Updated: June 6, 2020
Many years ago, I was one of the people swept in the hope and euphoria that Ubuntu Phone would make it big, and become a respectable rival to the established players. I even ran a contest, whereby readers of me site could try to win an Ubuntu Phone - this was meant to be Edge, alas, that didn't happen. Long story short, I did use the phone for a while, but then it turned out to be somewhat of a chore, and after a while, I turned my Ubuntu Phone into an Android one. Firmware flash, done. However, even so, apart from occasionally powering it on to test connectivity as part of my Linux reviews, I wasn't really using the Aquaris for anything serious. The Android operating system does offer more functionality than Ubuntu Phone did, but with an old image and lackluster performance, the Aquaris slid into obscurity. But not into oblivion.
I kept thinking about it now and then, how it got better and more refined over time, how it was quite useful with elderly folks, and that it had charm and soul that go beyond the sum of its pixels and lines of code. As luck would have it, just a few days ago, I noticed the announcement from the UBports team, which had picked up development and maintenance since the official project was axed, that they had released a new update - Ubuntu Touch OTA-12. So I thought, what the hell, let's rev the Aquaris one more time.
Firmware flash, to Mordor and back
To get OTA-12, one must have a running (and supported) Ubuntu Phone. If you happen to have Android, then you must first "unlock" the phone by installing an old Android image, and then upgrade the phone to OTA-12. The latter can be done conveniently with the official UBports installer software. The former requires a separate firmware flashing utility.
So you remember what I had to do last time? I had to use the SP Flash Tool ... erm, tool. I had to do the same thing here. The official UBports documentation outlines what I had to do: grab the ROM image, install SP Flash Tool, upgrade the phone, then set up UBports Installer, and upgrade the phone once more - to OTA-12.
This is where my problems started ... and the entire effort almost died.
I couldn't get SP Flash Tool to run.
Flash, oh-oh, savior of the firmware ...
I won't go into too many details, but the issues that were true four years ago still apply. SP Flash Tool wouldn't start on various flavors of Debian or Ubuntu. It was complaining - alternating between missing libpng and segfaults caused by errors in libQtGui.so.4 library.
./flash_tool: error while loading shared libraries: libpng12.so.0: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
Floating point exception (core dumped)
[ 110.640840] traps: flash_tool trap divide error ip:7f3ae6ff7568 sp:7ffcc1edc5c0 error:0 in libQtGui.so.4[7f3ae6ada000+b39000]
I tried to solve the issue in many ways. I tried what worked for me back with the M10 tablet and E4.5 later on, which was to manually install the libpng deb. This didn't work. The package could not be installed, at all.
I then extracted the library, and added it to the LD_LIBRARY_PATH - btw, the flash_tool.sh script that runs the flash utility is a shell script that sets up the environment for the actual software. But this didn't help either.
dpkg -x libpng12-0_1.2.54-1ubuntu1.1_amd64.deb "somepath"/libpng12
LD_LIBRARY_PATH=$dirname:$dirname/lib:"add here the libpng12 path"
I tried forcing SP Flash Tool to use a different version of Qt libraries, except:
./flash_tool: symbol lookup error: lib/libQtGui.so.4: undefined symbol: _ZN27QEventDispatcherUNIXPrivate16initThreadWakeUpEv
In the end, I rebooted into Fedora 32, and here, it ran without any issues.
Now, I could finally proceed. This was a fairly straightforward process. The biggest issue was to get to the Aquaris bootloader - the installer instructions aren't correct. You need to press the Volume Down and power button until the phone cycles (red light turns on and off), and then you need to release only the power button. And the arrow animations while the firmware image is being written to the device are annoying - you can turn them off.
Finally, presenting OTA-12
My Aquaris booted just fine, and after about a minute or two, I had the Ubuntu Touch first-run setup load. I created my account (just a name, no email or number needed), and that's pretty much that. Time to explore.
The new Ubuntu Touch is based on 16.04 (Xenial). Visually, things are similar to the old version, but then, there are also some fresh touches and improvements. Most notably, Unity8 work. The UI is also more responsive than it was in the past, and it's also significantly faster than Android on Aquaris E4.5. As this is a low-end device, every little bit counts.
I have to say the interface is quite pleasant. Less rounded than it was - which is a good thing. More square angles, more stackenblochen. The system settings cover all the basics, but if you're used to Android, things will look super simple and bare. The one thing that is missing - device encryption. The rest is there, easy and simple to access and use.
Store and applications
Now, the one cardinal issue that OTA-12 cannot solve is the lack of support for the ecosystem. There just aren't enough high-profile, mainstream applications available to make this community-supported Ubuntu Phone relevant in the modern world. The browser has been revamped, so it does the job well, and the utilities that are bundled by default also function well. Again, you get a broad improvement across the entire spectrum. But this just isn't enough to dent the need pyramid of the general user.
I tried searching for something that I'd easily identify - and there really wasn't much. For instance, Firefox or VLC aren't there. For navigation, you have Pure Maps and uNav, but these aren't necessarily your first choice. This is a huge limiting factor, and it remains without a straightforward answer in 2020. Then again, I knew this when I started this fun endeavor. This was all meant to be a moment of simple, innocent joy.
Music and video
I loaded a bunch of HD videos on Youtube - no issues. Music, pretty and solid. No issues.
You're not entirely locked in the past. You can hook up various accounts into your Ubuntu Touch system, including Evernote, Nextcloud, generic calDAV (not sure what this is), ownCloud, and Google. This isn't an overwhelming set, but it's not bad either. You can also import contacts from a Google account. Now, if you recall my contact import saga from Lumia 950 to Motorola One Zoom, then you will realize that OTA-12 offers a fairly reasonable set here.
OTA-12 comes with Libertine, a container-based solution that lets you run standard Armhf-based software from Xenial repositories, intended for the ordinary Ubuntu desktop. I thought this would be a good way to replenish my app stock, and work around the dearth of software in OpenStore.
Unfortunately, this didn't work - my greatest disappointment throughout this review. I tried to install VLC, and after a few minutes, the installation failed. Firefox setup would start, fail and then start again, in a loop. In the end, I had to open the terminal application and manually delete the containers. I got no app installed or configured. If this ever works reliably, robustly, it would be an awesome thing.
I'm happy with my little experiment, even if it serves no higher purpose. Now, on my M10 tablet, I won't repeat the exercise. It's a fairly capable device, and there, Android 6 does a pretty good job - a marked improvement over Android 5 that was on Aquaris E4.5. Indeed, Android has significantly improved over time. But on the phone, OTA-12 works quite well, and offers a fast if limited experience. But for novelty sake, I'm going to take this as far as it goes, either the UBports project or the lifespan of the device.
The community-supported continuation of the Ubuntu Phone effort - UBports Ubuntu Touch - is a commendable project. Given its resources, it manages to deliver a fairly robust and fun product, with OTA-12 as its latest incarnation. Solid, usable - to an extent, but also secure, updated and with solid privacy. If you need a basic smartphone, this is a solution that offers a reasonable compromise. I've never really expected to be using Ubuntu Touch again, but now I'm glad I did this, if only to see how far one's passion can stretch. But on a serious, emotionless note, really, if you don't need much, if you're not hooked into social media, and if your hardware supports the OTA-12 image, you might want to give this a try. If anything, it's more mature than it ever was, and in the privacy-focused world, it makes perfect sense. From Nostalgia Avenue, Dedoimedo out.