Ubuntu Phone, Sep 2016 - Vorsprung durch Touch


Updated: September 19, 2016

Every few weeks, months, I pick up my BQ Aquaris E4.5 phone and do some fresh new testing to see how well it behaves. My last experiment actually involved my progenitors, and they were subjected to roughly a week of using the phone on their own. They liked it quite a bit, and did not dislike it much, and that's a good sign.

Recently, I noticed a fresh new firmware update, and once I had it installed, the look and feel of my Aquaris phone had changed. Which merits yet another review, another look at how Ubuntu Touch OTA is progressing and whatnot. Version 12, based on 15.04.6, but there might be a new and revolutionary LTS just around the corner. Let's see.

Teaser

It's all about speed

One of my big criticisms of the Ubuntu phone was that it wasn't sprightly enough. People expect a fast, responsive interface, and any lag is automatically perceived with great negativity. People don't really mind the actual times as long as actions appear to be happening in quick sequence. The background processes may churn for hours if needs be, but the visual elements must be snappy, and respond quickly to the greasy input.

OTA-12 seems to deliver the much needed dose of fresh, minty breath. Without performing any official benchmarks, my feeling is that the phone is faster. Quicker swipes left and right, faster Launcher appearance, faster lock screen, smoother scrolling on the home screen. This is good.

Home screen Settings

Visually, you also get some new icons, a little more polish and color. It's still inherently Ubuntu, but it feels an ever so slightly more professional product. The lenses and scopes and whatever there are, they are slowly making more sense, but the road is long before Ubuntu has a proper, seamless integration with various shopping stores and services.

Stability

I did not encounter any critical phone issues. Some applications did misbehave, but the device did not cease or lock, and there were no boot up loops like in the past. The Ubuntu Phone is slowly maturing, even though it is still quite behind in this late game of mobile. But the market will not be saturated till about 2020, so Canonical still has a chance to bite a decent chunk of this field. But there are a few big IFs along the way. To wit.

Navigation

I always spend a lot of time testing the navigation software, especially offline functionality, because I find it critical to any mobile use. I do not understand why HERE Drive+ is not included, and why Ubuntu users only get the maps. Google Maps works fine, but only in the online mode, however you can't do turn-by-turn navigation, as it expects a proper Android app. Oops.

Google Maps, cannot do turn-by-turn

The third of the unholy trio, uNav, has improved somewhat, and it works fine in the online mode. Forget about offline, because you will need a special download tool, based on Java, to just get the maps and then load them onto the phone, and even then, you won't really have proper navigation. No offline, no love. More works is needed, including the very basic requirement for in-software map downloads. How difficult is that?

Set destination Online, works

Nearby locations Options

uNav, offline

I don't want to do a few steps from a PC.

Multimedia

Small, cosmetic changes, but no big functionality improvement. Support for MP4 and even AVI files still sucks, and I did not like reading that you have to remount the root as rw and then run apt-get from command line to get the needed codecs. I mean really? Why does this have to be so complicated? On the bright side, you can play music with the screen locked.

Music Music playing

Video scope Play video

Video error

Other applications

The available repertoire is still abyssmally small. If not resolved quickly and in a meaningful way, this is the one thing that will kill Ubuntu and make it irrelevant for mobile users. The desktop repos are rich and thick with goodies, but the mobile space is simply poor. There isn't enough juice and love for people to continue using the platform. As a phone yes, fine, as a navigational tool, ok whatever, but as an app ecosystem, nah. Take any average user and see what their top ten programs are. I bet lots of Google stuff, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Pintrest, Pokemon Go, and a few others feature heavily. Plus of course music and video stores and streaming services. That's the bare minimum for survival. Finally, Web apps are slow, and until there's a native implementation, performance will never be quite as good as the big rivals.

Store Weak app choice

Photos Calendar

Other stuff

The file manager has improved, and now it seems to almost have become usable. You can browse network locations, OMG, but the app crashed every time I tried to Samba. Soon, but not yet. Oh, so close. Still, 'tis an improvement, and we likes it.

File manager File manager, Samba

The camera is still quite bad. I mean there's nothing you can do on the hardware side, but the software isn't great, either. Should be faster processing frames and such. I guess this one was overlooked in the last release. Moreover, I think this little BQ phone is not high on the priority list, as more effort is afforded to newer, more expensive models like the Meizu PRO 5.

Camera

Conclusion

The Ubuntu Phone is getting better, and with every new iteration of the OTA, my little BQ Aquaris E4.5 is gaining more speed and functionality. Like in the air force, with an avionics upgrade, which transforms ancient wings into a powerful and modern bird of prey. Only the pace of advancement is lagging behind the market. See what Android and iOS can do, even Windows Phone, and you realize how late and insufficiently meaningful the Ubuntu Phone really is. This has to change, massively.

This latest round does bring some fine goods to the table - more speed and stability, better icons, more overall visual polish, incremental improvements in the applications and the scopes. But that's not enough to win the heart of the average user. A more radical, app-centric effort is required. More focus on delivering the mobile experience, be it as it may. Ubuntu cannot revolutionalize that which is already considered the past. It can only join the club and enjoy the benefits of a well-established reality. And that is a kickass app stack that makes the touch device worth using in the first place.

Still, it's not all gloomy. E4.5 is a better product now than it was a year ago, fact. Ubuntu Phone is a better operating system than it was even this spring, fact. So maybe one day we will see Ubuntu become an important if not dominant player in the phone and tablet space. It sure is heading in the right direction, my only fear is the availability of resources to pull off this massive rehaul that is needed to make it stand up to the old and proven giants. And that's it really.

If you're keen on Linux (not Android) making it in the mobile world, do not forget to check my Ubuntu tablet review! Especially the convergence piece. On that merry note, you do remember that I'm running a wicked contest this year, too? He/she who reads my books might get a chance to win an M10 tablet. Indeed. Off you go, dear readers. Whereas I will now run the same set of tests we did here on the Aquaris tablet, and see how it likes the OTA-12 upgrade. The end.

Cheers.

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