The term stable carries some specific meaning in the world of Linux, and indeed just development in general. It implies something is, at least, functionally complete, and when October 17th was announced as the date of the Ubuntu phone OS’s stable release, some people were surprised. Canonical is a big company though, and development hasn’t had to slow down due to life problems or exams. Unfortunately though, this so-called stable release is anything but.
Canonical lists the functions that should be available after install as the shell and core applications, mobile data, phone and text functionality, networking, camera support and accessibility to devices over ADB. All fair enough – it’s early days for the OS. Extra packages and applications can be added via Click, although all the best ones are already installed. The installation process has become very simple over the past few months as well, requiring no more than a phone and a system running Ubuntu. It’s easier than putting most custom Android ROMs onto a phone, so you don’t need to be extremely patient to check it out or get a reference device sorted.
The main problem with Ubuntu Touch right now though is that it’s just incredibly buggy. The screen won’t lock properly, and when it does you can’t wake it. If you swipe across screens at the wrong time, you crash the device, requiring a hard reboot. While the display and keyboard will flip to landscape when you rotate the phone, the keyboard keys will only work in the area that the portrait keyboard would inhabit. If it was just usability or UX problems, of which there are several, then it could be forgiven for having the stable tag. Unfortunately though, it’s basically broken right now.
While all of this means you shouldn’t be using it as your main phone OS and having to wrestle with a few bugs, it doesn’t mean there aren’t some positive points to the OS. The main interface hook for Ubuntu on phones is the way edges are used to navigate the entire system. Instead of ever-present soft or hardware buttons, you merely swipe to the side or from the top or bottom to perform different actions. While before these were very rough and implemented mainly to show off the function, this has been refined a fair amount. Corners no longer cause a significant problem to the gestures, and learning the quirks of performing the swipes correctly is right at the same kind of level of getting used to any new interface.
The keyboard, for its orientation issues, works quite well. After years of people moaning about early Android keyboards, the Ubuntu touch keyboard is at a standard of most modern touch keyboards. The only thing its missing is a dictionary and auto-correct, but typing is generally fine. For some, this is a major challenge for newcomers to the mobile market, and it’s great to see how well it works at the moment.
The basic app selection is passable, although a lot of the high-profile brand apps are merely shortcuts to their websites right now – something we’re a little disappointed at after being told some of these apps would be native. There are a couple of games in the build though that come from the community, a sign of things to come if more people start developing for it.
Some stuff still has more work to be done on it. The Wifi is the best example – it works, and it will connect to a Wifi network, but you need to set the connection manually through the phone’s terminal. After that, you can SSH in and start performing other tasks from a system with a better terminal emulator and keyboard, but it seems odd that there’s no simple Wifi connection UI. Apps on the home screen, when tapped, then bring up another dialogue with information then asking you if you want to launch it, a strange way to modify the workflow.
This really sums up the user experience for the OS right now – all basic functionality works, even if the way it functions is slightly off. If it wasn’t for the horrific bugs that make it unusable day-to-day, it would be good enough to use for an internet connected phone as the browser is not bad at all. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done, and potential should never be a deciding factor on whether or not you use something so integral to daily life.
While it is for developers only, the stable tag for this release should have meant much more than it did. Touch right now is a buggy mess that is not suitable as your main phone OS. Bugs aside, it’s definitely looking more like an actual phone OS now and not just smoke and mirrors.
From a purely technological position, we have to give this a low score. If the bugs did not break the device though, we would definitely increase the score to three. And that’s good for a phone OS at this stage in its development.