Updated: April 29, 2016
Some investments are financial. Some are emotional. When it comes to Linux on tablets, my motives are mostly of the latter kind. I was super-excited to learn BQ was launching a tablet with Ubuntu, something that I have been waiting for a good solid three years now. We had the phone released last spring, and now there's a tablet. The cycle is almost complete.
Now, as you know, I was only mildly pleased with the Ubuntu phone. It is a very neat product, but it is not yet as good as the competitors, across all shades of the usability spectrum. But this tablet promises a lot. Full HD, desktop-touch continuum, seamless usage model, and more. Let us have a look.
As soon as I glimpsed the actual technical data, I decided to preorder a device, and indeed, within only a few days from the official release date in mid-April, mine had arrived, along with a screen protector and a blue-colored case. I'm not sure I will really need these ever, as I'm quite pedantic, clean and nice to my hardware. Still, they may feature in a review.
The more interesting part is not what goes on top of a device - but what's inside it. The tablet measures 10.1 inches diagonally, and it comes with a MediaTek MT8613A quad-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz, and with Mali-T720 MP2 600MHz graphics. There's also 2 GB worth of RAM, and 16 GB of internal Flash memory, of which about 10 GB are available for user data. You can expand the storage to 64 GB using a single micro-SD slot. On the sensors side, you get dual-band Wireless, Bluetooth and GPS, and there's a headphone jack, too. Like duh.
Two types of screens are available, and I had opted for the more expensive, 1920x1080p 224ppi full-HD version - the other comes with a 149ppi 1280x800p screen. Optics wise, you also get an 8MP rear and 5MP front (or selfie) cameras, with auto focus. The tablet packs a fairly large 7280mAh battery, it features a micro-HDMI port, so you can hook up the tablet to a monitor, and the total weight is only 470 grams. Charging is done via standard micro-USB port, which can also double for external mouse and keyboard, something that we will need to experience in the desktop mode.
All in all, it sounds like a decent package. The tablet itself is quite presentable. It looks well-built, and feels robust enough, despite its modest weight. But then, the most critical piece is the operating system and the app ecospace. To be Unity 8, me thinks, and it will be the deciding factor between a shiny and a practical product. Not yet though.
I powered on the tablet and went through a quick initial setup. Fairly fast and simple. You can choose among having no lock security, a PIN, and a full passphrase. I decided to try the last option. It works fine, but it is ever so slightly cumbersome. PIN gives you auto unlock as soon as you type in the right sequence. Passwords require hitting the Return key. And the virtual keyboard is ever so slightly laggy. We're talking sub-100ms delays, but you can still feel them. On top of that, I do not know about the internal storage security. Is encryption in use?
The device can connect to 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, which is quite neat. I tried both, and there were no problems. The signal was strong and steady, and the network speed was good enough. But I'm getting ahead of myself. At this point, it was just setting the tablet up. Then, you can also enable GPS and allow HERE maps to use your location for improved whatnot, which was something I decided to do. These three steps done, and Aquaris M10 was ready.
Enter the Touch
The Unity mode, not to be confused with all other unities out there, is very similar to what you have on the phone, except it is displayed on a larger screen, with more horizontal equity. Overall, it works well. You have the scopes, and you can add or remove them as you see fit. Naturally, news is something I don't care about, which is why I don't want to have them featured as the very first item that I see after logging in.
Having the application menu is far more pleasing - and practical. The lock screen is also familiar, and it will display notifications, if you choose so in the system settings. Anyhow, you know this is Ubuntu, and you're not too confused about it. Branding, good.
As I've mentioned before, M10 was behaving nicely in the Wireless space. And it was doing fairly well in the Bluetooth space too. I was able to connect to my Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu phone without any trouble and even stream audio to it. Then, I was also able to pair with the Windows 10 installation on the G50 laptop, but not the Mint 17.3 distro. However, you cannot send or receive files yet, because there's no proper file management, and this is a big issue with Ubuntu touch.
