Ubuntu Phone - How to install Android

Published on 08 April 2015
Convert Your Ubuntu Phone to an Android Phone

Update 15/06/15: bq has released the MediaTek flash tool for Linux enabling users to perform this flash operation without Windows. I've added a section near the end of this guide with relevant links and information for this operation.

If you're like me, you ordered an Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Phone from bq and found it almost unusable -- it's just not ready for primetime. And it's hard to believe, given the amount of high-quality marketing Canonical is giving their OS. Luckily, there is nothing wrong with the phone hardware itself. Some users with more expensive Android handsets may scoff at the specs, but I assure you that this is a capable device when running Android. Given that, this guide will tell you what you need to know to convert the bq Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition into a fully-functional1 Android phone.

Given the nature of what we're doing -- flashing firmware -- you should be aware that you follow my instructions at your own risk (bricked device, wasted afternoon, etc). The support I can offer you with this process is minimal, so you can't expect me to bail you out if you muck it up proper.

What could go wrong?

Basic requirements and prep

  • A PC running Windows Vista or better with Administrator privileges.
  • OR a PC running Ubuntu 14.10 or better.
  • A fully-charged Aquaris E4.5.
  • A microUSB sync cable.
  • A working knowledge of Windows file management, saving batch files, and the Device Manager.
  • Quick hands.

You'll need access to a Windows PC to perform the flash operation detailed in this part of the guide. It is also possible to perform the flash on Ubuntu. If you are using Ubuntu, jump to the section near the end of this guide.

I attempted to perform this using a Windows guest in VirtualBox with a Mac OS X host, but I ended up using my gaming desktop running Windows to perform the flash operation. There is no reason it should not work, so if you get virtualized Windows2 to flash your device, let me know.

Additionally, before you get started, it is worthwhile to note that it is best to leave your E4.5 unplugged from your computer while performing the following steps. This will help to avoid any confusion regarding the drivers.

Download firmware

The firmware we will need for the Android Aquaris E4.5 is available from bq's support website. The most recent version as of writing is 1.5.0 2.0.1 which is running Android 4.4 and enables an OTA update to Lollipop3. (Links may become outdated)

Firmware 2.0.1 - Direct Download
Firmware 1.5.0 - Direct Download

Aquaris E4.5 Support Page

Once you download the firmware zip file, extract it to a handy location. I'll warn you to create a new directory -- all of the files are at the root level of the archive.

Download drivers and flash tool

The tool we need to use has been packaged up by bq with the USB drivers required for detecting the device in its "meta" mode. Strangely enough, the flash tool download is not listed on the E4.5's page. Instead we'll head over to the support page for the Aquaris E5 HD and grab it there.

Drivers & Tool - Direct Download | Aquaris E5 HD Support Page

When you extract the RAR file to your handy location, you'll get three directories. Drivers ADB, Drivers Hard Reset and Herramienta MTK Flash Tool.

Installing the drivers

Enter the Drivers Hard Reset directory and you'll see a bunch of files. The one of slight interest to us is Install.bat. This batch file is supposed to take care of the driver installation for us, but it is actually pretty bad at that (read: doesn't work). Instead, I've written a replacement batch file that will do the job for us. It is a simple adaptation of the original Install.bat.

To use the script, you can replace the contents of Install.bat with the contents of my Gist or you can create a new batch file like I did. I named mine fixed_install.bat.

When you run fixed_install.bat, you will be prompted several times about unsigned drivers. You must install these. If you have any issues during this step, you may try running the script as Administrator, but simply double-clicking fixed_install.bat worked for me.

IMPORTANT: The above script assumes 64-bit windows. If you are running 32-bit Windows, you should change the end of line 4 to say x86 instead of x64.

Test out the drivers

Before performing the following steps, it may help to turn the sound on. The sound that plays when connecting and disconnecting USB devices can be helpful. Also make sure your E4.5 is powered off completely, but not plugged into the computer.

  1. Open the Device Manager and expand the Ports (COM & LPT) section.
  2. Connect your E4.5 to the computer by plugging in the USB cable.
  3. You should hear the device connected sound and the Device Manager will refresh one or a few times. During this time you may see an "Unknown Device" listed.
  4. Windows will begin attempting to install device drivers. You can click the bubble to watch it, but it will appear to fail as the device will become unplugged. (Not by your action)
  5. Unplug your E4.5 and wait a moment.
  6. Plug in your E4.5 again. If everything went well, you should see "Preloader USB VCOM Port" (or something very similar) under Ports (COM & LPT) for a few seconds before it disappears again.

