Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition review: Second Ubuntu Phone has much improved hardware
We weren’t crazy about the first Ubuntu phone when it launched earlier this year, but then in fairness, there wasn’t a great deal to be excited about. It was a budget £121 smartphone that felt cheap in hand, and a bit rough around the edges in use.
The Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition dodges the first problem well. It looks stylish: it’s similar to other mid to high-end smartphones, with a single home button and a large, bright 5.36in IPS screen.
You look awfully familiar
There are two reasons you might think you’ve seen the MX4 before.
The first is that all smartphones look kind of samey. The second is that this is a new version of an existing phone – the original Meizu MX4 ran Android; this one runs Ubuntu Touch. In fact, until they’re switched on there’s no way of telling the two handsets apart, not even from the text on the back.
This is no bad thing. The MX4 Ubuntu Edition is a good-looking phone. It’s dominated by the 5.36in touchscreen, and is reasonably minimalist, with a gently curved back resembling the Nexus 6, rather than the flat look favoured by the Sony Xperia Z3 and iPhone 6. The screen is an IPS LCD: sharp and bright, with a 1,152 x 1,920-pixel resolution.
The rear of the phone is made from plastic and feels a touch hollow. Removing the back reveals only a micro SIM slot beneath: the battery isn’t intended to be user replaceable, and there’s no microSD card slot for expanding the standard 16GB storage. Overall, though, weighing 147g and measuring only 8.9mm thick it will quite happily slip into a pocket unnoticed.
And then came Ubuntu…
Then things begin to go wrong, and this is principally down to Ubuntu Touch. Before I go any further, there are two things I should point out:
- The kind of person who would consider buying a Ubuntu phone is not your average consumer; and
- This is only the second handset ever to use the operating system
With those caveats in place, getting to know Ubuntu Touch is an uphill struggle. It has a mountain to climb to catch up with the likes of iOS and Android, both of which are leagues ahead in terms of performance and usability.
I don’t want to overstate that. It isn’t as if the T-Mobile G1 was an incredible user experience when it brought Android to the UK in 2008, but anyone coming to Ubuntu Touch has to be prepared to learn, and learn fast. Some issues arise simply because we’ve adapted to a different UI centre of gravity (no homescreen here, kids), but others are just plain strange.
For example, notifications are incredibly easy to miss, which is something of an oversight for a device whose sole purpose is to instantly grab your attention. I managed to completely miss three text messages due to having to slide across the top bar to find them.
Then there are the apps. Well, actually there aren’t, really: currently, the selection is minimal. This isn’t a dealbreaker for me by any means, because after a brief flurry of app installation back in 2009, I can’t say that I use many other than the core essentials, which are (mostly) present and accounted for. Facebook, Twitter, even Cut the Rope are all there should you want them.
Also, given the open-source nature of Ubuntu Touch, you’d hope that more apps will appear with time. Some things are being unofficially ported, although they’re not on the store: WhatsApp, for example. But take one look at the unofficial instructions on how to install WhatsApp, and you’ll see why I decided not to bother. User friendly, it isn’t.
In theory, Scopes should get around this problem. As reviews editor, Jonathan Bray explained in his BQ Aquaris e4.5 Ubuntu Edition review, Scopes are somewhere between an app and a website, bunching together common UI elements into which developers can plug data. Some of these are on the device by default, such as the BBC news one, and they do a reasonable job of plugging some of the gaps left in the app vacuum, but only if a web alternative exists, which isn’t always the case.
Decent specs, baffling performance
The lack of app support wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – as I say, this isn’t one for mainstream users – but the performance, even when you get the hang of it, is far from smooth.
Menus jerk as you slide between screens, the keyboard is frequently unresponsive, and swiping between screens sometimes leaves you in a completely different place to where you expected to be.
Could this be down to the specifications? Well, this is a decent mid- to high-end phone incorporating a MediaTek 6595 octa-core processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB onboard storage. And yet is chugs and creaks at irregular intervals.