The make it or break it of any operating system is the ecosystem of applications, and the ease with which they interface with the core functionality. This has always been true, but it is critical for touch-based systems.
At the moment, Ubuntu touch does not have much clout against the likes of iOS and Android, or even Windows Phone. You do get some applications, but they are mostly links to web pages. Then, there isn't a uniform SSO across all software, so you will need to do a bit of manual work to get things underway. For instance, the 7Digital music store requires you to create an account to buy songs. Why? I am enthused, I want to spend money. Why not associate my Ubuntu account with the store and solve it that way? Why force me to lose elan and gusto registering to yet another website. Meh.
Desktop applications are there, but not all of them. And they behave weirdly in the Unity mode. For example, Firefox and GIMP are both ugly and completely unusable unless you switch to the desktop. Most people won't know the difference. Or care. And perhaps they should not be shown in the App scope unless certified for touch.
HERE Maps works spectacularly, as expected - but I would also like to see the HERE Drive app added, too. And Transit. But you also get a free uNav, which promises to be nice and not invade your privacy. There's a conflict right there. I mean, users want to be able to get from point A to point B. They do not care for politics. Seriously.
Then, for some reason, you don't get the same rich repertoire of software available in the standard desktop edition. Ubuntu Store didn't have VLC. What! Then, I wasn't able to find a decent file manager, which ties into the missing functionality. But even searching for stuff is somewhat clunky. Like the aforementioned file manager. Really?
What about Skype or Steam? Why aren't they in the top or hot recommendation section, or whatever you want to call them? What about some games? If I am to show this tablet to my friends and colleagues, I want to be able to delight them, and not just talk about how my terminal works. Yes, that's the one app I was able to find easily.
I don't know why there are such cardinal differences between the standard Ubuntu version and this. Maybe it's related to the processor architecture, Intel versus ARM or something, but if I'm in the desktop mode, I want all the goodies. All of them.
I did eventually find the core app, but it is crippled compared to the desktop version. You can't bookmark any location - although I was able to connect to Samba shares and copy files, including music and video, and you can't multi-select objects. Samba filenames are truncated for some reason, but that's not the biggest biggie.
But to actually be able to copy files en masse, I had to connect the tablet as a USB device to a proper computer. At the very least, this one worked smoothly and easily.
Media & money
I only had a moderate success here. You can't play AVI files. What! Then, I also was not able to play my WebM video. VLC would be handy for this, now wouldn't it. Music was a little better, with good MP3 support. But that's not what I'd expect.
But then, all your attempts to play music and video will show up in your scopes, whether successful or not. That's a tease. If you can't play a file, then it'd better not show up in all its glorious thumbology. Slightly weird and not quite consistent, including the thumbnail sizes. This annoys my OCD demons fiercely.
Youtube playback is also wonky. You can watch clips, but then it asks you to login, which you don't really need to. If you install various Youtube-facing apps, they all ask you to login. Not as streamlined as it should be.
The commercial model seems to be missing. For example, you can setup a Cinema search app for your movies, which feature as a scope, then search for various titles. And really, I liked the variety and repertoire. But there's no option to buy. Only go to IMDB or Google for information. Seriously?
Music is a little more advanced. However, there are lots of problems here, too. First, the currency is all wrong, but I guess the system identified the most optimal one to be able to let me shop. But then, it wouldn't let me shop. I needed an account. C'mon. The choice of music is good. Really good. I was able to find stuff both old and new, foreign and English, niche and weird, only somehow it's not all tied and associated and embedded into my tablet's account management piece. So close.
The cameras seem to work fine. The rear one was is decent, but I will need to test it outside, in good lighting conditions, although I'm embarrassed to look like a complete git wielding a tablet as a photography device. The front one also seems neat, and I was most handsome staring at myself. Oh, mirror, mirror on the GNU, who's the fairest nerd of them all?
