Ubuntu Phone: “watching, waiting”


If there is a song that best describes the Ubuntu Phone, I would say it is “Watching, Waiting”, written by the Nuno Bettencourt and Gary Cherone (members of the band Extreme) and published back in 1989. The Chorus of that song said “Watching, waiting, staring at the son, not even knowing who you are”. We will go deeper on this later.

This review is focused on the phone BQ AQUARIS E4.5 Ubuntu Edition, but not on the phone, but on the operating system of the phone, Ubuntu touch. There are already plenty of reviews on the hardware of this phone, so no need to talk about it, I will only say that is a quite standard design, that some would call “industrial”. Whatever. The phone came with a screen protector as well as a plastic cover, which adds some value to the package as well as increased protection.

The price tag of this phone was set at 169,90 € (Euro), and has been dropped to 139,90 € recently, which is a good thing, though it still comes out quite expensive against competition when one takes into account that is a 4.5 inch screen device driven by this OS. The BLU Win HD LTE, priced at 129 € offers 5 inch screen, also dual SIM, and LTE, while the BQ does not, and the OS is much snappier in the BLU (Win8.1).

I have been using linux OS for a long time now. Starting in the 90’s with Slackware and SuSE, in 2005 I turned to Ubuntu and since then has been my desktop OS for daily use as well as Windows 10 at work. I should say that I have also used XFCE, KDE, Unity (the Canonical DE, not the 3D game engine which I also use) and Gnome. I’ve never been a fan of Unity, so I am using Gnome 3.18 right now.

I agree with the idea that backs Canonical on delivering the Ubuntu Touch for phones and tablets (BQ will launch an Ubuntu tablet next March 2016), “one single OS to rule them all”. This, theoretically will allow developers to develop just a single device software to run on different devices, be them desktop, laptop, tablet or phones. So being a linux user for that long I was “forced” to try out this phone. I’ve chosen the 4.5 inch model for being cheaper than the 5 inch, and being Unity instead of Gnome, better take the least risks possible. If the test drive proves out good, maybe a step up would be worth it. We will see.

Before starting the review, let’s check out a resume of the pros and cons of Ubuntu Phone on this Aquarius E4.5 Ubuntu Edition:

Pros

  • It is a Linux phone (well, sort of)
  • Gesture driven (well, sort of)
  • Dual SIM

Cons

  • Laggy, slow
  • Overpriced
  • Inconsistent interface
  • Lack of LTE network
  • Barely readable at times, font size too small
  • Looses Ubuntu account on shutdown

I think I could go on with the Cons for longer, but it is a Pros-Cons outline, not a deep dive into the OS. Anyway, I have tried to use this phone since September 2015, and the outcome is that I have tried, I have not succeeded.


 

Accounts

The very first thing one needs to do when starting the phone is to set an Ubuntu One account. This account gives access to the Store, to download apps as well as their updates, and also to update the system. Nothing more. So it “looks fine”, not so much info provided to Canonical on this.

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Img.1 – Add acount screen (left) – Ubuntu One account registration (right). I’ve retyping the Ubuntu One account info way too much in these months.

I was expecting to be able to get rid of Google account, and have Contacts and Calendar somewhere else, i.e. in some cloud service of my choice, but not. We can see on Img.1 the accounts available to set on the phone. Not so fancy, but then again, it’s ok. I miss having Outlook.com as I find its interface much cleaner and sleek than Google’s, but it’s not a deal breaker. So setting up a Google account will allow us to sync to Google+, Gmail, Youtube, Contacts and Calendar, all of them Google. Then the first question appears:

Why would I buy an Ubuntu Phone to use a Google account, when an Android phone is much sleekier, faster, polished and is much more integrated with Google?

Moving away from Android or Windows Phone or iPhone means, for me, to be less dependant from their services. If a Google account is a “must” on Ubuntu Phone, what’s the point? Only to be “different”? Just some sort of “freakism”? I was expecting some other approach at least for contacts and calendar, as for mail… each one has their own mail service preferences and can not meet them all.


 

It’s Linux!