If you reached step 6 with no issue, then we are ready to flash. Unplug your E4.5.

The device manager with the Preloader device

MediaTek Flash Tool

Navigate to the Herramienta MTK Flash Tool directory and launch flash_tool.exe. The Mediatek Flash Tool uses the word "Download" to indicate the transfer of data to your device. Thus, we'll need to go to the "Download" tab in the application.

To get ready to flash your device, we need to tell the tool about the firmware's scatter file. Click the button titled "Scatter-loading" and in the "Open Scatter File" window that opens, navigate to the directory that you extracted the firmware to earlier. Inside, there should be a file named MT6582_Android_scatter.txt which you should select.

Now the bottom half of the tool should show a series of lines indicating the start and end addresses of the various partitions we are about to flash along with the local filename of their images.

Finally, in the drop-down box, make sure you choose "Firmware Upgrade".

Now we are ready to flash.

Flashing the ROM

Your E4.5 should still be powered off and unplugged at this point.

Before we go through the following steps, do you remember how the powered-off device only showed up in device manager for a few moments before disconnecting? Well, those moments are the period of time we have for the Flash Tool to recognize the E4.5's preloader and begin the flashing process. I was a bit slow doing step 2 the first time. Just unplug the phone and start again if you miss it.

  1. Plug in your device

  2. As soon as you see it in device manager OR you hear Windows' device connected sound, click "Download" in the Flash Tool. (The shortcut key is CTRL + D).
    The device manager with the Preloader device

  3. A series of colored bars should appear at the bottom of the flash tool along with a status.

  4. Once you see the yellow bar that says "Download Flash," you only need to wait.

    Flashing in progress

  5. A small dialog will pop up indicating the download was successful.

    Success!

  6. Remove the USB cable from your phone.

  7. Power on the device. Congratulations.

    All done!

Linux MediaTek Flash Tool

It was brought to my attention in the comments4 below that bq has released the Linux version of the flash tool. The Qt-based tool bears the same interface as its Windows counterpart, and the same limitations on plugging up your device and quickly pressing "Download" still apply. Using the same firmware zip (and included scatter file) from the windows part of this tutorial will also work. You will need to run the tool as root to perform the operation.

On the plus side, there is no driver installation necessary with the Linux version of the tool. You just need to unzip the archive and then run the flash_tool binary as root. Head over to the freshly-updated bq support page for the downloads:

MediaTek Flash Tool for Linux

Aquaris E4.5 Android Firmware 1.5.0 (Same link as in the Windows part of this guide)

Ubuntu Touch Firmware Download (Flash the phone back to its original state)

(These links may become outdated, so check the official page for any updates.)

Conclusion

bq's Aquaris E4.5 is a great device, but the Ubuntu Touch 14.04 was just not what we had hoped for. With Android running on it, we should get a bit more use out of it. That said, I hope this article has helped you, and if it has, please let me know.




  1. "Fully-functional" meaning the "Back", "Home", and "Recent" capacitive buttons are still below the screen, but the Ubuntu Phone's faceplate does not have any cut-outs for the lights to shine through.

  2. In theory, a guest OS should be able to perform the flash operation if the Preloader USB device is automatically connected to the guest (and is done so quickly enough) when you plug in your device to the host OS.

  3. bq have stated the E line of their smartphones will be updated to Lollipop starting in May 2015. Source link (in Spanish)

  4. Thanks, James!


Ubuntu Phone - An honest review

Published on 25 March 2015
Honest Review: Ubuntu Phone

Update 08/04: I've since written a guide to help you install Android on your Ubuntu Phone handset.

I would venture to say that I "grew up" using Linux. My first and my most recent computers did not and do not (without virtualization) run the OS, but I spent the majority of my junior high and high school years and half of my college years on some flavor of the operating system as my everyday environment. My conversion to and continued use of Mac OS X began only in 2011 after my professional career had already begun.

