Update: the Ubuntu phone OS has been discontinued — read my post from August 2017 here.
I received my new Meizu Pro5 Ubuntu Edition from China about a week ago. Here are my thoughts on the phone after using it for a little while.
Background: the quest for an open OS
My Motorola Moto G phone (1st gen) was starting to show its age, and I thought it was time to find a new phone. I wanted to replace it with something open and thought about my options.
I was initially quite keen on FirefoxOS, a web-based operating system made by Mozilla. Alas, Mozilla announced in February 2016 that it was discontinuing its involvement in the Firefox OS project for phones, so this one is beyond hope now.
Another alternative is Cyanogen Mod (CM). CM is basically open source Android with a few modifications, and apart from it’s terribly difficult-to-spell name, the project is quite promising. It has the big advantage of being more open source than normal Android, while also allowing users to install Google apps if they choose. Fundamentally though, it’s still Android which means Google is steering the metaphorical software ship CM has latched onto. I’m also not aware of any phones which come with CM pre-installed (edit: turns out there are actually some).
Finally, Ubuntu phones have been on the horizon for a very long time, and have more recently started to look pretty good. (The OS is technically called ‘Ubuntu touch’ as it runs on tablets too) . One thing I particularly like about Ubuntu phones is that they’re designed to have frequent over-the-air (OTA) updates. This features makes them more sophisticated in this area than Android phones, despite the somewhat futile efforts of Google.
If you were cynical, you could argue that Ubuntu phones are too late arriving — the battle has been fought and Apple and Google have won — and it might only attract a few open source nerds at the fringes. But like any good open source believer, I’m hoping that the platform will eventually be a success. If I can buy a phone and help the cause then I may as well 🙂
Buying the phone
I ordered the phone for $370 USD on Chinese e-commerce website JD.com. (After I ordered the phone the website re-branded to Joybuy.com.) That price included shipping.
Because that price converts to more than $400 New Zealand dollars, I knew I was going to be smacked with a fairly hefty GST and import fees at the border. In total, it came to $698 NZD: $556 for the phone, $83 GST, $48 Import Transaction Fee, $10 Disbursement Fee.
Before I purchased it I checked the bands worked in New Zealand. It looked like on 2degrees, the phone would work on the 1800Mhz 4G band (and a few others) so I wouldn’t have any problems. Unfortunately it doesn’t support the 700Mhz band which is increasingly being used in NZ for rural coverage. I mostly live in a city anyway, so I don’t anticipate this will be a problem.
I don’t have any experience ordering anything from a Chinese e-commerce website, and I have to say it wasn’t an entirely smooth process for my first attempt. I ordered and paid for the phone on 27 April but it didn’t ship till 20 May, and arrived on the 30th — a good month after I ordered it.
The phone looks really good. In fact it’s really quite familiar — it looks virtually identical to an iPhone 6S Plus. The main differences are that it has an oval for the home button rather than a circle and a few things are in different places. But it has a very similar rose gold backing and the materials appear very similar.
The Pro 5 is the fastest Ubuntu phone released to date, with an 8 core Exynos 7420 processor and 3GB of RAM. As I’ll explore below, it doesn’t feel that powerful but I don’t think that’s the hardware’s fault.
Coming from my Moto G, this phone’s 5.7 inch screen feels enormous. I have quite big hands and it’s sometimes a struggle to reach the edges of the screen (which can sometimes be a problem as Ubuntu touch relies on edges quite a bit). I do really enjoy the crisp 1080p AMOLED screen though — it makes reading books or articles on the internet a breeze, and photos look great.
The camera seems to take good photos. I discovered that by default it uses a 16:9 ratio which gets it to 15.9MP, whereas the natural 4:3 ratio gets it to 21.2 MP. So it seems pretty silly not to use the latter setting.
It definitely gets 4G sometimes in Wellington, but seems to default quite a bit to 3G. I’m not sure if that’s the phone’s problem or down to the 2degrees network.
The phone comes with a fingerprint scanner, but somewhat ironically the OS doesn’t yet support fingerprint authentication. Hopefully that will come soon!
The sound seems good. It can really pump out volume (without headphones) without getting close to the max sound level, and it doesn’t sound tinny. However, I have noticed it does appear to strangely get louder and quieter when listening to music — not sure if that’s a software of hardware bug.
Overall I’m really pleased with the hardware. This seems appropriate given it set me back $700.
Overall, the Ubuntu touch OS and the apps on the phone leave quite a bit to be desired at the moment.
Mostly things seem to work, but it’s sufficiently slow and there are enough bugs in the software that it can sometimes be a frustrating experience. Starting apps can be quite slow and they crash reasonably often.