Well, sort of. I also was expecting no Android reminiscence on this Ubuntu Phone but, then again, a slight disappointment here. Diving through the folders we can reach the device root “/” and first folder there is “android”. I don’t like this, but is understandable, as Google has already developed a whole set of pieces of software to deal with the different elements found on smartphones. Therefore, the easiest way, and the fastest one, is to develop on top of that Android base. Then, we could think Ubuntu Phone (Ubuntu Touch) is a Smartphone Environment (similarly to Desktop Environment) on top of Android. Looks like Unity “has been ported” to Android. Well, sort of.

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Img.2 – File manager shows up “android” right there

It might be that later on, Ubuntu Touch will get rid of the Android Core, but this is just speculation. Nonetheless, this Img.2 gives us an idea on why Canonical is building its tablet on a BQ tablet with also a Mediatek chip (the Aquarius E4.5 uses a Mediatek too), instead of on an Intel Atom chip. I don’t understand why on earth the Ubuntu tablet won’t come on an Intel chip. Agreements and more agreements, I presume.


Watching, waiting… watching, waiting… and so on….

One of the worst issues I face with this phone everyday, I mean everyday, and every time I unlock it is lag. Even for the simplest task, launch the calculator or clock, have to wait seconds, usually around 5 or more, so I spend most of the time watching “loading” screens.

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Img.3 – Loading is an every time waiting state. Ubuntu Touch should come with a chair, or a waiting room.

I got tired of waiting for everything when using the phone. Waiting for the Calculator, for the Clock, for the Notes (with no notes added), for the Tasks (with no tasks added), for the Calendar (with no appointments set), for the Contacts (with 5 contacts in the contact list), for the Store (even shows nothing at times and need to close and reopen the software), for the Settings Manager…. each program installed on the phone needs around 5 seconds or more to get on the screen. Too slow for this phone at such price tag.

Actually, using this phone is maddening to a great extent. I haven’t thrown it against a wall yet because I have quite a lot of patience, but I left it on the table plenty of times, tired of waiting to do anything barely productive with it.

Even launching the gmail software gives me this:

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Img.4 – Gmail app. Download “Inbox”, not available on Ubuntu Phone, or go to Gmail for mobile devices…. Guess…

Img.4 is just an example of what moves around Ubuntu Phone/Touch, Webapps.


 

Store and Apps

The Ubuntu Store is where to go when looking for apps to install on the phone. Actually, the user can install Apps and what Ubuntu happened to call Scopes. The vast majority of Apps are WebApps. Those dealing with a certain website are just a container of the actual website, just as if we create a Monodevelop Project including a web kit, be it webkit or gecko, and make an http address to load on launch, then make that project an App. Therefore, besides the App loading time, the lag I pointed out before, there is also the lag involved in accessing said website.

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Img.5 – Ubuntu Store and Apps

Accessing the store not always ends up showing the overview and featured apps. Usually, launching the Store ends up with a blank screen, needing to restart the app. Instead of having the spinning circle in the centre of the screen, Store shows a sliding red bar at the bottom, which I am also tired of watching, staring at it, waiting for the Store to load and show up.

As of today, there are over 2.000 apps and scopes that can be installed, and as I said before, most of them Web Containers of actual websites. Few are native apps, and Scopes, I will deal with them later on. Some “important” services, apps are missing, and most likely will still be missing in the years to come, unless Ubuntu Touch/Phone drives enough attention on the developer side. Hard to tell looking at the figures of Windows Phone, Blackberry, Tizen, Jolla, and knowing that Nokia will come up with new Android devices.

I can deal with the lack of many of those “important” apps, because I personally use the phone to do certain tasks, so I could be happy with it. I have been carrying out a test for the past years on how different users (regardless of their age or education level) respond to different technology (computers, tablets and phones), and as long as they have some certain apps, the most important factor that makes them choose one over other is ease of use implying consistency on the interface. Therefore, the lack of apps should not be an issue as long as a minimum set is still available, email, contacts, calendar, phone, camera, chat, notes, file manager, weather, maps… All of them are available at the Ubuntu Store, thus a regular user could feel at home using the phone using these apps. Well, if they were snappy, with a consistent interface, they would.

