BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition review
Ubuntu took its precious time sending PC Pro a review unit of the first Ubuntu phone for review, after launching the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition in February. We can’t say we were particularly surprised: after all, the gestation of Ubuntu for phones has been one of the most prolonged technology sagas in recent memory, so what’s an extra few weeks? See also: what’s the best smartphone you can buy?
Canonical first showed off its smartphone platform two years ago, but its campaign to crowdfund the hardware failed to reach its target. So instead it negotiated a partnership with Spanish smartphone firm BQ, and in February this year the first commercially available Ubuntu phone finally appeared.
Ubuntu Phone review: design
Sadly, the resulting hardware isn’t the most appealing we’ve ever come across. The Aquaris E4.5 is a budget smartphone, costing around £121 SIM-free, and its design is as cheap-feeling as the price is low.
Its case is finished in a plain matte black, the edges and corners are awkwardly angular and the plastic feels thin and low quality, especially compared to leading budget Android smartphones such as the Motorola Moto G 2.
The 4.5in IPS screen is surrounded by ugly, broad black borders, adding to the low-rent feel. The resolution of the screen is a disappointing quarter-HD 540 x 960. There’s no 4G support; storage is a minimal 8GB with only 5.5GB left for user data; and wireless support extends only to single-band 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.
Under the hood is a quad-core, 1.3GHz MediaTek processor, a Mali-400 GPU and 1GB of RAM, and the battery is a small 2,150mAh unit. It will get you through a day’s use, but performance in our battery tests was below average, with local video playback eating capacity at a rate of 13.5% per hour, and audio streaming using it at 10.7%.
It isn’t all bad: dual SIM trays and a microSD slot for expanding on that minimal storage are both welcome touches, the 8-megapixel resolution of the camera isn’t too shabby – although quality isn’t wonderful – and the front of that screen is topped with scratch-resistant Asahi Dragontrail glass.
Finally, although the display is low in resolution, it’s pretty high on brightness, reaching an impressive 504cd/m2 at its maximum setting, while contrast hits 795:1.
Ubuntu Phone review: the software
You’re clearly not going to be buying an Ubuntu phone for its hardware, then, but what about the software? We wanted to fall in love with it, but despite the wait, Ubuntu Phone – version 14.10 (r21) – still feels too raw, too unpolished for general consumption.
It’s not the design of the UI we take issue with: that’s pretty good, and the gestures and navigation are easy to get to grips with. We felt at home after a couple of days swiping in from the left edge of the screen to access common apps, swiping down to access notifications and common settings, and swiping in from the right edge to bring up the multitasking view.
There isn’t a huge selection of apps available in the Ubuntu Store, as you’d expect of such an immature OS, and the games are all pretty basic. However, Ubuntu has skirted the issue by placing the focus on “scopes” instead.
A scope is effectively a halfway house between an app and a website: a set of standard UI elements that developers can easily plug data into without having to work too hard on the design. Some scopes are little more than an aggregation of thumbnails, textual snippets and links to items that are hosted elsewhere. The BBC News scope, for instance, show you the latest headlines and summaries, but links to the mobile website for the full stories. Others can hook into apps and content (My Movies) stored on the phone itself.
The other nice thing about scopes is that, by managing and curating your favourites, you can completely personalise the front-end of the phone. If you’re a Facebook fiend, you can set the Facebook scope as your main homepage. If you spend all your time on the BBC website, you can set the phone to open on that. Traditionalists can have recent calls or text messages view up front.
Navigating between scopes is as simple as swiping left and right between Android homescreens, and you can have as many or as few as you like set up in your lists of favourites.
Elsewhere, Ubuntu Phone behaves mostly as you’d expect any modern smartphone OS to. It connects to a decent selection of core social networking and email services, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, SoundCloud, Instagram, Evernote and Flickr. It lets you transfer music and movies into local storage and watch them on the move.
However, there are many holes in Ubuntu Phone’s feature set, and a lot of small niggles and irritations as well. The track of settings icons in the notifications pulldown, for instance, is displayed in dark grey, which you have to strain to read even with the screen brightness turned right up.
The preinstalled Maps app – a version of Nokia’s Here Maps – doesn’t offer turn-by-turn satnav navigation, and the GPS takes an age to get a positional lock. There’s no default calendar app (although you can install Google Calendar), and no voice control.
And to make matters worse, performance is poor. Although general navigation feels reasonably responsive, launching apps and loading scopes can be terribly slow and sluggish. Scrolling around web pages and maps doesn’t feel smooth either.
Ubuntu Phone review: verdict
The BQ Aquaris e4.5 Ubuntu Edition is not the debut Canonical must have envisaged for Ubuntu Phone, in the early days of the platform’s development.
It’s a perfectly functional smartphone for the most part, and we like the concept of scopes, but the hardware is humdrum, performance is sluggish, and the software running on it is rough and ready, and full of holes.
We’ll be tracking the progress of Ubuntu Phone with interest – it surely must get better than this – but this first device is one to write off to experience.