Monday, 20 June 2016 12:37

Ubuntu phone is not yet ready for prime time

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Phones that run Canonical's Ubuntu Phone operating system have been around for more than a year but given that they appear to be predominantly aimed at European markets, they are a rare sight in Australia.

One cannot blame Canonical, the company behind the phone, for Australia is a very small market and one that tends to follow American trends.

The first Ubuntu phones were released in February 2015 and came in for some criticism because they were under-powered, being a modified version of the Aquaris E4.5. With a 4.5-inch, 540x960 resolution display, a 1.3GHz quad-core MediaTek Cortex A7 processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, they were not much to write home about.

But nobody is making that complaint about the latest Ubuntu phone, the Meizu Pro-5.

The specs, as given on the company's website:

  • 5.7-inch 1080p screen with a re-tuned delta cool color AMOLED screen
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 3 with improved damage resistance and toughness
  • 21.16 megapixel rear-facing camera with PDAF phase laser-assisted focusing and LARGAN 6P lenses for improved resolution
  • 5 megapixel front-facing camera
  • Hi-Fi sound
  • 32GB of internal memory
  • 3GB RAM
  • 8 core Exynos 7420 processor and MALI T760 GPU
  • Slots for two micro-SIM cards for phone use across multiple networks
  • Dimensions: 156.7 x 78 x 7.5mm
  • Weight: 168g

Indeed, Meizu sells this phone with its own modified version of Android too.

Where the issues arise is with the Ubuntu phone software. And Canonical appears be keen on releasing new features that would distinguish its product from the others that dominate the marketplace, rather than fixing existing problems.

The Meizu Pro-5.For example, recently they released an update that allows the phone to be wirelessly connected to a monitor that supports the Miracast protocol. Or one can connect to a TV using an OS-agnostic wireless display adaptor that supports the protocol like the one made by Microsoft.

One is then supposed to be able, provided one also has a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, to use the phone as one would a desktop unit. I have not tested this and hence cannot speak about it.

The company was unwilling to provide a review unit to iTWire, so I bought one from the official Chinese vendor. It cost $504.

Visually, the device looks very much like an iPhone. After using it for nearly three weeks, the impression is that while it lags behind existing mass-market phones, there is a niche that it can fill.

The selling point for the Ubuntu Phone is that it runs Linux. Genuine Linux, unlike Android. And the difference between the two is likely to widen in the coming years as Google takes Android proprietary.

The Ubuntu Phone operating system is open source and will stay that way. For some, that is a selling point.

Given the level of spying that takes place on an Android phone or an iPhone, the Ubuntu Phone comes as a relief. The amazing range of permissions that iOS and Android apps demand before you can use them is another turnoff.

Therefore, the Ubuntu phone is not for everyone. One cannot compare it to either Android or iOS phones and moan about lack of applications because that is not comparing apples with apples. Applications will take time to arrive. Android and iOS have a good headstart and massive market share.

But where Canonical can do something is with the apparent lag that sometimes manifests itself. The method of operation is different with the phone having scopes - categorised home screens that aggregate content from multiple sources.

Quite often one has to refresh scopes manually for things to change; the date on the Today scope is a good example.

But on the plus side, there are frequent updates. You don't find that on any Android system apart from the top-range Nexus devices.

This is not a review, just random observations, so it will not end with a recommendation either way. Linux is an acquired taste and there are benefits. There are also things you have to do without, but it's all a question of tradeoffs.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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