The recent hype surrounding the release of a proper OEM Ubuntu phone in Europe was the impetus for me to acquire an old, used Nexus 4 to install the Ubuntu mobile OS on and try it out for myself.
There are some things that should be stated up front if I’m going to review the Ubuntu phone. Primarily, as stated above, this is not an official OEM Ubuntu phone. The old Nexus 4 I picked up has seen better days, no doubt, but the hardware is sturdy and has served its purpose well. It is likely that newer hardware can do nothing but improve the performance and capabilities of the Ubuntu mobile OS.
I will also confess some initial bias up front – I am a user and fan of Ubuntu. I’ve used it since 2007 (7.04) and made it my primary desktop OS in 2010, so I have some interest in seeing it succeed in the mobile market. But only if it is good and worthwhile to me. I was a late-comer to smartphones in general, largely for reasons of cost, but I’ve become a regular user for the past 4 years – strictly on Android, though I have friends with iPhones. Although many of us use our phones for similar things, there is also a lot of variance in how people use their phones – apart from actually using it as a phone, of course.
For myself, I primarily use it check email and texting (in my opinion, two of the most useful things since the Internet Age began) as well as using Twitter and WordPress, and recently Waze. To a lesser extent I also use Meetup and Firefox. I’m not as big a mobile gamer as some with the exception of poker – and the PokerStars mobile app is as fine an UI for poker as I can imagine. (I’ll rant in another post about the state of online money poker in the US.) Perhaps the unsung app I use most on my Android is actually the Unity Launcher from Ubuntu. I just find it easier to oft-used apps than scrolling through the app windows.
When Unity was first introduced into Ubuntu it caused a bit of stir amongst some Ubuntu users, but I never had a problem with. I did, and continue to, like Ubuntu’s approach and willingness to try something different.
So I purchased the old Nexus 4 and flashed Ubuntu to it. After some getting used to – as the interface is somewhat different from Desktop Ubuntu and certainly from Android – I generally do like it. But let me get into my likes and what I think are the pluses after a few items that I think could (and hopefully) will be improved. We’ll call these suggestions for the Ubuntu team.
Although I don’t necessarily expect all of the features that we saw in the Ubuntu Touch YouTube video promos a couple of years ago to be perfect yet, there are some things that can be improved and at least one thing noticeably missing.
One key thing that I feel is missing and may play a key part in long-term acceptance of Ubuntu for phones is a native email client. There is a current project by Daniel Chapman called Dekko which is promising, though I haven’t been able to get it to work with my ISP email yet. One of the reasons I was even able to start using a smartphone was that, by having work email tied to my phone, the company compensates me for part of the monthly bill. So a native email client on the phone that allows me to connect to the office is practically essential if I were to transition to an Ubuntu phone as a primary phone. Like I said, email is maybe one of the most important things to come out of the internet.
That’s really it for fundamental deal breakers. These next items are more nice-to-have suggestions.
The Calendar app provided by the Ubuntu Core Team could use one tweak that I’ve found useful in PC and Android calendar functions; the ability to choose a bi-weekly reminder or calendar item. I know most things are weekly, daily, yearly, etc., but some items, like my paycheck for example, are bi-weekly. Another thing missing in the core functionality is a data usage graph, like the sort I’ve seen in the two makers of Android phones I’ve had experience with. If your phone plan has a limit on data usage, the ability to track it is key.
I’ve already mentioned that having PokerStars or a poker app would be nice, even more nice, and higher on my priority list, would be to have a mobile implementation of KeePass (a password generator/management package) and SpiderOak (a dropbox-like web store application) both already available easily for Ubuntu desktop. Nice to have additions after that would be things like Plex, Skype, Waze, Hulu, etc. But the lack of them currently aren’t necessarily deal breakers to adopting Ubuntu as a primary phone OS.
One item I remember from the promo videos that seems to be lacking – at least in my Nexus 4 build of Ubuntu OS, to whatever extent that may differ from the production build people in Europe with their bq phones may be experiencing is; Mark Shuttleworth explained and demonstrated how the bottom swipe would bring up app-contextual menus. They are lean in my experience so far, but none more obvious than the example he used with photos; how you could bottom swipe on a photo and do some (presumably) basic image editing (ie. tint to sepia, crop, color adjust, etc.). There is no native image manipulation functionality that I’ve seen and nothing available in the Ubuntu Software Center either. This is an oversight that will hopefully be addressed in the near future.
