If you walked into any bar in Europe or the US and asked if anyone had heard of the “Ubuntu” phone, you would count the positive responses on one hand.
And almost certainly none of them would own an Ubuntu phone, because everyone uses iPhone or Android.
Ubuntu is an open-source operating system that only really has a name in IT and developer communities. “Open source” is a special category of software that is free for anyone to use and/or develop, regardless of copyright.
Ubuntu is based on Linux, the same underlying code that powers data centres and household-name operating systems like Android. So the chances are you have actually used something powered by Ubuntu at some point in your life already, albeit indirectly.
However, Ubuntu is not going to sit in the backroom forever. The company that makes it, Canonical, has been working on a mobile version of Ubuntu capable of taking on Google’s Android system. That work that has born fruit this year with the arrival of the firm’s flagship Meizu MX4 Ubuntu edition smartphone.
Now, I’m sure most of you reading this article are asking “why should I care about Ubuntu phone?”
The Holy Grail of technology
I’ll tell you why. Canonical is actually one of the most advanced and forward-looking companies when it comes to creating the Holy Grail of technologies, a “ubiquitous operating system.”
What does this mean?
A ubiquitous operating system is a platform where all devices, regardless of whether they’re a phone, tablet, smartwatch, smart thermostat or even smart traffic light, run using the same back-end technology and are able to talk to each other. You’ll hear tech folks refer to this idea when they talk about the Internet of Things (IoT) or machine learning.
If realised, this dream would make it so that things like our smartphones could not only detect but also predict and serve our needs without us having to lift a finger.
The Ubuntu phone is a massive part of Canonical’s plan to make this happen. It aims to completely rethink the way we interact with our smartphones and our smartphones interact with us.
After a solid month using it, let me tell you, while there are some growing pains, Ubuntu’s phone offering is a startling piece of technology that left me wishing our machine carers — and potential overlords — would arrive sooner.
The Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition is currently only being sold in Europe as a promotional competition model. The competition requires people interested in buying the phone, which carries a €300 price tag, to visit a special page on Meizu’s website and win an “invite to purchase.”
Canonical’s opening blast at Android
I’ve heard both Apple and Google claim their operating system has reinvented the wheel when talking about their yearly iOS or Android update over the years.
But each time what they have actually done is fairly minor and adds up to moving a widget, or adjusting the placement of a sub menu, while keeping the same core window-based, click-on-app/open-app user-interface.
This isn’t the case with Ubuntu.
When I first picked it up, the Ubuntu phone felt like the most unique and alien mobile operating system I’d ever experienced (and this is coming from someone who’s sampled everything from BlackBerry 10 to Mozilla’s FireFox OS and Samsung’s Tizen).
For starters, the Ubuntu OS has a completely reworked user interface that replaces the traditional home screen with a new system of “scopes”.
The scope system does away with the traditional mobile interface where applications are stored and accessed from a central series of homescreens.
It replaces that with a “tailored series of individual home screens” that intelligently collect and push information from a variety of apps in a similar way to Google’s Now service. (Google Now is a service on Android that pushes information it thinks will be of interest to its user.)
The scopes organise the data in custom home screens for specific situations or themes.
For example, if you go to the “Nearby” scope, the phone will pull information from apps like Maps, Yelp, Timeout and Facebook to pull in items of interest, like local public transport links and restaurants into its UI.
If you go to “music” it will pull up the songs you regularly listen to, while recommending similar artists you may want to check out.
This in theory lets you access information from all the applications installed on the phone without having to open them individually. As an added bonus it also removes the need to jump from application to application when opening and responding to incoming alerts.
Adding to Ubuntu’s otherworldly, unique feel, the OS is also significantly more touch- and gesture-focused than iOS and Android. We found nearly all the key features and menus on the Meizu MX4 are accessed using gesture controls, not with screen shortcuts.
For example, a short scroll from the left brings out the Ubuntu Unity Application launcher – which is a customisable shortcut menu to specific core-applications, like the phone dialler, maps, messaging and the photo library.
A short scroll from the right brings out the last open application, while a longer scroll right brings up a new window showing all the open applications on the phone.
Unless you’re one of the few people currently using BlackBerry 10, the gesture-focused controls and scopes system will feel very weird, even if you are fairly technical.
For the first two weeks I was slightly out of sorts using Ubuntu phone and would regularly find myself by default trying to go to dedicated apps, rather than scopes.
However midway through my second week I had an odd moment where everything clicked and I began adjusting to Ubuntu’s way of doing things.
The moment occurred one evening when I managed to turn up to meeting in an area of London I wasn’t too familiar with. Here, with a couple of hours to kill, I found myself by default checking the Nearby scope rather than reaching for the specific Yelp or Here Maps apps.
In the scope I got a useful weather update alerting me to incoming rain and a series of recommendations for decent coffee shops and local landmarks — which included a pretty awesome comic shop — I could visit.