There is another weird issue related to the Store. The store icon itself. It’s wider and taller than any other icon shown, and it’s not even related to the size of the default icon. Let’s say that standard icon is a 48×48 px image, with an icon spacing of 16 px, design wise, if making the store icon bigger, I would choose to make a 48+16+48 px wide, 48 px tall icon for the store, that at least fits with the rest of the design, instead of what looks like a “let’s make it bigger, just to make it bigger because we want, with no reason at all” icon.

Although the categories of the Ubuntu Store seem to comprise all categories available in other ecosystems’ stores, the lack of native apps does not help to “improve” the overall look and feel of the system. Then there are the Scopes.


Scopes

Scopes is something Canonical brought out of the hat for Ubuntu Phone/Touch. In my personal opinion, I’ve never seen such an useless thing on any device.

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Img.6 – Managing Scopes

When I first read about Scopes I found mixed feelings, and I did not understand why until I started to use the Ubuntu Phone/Touch. Then I came up with another important question, what are Scopes for?

The Ubuntu Phone interface has One Scope that can not be removed, the Apps Scope, the rest can be removed, or added as favourite, and change the order in which they will be shown on the screen. Usually, the user can add as many scopes as he/she wants, scopes that are related to apps, but can be installed separately, therefore can install Twitter app, Twitter Scope or both. Adding scopes to the start screen implies a horizontal scroll for the scopes, while moving through the apps implies a vertical scroll. Therefore, to reach the Scope the user needs to go through all the scopes installed and shown before the desired one, instead of launching the app from the App Scope. Knowing that lag is an issue when launching apps, one could think that is faster to move around scopes to gain access to that information. WRONG! Moving through scopes is as laggy as anything else on Ubuntu Phone, and then again, once the Scope is reached, need to wait again for the app to load in case that one needs the functionality of the app.

I tried to look at Scopes as something more evolved than gDesklets but I can’t. From my point of view, it looks like Canonical needed “something different” to make Ubuntu Phone/Touch look distinct from others. Actually it is distinct, but I find it useless, and less usable the more scopes added.

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Img.7 – The “Today” Scope, showing whatever it wants depending on the mood of Ubuntu Phone/Touch.

An interesting issue to notice is the one shown on Img.7 regarding “Today” Scope. Presumably, the Today Scope should be what on other ecosystems could be the start screen, showing weather, events, missed calls, messages…. Actually, using scopes is like facing surprises everyday, one never knows what is going to appear on the screen when going back to the Today scope, or when unlocking the phone and getting on the Today Scope.

And about installing/deleting scopes. There are plenty of scopes that I have not found yet a way to uninstall them. Of course I have then inactive on the screen, but why do I have to have installed things that I don’t use and don’t care to use? I don’t get it.


 

Personalization, customization. What’s this?

If you are a linux user, most likely your computer looks way different than mine. Maybe you use a desktop environment which is different, you arrange panels in different places, you changed the look by theming icons, window borders and colours, have different status indicators, different desktlets on the desktop and so on. Therefore, when thinking about using linux on a phone, one would expect some degree of customization. I wouldn’t expect as much as on the desktop/laptop anyway, but at least some degree.

Talking about customization on Ubuntu Phone/Touch,  you can customize the “background”, and by this I mean the picture to show on the lock screen. That’s it. That is the customization level Ubuntu Phone/Touch offers.

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Img.8 – Personalization. Really?

Yes, you could say: “Scopes, you can choose scopes and customize the number of them shown on the screen…”. I said already scopes is, from my humble point of view, the worst implementation of whatever Canonical tried to do with them, thus I can’t count them as customization.

In the App scope, there are six apps that always lay on top and I haven’t found yet a way to change those and set there the ones I want. Then again, you could say that I could use the panel. Yes I use it, and there I have set some apps to “quick launch” them. If the panel is where to “customize” which apps the user chooses, then all apps including those six should be alphabetically sorted. I don’t see any reason why those six apps are there.

