Ubuntu Phone - An honest review
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The three product images are used in this post are from the bq product page for the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition. ↩