Canonical is the only Linux company that’s still betting on the consumer space; competing against the likes of Microsoft, Google and Apple. To differentiate itself, Canonical came up with what it calls "convergence": The vision is to run one code base across all devices. No separate iOS and Mac OS; no separate Android and ChromeOS. Just one Ubuntu to run on desktops, servers, IoT devices, mobile phones, tablets… you get the point.
But an operating system, no matter how ambitious, is of no use without hardware. In 2015, Canonical brought the first Ubuntu phones to market and in 2016 it launched the first Ubuntu powered tablet, the Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition (available for sale worldwide on the BQ website for about $260).
Canonical was kind enough to send me a review unit of the Aquaris M10. Here are my impressions.
BQ Aquaris M10 is an Android device repurposed to run Ubuntu Touch. It has a plastic body, two front-facing speakers, one main and one front-facing camera, microSD card slot, microUSB port and micro HDMI port. The processor is a quad-core, 64-bit MediaTek MT8163 SoC, which is powerful enough to drive Ubuntu Touch.
But the hardware is not the real story here, it’s the software.
BQ Aquaris M10 runs Ubuntu 15.04. (OTA 10.1) The hardware is powerful enough to run Ubuntu very well. Ubuntu Touch is a gesture-based operating system; there are no physical or virtual buttons. A swipe from the left edge of the screen reveals Launcher, which is the most familiar feature of Ubuntu desktop. For those who have never used Ubuntu, Launcher is something similar to the dock of Mac OS.
At the bottom of the launcher is the Ubuntu icon, which opens Scopes (more on Scopes below), and then there is a set of pinned apps. You can pin new apps, change their position on Launcher and remove those you don’t need. Launcher also shows what apps are running so you can easily switch between them.
More about Scopes
Ubuntu is taking a different approach towards apps and content. Unlike iOS or Android, which offer a grid of apps on the home screen that can be sorted into folders, Canonical calls each Scope a home screen for different content types: There are Scopes for software or apps, news, videos, music, photos, etc. There can be more than one source of content in each Scope. For example, if you search for a song in the video Scope, it will display videos from services like YouTube, Vimeo or whatever you have installed on your device. And you can then play the video from the desired service.
The app Scope is more or less a grid, similar to iOS and Android, where you have all your installed apps. In my use of the tablet so far I lived in the app Scope and opened the desired apps instead of bothering with different Scopes by content type. While I understand what Ubuntu is trying to do with Scopes, I have to admit that after using the tablet for a while, I fail to see the value of Scopes. In almost all cases, I would prefer to open a certain app to access certain content. For example, I would rather open a YouTube app to watch the latest shows from the channels that I have subscribed to than search for them on the video Scope. The one exception is the news Scope, because I want to stay current on the latest stories irrespective of the publication.
Right to left. A swipe from the right edge of the tablet opens the app switcher, similar to Android and iOS, where you can close any app by swiping it up/down or open it with a tap.
Bottom up. Swipe from bottom is currently available only in the Apps scope. With a swipe I can create a dedicated home screen (a.k.a. Scope) for each app. And that’s where I get even more confused about the value of Scopes, as adding an Amazon or YouTube Scope simply adds that app to the home screen. I would prefer a home screen with all apps and the ability to create folders so that I can group apps together in a way that makes sense to me.
Top down. Now let’s talk about swipe from the top. You can swipe down the right corner of the screen that gives you quick access to settings and notifications. The first tab, Notifications, shows recent emails, messages, plugged in devices and so on. You can take action from within Notifications, like opening mail. However, it's a little rough around the edges. Tapping on the notification won’t open the app; you have to tap on the small icon. This is one area where Ubuntu developers could spend some time improving user experience.
The second tab is Screen Rotation, which, as the name implies, locks the screen rotation. Third tab is File Transfer, then Location, Bluetooth, Network, Sound, Battery, Time & Data and Settings.
There is one problem: Swiping down opens the tab that was under my finger and there are over 8 settings. So everytime you swipe down, it opens some random setting and you then have to swipe to select the right setting. From this description, it probably won't surprise you that I found this approach to be very confusing and counterproductive. I prefer an approach more like Android's grid that would allow me to swipe down and select the setting that I want. Some settings, like Location or Rotation, have only one button. All-in-all, it's not a very well planned design. Just put all of it in one grid.
While I'm in constructive feedback mode, I've also got suggestions for improving the lock screen. When I unlock the screen I have to touch the input window to enter the password. Ubuntu should know by default that when users encounter the lock screen they will be entering a password; all that should be required is to start typing.
Linux on a tablet
The most exciting part of this Ubuntu tablet is the App Store. There you can install whatever Ubuntu desktop or mobile apps you want. Canonical developers and the Ubuntu community have created many native apps like Notes, Tasks and Messages that are fully optimized for the tablet interface. But these apps are in the minority.
I had to transfer some files from the internal storage to external microSD card and to my NAS server. I installed the File Manager app, but it didn't work. Fortunately, I could install the Terminal app and manage files through that. I just opened the Terminal and rsynced files to desired locations. Yes!
You can also install desktop apps such as LibreOffice, GIMP, Gedit and they work fine except for one major drawback: They don’t scale for the device. You end up with very tiny menu items. The fonts in apps like Gedit are way too small to be usable. GIMP also meets a similar fate despite huge potential.
In addition to such native apps there are many services that we use including Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, Hangouts, Netflix… none are available for the Ubuntu mobile platform. Since I heavily use Chromebook Flip, I really don’t much care about native apps, as on Chromebook everything is a website. Canonical also adopted the same approach for Ubuntu and called them WebApps, where they tried to integrate some features with the operating system. But while Chromebooks have one of the best Web browsers, Chrome, Ubuntu’s default browser needs a lot of work.
In addition, none of the streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime are available on the device. After using the tablet for a while I had to face the harsh reality that as much as wanted to like the tablet, the lack of what I consider essential native apps will prevent me from using it as my primary, or even as a secondary, device.
Desktop on tablet
One of the greatest features of the Aquaris M10 is that it doubles as a desktop: In the settings you can switch between tablet and desktop mode. In desktop mode you can plug in a monitor, keyboard and mouse and it's quite usable.
What you can do: You can use many native apps like Notes, Messages, Photos to get some work done. You can also access websites through the browser. But this tablet offers you a bit less than what you get on an Ubuntu desktop.
What you can’t do: While you can use LibreOffice, GIMP and Gedit, these are not optimized for the tablet so you don’t get the desktop experience. You also can’t watch Netflix, Hulu and many other streaming services.
Should you buy this tablet?
If you are looking for an iPad or Android tablet alternative, this Ubuntu tablet is not for you. There aren’t many apps that will help you do anything more than basic Web browsing, emailing, messaging and YouTube viewing.
But if you are a Linux enthusiast who just want to have a tablet that runs Ubuntu, or you want a tablet where you can run Terminal and show it to your friends, or you want a tablet that lets you see what work Canonical is doing, then this is the must-have tablet for you.
Let me be clear. In reviewing the Aquaris M10, I was very aware that I was reviewing not just the device but the Ubuntu mobile platform. In fact, the review is less about the device than about where Ubuntu stands now in the tablet space and the potential and possibilities the future holds.
Ubuntu mobile is a very promising platform; it just needs some constructive feedback so that developers can improve the user experience. I consider this tablet something similar to Google Glass: a prototype that gives you a glimpse of what to expect from Ubuntu on tablets.
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