There is no way to change the font size to make things more readable either. Can’t change colours of background or anything, there are no patterns to choose from a la Terminal profile colours.


 

Wireless and Network

This phone has no 4G/LTE support, thus leaving us stuck with 3G band or Wifi for data connection.

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Img.9 – Network and Wireless

The BQ has Dual SIM support which is an interesting thing, at least for me, as I could use two cards, one for work phone, another for personal phone. As I am using it for testing, I only have one SIM card on. The mobile provider I am using is a local provider that uses the Vodafone network in north west Spain. This means that network is firstly available for Vodafone customers, then to the local provider. I will keep my personal opinion on the thieves at Vodafone for another post, and will relate in this review just to network services.

Another annoying issue I’ve found is that having the Data active and Wifi active too, the phone does not know what to do when accessing internet. It keeps itself waiting and trying  to load content, be it scope, be it webpages, be it store app list… In order to update the phone system software or apps, I end up most of the time setting Airplane mode on, then activating Wifi, and using only Wifi to access the internet for whatever. I know my service provider does not have good service, I used it before with android and windows phones having similar experiences regarding speed on 3G network, but the experience with Ubuntu Phone/Touch is, to say the least, painful. Watching, waiting, staring, reloading, watching, waiting, staring, reloading and so on, this is standard procedure while using the phone.

Then I finally concluded that I don’t know when wireless is going to work if 3G data is on or viceversa, or if 3G will work or wifi will work by itself. Laptop has no issues with wifi. Other phones never had such issue even with 3G network. Anyway, “habelas, hailas”.


 

Keyboard and Input methods

Well, one of the things I’ve always liked about linux is the ability to type on any language, so I would expect the same experience on Ubuntu Phone/Touch. Of course you have it.

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Img.10 – On screen keyboard and input methods

The keyboard on this phone is quite nice to use, easy to aim the keys, at least on this 4.5 inch screen phone and with my fingers, bigger fingers would have issues, smaller/thinner fingers will aim presumably better. The keyboard is good for typing standard ASCII, English language. If want to add some acute letter like “á, é, í, ó, ú, à, è, ì, ò, ù, ä, …” it gets complicated. Once press and hold the vowel key in order to see the other options, one has to be fast to type because as long as the finger is lifted from the keyboard, the key options disappear. Mmmmm…

Then, when using the word list, better to have thin fingers. I end up most of the time pressing the wrong word. Font size is small, word list spacing is not so convenient, therefore, is hard to press the right word unless is a long one. Using a bigger font while keeping this word spacing would do in most cases. This applies to the message text too. Fonts are small, designed for the short sighted or people without eyesight issues.

Using different languages is easy, just press the circle close to the “?123” key and you change the keyboard layout, but there is no way to know which layout you are using as no indicator shows anywhere. I added Spanish, English, French, Chinese and Russian support to the phone in order to try those languages. Installing other makes no sense for me as I wouldn’t know what I was typing. Img.10 shows English and Spanish layout, but I know the second is Spanish because has the “ñ” key. Change into Russian, no problem as is Cyrillic. Change into Chinese, I don’t know if is Chinese or English until I start typing. I would rather have the ISO country code instead of the circle (world?) key. In order to know what layout you are going to use, you can press and hold the circle (world?) key and a popup comes out with the list of layouts available plus Emoji. If want to change the layout to Chinese or Russian I need to scroll down. I have 5 languages and need to scroll down. Nonsense. But as you can see in the image, the popup position and size is restricted to the keyboard space, design decisions. Thank God I only set the phone to use 5 languages.

It is strange to notice that translations are not fully completed. I find some parts of apps in Spanish and others in English, even with the stock apps provided by Canonical.

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Img.11 – Mixed language in same app

 

Waiting galore

Waiting is the common state with this phone. Besides the spinning orange circle that stares at you when you launch an app, in-app waiting times can become desperately insane. More than one minute loading some pictures in the gallery. More than 60 seconds and still not all images loaded. I can imagine how long the user needs to wait if a 16GB microSD card is filled with pictures, I can’t imagine the waiting times of a 32 GB. Bear in mind, the microSD mounted on this phone is a 16GB SDHC I Class 10, up to 80 MB/s transfer speeds.

