When a phone is released only to a select few enthusiasts, you wonder whether or not the hype is genuinely worth it. And when that phone is running Ubuntu, a mobile operating system that is yet to take the mobile world by storm (despite many promises from developers Canonical) you begin to suspect that these devices probably aren’t going to be worth the investment.
So is the phone worth it? Let’s find out…
Why an Ubuntu Smartphone?
Before we go on, you might want to give a bit of thought to whether a smartphone powered by Ubuntu is really something that you want – especially when there is an Android variant of the same phone with the Flyme5 UI on top.
However, the Ubuntu edition is a smartphone that comes with its own set of advantages. For a start off, it’s the first mobile device that can be synced natively to any Linux distribution (Ubuntu, naturally). This in itself is a bit of a triumph.
But there’s another reason: a great cause. Windows Phone/Mobile 10 has more or less failed. Android and iOS stand proud as the great bastions of smartphone operating systems. If you’ve found yourself dissatisfied with either or both, then perhaps you’ve mulled over the idea of whether a Linux-powered smartphone (genuine Linux, not the Android variety) is a viable alternative.
Along with BQ and Aquaris, Meizu are at the forefront of development of Ubuntu Touch/Ubuntu Phone devices, and while India and China are the territories currently being targeted (where Ubuntu and other Linux operating systems are more widely used), Meizu’s Pro5 Ubuntu Edition is now on sale in the USA and European Union.
So, if you’re looking for some Linux flavored simplicity and a new approach to smartphone UIs, an Ubuntu smartphone might be your next move…
What’s Inside the Meizu Pro5 Ubuntu Edition?
In a world of high end Android and iPhones, an Ubuntu Phone device needs to have a few hardware advantages to get attention. Given that the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition is also available as an Android device; it should come as no surprise that both devices are equipped with the same hardware.
But what’s inside?
Well for starters, you’ve got 32GB of internal storage, 3GB RAM, and an 8-core Exynos 7420 processor and MALI T760 GPU. The 168g device sits at 156.7 x 78 x 7.5mm, with a 5.7 inch 1080p AMOLED screen, protected with Corning Gorilla Glass 3.
On the right-hand edge of the impressive unibody design are three hardware buttons: power, volume up and volume down. Meanwhile, on the left, the expansion door, where you’ll find slots for two micro-SIM cards (or a micro-SIM plus microSD card), which allow the phone to be used across multiple networks — useful if you’re travelling through different territories.
Meanwhile, Bluetooth, NFC, wireless networking, GPS and all of the usual connectivity options are present. It’s worth reporting that the OS was unable to detect my correct location even with the Wi-Fi/mobile option selected in place of GPS (it was out by around 150 miles!) but this is likely a software bug, rather than the hardware.
What About the OS?
The Ubuntu Phone operating system is pretty much an unknown quantity at this point. It comes with all of the tools you would expect to find natively: settings, an update tool, reset etc., calendar, messaging and email support, as well as a couple of well-known apps (Facebook, eBay, Twitter), and media playback (see below).
The main Ubuntu Unity menu bar is opened by swiping in from the left, or pressing the home button (on Android devices, this has thumbprint reader abilities, but this is currently not available on Ubuntu Phone). The information presented on what would otherwise be a “Home” screen in fact feels more like an app, which is swiped through. Here you find Scopes, each focusing on relevant calendar, date, time and weather information at first, while apps, popular music and video and your photos can be found by swiping back and forth.
It can take a while to get used to, but the simplicity of having your apps listed in the same place as your calendar updates and so forth is quite refreshing. As a shortcut, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to quickly find an app to switch to, while the notification area displays everything you would expect. Swiping from the right edge, meanwhile, displays the open apps; simply browse between them to switch, and swipe upwards to close.
Data can be easily copied from the phone using a USB Type-C data cable connect to your computer, like any standard USB storage device.
Are There Any Apps and Games?
Mobile platforms, rightly or wrongly, live and die on the quality of their apps and games. As mentioned, several popular apps are included in the OS, and support for others is also provided via integrated login (such as Instagram).
New apps can be found in the Ubuntu Store, where tools as useful as flashlights, two factor authenticators, and even a Terminal can be found. Organization of the store need development though – it’s hard to filter apps based on their type, for instance. Games are available – mostly puzzles – but a few popular options are there, such as Cut the Rope (which you can play on other devices, even in your browser).
There’s certainly enough to keep you entertained and use your phone as a new tool. In many ways, the selection of apps feels like the early days of Android; in less optimistic terms, it also feels a little like WebOS…
Media Playback and Camera
As you would expect, the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition ships with front-facing 5 MP and immense 21 MP rear cameras, with a Sony sensor chipping in to make your captures even better. Sadly, while the hardware is good for snapping, the editing software needs some work, although with a new mobile platform that might not come as a surprise.
The following shots show results from the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition compared with the Sony Xperia Z5:
As you can see, there is a bit more color in the Meizu snap. Both photos were taken within seconds of each other on a sunny day at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.
Media playback, meanwhile, is possible via the videos section of the Home screen, where your own videos and trending YouTube videos can be enjoyed on the device’s full HD 1920x1080p display. It’s a crisp picture, too, but videos recorded on the device don’t tend to be as impressive as the photos (there’s some sample footage in the video review).
Convergence? What Convergence?!
Much has been made of the Convergence feature, Ubuntu’s answer to Microsoft’s Continuum (found in the recently-reviewed Lumia 950). It’s essentially support for hardware that enables you to turn the phone into a desktop computer, with the addition of a keyboard, mouse, and display.
While Bluetooth is supported, the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition doesn’t ship with a HDMI port, and the USB Type-C port doesn’t seem to be adequate at this stage for an adaptor. What this means is that one of the main selling points of Ubuntu Touch is unavailable in the most anticipated device since the OS launched.
That’s a poor showing, whichever way you look at it.
How Does the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition Benchmark?
Benchmarking the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition is a bit tricky, thanks to the shortage of satisfactory testing software. As a result, any such assessment can only be based on usage.
For a device that shares a processor (the Exynos 7420 processor) with one of the top phones on the market (the Samsung Galaxy S6), the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition feels lackluster. Perhaps this is down to the inclusion of just 3 GB of RAM instead of the usual 4 GB? Software stability issues mitigate this, with basic games such as Cut the Rope proving buggy, laggy, and ultimately crashing.
Not an ideal mobile gaming experience!
Additionally, while the new gestures can take a bit of time to learn, the OS doesn’t seem to be quite quick enough to pick them up in many cases. When you’re feeling your way through a new user interface, this is far from ideal. On the other hand, battery life is good, offering around 30 hours per charge with average use.
Has Ubuntu’s Time Come in the Mobile Space?
A new operating system on any popular device will take time to take hold. Realistically, outside of the target markets in China and India, Ubuntu Phone has little chance of surpassing even Blackberry and Windows Phone/Mobile 10, never mind Android and iOS.
Ubuntu Phone has its strengths; it has some failings, too. But the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition is a solid piece of hardware that should appeal to any Ubuntu desktop user and smartphone owners disillusioned with the way things are going with iOS and Android. If Convergence can be brought into the mix on this device, and app stability issues addressed, the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition could prove an attractive alternative to the marketplace-focused worlds of iOS and Android.
Retailing at $369.99, the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition is available to buy now. Or you could win one.
A quick phone with a superb camera, let down by a challenging operating system that’s short on apps. Remember, there is an Android model if you prefer.