Despite being an everyday iPhone and Mac OS user, I maintain my interest in Linux at least somewhat from an ideological standpoint. The last everyday Linux flavor I ended up using was Ubuntu, and even then (ca. 2009) I was impressed with what Canonical had accomplished. When I learned that Ubuntu Touch was going on a device as part of a tailor-made experience, I was very interested in seeing what might become of it.

bq product image

The device1 I'm referring to is the bq Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition. The phone was sold in a series of flash sales during February of this year and also given away at various events where Canonical had a presence. I ordered my Ubuntu Phone during the third flash sale on February 19 for €169 plus €20 shipping and VAT coming to a grand total of €189.90 (roughly 1430 DKK).

I received my Ubuntu Phone from the UPS courier on March 23, marking a whole month's worth of waiting without anything to show for my €190. Since bq is a Spanish company it does not have to abide by the Danish law forcing companies to ship items before charging the consumer. I will admit I bought into the flash sale hype and bought the phone in a hurry -- it was a flash sale after all. If I had seen that devices would not be available until now, I might have changed my mind.

Hardware

The E4.5 Ubuntu Edition is simply an existing Android phone from 2014 without the capacitive keys. The E series is designed by bq in Spain and assembled in the east. The E4.5 Android product page has all of the nice little bits one can expect from the hardware.

The case of the phone is plastic and the device feels light but substantial. Compared to my iPhone 6, the dimensions in terms of width and height are almost identical. The iPhone is actually several millimeters taller than the Ubuntu Phone, but the E4.5's screen is inset more from the device edges. When comparing thickness, the Ubuntu Phone is slightly thicker than the iPhone.

I find the iPhone 6 to be a comfortable size to hold and use with one hand, and the E4.5 being roughly the same size makes for a phone that is just as easy for me to work with. Beyond these considerations, the rest of the hardware is unrelated to my experience with the phone.

bq product image

Starting Up

I fired up the phone without loading any SIM into either of the available slots. After a sharp splash screen displaying the bq logo and an exciting few moments watching the Ubuntu logo spin against a dark background, the "firstboot" wizard came up. The entire process involves selecting a language and a few other options we are all familiar with when setting up a new phone.

The entire process is smooth, but if you did not load a SIM, you will be instructed to do so, following it up with a restart of the phone. I found this to be strange since I assumed any exterior-accessible SIM slot would allow hot-swapping of SIMs. Either way, I chose to skip and connect to the office WiFi. Interestingly enough, our fallback network postpended with "2.4GHz" was the only one available. Disappointingly, 5Ghz support is either lacking or not enabled.

Despite these really minor issues, Ubuntu got me through the first boot process as it usually does -- error-free.

User experience

Reaching the "Today" scope and swiping through the various default scopes offered a bit of excitement as I got to experience for the first time what Ubuntu had created to break down the walls between apps. In their default state, each scope was full of default content waiting to be explored, and small buttons peppered the screens offering to load relevant content from various accounts of mine.

As I began to log into various accounts -- Google, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter -- the previously smooth experience began to fray very quickly. With each service I wanted to log in to, I was directed to that service's third party app authorization page and asked if I wanted to grant access to the Ubuntu Touch app. By the time I finished, I had logged into four services... or something. I can't really remember because of the time it took and the waves of new browser windows (everything's a browser) that popped up one over the other.

Afterwards, I considered myself "set up" and decided to go about my day carrying the phone around with my SIM in it. I would use the 3G radio for data in lieu of the 2.4GHz WiFi (slow, noisy signals in the office), and I'd try to at least keep up with Instagram and Twitter -- my two goals for the day.

Goals

Instagram was a total failure. The Photos scope asks for permission to access your Instagram account. You will have previously logged in to Instagram and given Ubuntu Touch third-party access to your account, but now Photos needs fourth(?) party access to your account. OK.

Now I did not expect to be able to post photos with filters or anything, but I did expect at least a decent representation of my feed. Instead, I have a bunch of rounded corner thumbnails of extremely low quality stabbing at my eyes. This is the kind of low quality even Instagram filters can't fix. "OK, maybe going to the detail view will be better," I tell myself. What I'm presented with when I touch a photo from my Instagram feed produces a grim realization that will follow me through the rest of the experience.

The photo displayed in the detail view is the exact same file as the thumbnail. Some information about the poster, the number of likes/comments, and the caption are displayed, but the photo is hardly large enough nor sharp enough to appreciate. A big red button provides the option to "View on Instagram," but that won't work if the user is private because the authorization you gave was left back in the Photos scope and you are now on the Instagram mobile webpage.