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Img.12 – More than 1 whole minute to get the few pictures load into the Gallery

Is the system slow? Is the hardware slow? Are both slow? Even an old Nokia Lumia 620 with 512MB RAM, dual core, performs better than this Ubuntu phone with 1 GB RAM, quad core. And I have seen no improvements with latest updates, so I don’t expect it getting any better for the time to come.


 

Conclusions

I was expecting a lot more from the Ubuntu Phone. Not in the sense of apps, but in the sense of workflow, as Linux is well known to run sleek even in old hardware (depending on the distribution). Ubuntu on the BQ Aquaris 4.5 Ubuntu Edition is slow, sometimes slow beyond usability. I presume it will be faster on the Meizu Pro 5, having an 8 core processor and LTE network should make a difference, though that is something I am not going to try.

It’s not the lack of apps, but the overall system as a whole what drives me away. After all these months I still can not understand the idea behind Scopes; nor the idea, neither the use of them or why anyone would use them. Even relating scopes to virtual desktops and aggregated scope’s information related to  aggregated desklets, I still don’t see it.

Design wise, the system lacks consistency, not third party apps whose interface depends on the liking of the developer, but even in Canonical backed apps, which makes me wonder what OS I am using. Sometimes looks like is a mix of Android and iOS, which, on the other hand, are quite alike, and sometimes looks like is different from them just for the sake of differentiation. It is interesting to note that Ubuntu Phone seems based on AOSP, thus could sport a compatibility layer with Android apps, something Jolla added to its SailfishOS, but, at the moment, is not going to happen. Who knows what will in the near future.

The App War in the mobile market is not about the quality of the system itself, but about the market share of the targeted platform. No one would ever think that when buying a car the only choices would be Ford and GM, but mobile market, as of today, is like this. Even Blackberry is moving to Android, Firefox OS is lost in the memory of some, and others are killing Windows Phone already. Jolla could not drive enough mass and ended up offering Android apps compatibility. Nokia will come again this year 2016, and some rumours say that will be android based instead of Maemo baed, though the look and feel of Maemo on the N9 was similar to AndroiOS. Cyanogen OS is trying to emerge, also based on AOSP.

This App War makes developers focus on one or two platforms, and some trending services are available only on those platforms. This fact draws back many customers from trying different alternatives as change is something always feared by most users. As soon as websites improve their “mobile” version, the need for apps will be lowered to a certain extent, and this seems to be the approach behind the Ubuntu Phone, “a webapp is all you need”, actually, a good web browser.

I would like a market where more contestants were present, so the user would have options to choose from, evaluate them. This is something that is not likely to happen as market profit drives developers towards one or the other, let’s say “leading”, platforms.

So, would I recommend the Ubuntu Phone?

. For a regular user, the answer is NO. Too slow to be usable, lack of apps and services, inconsistency of the interface.

. For a power user, the answer is still NO. Disappointing performance, disappointing “gesture driven” interface, and what applies to the regular user.

. For a linux user, the answer is still NO. There is no benefit over a regular Android-iOS-WindowsPhone device when plugging it to a linux box. Unless the user wants to have a half independent phone OS and develop his own apps, in such case, the answer is YES.

Though I would NOT recommend this UPOS today, I might in the future, depending on how it evolves and matures. Right now, UPOS is more like a baby who does not know where to head to. I hope that as it evolves, it will meet its own goal and become a serious contestant in such a dualized market.

Other aspect is the looks of the phone itself. Market is overflowing with the same dull-boring (DB) design. iPhonies and Androides all look the same. This phone, as based on Android hardware, has the looks of its Android cousin, so, it is still a dull and boring design. No brand dares to do something different, talking shell design, but Nokia, so let’s see if Nokia comes with some fresh designs later this year, because the rest of manufacturers will keep the same DB designs, at least it looks like for a while it will be like this.