My last critical comment is more of a suggestion. When people think about the Ubuntu phone they often think of the circular lockscreen graphic that has become iconic for the phone. I originally thought it would be more… animated than it actually is, but that’s alright. I understand and get how it functions now, showing roughly monthly activity. I’ll be curious to see how it morphs once I’ve used it for over a month. When I initially set up the Nexus 4, it only worked in a wifi setting, as I had no SIM card. I then decided to ask my provider if I could get a SIM card and turn service up for a month, which to my happy surprise, they could. So for the past few days, my Nexus 4 has had actual phone service, complete with SMS texts, etc. What this has to do with the Notification Center is this: initially I wondered if it was even working. It showed gmail and Twitter as being allowed to modify the center, but I never saw updates. Finally, after taking a photo with the phone and learning that when the notification lock screen is up you can double-tap on it to switch between notification types, photos taken, songs played, videos recorded, texts received, etc. But my humble suggestion for an improvement or option to the lock screen, is a setting where it toggles between all of those activity types (without the double-tab) which would also give it a certain illusion of animation. But it’s just a suggestion.
Apart from the aforementioned items, my experience using the Ubuntu phone has been very positive. Much is made of the limited apps that will be available initially, but for me, the apps I would and do use most often are already present. Amazon is already available. So is LinkedIn, GMail, Google Maps and Twitter. In most cases, like Twitter, it is really just an implementation of the mobile page for Twitter. But you know something…? It’s a mixed bag. On my Android phone I use the native Twitter app, and it does have much more functionality in settings and views, etc. though I really don’t use many of them. The native app shows pictures by default (rather than just a link to it) which on my standard plan isn’t a big deal, but on a budget data plan, not loading pictures automatically is probably a good thing. Additionally, on the native app I see sponsored tweets for companies or organizations I don’t follow that just pollute my timeline, whereas the mobile web page app, such as is provided on Ubuntu currently, doesn’t show sponsors tweets. In some ways, I’ve come to appreciate viewing it that way. But again, I’m sure that isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste. But until such time as native apps are written, I’m okay with the web view and improved performance.
Much has been made of the use of Scopes rather than apps (necessarily), but I see both functioning very well on the phone. Some of the provided scopes aren’t altogether useful and/or I would like to see better use of some of them. For example, a scope for just Meetup that has to take me to the web to actually interact with Meetup isn’t very useful. The Today Scope is often shown in advertising for the phone, but I haven’t seen it on the phone itself yet. The Weather Channel scope, and Ubuntu News scope, as well the Music and Videos scopes are all nicely done. Using the Ubuntu SDK I’m hoping to create some web apps for some immediate needs – maybe a full qml native app or two later – and I want to learn to create scopes. One scope that I think would be useful would be an Agenda Scope that could pull calendar and reminder items for your relevant apps/services (Google Calendar, Meetup, native calendar, etc.) into one at-a-glance scope. A proper News Scope that could be customized with news sources (assuming that it works not unlike an RSS reader) would be welcome too.
Scopes, like Unity, seems to be taking some beating by folks resistant to change. Scopes certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, just as Unity didn’t satisfy everyone’s tastes. But that is the beauty of competition and choices and one of the best things that has been available to Linux users for a long time; if one thing doesn’t work for you, there are other options.
Otherwise, I have found the phone to function incredibly smoothly and responsively and given that I’m using it on a rather beat-up old Nexus 4, I can only imagine that the performance on a newer piece of hardware, optimized to work with Ubuntu, must be very responsive and it’s something I look forward to later this year (if rumours passed along by OMG! Ubuntu are any indication). I hope by that time some of the minor issues are worked out and the main deal breaker of native email that I can connect to a (urp!) Microsoft Exchange Server for work email is in place. If that’s the case and if I had to say goodbye to Waze and PokerStars (until such time as they become available for Ubuntu) I will likely make that transition. There are doubtless other display and fundamental phone setting UI improvements that I’m sure could (and in all likely will) be made as the platform matures. And I’m willing to wait for the fabled convergence between the phone and my desktop – as a Linux user, I’m used to various iDevices and other devices not being recognized when USBd to my Ubuntu Desktop.
Nothing good is ever quick or easy, but it is often worth waiting for. Props to the Ubuntu Team. Keep up the good work!