Ubuntu Touch: ready or not?

-- We are publishing this review in English to invite responses from the Ubuntu Touch community. --

Written by Guy Van Sanden (@guyvansanden), Founder of Taurix IT

Intro

This week, we received our Meizu MX Ubuntu Edition.  This is the third phone to ship with Ubuntu Touch as the OS instead of the popular Android OS from Google. 

The hardware

The MX4 has a comfortable 5.36" screen at 1152x1920 pixels, which is very nice and sharp.  The phone has 2 GB  of RAM and a quad-core processor to make it run smooth.

The hardware specs are vey nice for an inexpensive phone (the Ubuntu edition sells for 299 €).  The build quality is not as nice as the much more expensive phones, but decent enough (certainly considering the price).

Ubuntu Touch

Ubuntu Touch is a new smartphone OS, it is not based on Android and that can be felt immediately.  If you are familiar with Ubuntu Linux on the desktop, you will see a lot more familiar elements like the vertical launch bar you find in Unity.  The panel on top does resemble Android/IOS but also the Ubuntu desktop.

When you swipe away the lock screen, you will see a home screen that you can always return to by pushing the MX4 single button.  This is nothing like the desktops you see on Android, the screen is made up of scopes, which are also native to Ubuntu Touch and Ubuntu Desktop.  Scopes give you view on something, be it the current weather, a search for tweets or your daily appointments.

Navigating the phone is different from the way you do things on Android. While the home screen with the panel on top may look like Android at first, it also stops there.  When you swipe your finger in from the left edge, you will see an iconbar with a combination of open programs and shortcuts to applications.

Swiping from the right will give you a 3D flipview of open windows to quickly find an application or screen.

I have to hand it to Canonical, they had a vision of mobile convergence and this OS feels like a scaled version of Ubuntu Linux.  Not only that, but after a day of using it, I began to swipe the edges of my Android phone to get the unity bar or a list of open applications.  The bottom line is that their new interface does work intuitively and I would personally immediately trade Android for it.

Applications

For me, my smartphone allows me to keep track of my business when I'm on the road.  Even though I have several applications installed, there are a few that I really can't miss like a webbrowser, a jabber client and OpenVPN.  Additionally, I became very accustomed to have my E-mail, calendar and contacts of my Zarafa Groupware server always at hand throught the ActiveSync protocol.

Ubuntu Touch does very well in the browsing department with a webbrowser that is very functional and was much faster than both Chrome and FireFox on my Android device.  It has support for tabs to make browsing multiple sites conventient.

Unfortunately, this is where my positive experience with applications ended...

On the default image, there is no mail or calendar installed.  Those are 'core' apps and can easily be installed from the Ubuntu store.  The mail app is called Dekko and seems to work ok if you use IMAP and SMTP. Calendar is also basic but seems functional.  However it does not sync over ActiveSync, that means no support for Zarafa, Zimbra or Exchange and for me, no easy way of having the same data available in both my phone and laptop.

To my surprise, the phone has a working Telegram client (a messaging service similar to Whatsapp but without the privacy issues), but there is not support for any Open protocol that you can use on a self-hosted server.  So no jabber support, and given that the last activity on the bug report on this topic was over a year ago, it is doubtfull it will come any time soon.

On the default image, there's also a Twitter client present. It works and even has notification support, but it is just an extended version of the Twitter mobile website, so if you are used to a native client like Twidere on android, it does disappoint. 

I installed some third party applications from the Ubuntu store like ureadit to access Reddit.  ureadit is lovey and works very well.  All Youtube applications from the store where a bit disappointing and it was hard to get the videos to play fullscreen while the screen also didn't stay on during playback.

A very big treat however for the techie is the Terminal app that you also find in the store as a core application.  This will not interest most regular smartphone users, but for sysadmins having a phone that has a shell with the most common Linux tools like SSH at your fingertips is quite conventient.  The only drawback of the Terminal is that the OS kills non-focused apps after a while, so keeping an SSH connection running and browsing while a long task completes does not work as expected (the ugly solution is to use sudo to run the SSH connection as root, it won't be killed).

A word on background processes

Without getting too technical, it is important to know that most smartphone applications have to be written quite differently from their desktop counterparts because the usage model of a phone is different from a full computer.  Battery life is a determining factor and resources are a bit more limited.

Your phone applications are designed to save their current state and not stay running when you switch to another task (your browser will stop loading a page while you read email, but resume when you come back).  Though some applictions may require tasks to be executed continuously in the background, think about checking E-mail, Twitter replies etc and display notifications of such events.

Android implements this by requiring an application that does background processing into two parts, one part is a background service that keeps running and updates data.  You need a background process running for example if you use Jabber that will stay connected to the jabber server.

Ubuntu Touch however does not provide the option to make background services.  The OS has a built-in algorithm that kills processes to free up resources and makes no exceptions for services.  So there currently is no option to do things in the background and notify the user when done.  That is a big limitation to consider when designing applications and it will exclude functionality like chat clients that we do have on Android. 

As we also look at this new platform as something we can use to develop customer solutions on, that seriously limits our options and those of fellow solution providers.

Conclusion

The new Ubuntu Touch is great, the OS is pretty stable at this point and feels slightly faster than Android, but are we there yet?

The short answer is... No. 

Only users with very basic smartphone requirements will be able to use this phone in it's current state without feelig limited.  Corporate users will need access to their groupware accounts and that means ActiveSync support.  Regular users will find the limited set of apps annoying as well as the lack of functionality in the current ones (youtube playback, multiple twitter accounts, ...)

In short, this phone is a great first step for Ubuntu Touch to be introduced into the market without requiring rooting and flashing.  But you have to view it as a technology preview more than an actual product.  It scores well for an early preview, but given the anticipation of the tech community combined with the time to develop it this far, it does disappoint somewhat.

That being said, I personally will still make the switch when basic functionality like ActiveSync and Jabber are there because I do believe in a real Linux phone and Ubuntu is the closest to pulling it off.  But they need to move quickly to not loose the momentum they have now and solve core issues like background processing for application developers interested in the platform.

 

As a Free Software company, Taurix IT will offer support options on Ubuntu Touch for customers who wish to use it, both corporate as private. Please contact us if you want to know more.