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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

After 2 weeks on Ubuntu phone ...

I've recently bought a BQ Aquaris E4.5 phone which features Ubuntu and has dual SIM ability.
This is a personal but honest review on the platform, rather than the phone itself, and what I believe should be improved to make it competitive.

The Pros

Let's start with the good parts from a user perspective POV, so that we can better understand the cons.

Nice design

The Aquaris E4.5 is a relatively cheap smart phone but it doesn't fell like that: the shape is simple and functional, materials feel OK and it's not like those huge phones where you need two hands to do anything 'cause too big (although if you have small hands like I do, you might end up with two hands anyway but it's OK).

Dual SIM

I travel a lot and I have two main SIM cards, a UK one and an Italian one. The UK one from three is IMO a must have in Europe for the simple reason you are not charged extra if you visit one of those 18 "feel at home" countries, including most European and also USA!
No extra charges on data roaming, which is a huge win. However, my Italian phone number is still very active and used, having no need to carry two phones and reach all I need from one device is a big win too.

The native part of Ubuntu OS is OK

The OS itself feels OK and it's a good "no need to RTFM" system. It's also often pleasant to discover its hidden, user experience oriented, functionalities.
There are few things done really well, original, and extremely practical like the top bar with top-to-bottom and left-to-right surfing, which aim is to provide access to a list of common features and info behind a freaking easy to use interface, you might find yourself surfing all the icons for minutes without a real need ... just because that feels right.

The battery is OK

Even handling dual sim 24/7, and considered how much of the OS is based on HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS, and how much functionality is brought by online mobile websites such here, facebook, and twitter, I'd say I'm quite happy about the battery consumption, and I was expecting a half-day lasting device, considering that's more or less how much first FirefoxOS phones were lasting at version 1.0.

Somehow snappier than FirefoxOS

Ubuntu OS is a hybrid one and the native part is very snappy. The Qt and QML platform has been showing muscles since about ever in the mobile world, I'm actually very happy this was the choice instead of Android Java one, 'cause while I never enjoyed writing and developing with Java, I've been freaking creative and productive with QML without any need to be a guru: you have native declarative UI powered by nice APIs and JavaScript logic.
Qt and QML also work already in any platform so if you want my suggestion: go and learn how to make apps in QML, you'll have a way bigger set of skills to re-sell in the market, you develop natively with ease, and you learn something already integrated in all the things.

Almost everything I need is there

The second thing that is missing these days is WhatsApp. However, thanks to Ubuntu phone I've discovered Telegram, and switched to it by default everywhere because it's fast, free, and available for Desktop too, even my Linux one. My friends and family? They installed Telegram too and never even noticed we were on a different app while exchanging messages.

There's not much else to say here, and I've already stretched my real feelings with previous pros ... it's time now to get real and discuss all the cons that made me think to go back to my old setup, which was a slow 2+ years ago old Lumia 620 and a not so powerful Android phone as companion for the other SIM ... yes, it has been that bad ...

The Cons

Even if as debut I have to say it's better than FirefoxOS one, I'm afraid there are too many problems no regular user would ever want to use it. No, I'm not being too hard, there are broken aspects of the entire HTML5 that is not even a Ubuntu phone fault, rather a reflection of how broken is the Web thanks to poorly developed services entirely based on broken User Agent sniffing.

The Web Is Broken

This is the thing number one: the amount of websites that redirected me to store, offering me an Android App to download, are countless. Linkedin, Google itself with its calendar, reached through the native wrapper GMail App, ... this is not some wannabe/week-end web developer from the late 90's, these are biggest online brands and services I know. The fact I'm on a phone that uses like Android in its User Agent string, means that every bloody online service with an Android equivalent App will assume you are on Android and will redirected to the store. The store will fail at installing whatever app it is, no matter if you logged in correctly, it will just fail. Regular users will always be fooled by such broken experience, and they will be blamed as ignorant even if they have no fault.
Windows Phone has similar problem
Since IE Mobile decided to include common UA sniffed strings in its latest browser, in order to avoid discrimination based on UA sniffing, instead of features detections, I've been redirected or proposed to install Android apps there too. This is where the Web is failing big times these days: developers introducing poor practices in order to fulfill the need to install at all cost native apps. This is so annoying and it's ruining the mobile Web. I don't know when, where, or how companies will realize that having a link to the native app, instead of having a link to the arleady visited Mobile Web version, would be way more useful than all these problems they are causing to their own users behind all these broken assumptions. Please STOP DOING THIS, thank you Corporates!

