he smartphone arena is dominated by two operating systems. Gartner’s latest figures show that during the first three months of 2015, iOS and Android devices accounted for almost 97 percent of global smartphone sales. With established alternatives from Microsoft and BlackBerry already fighting for the leftovers, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of opportunity for new players. Canonical, maker of the popular Linux distro Ubuntu, is taking on the challenge regardless. With a version of Ubuntu built specifically for mobile, it’s hoping to shake up the current duopoly with a fresh approach to content consumption. That’s the plan, anyway, but after spending some time getting to know the OS, it’s clear Canonical has a lot of work to do if Ubuntu Phone is ever going to be a viable option for even casual smartphone users.
Ubuntu Phone is still very much under development. As such, we’ve decided not to assign a score to this review since it only represents a snapshot in time.
A brief history
Canonical’s desire to put Ubuntu on smartphones was revealed several years ago, but originally, the company was toying with shoehorning the OS onto Android handsets. It wasn’t intended to be used on the phone itself; rather, Ubuntu lay dormant on the device, with the full desktop version only coming to life when the Android phone was hooked up to a monitor via a docking station.
Nearly a year after Ubuntu for Android was announced, Canonical debuted the first build of its OS designed to actually run on smartphones. A few months later, a crowdfunding campaign for the first Ubuntu handset was launched. The Ubuntu Edge promised to be a high-end device that ran both Android and Ubuntu Phone, as well as offer the full desktop experience when docked. The campaign ended $19 million shy of its ambitious $32 million target, and Canonical scrapped plans for the extravagant device to quietly focus on the Ubuntu Phone experience.
In October 2013, the first stable build of Ubuntu for smartphones (version 13.10) was released with support for Google’s Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4. The following year was a relatively slow one. While developers and advanced tinkerers were poking around subsequent iterations of the OS on repurposed phones, Canonical announced its first hardware partners, and quietly killed off the Ubuntu for Android project. It wasn’t until early this year, though, that the first dedicated Ubuntu phone was released. Which brings us to right now, with me sitting here holding a BQ Aquaris E4.5 running Ubuntu 15.04.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Let’s start at the beginning. Press the power button and up pops the Ubuntu lock screen. At first glance, there’s nothing of particular note here; just the time, the date and a circular dial with little dots just within its border. It’s not immediately obvious, but each of these dots denotes a day of the current month. The blocked-out dots are days passed; the hollow dots signify those still to come; and the focal dot is today. Within the dial, it tells you how many text messages you’ve received that day, but double-tap it and the information it displays will change. It’ll tell you how many songs you’ve listened to, for instance, or how many pictures you’ve taken.
The different stats are also displayed in visual form, with colored bubbles that sit behind the dots. The larger the bubble, the higher the level of activity on that particular day. You may have five consecutive days — a working week, say — where you didn’t take a single picture. Behind those dots, you won’t see a circle. But, if you went to a party over the weekend and were a bit snap-happy, the bubble for that day would be large, since your camera activity was relatively high.
It’s an interesting way to show your mobile usage for the month, but it’s not much more than a novelty. Since you can’t really do or learn anything from this info, it feels more like an exercise in graphical data representation, rather than a useful feature. By the way, you can turn this feature off if you’d rather your mobile activity wasn’t accessible on the lock screen.
Swipe the lock screen away and you get to the passcode/passphrase entry screen, should you have one set, and then you’re in.
Before I talk about Ubuntu proper, a quick note on the status bar. It’s one of only a few things that will be familiar to every smartphone user, and it sits at the top of the screen showing the time, battery life, WiFi status: that kind of stuff. As you’d expect, you drag this down to view notifications and various quick settings, all arranged along a horizontal bar.
For some reason, the notification icon in the status bar is permanent, though it turns from dull gray to bright green when something new comes in. There are a couple of other quirks to this status bar. Plant your thumb right over the network status indicator, swipe down and the drawer will descend with that quick-settings menu selected. The same goes for notifications, Bluetooth status, time, and anything else that has its own little icon. Also, as you pull the drawer down, you can scroll through the different options by sliding your thumb toward either side of the screen, which is pretty neat.
The pull-down has a major flaw, however, in that it’s accessible at any time, even on the lock screen. It doesn’t matter if you have a passcode set; anyone can pick up the device, check your unread notifications and change any of the quick settings without having access to the phone. Not ideal if you are security-/privacy-conscious.
First, though, Canonical has to sell partners on the value of the platform, while also refining the user experience greatly. For now, Ubuntu Phone is just about good enough for serious enthusiasts and developers to play with, but it can in no way compete with the major mobile operating systems. And given we’re a couple of years into development already, I expected something that was at least verging on being consumer-ready. I was wrong.