For Linux lovers, Ubuntu Touch is going to be a must have. Linux is a powerful operating system for computers, and it promises to be just as powerful for smartphones and tablets. I’ve had a chance to play around with it a little, and while I liked the experience, I have to say that it isn’t for everyone. However, if you’re what the industry calls a “power user,” it just may be what you’ve been looking for.
First, let’s take a look at what exactly Ubuntu is, and then we’ll look at how it will work for phones and what some of the industry reviewers have to say about it.
Linux Operating System for Mobile Phones
This doesn’t mean that it replaces the underlying operating system (normally, Android) already installed on the phone. It installs and runs on top of the phone’s existing operating system. Since Ubuntu Touch doesn’t sound very exciting or sexy, the creators have called it, “Saucy Salamander,” instead.
As of this writing, only two phones are supported by this mobile Linux operating system, the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 smartphones. Google’s Nexus 7 and 10 tablets are also supported. However, since most of the development effort has gone towards making it work on phones, its functionality on tablets is still a little lacking. There are plans to release Ubuntu 14.04 next April, and that should take care of those issues.
One of the great things about Linux operating systems is that they’re “open source” systems. This means that the user community is free to make changes as long as certain requirements are met — like making those changes available for the community at large. With this in mind, the user community has come out with versions of Ubuntu for other devices, but these versions aren’t stable or reliable yet.
I’d hold off for a little, if you own something other than the two supported devices. None of these development projects have the backing of a big company with lots of mobile device experience.
What Features Can You Expect From Ubuntu Touch?
Officially, this new phone operating system is called, “Ubuntu Phone 1.0.” My experience with it, and that of the reviewers I’ve checked out, is that the conversion from the Android operating system to Ubuntu Touch is easy and relatively painless. However, it can take as much as 45 minutes, most of which is spent downloading the image file from which the installation is accomplished. After the installation completed, the phones booted up in a maximum of four to five seconds. Compare that to as much as 10-20, and you can see one of the major features of the OS — it’s just plain faster.
Even better, they’ve included a short tutorial to help get you up to speed on using the system. What I liked was the small icons at the bottom of the screen showing what apps I was currently running. In Android, I have to hit the corresponding button to see what’s running. Using Ubuntu Touch didn’t have much of a learning curve, like learning how to use most other phones and new operating systems. This is because this is a computer operating system that has been rewritten for a phone.
One of my biggest pet peeves about most smartphones is that my fingertips are too big for the keyboards, whether physical or on screen. That problem doesn’t manifest itself with Ubuntu Phone — the keyboard is pretty good. But I still prefer my external Bluetooth keyboard for most long typing exercises.
It’s Not All Roses with Ubuntu Touch
First and foremost, what I saw is that Ubuntu has a long way to go when it comes to battery management — it’s terrible right now. With moderate use with a couple of chat apps and my pool game, on an Android, I get about 10-12 good hours. However, with Saucy Salamander, I only got about seven hours. The reviewer from Network World, Brian Lunduke, says he charged his phone completely at night and then left it overnight, with nothing running. When he woke up it was completely dead. He also reported that the battery meter appears to be a little wonky.
What the Tech Media Reviewers Are Saying
By and large, most of the tech reviewers like what they’ve seen. It has some pretty cool features. (Terminal emulation, anyone?) Most of the reviewers also say that it has great potential, but that it’s not quite ready for prime time, unless the user is a “power user” or someone that already knows their way around a command line interface.
All in all, I can’t see myself recommending this for the average smartphone user. The IT or network guy? Yes, definitely. But Marge in accounting or Dave over in shipping, or mom and dad, for that matter — this isn’t quite ready. It looks really cool, but I’d say hold off for a little. Also, there aren’t that many apps for it yet, another stumbling block.
Photo Credit: Vernon Chan