Where the F*%K! is the Calendar

Going out with a mobile Operating System that does not have a basic, native, Calendar application, is like buying a calculator that doesn't have the % button: are you bloody kidding me? I'm not even talking about something fully integrated with Facebook, Google Calendar, or anything that advanced, I'm talking about a native, offline capable, calendar, in order to save events and/or read them!
Google Calendar as wrapped online App is not an option because there are part of the world where Internet is not available, and there are cases when somebody might fly somewhere else and cannot even organize itself ... this is ridiculous and it was also probably the main point I want to go back to any other option available. Can I develop one by my own? Sure ... also, is there some app in the store? Sure again, but I'd expect that in 2015 calendar would be the show-stopper, must have, App as natively integrated, developed, and maintained. Come on folks, put it there ASAP, thank you!
Apparently there is a Calendar app developed by Canonical for Ubuntu core (not the Google one, just the Calendar one with number 28 on it).
I'm still puzzled on why this App hasn't been included by default in this OS ... PLEASE ADD IT, THANK YOU!


In the last 6 years I've been core developer for what's today known as, the default (amazing) Map Application that powers FirefoxOS and Ubuntu Phone, I've worked a little bit on, and worked on What I'm saying is that I'm proud HTML5 already made it, despite what the rest of the world says, and it works like a charm. However, while here Map, together with Gmail one, feels like a real native app, Facebook and Twitter are just a redirect to the browser, meaning the top URL bar will comes up and down all the time while scrolling your feeds and content. Annoying to say the least. The real problem though, is that there's no hardware button to go back so while Facebook nd Twitter are more friendly and easy to navigate when a back is meant, since the button is on the browser, Gmail, more than Here, is a very unfriendly App to use. If there's no previous button, you won't be able to go back.
HTML5 Apps sometimes badly integrated
If you receive a notification about an email, and you click the little icon on the right, because clicking the entire notification has surprisingly no effect whatsoever (WTF UX!), your GMail wrapped Web App will launch and you'll be right at the very beginning of the email, not at the last one, or the one you've been notified about. This is rather confusing and inconsistent with any other email app in this world.
I'm not saying this is Ubuntu Phone fault, I'm saying if you are offering by default HTML5 versions of an App, be sure that works as expected otherwise people will think your phone has something wrong, same way I am doing it here.
In case of here maps, the ability to share links and be right there where meant is a core feature, it works even via SMS so no problems there, but back to Twitter, as example, you'll find yourself in the browser again, instead of the native initial wrapper. All these inconsistencies are very confusing, I wish native Ubuntu wrappers were more like PhoneGap, exposing special abilities so that developers can create more native-like experiences.
Simply wrapping a mobile Web link might not be enough.

Scope hard to navigate

Maybe this is a "not so big" screen issue, but in scope there are too many possible swipes:
  • pull from the edge for notifications
  • pull from under the edge for updates
  • left and right from the pulled down notifications for notifications read
  • left and right on the screen for scopes sections
  • left and right on scope sections for horizontally scrolled content such news and stuff
  • right edge to left for tabs/app navigation
  • left edge to right for the main vertical bar
You'll inevitably fail at some point doing one action instead of another, I can bet on it whatever you want. I've had to "go back and re-try" many times that this navigation system started being a bit annoying. It's OK when it works as you expect, but it needs some fine tune or it will end up in an annoying experience, instead of an improved one.

Flight mode shenanigans

This comes from the core of the OS too the flight mode is full of surprises! If you have the Bluetooth off and you switch to Flight mode, you'll find the Bluetooth ON once you switch the flight mode off. This might look just like a simple bug from the surface, it scares the hell out of me, as developer, because it means Ubuntu Phone has a broken state-saving logic behind the scene. Flight mode should save the state of the phone before, and put it back after. Bluetooth is not the only thing broken ... but it's the most visible one.
As example, flight mode off and on broke the GPS state and it also randomly breaks main SIM network data. There's something terribly wrong behind this feature and form me the solution was to never use it, and switch the phone off and on instead.

Irony wants that the "once used master point to switch to Linux" motto is now the only way to be sure this phone works as expected. I've also missed few important calls and emails from the main SIM card because the phone was completely stuck only for the network part. To unlock the phone I had to turn it off and on ... I don't want to be worried that my phone is stuck at all ... I never want to be worried about this.
I'm sure these might be partially phone specifications problems, partially the fact Ubuntu Phone is at its debut ... but if there's one thing I expect from both Linux and a Phone is stability for the network part, end of discussion.

Randomly poor performance

Like I've said the native part is snappy, but sometimes it's very unusable. This is similar in not so powerful Android phones, when there are updates behind the scene and your App starts going 2FPS ... it happened to me while I was playing the Pathwind game installed by default. It's a simple nice game that could entertain but it's very easy to fail if the phone goes at snail speed for few seconds.

Notifications in the wrong spot

This the last point for this review: the notifications icon is in the worst spot ever. If you have the screen rotation locked, 2 SIMs where one shows for some reason Roaming all the time even if not roaming (no, I hope it's not roaming because I've set it as not roaming, why on earth I've the roaming icon always there ... I've honestly NO IDEA!) and you are on WiFi, with an alarm set, and the GPS icon also shown all the time for no actual interesting reason, your notifications icon will be on the very top left edge, the edge where the main OS Applications bar comes up too, and most of the time you have to fix your mistake in order to read them. The pattern I'm following now is pull down from the top edge center, and scroll left 'till the notification area. At first it was my "aha" moment, followed by "oh nice, cool" ... now it's just annoying and it takes ages, but it never fails, intent speaking.

As Summary

I've been using Android since version 1.5, iOS since version 5, Windows Phone since version 7, and FirefoxOS since version 1. I develop and test in all these devices and I've never felt in love with any of these. I had huge expectations from the Ubuntu phone due the respect I have for Canonical and the community behind Ubuntu, and the fact I'm a huge believer in Open Source and indeed everything I have and use daily is Open Source, including "my personal OS". Ubuntu could have been the missing Open Source part I've been looking for, when it comes to Smartphone. FirefoxOS is great but it still has too many constrains that come from the Web, like pointless security privileges needs I don't care when it comes to my phone. Ubuntu and its QML native ability goes beyond any Web based only App, providing the ability to do the hack I want as developer, instead of waiting for some standard to land or be promoted from Mozilla. QML is a huge possibility for developers, and a hybrid OS like this feels also better than Blackberry 10, which I also owned for a little while and honestly was a much better experience for 3 times the cost of this phone. Yet not the OS I was looking for.
I still have big expectations and hope they'll improve the OS and catch up with Apps soon ... for now though, I think I'll go back to my old configuration, and try again in 6 months.


iFadey said...

"Somehow snappier than FirefoxOS"

I recommend you to check FirefoxOS 2.x which is a huge improvement over 1.x in terms of performance and usability.

Andrea Giammarchi said...

I'm already on Firefox 2 on a GeeksPhone Revolution ... I haven't written that by accident ;-)

merlijn said...

I've been using it for a couple of weeks now, and I would never want to return to my old android.

No calendar? Yes there is. A very good native one. Just install it from the store... It's even made by the Ubuntu devs themselves... And yes, it supports google calendar syncing... And no, I don't know why it isn't installed by default.

Click gmail in notification. Everytime you tap it, the gmail icon buzzes a bit. It was clear enough for me that the icon was saying "tap me instead, you fool!". But it might be a good idea that apps that don't have a message tray action just open the app on tapping the message.

The Mobile web sucks. Jeah. And it sucks for everyone... A little les for android and ios, but still lotta sucky for lotta people... This will change as the mobile web grows more mature...

Scope hard to navigate True, this needed some getting used to, and even now I have problems sometimes. But its not like it's THAT bad. However, it is still something that should be adressed..

Flight mode shenanigans Bluetooth: I submitted bug report the first time I encountered it. It's being fixed (or fixed already?). Unlock sim: I submitted bug report. They're looking into it. It's phone specific, same problem on android. I suggest you make bug reports for the other stuff you found.

Randomly poor performance Haven't encountered this before. Might I suggest submitting a bug report?

As you might know, this is the first Ubuntu phone ever. Even though they have done a terrific job the last few years, the phone is still not as mature as android or ios. If you want to solve your issues, submit a bug report and contact the devs. If you want to yell at the internet, go ahead. But know that yelling at the internet is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum...

Andrea Giammarchi said...

No calendar until they put the one you mentioned in by default. I already found few calendar things and rating wasn't excellent plus I don't know which one is the right one. Assuming I am a regular user, I laugh if there's no calendar installed by default.

Click Gmail, even the icon, and find yourself at the top of an email, message number one, instead of latest reply you've been notified for.

The mobile Web doesn't suck, and FirefoxOS is a perfect example that it works without problems, given contrains still present. What sucks is having Apps wrapped that don't work as expected. Not only FirefoxOS is better here, using exact same apps, but I've never been redirected to an Android app store because of the Android part in the User Agent. This is not Ubuntu phone specific issue, this is web side and every regular user will find this confusing.

