I’ve been interested in looking into Ubuntu Touch since the Ubuntu Edge Indiegogo campaign in 2014. The idea of a full Linux computer running on a tablet or phone, optimised for small touch devices sounds pretty cool. 2 years later, Ubuntu Touch devices are actually a real thing, and I ended up getting the Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition (FHD).

Anyway, this isn’t really a full review (there’s heaps of those), but rather more of a pile of thoughts and notes on my short experience with the tablet. You may find it useful if you’re considering purchasing one of these devices, or interested in the system in general. Please direct any comments to me on Twitter (@srwalladge), or contact me some other way.

First thoughts

On the outside, it’s another 10 inch tablet with decent specs.

Starting it up for the first time was fairly straightforward:

  • choose language
  • connect to wifi
  • location services options
  • timezone
  • hostname
  • lockscreen password/passcode/nothing
  • welcome screen
  • quick tutorial showing gestures available

There’s plenty of other tutorials and reviews around, so no point going into detail. I’ll just say that the idea of scopes, slide-out task switcher, notifications dock, side stage, and desktop mode are all quite different to anything on Android or iOS. I reckon they’re great features, especially on device with a larger screen (ie. this tablet). Everything still feels a little rough around the edges, but otherwise works quite well.

Hacking

The system is mounted readonly by default, so if you want to edit system config files, or use apt-get to install programs system-wide, you will need to make it read/write. It’s pretty simple to achieve, but be warned - the system is certainly not designed for this, and it -could- will cause problems. See the official r/w instructions from BQ for more information.

Once, read/write is enabled, you can use the system just like a full ubuntu system. While I was testing it, I managed to install vim, tmux, python, ruby, ruby gems, etc., pull in my dotfiles, and do some webdev in a terminal.

webdev in terminal - browser window next to terminal with tmux and vim

Note to serve as warning: I rendered my install unbootable, and had to re-install using the Flash Tools, because of messing with system configuration… it didn’t like me trying to change the display manager.

Flashing

If you want to ‘factory reset’ your tablet, there’s a couple of options.

First, try the ubuntu-device-flash command line tool as described on the Ubuntu developer site.

If that doesn’t work (if you’ve changed partitions, or really done some damage), try the Flash Tools mentioned previously. I found it difficult to get it to connect to the device properly, had to use the following procedure in the end:

  1. switch off the device
  2. run flash_tool as root (it might work without root - always better not to run gui tools as root)
  3. load the scatter file
  4. click the Download button
  5. plug the device into a usb port
  6. hopefully it will detect it being plugged in and start the format and/or install

Pluses

Access to full Linux terminal (with the terminal app for free from the store). From there you can, out of the box, run python3, ssh into remote systems, enable ssh access to the device, and basically do anything you normally would do in a Linux terminal (barring tasks that require write access to the system files).

The whole layout is pretty cool. It feels quite new and different. The home screen is the scopes view, where there’s a page for ‘Today’, with heaps of useful information, a page for your apps (like the Android app drawer), then extra scopes for everything: popular Youtube videos, Soundcloud tracks, things nearby (based on location), news, and a tonne of other things. Then there’s the quick app launcher which shows currently running and pinned apps - makes it really quick to switch apps.

app-launcher along the left side of the screen

Many of the current apps are just wrappers for websites, but the few ‘real’ apps, like the terminal, Dekko (email app), weather app, photos gallery, browser, and file manager, are smooth and neat, all following the Ubuntu Touch design look.

The desktop mode and convergence is really cool. So far I’ve tried out the desktop mode on the tablet with a bluetooth keyboard, and it’s pretty much just like using any other standard desktop (looks similar to the normal Ubuntu unity desktop). Looking forward to trying it out on a fullsize monitor!

Gestures! There’s heaps of quick shortcuts triggered by swiping. For example, you can switch between the latest two apps with a short swipe in from the right edge.

These are just some of the pros I can think of right now - there’s loads of fancy, innovative features, along with all the expected features for a mobile OS.

Minuses

The big issue I have with it, is that while it’s a full Linux operating system, it feels more like a locked box containing Android spliced with Ubuntu, with a bunch of locked down containers sitting on top. There’s Libertine for installing traditional X11-based software, but that still feels experimental. Personally I’d like to see a Linux system on a tablet/phone that is still a full Linux system, where you can do whatever you want, apps can pipe/communicate with other apps, and terminal software can be easily installed. (Compared to something like iOS though, it’s way more ‘hackable’!)

There’s a distinct lack of configurability - for example, there’s not many keyboard layout options (and dvorak isn’t on of them). Maybe this will change once core features and bugs are fixed; I don’t know what is planned. I hope so though: this is Linux, and users are more likely to want a keyboard app with ability to configure the action of every key.

No support for encryption. I consider encryption to be a pretty essential feature, and hopefully this is high on the todo list.

Nothing is allowed to run in the background, unless in ‘Desktop Mode’. For example, if you start downloading something in the terminal app and switch to another app, you have only a couple of seconds before the system cuts wifi access to the terminal app and the download fails.

What surprised me was that there is support for syncing calendar with google account, notes with evernote, and so on, but no support for open source or self hosted syncing services. For example, I’d like to see support for syncing contacts with a carddav server, calendar with a caldav server, notes with some selfhosted notes server, etc..

Looks like a lot of complaining, but remember this system is still in relatively early development stages, so it’s likely that most of the missing/buggy features will be fixed or implemented soon anyway. Hopefully the system design will be sorted out fully so that desktop and terminal apps will be easily installable/runnable in the future.

Support/Resources

There’s a lot of places where you can find help, support, and information:

  • #ubuntu-touch channel on freenode
  • BQ official support via email
  • Touch on the Ubuntu Wiki
  • Mybq
  • askubuntu

Future

The Ubuntu Touch system has great potential. It’s already usable as a basic phone/tablet device, and will only get better as more apps become available and bugs are fixed.

With a few more apps, system encryption, and ability to sync contacts and such with custom servers, I could easily use it as a complete replacement for my current Android tablet.

I’m still keen to try out its support for external monitors and the whole convergence thing. As soon as I get myself an HDMI cable…