Ubuntu Phone – exciting but still a long way to go


Growing increasingly concerned with Google’s intrusiveness and slack privacy policy, I saluted Ubuntu’s efforts to move into the mobile OS landscape. Do not get me wrong, I enjoy the quality of the Google products and Android for that matter, but hoped for a tighter control of my data and at the same time wanted to encourage competition. After all, this is what drives innovation. Thus I found the Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding campaign to be a promising step towards developing an alternative to Android/iOS/Windows phones, albeit rather ambitious. The project was not funded, but Canonical did not give up and partnered with the Spanish company BQ to release Aquaris E4.5 as the first Ubuntu Phone in January 2015. The device was affordable, though the specifications were somewhat modest (e.g. lack of LTE modem) and I decided to wait for a next release.

Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition was announced in July and this seemed the right time to try an Ubuntu phone. One had to play an origami game for a chance to win an invitation to buy a device, with only three tries per day allowed. The verification was cookie based and private browsing enabled me to play the game for several minutes, until I could order the phone. It finally arrived a few days ago and I was quite excited.

Ubuntu Touch overview

I will not discuss Meizu MX4 (GSM arena provide detailed specifications), though I will only say I dislike the glossy back cover, which makes the phone feel slippery in hand, and the fact that it was shipped with marketing material for Flyme 4 OS. The focus of the discussion hereafter is on Ubuntu Touch’s functionality.

The device is running a modified Ubuntu 15.04 (r3 after the first update) whose UX is based on Unity 8. The OS boots super fast, which would be advantageous when recharging a depleted battery. You may want to avoid that though, since the phone only boots after a couple of minutes when the battery drained and was subsequently plugged to the mains. It is also worth mentioning that one of the claimed advantages is extended battery life, but after a couple of days with minimal usage I have to say the LG Nexus was scoring more points here.

Interacting with the phone is all about different types of swipes in terms of direction and length, but that gets complicated at times.


The user interface is based around ‘Scopes’, which are merely widgets that do not replace apps and do not improve usability. Navigation is based on Here and that is nice, as it provides a decent alternative to Google maps. The major problem is localisation, since the engine fails to identify the (rough) position of the user when indoors. For instance, Meizu MX4 will often locate me in London and offer ‘Nearby’ recommendations for that instead of Edinburgh (to which a Scotsman would raise an eyebrow).

There is a scope that checks the user’s FitBit activity (if you own such a tracker), though that does not interface directly with the bracelet, but instead queries what has been recorded already into a web account. Naturally, this forces one to synch the FitBit bracelet with a desktop, which questions the use of a smart phone.


In terms of apps, as one may expect, there aren’t that many to talk about and the few essential ones (phone, SMS, email) still require some work. For instance, writing a new text message without having to first browse through contacts seems impossible, while the screen is locked during an ongoing call. The phone app is hidden upon unlocking, which leaves the call active for longer than required and this is rather inconvenient. Rebooting was also required during testing, to make sure notifications about incoming calls were triggered. Regarding notifications, these do not disappear if the events have been cleared on a different device (e.g. when reading email on a desktop).

Email, Twitter, YouTube, etc. are merely HTML wrappers that work with the mobile version of the respective web sites and have to be restarted frequently. The Ubuntu browser seems fast though. Listening to music on YouTube is paused when locking the screen, which is very inconvenient if the phone is inside a pocket, where one may accidentally press some controls. The audio quality is not great either, but whether that is a device or OS issue remains debatable.

The calendar app is rather modest and it will not fetch shared Calendars from a Google account. There are apps that work more or less with Dropbox, Airbnb, Skyscanner, and YR.no services. On the other hand, there is no support for Vivino, Last.fm, and Edinburgh Bus (should you care about these), while services such as Tripadvisor, Tripit or Spotify seem not to have been thoroughly tested. At this stage, I do not expect Internet banking apps to be trustworthy.

In Summary

For someone relying on the smart phone for work, email, calendar, SMS, and call apps should work flawlessly and unfortunately that is not the case with Ubuntu Phone at the moment.  I am glad I bought the device, but it reminds me of the early days of Linux, when most people I knew were using a Windows machine and the Linux distributions were not keeping up with the competition. However, I trust the open source community will continue working on improving the OS and develop new applications, which would make Ubuntu a true contender in the smart phone market.

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