Bear in mind I am a Senior Software Engineer, and like I've said I've worked or created few apps used by Ubuntu Phone, but I was hoping this time a Linux phone could have broken the "only for power users" barrier.

Regular users don't understand these things and mostly don't even care.

Scope was at the bottom because it's not that bad indeed, everything else was enough for me to decide to go back to Windows 8 Phone, not even Android ... imagine that ..

Flight mode bugs are known and as you know it's pointless to file random bugs when you don't have a consistent wy to reproduce anything. So no, I'll file a bug only when it's clear I can describe it. Right now I can say that they don't restore the state as expected and that is very bad unexpected behavior.

Random poor performance of course you have expected them ... just go on the street, instead of using your WiFi, and switch the phone on. Once "today" is shown try to navigate to the right for other things and see poor performance. This happens every time, and sometimes it happens also during updates. Nothing to bug-report here, the hardware is a 160 euros one but maybe, if one aApp is taking more resources than usual, background tasks should wait instead of making the App slower. This will be more evident the more games will roll out.

Last, but not least, I've emphasized this was a better "first phone ever" than FirefoxOS ever had with its ZTE but like I've said at the very beginning: this is a honest review.

The fact it's early release, the first one ever, and yada-yada is not a good reason to spend about 170 euros if you are a user that is looking for dual SIM phone.

If that is what you need today, I would NOT recommend this phone, and again this is my personal opinion.

I am sure they'll improve, I hope posts like this will keep them focused on what's important for real world users and not only advanced developers.

merlijn said...

no calendar So yes, the app not being installed by default is a problem, but what you write is untrue and misleading. Rant about it not being installed all you want, but if you know it exists why do you say it doesn't exist? Also, bug report

gmail Bug report?

Your current occupation does not give more credibility to your claims. In fact, it gives less credibility to the claim that you want this platform to succeed and that you write this blogpost to help the platform. It has been made very clear that the first phone was for enthusiasts and early adopters. For me, it is very good and I haven't looked back at my android phone since. I found a lot of bugs, but no deal-breakers and a lot of them have gotten fixed in the 3 weeks I have the phone. It could be that there are deal breakers for you. The randomly poor performance and flight mode strangeness, I can understand those are deal breakers.

But saying that you want this platform to succeed? I call bullshit! You have the technical capabilities to help make this platform great, but the only thing you do is yell to the internet. If you have time to yell at the internet, you have time to talk to the devs. - But real world users.. You know very well that bugs are to be expected and that it's already very good for a "first phone". It is up to people like us to report and help fix these issues before real world users get the phone.

No, Canonical doesn't have the millions Apple, MS and Google have to test before going to market. Testing while going to marked is the reason a small company like Canonical can make a competitive OS.

Andrea Giammarchi said...

> but what you write is untrue and misleading

there is no calendar in the phone, period. There is eventually one in the shop and I've written this too. Is that the official one? There should then be a cealendar in the phone, period. Which part is misleading?

> It has been made very clear that the first phone was for enthusiasts and early adopters

I don't see anything like this in the official page that promotes the Phone. Where did you read that? In the BQ website?

> the only thing you do is yell to the internet

I am writing a honest, personal review. Since when being honest and writing personal thoughts means yelling to the internet?

> It is up to people like us to report and help fix these issues before real world users get the phone.

When these things will be better, I will a) update this post ... and b) eventually write another one with second impressions about the product.

Until that, and accordingly with your logic, enthusiasts and early adopters will NOT be affected by any sort of reviews so no real damage has been made to anyone.

This is a review of a person that wrote software used by this phone. I'm proud of that software, and I'm positive for the future of this phone.

Today, this phone, is NOT an option for me, you can call it BS as much as you like.

Andrea Giammarchi said...

P.S. about the Calendar ... would you be so kind to tell me if the one you think is the official one is the Google Calendar or just the Calendar? 'cause both are created by Canonical and I don't know which one should I put in. If it's just Calendar, all negative comments are because it doesn't sync with Google so ... who's misleading here?

merlijn said...

I'm using the calendar one. There was a UX bug where the calendar said it was syncing with google, but the OS denied the calendar permission to the google account. That might explain the bad comments. This is already fixed or will be fixed soon.

Andrea Giammarchi said...

Updated the end of the calendar part pointing at this Calendar version then.

There will be other updates when things will improve.