The good news is that the photo is now much more clear. But so is the button at the top of the page advertising the Instagram app's availability on Google Play.

Twitter is supposed to be an actual app. It is just a straight-up wrapper around mobile.twitter.com. Except for a problem with mistouches, the client works properly. I can read and respond to tweets just as I could with a native app.

Scopes

There are a handful of default scopes available, but the most compelling ones were the Today and NearBy scopes. Each capable of using your location, call log, recent messages, and calendar, these scopes act to keep you current on what's going on. NearBy pulls geotagged photos from Flickr and highly-rated places from Yelp and displays them.

Today has some lasting use as it really does lay out a lot of information. Given this is basically the home screen, I feel like it's really appropriate and useful in its position. I have the weather, my calendar and my recent communications available easily.

Unlike Today, the novelty of NearBy wore off pretty quickly. Having all of the nearest Yelp places and Flickr photos is nice, but I live here and all of that information is as useful as its location might suggest. However, if I was traveling, this scope would be great for random discovery. If every time I poked my head into my phone, I was presented with new places and sights, I would be delighted.

User Interface and Design

Controls and Common Views - In general, the visual design of "Today" and the other scopes leaves much to be desired. Lazy-looking 3D bevels adorn every button touch to provide visual feedback. The same bevels encircle icons and photos with an unflattering choice of radius for the rounded corners. These bevels are just plain ugly.

Color - I must say, the choice of gray for the background with the not-quite-black font works well. The fonts are pretty sharp on the screen and easy on the eyes.

Iconography - Fucking terrible. The interface is littered with unoriginal icons that appear to be "adapted" from iOS counterparts. Even worse, the dismal level of attention given to these icons shows through the horrific image quality. Some icons appear lossy as if they were JPGs, and others appear to be larger images that have been downscaled without resampling. The interface is a sea of jaggies.

Gesture-driven Experience - Not bad. I find that the most polished feature the OS has to offer is accessed with swiping from the right side of the screen. This opens a cover flow style view of the open apps similar to the Windows Vista/7 Win+Tab task switcher. This experience is completely native, and it shows. Swiping between tasks is smooth and closing them is just a simple swipe upwards. This is singularly the best part of the experience.

On the other hand, swiping from the left opens some variation of the Ubuntu Unity bar that I fumbled around with for a little while. I am still not sure what logic puts new icons in the bar, but I am sure I'll figure it out sometime.

Swiping up from the bottom only works in the scopes. It doesn't appear to work anywhere else and simply enables you to set your favorite scopes or jump straight to one.

Swiping down from the top opens a notification center style drawer with several tabs providing access to far too many options than needs to be available at a swipe. This works fine, but it is just trying to do too much.

Lock screen - It's pretty. It's also customizable, but the process for doing this is as equally tedious as linking a Google account.

Ubuntu Store

Much like the desktop-oriented Ubuntu Software Center, the Ubuntu Store is where the Ubuntu layperson goes to get new apps and scopes. There are tons of scopes and apps for a variety of reputable brands. At first glance, this is really exciting. One thinks, "Wow! Big brands are investing in the platform by publishing their own scopes!"

Wrong. Many of the thousands of scopes/apps are published not by the brands themselves but by individuals -- probably huge Ubuntu fans -- for the benefit of other users. In an environment where trust is should be really important, I find myself hesitating to download Etihad Airways' app. Why? Because who the fuck is Anne?

She must be a very prominent app developer.

Only one thing

There's only one thing missing from Ubuntu Phone, but that one thing is enough to kill it many times over -- attention to detail.

You can see it in almost every aspect of the experience -- whether it's the shoddy Instagram integration, the ramshackle account authorizations, the early 2000's style bevels, the rogue app developers, the jagged edges in downscaled images, or the wonky scrolling of webpages. The best parts of the experience aren't even controlled by Ubuntu, and this fact is further betrayed by the sharpness of the experience when you enter the mobile web version of Instagram, Twitter or even Facebook.

It does function quite well as a mobile phone, but if you need your smart-phone to be anything more than an ideological conversation piece, I would recommend you pass for now.

Footnotes

  1. The three product images are used in this post are from the bq product page for the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition.