Last month I wrote a review of the Ubuntu Aquarius E5. The phone was Ubuntu’s first really available stab at the smartphone business. The phone and the OS showed some promise – the hardware was very businesslike and the OS was innovative but it wasn’t quite ready for a mass market. Canonical – the company behind Ubuntu – has sent me the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition which as you might suppose is the next available Ubuntu phone to look at.
One note – the E5 and the MX4 are running the same fully patched version of Ubuntu Mobile. There is no difference in skins, extra applications, carrier customizations or manufacturer changes. They have identical software. I’ll cover the Ubuntu Mobile OS again here but check out my first review for more information.
A great camera
When I got the MX4 I had a list of things to check for. As a phone for developers I was not expecting the camera to be one of the high points. Then I checked the specs. Then I blinked and checked the specs again. The MX4 uses a Sony CMOS IMX 220 which takes pictures at 20.7 megapixels. The focus contains an extra sensor to decrease focus time to around 0.3 seconds – point and click and it works almost instantly. Two color temperature flash to get better color closer to natural light. Burst mode that takes 30 photos per second at 10 mega-pixels or at the other end of the spectrum up to a 20 second exposure is possible in near darkness. Finally the camera should be able to shoot 4k video at 30 frames per second encoded in H.265 although at the moment the app can only handle up to 1080p.
All of that together means the phone takes fast and great photos. The only drawbacks are that the phone’s storage is limited to 16gb means that you can’t take a lot of that video before you run out of space and getting the pictures off the phone is much harder than it should be.
Good design and ergonomics
The MX4 feels very very nice to hold in the hand. It has a curved and soft back that feels very nice to hold and a brushed metal frame around the outside that makes it a bit more grippy. The volume rocker is on the top left, the power on the top right and the headphone socket on the top left. In the front middle at the bottom is the single capacitive button and the microUSB port is on the bottom. The whole package is among the most comfortable phone’s I’ve ever used.
I talked about Ubuntu Mobile a couple of weeks ago and what I said still holds very true. Ubuntu takes the normal rule book set by Apple and expanded on by Android and goes it’s own way.
Rather than have a single home screen it builds several ‘Scopes’ which are context or task specific tabs. The OS comes with a number preconfigured like music, video, local social networks and the like. The idea is that if you want music you go to that Scope and can pull up your local music and access web integrated services like SoundCloud to get more. These scopes would be written by developers but as of yet very few have appeared.
There are also some apps available in a but in the vast majority of cases these turn out to be little more than full screen links to the appropriate website rather than apps that run on the the phone or even webapps. This leaves some basic things – for example getting photo’s off the phone as being very difficult.
Control between scopes and the ‘apps’ is done by a series of often opaque gestures. Swipe in from the left to get to apps that you have run recently and some pinned apps, from the right to get the task manager, from the top to get the notification tabs and from the bottom to manage whatever scope you are in. With a little practice and memorization it can be made to work but still feels unfinished.
All in all the experience reminds me of using a Chromebook. Almost everything in the OS is designed to work through its browser whether openly or not which is very similar to the way ChromeOS functions. In a device which is going to be connected 99% of the time its an approach which seems logical but just because it is logical does not necessarily mean it works.
Few people in the UK or the EU will have heard of Meizu but they are an established and large smartphone manufacturer in China that have a good reputation for building solid and well designed hardware at a reasonable price. In the past they have made phones based on Windows CE but now produce almost exclusively Android phones with their own custom ROM called Flyme OS.
RRP 299 Euros or around £211
Retailer: Direct from Meizu
Included in the box
MX4 Ubuntu Edition Smartphone, USB Cable, Quick Start Guide, Wall power adapter (mine was an EU model)
Size: 14.4 x 7.6 x .89 cm
Item Weight: 147g without sim
Colour: Silver or Gold – note that silver is more white than silver
Processor: MediaTek MT6595 (CPU) and PowerVR G6200 (GPU)
Operating System: Ubuntu Mobile OS Version XXXX
Networks: TD-LTE / FDD-LTE / TD-SCDMA / WCDMA / GSM
Memory: 2GB dual-channel LPDDR3
Display: 5.36″ Diagonal with 1920 x 1152 Resolution LCD Gorilla Glass 3 Panel, 418PPI
Rear Camera: 20.7 Megapixel, 5-element lens, f/2.2
Front Camera: 2 Megapixels , 4-element lens, f/2.0
Connectivity: USB 2.0
Wi-Fi: 802.11 ac/b/g/n (2.4 & 5 GHz) capable
Bluetooth: 4.0 and Bluetooth Low Energy
Battery: Integrated 3100mAh
Warranty: Meizu provide a repair service for one year from the original ship date. Batteries are covered for one year and one month.
