Ubuntu phone review: first-look

3 Jan 2013

Ubuntu for smartphones is the third episode of an ambitious four-part series that will eventually see the Linux distro span phones, tablets, PCs and TVs. Only the tablet version of the OS remains on the drawing board, which is surprising given that it's the closest relation to Ubuntu's traditional PC stalking ground, but we're told it will arrive in the next year or so.

In the meantime, we kicked off the new year with a hands-on demonstration of Ubuntu for smartphones in London last night, giving us an early glimpse of what visitors to CES in Las Vegas will be treated to next week.

Interface

Ubuntu for smartphones makes a stunning first impression. Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth may have swallowed the Apple marketing manual, bandying around words such as "magical" and "beautiful" when introducing us to the new OS, but the Ubuntu interface makes the iPhone's rigid grid of icons look as dated as a kipper tie and flares.

The immediate show stealer is Ubuntu's answer to the lock screen. It's an attractively designed infographic that cycles through key data, such as the number of unread emails waiting in your inbox, the tally of unread tweets or the amount of talktime left in the battery. The colour and intensity of the coloured orbs changes accordingly, so if you've got an inbox full of unread messages, it will burn more brightly than if you have nothing waiting to be read. It's an intelligent, attractive piece of design, and one that can be customised by the phone manufacturers or networks.

Then we come to the home screen and what Shuttleworth excruciatingly referred to as "edge magic". Swiping in from each of the four edges of the screen performs a different command. Swipe from the left and you get a strip of icons for your most commonly used apps, mirroring the design of the Unity interface in the desktop version of Ubuntu. A swipe from the right returns the user to the last-used app, while dragging your finger from the foot of the screen reveals the controls for the app in question, in a similar vein to Windows 8. Finally, a swipe from the top of the screen provides access to the system controls - such as volume, Wi-Fi networks and messaging - without having to return to the home screen or leave the currently running app, which is another intelligent piece of thinking.

The home screen itself is a customisable dashboard of information, with listings of data such as missed calls, unread emails, or recently used books or music albums. From here it's also possible to perform a device-wide search, with results broken down into categories.

Ubuntu even has its own Siri equivalent, in the form of the Head-Up Display introduced to the desktop distro last year. Although the demo phones didn’t have this up and running, you will be able to speak commands in applications – such as “sepia” to give your pictures an old-fashioned tinge in a photo-editing app – instead of having to delve through the menus or find the right buttons.

All told, we were hugely impressed by the Ubuntu phone interface.  And then we got our hands on a demo handset…

Performance

Now, before we go any further, we must point out that this is an early beta of an operating system that’s running on non-optimised hardware – albeit one of the latest generation of Google Nexus handsets, which is a pretty high-end smartphone. Mark Shuttleworth pointed out that there were still a lot of background processes running that could be whittled down to improve performance and battery life, and it’s also worth noting that the Wi-Fi in the demo room was iffy, which could cause some of the net-related features to stutter.

That said, performance on the two different handsets we spent time with was very patchy. Commands and menus often creaked into view after the swipe of a finger, sometimes failing to appear for a second or two; scrolling through apps and web pages was juddery; once or twice the handsets appeared to freeze completely before coming back to life a few seconds later. There’s plainly much work to do before Ubuntu delivers the “clean, crisp and fast” performance promised by Shuttleworth in his presentation.

The stuttering is even more worrying given the two opposite ends of the spectrum Canonical is aiming for with Ubuntu: entry-level smartphones and so-called “super phones”. At the bottom end, Canonical claims the OS will run on dual-core Cortex A9 processors, with as little as 512MB of memory, providing an alternative to the “complexity” of Android for those who don’t want too much from a smartphone.

At the top end, Canonical claims you’ll be able to dock your phone next to your monitor and run a full PC desktop from your smartphone – either using a quad-core Cortex A9 or an Intel Atom, paired with at least 1GB of RAM. Frankly, we’re sceptical that a desktop being run off smartphone hardware will offer satisfactory performance just yet, and we’re even less convinced after seeing the OS in action, but we hope to be proved wrong.

Apps and the ecosystem

Perhaps Ubuntu’s biggest challenge won’t be improving performance, but convincing app developers to get behind the platform. Ubuntu will support two types of app: native apps (an SDK is being launched this week) and HTML5-based web apps.

With resources already being spread thinly across iOS, Android and Windows Phone, mobile developers are going to need some convincing that Ubuntu is going to be worthwhile. And unlike Apple, Google and Microsoft, Canonical doesn’t have huge piles of cash ready to throw at them.

Shuttleworth insists that Ubuntu has an inherent advantage because “the average Android developer is already using Ubuntu” as their development platform. But there’s a big difference between coding on an OS and coding for one. We suspect many will simply settle for delivering cross-platform HTML5 apps rather than coding natively, which even Shuttleworth admitted was a second-rate experience.

Getting handset manufacturers and phone networks on side is even more critical. Shuttleworth was forced to admit that he’d so far failed to convince a single operator to take Ubuntu, and even though tech-savvy consumers will be able to install the OS on their own hardware, the vast majority won’t be faffing around with that. With Google and Microsoft throwing hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing support behind Android and Windows Phone, Ubuntu will do well to convince any of the major manufacturers or networks to back its horse. A year after Ubuntu TV was announced at CES 2012, we’ve yet to see it pre-installed on a TV set for – we suspect – the same reasons.

All of which leaves us fearful for Ubuntu on smartphones. It looks great, but has formidable challenges to overcome if it’s ever to become a mainstream smartphone OS. We simply don’t fancy its chances.

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