Hopefully these bumps in the road will be dealt with in time, but for now they lead to occasional frustrations in an OS that usually runs pretty smoothly.
Living with Ubuntu Touch
Ubuntu’s mobile OS is full of weird idiosyncrasies, where you’re forced to learn a completely counterintuitive way of doing things. Want to play a video? You’d think selecting “Media Player” would send you on your way. Well you’d be wrong – this throws up an error message informing you that no video is selected to play and you should go to the video scope to do it instead.
On the subject of videos, getting one onto the handset proved challenging too. OS X doesn’t recognise the phone. Windows does, but upon dropping three videos onto the handset for battery tests, only one showed up. Two days later, the others appeared. No reboot, no nothing: they simply appeared, having decided to hide away for a couple of days.
Also bear in mind that his phone runs hot. Browse Twitter for a minute or two and it begins to warm up. Play a video on it for an hour, and it’s hot enough for you to wonder if this is the kind of fever you should worry about. I suspect this was why it decided to restart every few minutes on one innocuous Thursday morning.
And don’t get me started on using it to find my way round London. I dreaded getting lost because I knew I’d have to either grapple with the bundled Here Maps or visit Google Maps on the web. Both would fire up sluggishly, before becoming totally unresponsive, leaving me longing for the days of the printed A-to-Z.
I could go on, and you can learn to live with all of this stuff if you’re truly determined, but it’s a special kind of masochism to put yourself through when there are such polished alternatives available elsewhere.
Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition Performance
It’s a shame, because the MX4 Ubuntu Edition handles many of the basics with aplomb. Call quality is clear, with no crackly interference or distortion. The screen is above average, with a maximum brightness of 486cd/m2 – brighter than the HTC One M9 and LG G4. The screen’s contrast ration of 1,361:1 is exceptional and colour accuracy is very good, too, with only the greens appearing a bit off in our tests.
Despite its occasional stuttering performance when switching screens and loading apps and scopes, its browser performance was also impressive, with a SunSpider score of 508ms. Only heavyweights in the Samsung range (the Note 4, Alpha, Galaxy S5 and S6) and Apple’s iPhones have managed better scores in our tests.
The camera is solid too. The rear-facing snapper employs a 20.7 megapixel sensor manufactured by Sony. I found it was able to capture excellent static shots, but struggled a little with sudden movement – if you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a cat you’ll know this is something of an occupational hazard.
Battery life is more of a mixed bag. In video tests the Meizu MX4 performed very poorly, dropping battery at a rate of 14% per hour with a 120 cd/m2 and Airport mode enabled. That’s similar to the Microsoft Lumia 640XL, which pushed out at 13.5% per hour, but it had the excuse of a far bigger screen.
We weren’t able to conduct our standard streaming-audio test since Ubuntu refused to stream SoundCloud or LBC without keeping the screen on, but if used without video the phone comfortably makes it through a day – presumably because it’s so limited in what it can do.
Verdict: Nice handset, shame about Ubuntu Touch
The Meizo MX4 is no regular consumer handset. You need an invitation to buy one; only the committed need – and actually can – apply. If you really want an Ubuntu phone, however, bearing in mind how rough-around-the-edges the operating system feels, then this is the best place to jump in.
The specifications are good on paper, and it looks stylish to boot. It’s an improvement on the BQ Aquaris E4.5, albeit not as big a one as it should be.
If you’re on the fence and simply curious, however, I’d urge you to hold back. The OS isn’t ready for daily use, and for the price you could buy a decent Android handset that feels far snappier and delivers far more features and apps.
It’s still early days for the operating system, and every smartphone OS has to start somewhere, it’s just that Apple and Google took the their first steps years ago. Ubuntu Touch needs to offer something dazzling to compete, and sadly the MX4 Ubuntu Edition doesn’t even come close.