[MWC2015] Hands-on with the Ubuntu MX4, a better class of phone

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As it promised last week in a teaser video, Canonical – the software company founded by South African born entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth – has brought prototypes of the second phone to run its Ubuntu operating system to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today.

And first impressions are promising indeed.

Currently, the only commercially available Ubuntu phone is the BQ, which is a low end handset available only in Europe. The Meizu MX4, while still not a flagship of the kind originally aimed for, is a definite step up.

It boasts a large 5.3inch screen that fills the front of the handset with 1 920×1 152 pixels, and comes with a respectable 2GB RAM on board. Other highlights, hardware wise, include a 20.7MP camera around the back, a 4G transceiver inside and a slinky build not dissimilar to, say, the HTC One (M8).

Physically, it has an aluminium body (although to be honest, it doesn’t feel terribly high quality) and fits in the hand well.

But it’s what’s inside that counts, isn’t it?

The version of Ubuntu that its running isn’t the near mythical converged OS which has long been planned, although a version of that was shown off next to the phones on a tablet running Unity 8. This demo showed a tablet flicking between the Touch interface of the phones and a traditional desktop view, running apps like Libre Office’s spreadsheet program.

Early thoughts on the phone? The operating system feels springy enough running on the 2.2GHz quad core processor inside (which is made by Mediatek) and it has a very unique way of doing things. Whereas iOS and Android are rapidly becoming indistinguishable, Ubuntu is striking out on its own with a different way of doing things.

The biggest shock in the interface is that there’s no home screen as such. Swipe in from the left to bring up a dock which contains all your favourite apps and tap the Ubuntu icon and you’re taken to a Today panel with up and coming events and favoured widgets (for contacts, music etc).

There’s a lot of information contained in the scopes – as Ubuntu calls the panels – on this screen and it can seem a bit overwhelming at first, scrolling down for favourite contacts rather than opening the phone app, for example. Get used to it, though, and it might be that you don’t need to rely on multitasking apps in the same way as you do on other phones.

That needs long term testing to try out, but what did strike me as a bit annoying today is the fact that swiping right as a gesture takes you back a layer within the Today screen, but if you swipe right from the edge you open up the (very attractive) multitasking interface.

Otherwise, I like the look and feel of Ubuntu phone a lot, and the core apps – including camera – seem solid and fast. Especially when compared to last time I tested it. Looking forward to trying one out for real.

There’s no word on pricing yet but the MX4 Ubuntu Edition (as it’s officially known) should be available in the next couple of months.

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.

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