The MX4 is an experiment by Meizu and Canonical aimed at the Ubuntu fanatic market. The price makes it attractive for developers of apps, websites and systems – whether or not you think Ubuntu’s mobile effort is going to succeed it makes sense to give it a go and see how your own systems work with it. The added bonus is that the camera on the MX4 is very impressive so it may also attract those looking for a more economic way to get a great camera.
Ease of use
The MX4 has somewhat of a surprising start – a removable back. I had seen in the specification that the battery was non-removable so spent time looking for the sim tray – when I did not manage to find it I read the quick start and realised the back was removable.
When first switched on the MX4 did as almost many modern device does and asked for wifi access and ran through a very short tutorial for use of the phone. Then it dropped you into the OS and lets you figure it out on my own. Once you get used to the gestures and where to find things the MX4 is quite straightforward to use though it never rose to the level or easy or intuitive for me which Android and iOS can do. This is not a phone for those who are not tech savy.
Unlike every operating system I’ve used in the last few years there are accessibility settings in Ubuntu Mobile. This means the defaults settings are the ones that you have to live with in many cases this is fine but the lack of any accessibility options such as talkback or even a high contrast theme makes the OS difficult to recommend.
The MX4 isn’t accessible to anyone with a moderate – severe visual impairment, including the blind and those who experience visual symptoms, like photophobia (light sensitivity), eye strain or colour blindness.
The OS has a light grey and black theme with brown and red accents. This is reasonably accessible and is of high contrast. The text size is around 16 point and of a fixed size relative to the screen and font on the MX4. There is no text to speech, magnification or talkback available.
It is accessible to anyone with a mild – moderate hearing impairment, including the deaf and those who experience auditory symptoms, like tinnitus or hyperacusis (sound sensitivity). The system menus are silent.
The phone’s downward facing speaker is reasonably loud although a little tinny. The two mics are of reasonable quality.
It is accessible to anyone with a mild – moderate upper body impairment and those who experience symptoms that affect their hands, wrists and shoulders, like a tremor, fatigue, reduced dexterity or precision.
The phone is controlled via the touch screen and makes heavy use of gestures but these do not have to be particularly precise. I was unable to get an OTG cable working to plug in USB controllers such as a keyboard or mouse although my research shows it should be possible.
The MX4 has Bluetooth 4.0 (and LE) and worked with the Bluetooth mice and keyboards I tested it with.
The MX4 isn’t accessible to anyone with a mild – moderate cognitive impairment, including those with a learning disability like dyslexia and those who experience cognitive symptoms, like problems with memory, concentration, planning and organization.
Its possible that this might change when the OS reaches a more mature stage but at the moment it is too complex and too different to recommend to those with cognitive symptoms. A more in depth and repeatable tutorial might go a long way to fixing these issues as will repeated use.
Trigger warnings and age ratings
As a web connected device with a web browser there is always the possibility of being triggered but nothing on the device or anywhere I looked in the app store should be a trigger and is suitable for all.
Mobile phone are the computers of the age. They are our handheld access to our friends, our music and entertainment, our productivity tools and occasionally they can make phone calls. They should feel good in the hand, be fast full featured and be able to do everything you want. The MX4 comes very close in some ways. The hardware feels perfect to hold – the phone shape is very ergonomic and the camera is very impressive. The price is very reasonable but when it comes down to it Ubuntu Mobile is not ready. It’s an OS to keep an eye on and Meizu is a manufacturer to watch but the package isn’t there for the public yet. Recommended for Ubuntu developers and those after a change.
The review is based on the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition kindly provided by Canonical. First published on 5th August 2015.