I’m not too worried about its slowness/buggyness however. Going into using this phone, I was expecting the software to be buggy and slow, but because the software is so actively developed, I imagine the over-the-air updates will come in and at least start fixing the problems over time. In the short time I’ve had the phone there has already been an OTA update which is pleasing to see. That’s a big advantage over Android.
The phone works in quite a different way to Android and iOS. Each edge of the screen is used for a different gesture:
- Left: see the list of apps running and the ones you’ve pinned there.
- Right: toggle through currently running apps.
- Bottom: has a few different uses, but generally means ‘create new thing’. So if you’re in the browser you use the bottom gesture to change between tabs or create a new one. In the messaging app the gesture creates a new message, etc.
- Top: quick toggles and notifications. This took a bit of getting used to and is different to Android. You can swipe down from the top of the screen on each of the icons which brings up different information (see image above). For instance, rather than each notification having a different icon and appearing in the top left as in Android, all the notifications are compressed down into one icon which changes to green if something has happened. By swiping down on the notification icon you can see all your notifications and reply to messages without opening the app etc. Another example is if you swipe down on the battery icon you can change the screen brightness.
One other big difference to Android is Ubuntu’s idea of ‘scopes’. The basic idea is that scopes present information you want without having to go into an app. So the today scope (which is the phone’s home screen) shows you your recent calls, messages, the weather and your appointments for the day. Scopes seem like a cool idea but don’t seem to work that well or have enough content to really be useful at the moment. However, they are really customisable so perhaps I just haven’t experimented enough to find the combination that works for me.
In terms of apps, it’s a barren wasteland compared to Android, but I knew that coming into it so I’m not disappointed. There are Facebook, Twitter etc ‘apps’ but on closer inspection they’re actually ‘web apps’ which mean they’re the websites put into a container. These web apps do generally actually work pretty well and offer a near native experience, at least for the big companies which put effort into making good mobile websites. There’s no Snapchat or Instagram but I think I can live without those. In terms of mobile banking, there’s no Kiwibank app obviously, but their mobile website is actually really quite good so I can still get all my banking done on the go.
I have my calendar and contacts stored in the cloud (OwnCloud provided by my email provider) so when I came to set up this phone I was expecting to be able to sync those. But I’ve yet to discover any easy way to sync using WebDAV/CalDAV.
I have noticed a few annoying bugs. When scrolling down in the internet browser (which is apparently based on Chromium) it sometimes misinterprets your scrolling and scrolls wildly in the opposite direction. That’s obviously not conducive to reading things. I’ve done some searching on the bug tracker and there’s already a bug report for this, so hopefully it will get fixed soon. The other big problem is that if you click on a link and it opens in the browser, about 40% of the time it says ‘no connectivity’. You then have to click refresh and it loads. Presumably there’s always connectivity and it’s just buggy but I’m not sure. The mail app (Dekko) and Telegram (messaging app) also were buggy to begin with, but I managed to work around those problems.
There are also seem to be some limitations in the system’s development. For instance, as far as I can tell if you want to listen to Spotify it can only be done while the screen is on?? The app developer (for the Cute Spotify app) says this is because of the “current application life-cycle system” of Ubuntu touch.
It wouldn’t be an Ubuntu Touch review without mentioning the ‘convergence’ feature. After my phone shipped it got an OTA update to supposedly enable wireless convergence (see here for a video of it working).
The idea of convergence is basically that you’ll eventually be able to get your phone to connect to a monitor/TV/whatever and it will seamlessly transform into a fully-fledged computer. Connect a mouse and keyboard and you’re good to go.
A great idea, but it doesn’t seem to work for me yet (or at least not with my Samsung smart TV). The phone connects successfully, but it just brings up a black screen. Hopefully this will work given a bit of time, but I’m not really too bothered with the idea of convergence at this stage anyway — I’ve already got enough devices to get things done. It would be cool if it worked though 😀
The hardware on this phone is powerful. But overall, as I say above, the software isn’t great at the moment. I’m hoping that the software will improve steadily over time and the kinks will get worked out.
The power of the open source software movement is that there’s a huge global community working on the software with Canonical to make things better. I’m glad to be part of a more open alternative, rather than buying into the Google/Apple duopoly. Given time, I think Ubuntu Touch could be a serious contender. Hopefully the smartphone OS wars won’t be done and dusted by that point.
I would recommend this phone to any open source enthusiasts, but the software is still a bit too rough for the average user.
Updated to fix typos, as well as add detail on sound performance,
bluetooth problems, OS limitations, and lack of WebDAV/CalDAV support.