The experience is a great example of why, when it works, the Ubuntu user interface is so good. I actually found myself having mixed feelings about going back to my Google Nexus 6 Android. The Nexus has better performance and hardware, but it felt slightly clunky to use after two-plus weeks with the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu edition.
Despite being a young operating system I was also impressed with the number of applications Canonical has managed to get into its Ubuntu store. For music, Ubuntu offers Soundcloud, 7digital and Soundkick. It also features support for all the regular mobile providers, including Google, Apple, Yahoo, Mozilla and Microsoft.
Ubuntu also gone to lengths to make sure its OS works with all the main software providers, and this has paid off. Jumping onto an unknown platform wasn’t as scary as it could have been.
Flies in the ointment
All this makes it sound like Ubuntu is great, and for the most part it is. However, during my four weeks with the device I noticed a few serious bugs that damage its overall consumer appeal.
For starters there’s general performance. While the handset was generally fine, there were instances when it would noticeably chug. On occasion, even when doing basic things like switching between scopes and applications, the Meizu MX4 would freeze mid-animation.
While this isn’t too serious, and being fair I never once had an application unexpectedly crash or quit on me, it did become an ongoing annoyance — especially when playing games or watching video content.
Then there was the larger battery issue. On paper, the Meizu MX4’s 3,100 Milliamp Hour (mAh) battery should offer a fairly decent life. (mAh is a metric designed to gauge a battery’s strength and size. The bigger the number the more charge a battery can theoretically hold. As battery sizes go 3,100mAh is pretty big for a phone the Meizu MX4’s size. By comparison the Galaxy S6 has a 2550 mAh battery and the iPhone 6 has a 1,810mAh battery.)
Despite having a decent-sized power pack, for some reason the Ubuntu OS put a much heavier drain on the battery than I expected and in general the phone struggled to survive a full day with moderate use. Moderate use entailed listening to music on the way to and from work, taking and making a few calls, checking maps a couple of times, sporadically browsing the web and regularly checking social media and email.
I think this is something to do with the way the Ubuntu OS handles multitasking, as not only did the phone heat up to an uncomfortable level when running multiple apps, it also outright leaked its charge and would continue to rapidly lose power, even when in sleep mode.
Finally, there’s my biggest criticism — Ubuntu phone’s is not smart enough yet. While the app selection is impressive for a prototype, in its infancy Ubuntu phone doesn’t have enough data feeding into it, as key services are missing.
For example big-name shopping and grocery services, like Amazon or Ocado, or commonly used apps, such as Spotify aren’t officially supported — though their web apps do work. This is annoying as it keeps key bits of data that could further improve Ubuntu’s ability to intelligently predict my needs from appearing on the relevant scopes. That is doubly annoying as those that are there do work really well.
Should you buy an Ubuntu phone?
Now down to the real question, should you consider buying an Ubuntu phone? For a general, non-techie person used to iOS or Android my answer, for now, would be, probably not.
At least not yet.
While the OS oozes tech appeal and gets so much right at the backend, bugs in its software jar the user experience just enough to annoy. Additionally, despite having a decent offering for a new OS, Ubuntu phone is still behind Apple and Google when it comes to apps. (That is to be expected for such a new system.)
Given everything Canonical has gotten right, coupled with the oddly intuitive user interface, I can’t but find the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu edition interesting, and I want to see Ubuntu phone continue to grow and get smarter.
As a result, while I wouldn’t recommend general consumers buy the phone, I’d definitely urge tech savvy buyers or developers interested in trying something new, to check out the Ubuntu Meizu MX4 and help further improve the upstart operating system’s offering.
Lastly: the specs
- The Meizu MX4 was originally released in September 2014 running Google’s Android operating system. Compared to top-end Android handsets, like the Samsung Galaxy S6, the Meizu MX4’s hardware isn’t anything to write home about. But, when you consider its price, the Meizu MX4 is reasonably well stocked.
- Aluminium alloy body and matte back cover.
- 5.4in 1920×1142, 418 pixel per inch (ppi) display. A display’s ppi density is a general indicator how sharp a display will be, anything above 400 is pretty impressive. For comparison-sake, the near twice as expensive the iPhone 6 comes with a with a 4.7in 1334×750, 326 ppi Retina HD display.
- Then there’s its octa core Mediatek-made 2.2GHz processor and 20.7 megapixel (MP) rear camera sensor, which again, on paper make the Meziu MX4 great value for money. Octa-core processing — WHICH DOES WHAT? — is a growing trend in the world of smartphones that work to improve handset performance and improve their multi-tasking capabilities.
- The 20.7MP rear camera comes with a similar Sony Exmor RS sensor to those seen in the Japanese firm’s top end line of Xperia smartphones. The Sony-tech is designed to improve the Meizu MX4’s picture quality by removing background noise in images.
- It only comes with a piddly 16GB of storage. Sadly, it also doesn’t feature a microSD card, meaning users won’t be able to add more space.