Ubuntu Phone bq Aquaris E4.5 – first impressions

Some time ago, Ubuntu sponsor Canonical announced that they were bringing their operating system to mobile phones and tablets. Following this announcement, people were waiting for device coming with Ubuntu, and after a long waiting, Spanish manufacturer bq is the first to bring a device coming preinstalled with Ubuntu for phones. As they are only bringing small batches to the market, you can get one of those phones in so-called flash sales, announced on social media, lasting while there are devices in stock.
In the second flash sale, I could grab one of those devices, called bq Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu edition, coming at a (imho) fair price of 169 Euros. Three days ago, I received the phone, so I wanted to share some first impressions on the hardware and the operating system, as well as make a short comparison to my Jolla, running SailfishOS, another Linux-based system for smartphones.

Hardware

Like myself, you probably never heard of the hardware vendor __bq__ from Spain. Holding the device in hand, I think this is sad. The device feels very well manufactured, especially when considering the relatively low price. It can carry two micro-sim cards and a microSD-card to expand the phone’s storage. It really light (compared to my Jolla), probably because it is all-plastic. The pictures taken with the camera are ok for me – but I am no expert for this.

Ubuntu for phones

The bad thing about this device is that the hardware definetly deserves a better operating system to go along with. Do not get me wrong: Ubuntu for phones is not a bad operating system. Compared to other rather young competitors (I am not pointing to iOS, Android, Blackberry or Windows Phone, but to FirefoxOS, Tizen or SailfishOS), it is still lacking many essential features.
The basic navigation is fast and fluid, the swiping-gestures feel natural and can be adapted very fast. I also like the idea of scopes – you can define several start screens which are aggregating content of your choice. It is very similar like in FirefoxOS, but works much more intuitive. I think there is a lot of potential here, there are more content provides needed, though.
The settings are a bit confusing at first, the notification are opening on a down-swipe needs horizontal scrolling most of the time. But you can add some accounts for online-services: Google, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, I can even see my data from the fitbit dashboard and place it on one of the scopes.

I do not care about apps much, but…

There are not many apps yet (which is ok for now), but most of the apps on the store are just webviews opening a mobile website, e.g. facebook, ebay or twitter. Why is this needed? Because the built-in browser is really crappy at the moment. It starts very slow and also needs a lots of time to render webpages.
Then, there is no calendar application yet and you cannot use standard email protocols like IMAP. The only mail client i have found is for Google Mail – a webview to the mobile website (suprise!). Also, you cannot sync contacts with any other service than Google. This is sad, as I think many users would consider buying an Ubuntu phone because they want to break free of the vendor lock-in of Android, iOS or WinPhone.
So there is still a lot to do for Canonical here – attracting developers to build native apps for this system, improving features. At least, for the most basic things on a smartphone…

ubuntu phone vs. SailfishOS

I think I can make this short: Although Ubuntu for phones shows a lot of promise for a bright future, Jollas SailfishOS is lightyears ahead.
Although the hardware of the Jolla phone does not feel superior to the bq Aquaris, the software is bringing all features one would expect from a modern smartphone, rapidly improving and adding Android compatibility to fill gaps in the Jolla app store.
At the moment, the Ubuntu phone is a nice device to play with, but currently not feature-complete enough to go even as secondary phone.