Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 and both disrupted and created a new market of Smart Phones – really tiny handheld computers. Google’s Android soon joined in and tussled for first place while Blackberry slowly withered, Symbian died and Windows Phone tried to become a force. Whilst this was going on several other OS’s tried to become relevant such as Sailfish and Canonical’s Ubuntu has been trying to build a mobile presence.
Ubuntu is the best known of the Linux flavors and has something around 2% of the worlds desktop market depending on how it is counted. Perhaps more importantly it has a devoted and reasonably sized following and when Canonical tried an IndieGoGo campaign in 2013 to get their Ubuntu Edge phone off the ground it failed but was did succeed in getting millions of dollars of pledges and proving there might be a niche market there.
Fast forward to this year and Canonical has changed direction and is partnering with hardware manufacturers to put their operating system on hardware designed designed for Android. Two phones have launched the Aquaris E4.6 / E5 and the Meizu MX4 in very low quantities and amounts. We’ve got our hands on both variants and this is for the first – the E5. The phone is available for 199 Euros or around £142 direct from bq.
So what do you get for your money? The E5 is a solid and hard edged 5 inch metal bodied phone which looks smart but somewhat non-descript – but it feels like business. That 5 inch screen is bright and clear at 720p and internally there is a 1.3GHz MediaTek Quad Core Cortex A7 processor with 1GB of Ram and a relatively low storage amount of 16GB. It does however have a microSD card slot to allow you to expand your storage.
It boasts two cameras – one 13 megapixel with a double flash capable of 1080p video and a front facing 5 megapixel selfie camera.
The phone starts being more unusual when you get to the sim cards – it has two. This is something that is fairly unusual in the UK but is more popular in some markets. It lets you do things like have two lines – one personal and one work or on be on two separate networks so you have more chance of a good signal. If you are travelling or near a border it also offers the possibility of a sim from each country.
All in all the hardware is nice but nothing is standout or wow about it.
The OS – Ubuntu
Most mobile operating systems follow the model pioneered by Apple – a home screen filled with applications that can run individually and a notification system to tie it all together.
Ubuntu OS takes this and tries to go its 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.
In theory it reminds me a little of what Windows Phone 7 tried to do having everything integrated into the OS and Microsoft has then backed away from because of the difficulty updating it. Canonical has gotten around this by letting developers write their own scopes, but it remains to be seen how many will do so.
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.
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.
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.
BQ usually written as bq is a trading name of Spanish smartphone, tablet and 3d printer manufacturer Mundo Reader. The company is relatively small on the smartphone stage selling around half a million handsets last year and around 4 percent of the Spanish market and s smaller portion of the Portuguese market.
RRP 199 Euros or about £142
Included in the box/price
BQ Aquarius E5 phone, USB to microUSB cable, wall charger, Quick Start Guide, Guarantee, Sim slot opener
FOR OTHER PRODUCTS
Size: 14 x 7 x .8 cm
Item Weight: 135g
Processor: QuadCore Cortex A7 – 1.3 Ghz
Operating System: Ubuntu 15.04 (r3)
Network: 3g WCDMA
Display: 5 Inch IPS 5.0HD
Camera: Rear, 14MP, Front 5MP
Connectivity: USB 2.0
Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n capable
Bluetooth: Yes, 4.0
NFC (Near Field Communication): No
Battery: Integrated, non removable 2500mAh
Power and plug description: MicroUSB charging
As a first release the E5 is very clearly aimed at the Ubuntu fanatic market. The price also 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.
Ease of use
When first switched on the E5 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 it and let me figure it out on my own.
Once you get used to the gestures and where to find things the E5 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 no specific accessibility settings in the E5. 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 recomend.
It 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/red accents. This is reasonably accessible and is of high contrast. The text size is around 12 point and of a fixed size and font. There is no text to speech, magnification or talkback available.
In addition to the screen the E5 has a single LED above the screen which flashes red or green for notifications when the screen is turned off.
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 phone’s speaker and mic are of reasonable quality.
Input and touch
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. Canonical and bq have also enabled the microUSB to work as an OTG cable and I’ve had it working with wired mice and keyboards as well as USB thumb drives. I tried using it with a USB switch and the OS did not recognise it.
The E5 has Bluetooth 4.0 and worked with the bluetooth mice and keyboards I tested it with.
The E5 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 repeateable tutorial might go a long way to fixing these issues.
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.
Usually when I write reviews I try to focus on the positive whilst not ignoring the negative and look for who the product would be best for. That was difficult with the E5 and after two weeks of trying to use the E5 as my main phone I’m ambivalent about it. The hardware is solid and workmanlike and better than I would have expected for the price – well done to bq for turning out a steady performance. The operating system feels like an idea that has been conceived and not finished. The way that Canonical has tried to implement the UI actually makes sense to me and once I’d gotten used to the gestures was quick to use but there is so much missing that should be there that it does not yet exist. No file manager. No cut and paste. No way to take a screenshot. No apps. No tutorials. It’s a OS with promise for the future but it is not there yet. Recommended for Ubuntu developers and and those who might want to see how their systems work with it but the E5 isn’t ready for prime time yet.
The review is based on the bq Aquarius E5 running 15.04 R3 kindly provided by Canonical