Canonical just announced that the first two Ubuntu phones will be coming this year thanks to Meizu and bq. Though these phones won't be available until later this year, the company was on hand at MWC to show off its operating system and give folks a chance to get to grips with the software that will ship on upcoming hardware from its partners. We stopped by Canonical to check it out for ourselves.
The first thing you might notice is that the device you see here is one we've seen before. This is Google's own Nexus 4, which was manufactured by LG and came out in November 2012. Though Canonical's press materials sport images the ill-fated Ubuntu Edge, this device never managed to reach its funding goal on Indiegogo. As a result, the tour we got was on Google's Nexus 4.
Though it can be hard to gauge just how smooth an OS is during a demo like this, we were impressed with what we saw. Unlike a lot of trade show demos of unreleased products, we didn't run into a single glitch that had to be explained with, "Well, it's not finished yet."
The tour started off with what a lot of people were calling the lock screen, but is actually more of a stand-by mode. This shows you various ‘stats’ about the phone as well as stats for the day and notifications. This includes everything from how many photos you’ve taken that day, to how many tweets you have waiting to read, to how far you've walked and how much battery you have left. Tapping inside the circle changes the notification to the next one.
Dragging outward from the left hand side of the screen brings up an app drawer that gives access to favorite applications like the camera, contacts, dialer, and messaging apps. Swiping backwards from the right from the welcome screen brings acts as a task switcher, so this can bring you anywhere from the home screen, to your videos, contacts, browser, dialer, whatever you’ve been using most recently. If you keep swiping in that direction, you’ll flip through everything you’ve had open and running. Swiping in towards the right side will bring you back one step. Dragging out from the left edge of the display will still bring up that little drawer of favorite apps, so you can access those from anywhere on the phone. You don’t have to worry about getting back to the welcome screen before you can make a call. If you drag down from the top of the screen, you’ll get your notifications and settings. One awesome tweak is that if you drag down over the icons on your status bar, say battery or network, you’ll be dumped right into the settings for that specific function. A neat little short cut that eliminates some of the navigation necessary with other OSes. Certain applications have their own settings, and these can be accessed by swiping up from the bottom edge of the display.
We also saw a sneak peek at one feature that we loved called scopes. Scopes is basically an aggregation of one kind of content in one place. So, for example, one Canonical had worked up in time for MWC, was a Scopes on Barcelona. This gave us access to all kinds of information on Barcelona in one place. This covered everything from maps, transit information, restaurant reviews, top sights, and much more. There's also social scopes, music scopes, and video scopes. These are all accessed by swiping from the right with your thumb. We asked if this was something users could create themselves if they wanted to and the answer was kind of. The rep we talked to didn't exactly know how that would work, so we imagine it's something developers can do, but your average everyday user wouldn't necessarily be able to do from the phone itself.
Overall, the Ubuntu Phone interface is smooth and intuitive. Despite never having used it before, we didn't have any issues finding our way around. While the final hardware won't be an LG Nexus 4, it is encouraging to know that Ubuntu Phone doesn't require the latest high end hardware to work well. Last year, Canonical demoed Ubuntu Phone on a Galaxy Nexus. Again, at the time, that device was one generation behind. Here's hoping that this means we'll see a variety of Ubuntu phones, including some lower end options priced competitively.