Gestures & corners
Worked fine all in all. Every corner and gesture has its own special function slash swipe, just like on the phone. A familiar user experience is highly important. Overall, I didn't have any complaints, but we will discuss the performance a little later.
Privacy & security
I don't have any complaints. I can't find any specific glaring issues that need to be addressed. In fact, I would like a bit more integration between different options and services. The whole Amazon thingie, which didn't quite work on the desktop makes perfect sense here. So why not have it?
Now, let's escalate things, quickly, Ron Burgundy style. One of the key selling points of the Ubuntu tablet is the convergence capability. By default, M10 - or any tablet for that matter equipped with the Ubuntu OS - will run in the touch mode. But flick a switch, and it will change into a familiar desktop mode. The menu will be in top-left corner rather than the bottom, and the applications will have windows and borders and buttons. Just as you would expect. And this makes a lot of sense, because you want to be able to use your tablet as a desktop once it's connected to an external keyboard/mouse and monitor.
I have not done too much exploration on this front, yet. I have purposefully decided to split my Ubuntu tablet experience into multiple articles, and the escapade with my LG smart TV, which will serve as a monitor, and the Wireless keyboard I bought for my Raspberry Pi games, are both going to feature in a separate review.
Performance & stability
This is the really big one. Mega mega. Within about four hours of testing, the touch interface froze and stopped responding a total of five times. That is simply horrible. The responsiveness is also somewhat wonky. There's an ever so slightly perceptible lag in fluidity, in how windows and applications move and respond.
When scaled against other touch operating systems, Ubuntu feels very much early alpha. This has to be fixed, urgently. First, the core stability. Without it, this tablet stands no chance. Then, performance, and it has to be swift and graceful and smooth. It has to be like ballet. My Samsung Note tablet is much older than this thing, and yet it flies in comparison. It comes down to little things, the milliseconds lost scrolling and such.
Stability will always be an issue. My iPhone loses its touch once every two weeks. And I'm highly displeased with it as a product, and the only reason I'm using it is to be able to give you reviews, and because I had it given to me for free. I paid top dollar for the Aquaris M10 tablet, and I want to be able to enjoy it.
Are you having fun?
Well, some. It's nice and all that. But, there's a lot more to be done.
At the moment, the tablet runs Ubuntu 15.04, but that should change soon. With the release of 16.04, a new and promising LTS, I believe there will be a super-improved touch version available within a few days or weeks, and I will have to revisit all I've done here.
But then, in the end, I want to see what they feature on the BQ site. I want to be smart and elegant and posh, and I want to be able to run this tablet like a champ, and attach a keyboard and mouse, and maybe use the cover as a prop, and all that. I wanna know what love is, I want you to show me.
BQ Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition tablet is a device designed for early adopters, nerds, enthusiasts, fanboys, Ubuntu lovers, and reviewers, and I probably fit into three or four of these categories. Most people won't identify themselves with either one. And so, while I want to praise the tablet and the Canonical team for their first release, I can't.
The M10 still needs a lot of work - mostly in the software space. The hardware is good enough, but I expect a faster, more stable operating system, with lightning fast performance. I also want more apps, both touch and desktop, and I want to be able to do everything without multiple logins and sign-ins and extra headache. I want to be able to consume and buy content easily, and then play music and video without thinking about anything. It has to be splendid and amazing, and it's not there yet. But then Ubuntu Phone also started on the wrong foot, and after about six months showed some serious progress. This will most likely happen here, too. At the moment, the Ubuntu tablet is still not ready for the mass market, and unleashing it unto the plebes would be a mistake. 5/10, and we will see a whole lot more happening soon.
Now, you may be wondering. And yes, you're right. Very soon, I will release another book, and there's going to be a contest, the same way we did in 2013, when at first I expected the Ubuntu Edge smartphone to be available on the market, and then in 2014, when it did finally happen with Aquaris E4.5. Now, the prize will be an Ubuntu tablet. More details soon to follow.