yet to work against it.

Size-wise, it’s just about small enough to fit in my hand and mostly operate with my thumbs. BQ had to make a model which hit just the sweet spot between big enough to show everything and small enough to actually use, and they managed it, at least for my hands.

Battery life was initially nothing special, requiring me to charge it every night, and I’m an exceedingly light user. Then later, after a couple of software updates, power management suddenly improved, and the battery started to use less than 25% of its charge over the course of a single day. If you’re not me your battery will probably discharge faster, but it’s still a significant improvement over my last phone.

Oh, and since I had to import it from Spain, it came with a Spanish charger. This isn’t really a flaw since it’s an import and I should probably have expected that, but still, you’ll either need a spare charger or a Spain-to-UK adaptor.

Bad stuff

There is a lot to like about this phone, but I have to open with a negative aspect which is pretty damning. It can’t read contacts off a SIM card. Seriously. I saved all my contacts to SIM, and the phone was completely unable to read them. This might have been acceptable when the OS was in beta and people were installing it on their own Android devices, but this is a finished product which you would expect would possess such basic functionality. Such a bizarre and critical omission means you have three options:

  1. Sync your contacts to Google, and then connect this phone to your Google account. This is quick and relatively easy, but it means Google has your information.
  2. Manually re-enter all your contacts. Reasonable perhaps if this is your first mobile, but insane if you have as many contacts as the average person.
  3. Use a complex workaround.

I know GNU/Linux users tend to be computer nerds, but this is supposedly designed with people like my mum in mind. Seriously Canonical, you couldn’t have taken a couple of people off the team integrating every online service on the Internet and have them work on importing SIM contacts? Surely you could have looked at the Android source code to at least get an idea of how to do it.

Bleh.

Update as of 07/10/2015: Turns out it can read contacts off a SIM card, though they have to be imported into the phone’s own memory. I just didn’t find that option because it’s an extra step I never considered would need to be done.

A couple of other minor flaws: You can’t set a song of your own as a ringtone, which sucks because I have Deadpool’s ringtone. Also, you can’t thether your computer to it or use it as a wifi hotspot, which means my Android phone has a post-retirement career as a wifi provider.

Right, on to the good stuff

Make a phone call is great. There’s a nice big keypad, and the screen automatically lights up if you move the phone away from your face, with none of the locking crap I had to put up with on my Galaxy. Buttons are nice and responsive, which makes dialling easy and buying credit a breeze.

Here’s the lock screen. The dots represent how much the phone was used for different tasks in the last 30 days; this gives a cool, distinctive look.

From here, you can swipe from the top to view connections, sound, battery, time, geolocation, text messages, missed calls, and so on. One cool thing is that the swipedown menu shows the information corresponding to the icon you specifically swiped from, rather than just a generic rolldown menu. Nice.

The first thing that hits you when you actually start using it is the lack of a home screen. Instead, there are several scopes which can be swiped through. If you’re used to a screen of app icons greeting you when you unlock, you’ll be put out by having to swipe left a couple of times, but I quickly got the hang of it. It helps that this is a seriously smooth and responsive phone, so when it’s doing something, you know it.

The only truly irritating aspect of the scope system is that there’s no wraparound. Thus, if you want to get from Today to Photos, which I imagine most people will, you need to swipe right three times instead of left once, as would be logical.

The Today scope gives the date, weather, bank holidays, calendar, recent calls, news, and some information from online accounts. It does its job well enough, but I rarely spend any time here.

NearBy is an interesting idea for a scope. It collates information from various online resources to tell you about interesting things to see and do in your local area. Unfortunately, it (understandably) needs GPS enabled. At first, it defaulted to showing information about London; however, as time went on, it started defaulting to Dublin (better), and eventually was able to reccomend places in Limerick. With geolocation on, it was able to discern my location with impressive accuracy, though this feature does seem to require an Internet-connected SIM card. Still, this is a fantastic improvement, and really shows how the Canonical developers are working to improve their scopes.

Apps will be familiar to users of other smartphones. There’s a grid of apps and a button at the bottom to download more. Holding a finger on an app brings up an information screen which gives things like the software license (woohoo!) and the option to uninstall it, so of course the first thing I did was delete the Facebook app.

The app store works reasonably well, offering both search and categorisation. For such a new phone, there are a surprisingly high number of apps and scopes available, and all include their licenses so you can avoid installing proprietary software, which this being Ubuntu is of course included. Every app I installed was added to the phone incredibly quickly and ran very well. Major props, and it will be interesting to see how the store fares if it gets the sheer number of apps that are available on Google.

Since I bought the phone, the number of apps has increased significantly. There are a large number of Chinese apps, likely because Canonical and Meizu are pushing the MX4 hard. More significant to me is that DailyMotion has made an official app, so clearly this new system is generating interest.

News gives me news from a variety of sources, most commonly BBC, Euronews, and El País. Unfortunately, at this time there is no way to add additional sources.. Music, Video, and Photos function as you would expect, letting me access my own media and also integrating with several online accounts. Youtube appears in both Video and Music, reflecting its status as the premier music website today.

There are also Picture, Video, and Music scopes, which work more or less how you’d expect. Music and Video work with saved audio and video files as well as reccomending new stuff from the Internet, and the Picture scope lets you view images in both static and slideshow modes.

There are also a large number of other, more specific scopes, accessible by swiping up from the bottom while viewing any scope. Any scope can be made default or optional by tapping a star in this menu.

Control is based around edges and swiping, rather than the taps used on Apple, Google, and Microsoft phones. I’ve already talked about how swiping from the top gives access to settings and basic functions. Swiping from the bottom on any scope takes you to a screen where you can view all installed scopes and decide which ones display on the home screen.

Swiping from the left brings up Unity’s infamous dock. While an iffy proposition on the desktop, it works really well on a phone, providing quick access to favourite applications and all running apps.

Swiping from the right edge is the most interesting. A quick swipe will switch to the last scope or app used, rather like quickly pressing alt-tab on a PC. Swiping slowly will being up a screen showing every open app, which can be scrolled through by dragging. Any app can be selected by tapping, and they can also be closed by dragging down. This kind of task switching is new on smartphones, and is phenomenally effective and useful.

Unlike Samsung phones, this one uses standard MTP, so it connected to my Fedora laptop as an external hard drive with no problems. That’s a big part of why I’ll never go back to Android.

The front and rear cameras are sensible. They take photos and have a couple of effects, but nothing special. That’s just right. They’re intended for quick, simple photography, and if I wanted more control or specific options, I’d use my dedicated camera.

So all in all, this is a well-designed, well-programmed phone despite its flaws. I’m going to keep using it, and I’ll recommend it to others as soon as Canonical makes it able to read contacts from SIM cards.

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