Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

Looking at Ubuntu Touch with the Aquaris M10 tablet

A tablet, lying in the grass

This post has been a long time in coming. Let me explain.

Last winter (well, winter here in the southern hemisphere), I got my hands on a BQ Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition tablet. You might have heard of it. It’s the tablet that’s powered by Ubuntu Touch, the mobile version of Ubuntu.

Why did I get one? I was curious about Ubuntu Touch, but didn’t want or need a new phone. So I decided to give the tablet a try.

My initial impressions of the tablet were disappointing. While it’s light, the tablet is underpowered. Apps ran slowly, and the desktop apps included with the tablet — like Firefox, Gedit, and The GIMP — were even slower than I expected. On top of that, when I tried to use a pair of Bluetooth keyboards with the tablet, the response was laggy.

After trying to work with the tablet for about two weeks, I thought that 1) it definitely needed faster processor, and 2) future updates might smooth out the many rough edges.

I put tablet aside and, to be honest, forgot about it. Fast forward a few months. After returning home from All Things Open in late October, 2016 I was rummaging through a drawer for something when I stumbled upon the tablet in its case. After a bit of deliberation, I decided to give it another try. I started the tablet up and there was a huge … no, make that a huge update waiting to install.

That update made a massive difference. While I still believe that the Aquaris M10 is underpowered, the Ubuntu Touch itself has come a long way from when I first started using it last winter.

Here are my (now revised) thoughts about Ubuntu Touch, via my experiences with the Aquaris M10 tablet.

Before we begin

I think I should explain what I use tablets for, if only to offer a context for my comments. I don’t view a tablet as a replacement or substitute for a desktop or laptop computer. Tablets are just too limited, no matter what tablet you’re using or what some people say. Instead, I mainly use tablets for:

  • Writing while on the go
  • Listening to music
  • Doing some personal and professional communication
  • Reading

I have a particular focus with my mobile tools that doesn’t mesh with how some people view and use theirs. That doesn’t make my, or their, approach wrong. Those approaches are just different. You have been warned.

With that out of the way, let’s continue.

Getting started

When you log into the M10, you’re presented with a set of Scopes (what Canonical, the folks behind Ubuntu Touch, describes as individual home screens for different kinds of content). Those Scopes include local news and photos, a list of installed applications, music, and more. You can change what Scopes appear in the tablet’s settings. Here’s the Scope that I see when I start my tablet:

The Ubuntu Touch tablet's main screen

Using a tablet powered by Ubuntu Touch is a bit different from using an Android or iOS device. Sure, firing up apps and tapping and swiping generally work the same way. But the way in which you switch between active apps is quite different.

You swipe right or left to switch between Scopes. To switch between apps, you need to swipe inward from the right edge of the screen. Doing that stacks the running apps as a set of tiles.

Apps in Ubuntu Touch tiled after swiping

Tap a tile to switch to it, or swipe the app upwards to close it.

Speaking of swiping, when you swipe inward from the left side of the screen, a Launcher appears. If you’re familiar with Ubuntu on the desktop, you’ll recognize the Launcher as the dock containing certain default programs as well as running apps. I don’t use the Launcher much on the M10, and am happy that it stays out of the way.

It can take a bit of time to adapt to that, especially if you’re used to using Android or iOS. I don’t know if that makes Ubuntu Touch better or worse. It’s just different.

Of apps

Gone are the desktop apps I mentioned earlier. Well, they’re more out of sight than gone completely. While you can still launch those apps from a Scope, the desktop apps are really meant for use when you´ve connected the tablet to a monitor. Aside from LibreOffice, they’re still a bit slow.

The update I mentioned a few paragraphs ago removed some apps, like Phone (for making phone calls, though it didn’t work), which didn’t make sense to include on a tablet. On the other hand, the range of apps and scopes available in the Ubuntu Store seems to be a bit broader.

The apps and Scopes on an Ubuntu Touch device are a little different from what you’d be used to on Android and iOS devices. While you can install apps from the Ubuntu Store, a number of those apps are similar, in many ways, to certain apps available for the Chromebook. They’re more like links to web applications and services rather than true apps that live on the device.

Apps in the Ubuntu Store

The selection of apps in the Ubuntu Store, in terms of breadth and depth, isn’t comparable to what’s available for Android or iOS. Not even close, to be honest. There are few, if any, official apps for popular web applications and services. Instead, get either unofficial ones (like the ones for Instagram and Dropbox) or ones that are web links.

If you’re curious, the apps I use most are:

  • StackEdit and Crazy Mark (for writing in Markdown)
  • turtl-ut (for taking notes)
  • Wire (for secure communication)
  • Tweetdeck (for working with Twitter)
  • Fastmail (for email)
  • Beru (for reading ebooks)
  • Cloud Music (for listening to music)

There are a few other apps that I use as well, but the ones I’ve listed above are the ones that I use the most.

An app in action

When I first worked with the tablet last winter, the apps and Scopes could be slow. Now, they’re a lot faster and more responsive. I did, however, run into few apps that didn’t work (like the app for online radio station Soma.fm) or which were just disappointing. The latter wasn’t a surprise. Not every Android or iOS app I’ve used has thrilled me, either.

Desktop Mode

I mentioned the tablet’s Desktop Mode at the beginning of this post. Desktop Mode, as the name implies, turns the tablet’s interface into one that’s reminiscent of a desktop or laptop compter complete with traditional windows.

An example of desktop mode

You can manually enter Desktop Mode by swiping down the Settings icon, going to System Settings, and tapping Desktop Mode. If you connect the tablet to a monitor, or pair it with a Bluetooth mouse, it automatically goes into Desktop Mode. I couldn´t fully test it because I don’t have a monitor. I did connect the tablet to a large TV, but the screen was a bit too large. And I had to manually turn off Desktop Mode after unplugging the tablet.

Speaking of Bluetooth …

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I used a couple of Bluetooth keyboards — a Logitech K480 and a friend’s Apple Bluetooth keyboard. When I first tried them last winter, they were laggy. Very laggy. To the point of being almost unusable. Now, they’re quite responsive, as is the iClever folding keyboard I use. I attribute that to the update I installed.

Bluetooth also works well with a Bluetooth mouse, a Samsung Level Box speaker, and a couple of other Bluetooth devices I tried. There’s little or no lag, although using Bluetooth does drain the battery faster than without it.

There are some rough edges

While I’m enjoying using the Aquaris M10, there are still rough edges about it.

While the updates I installed improved the operating system’s performance, the tablet itself and some of the apps can still be slow. This is especially true of the Ubuntu Store. I think a lot of this goes back to the hardware being underpowered. The Aquaris M10 doesn’t, to be entirely honest, show Ubuntu Touch at its best.

Some apps use don’t work in what I consider to be an optimal way. Beru, the ebook reader I use, is a good example of this. While it has a number of solid features, it also has one annoying flaw. My books need to be in folder on tablet. The app, unlike the tablet’s music app for example, can’t read off the microSD card I have plugged into it.

The on-screen keyboard can be a bit unresponsive. It sometimes misses letters I’ve typed. That said, I’m not sure if it’s a problem with the screen, the software, or I’m not pressing a key firmly enough.

Sometimes, swiping to tile the open apps doesn’t work. I just move to the next screen of a scope or nothing happens. Again, I don’t know whether that’s me or a problem with hardware and software, but it can be annoying.

Final thoughts

I have to, yet again, say the performance of the Aquaris M10 has improved since the first time I tried it. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing a lot of work with that tablet. I’ve had no struggles, and I’ve been getting things done.

That said, I know that this tablet and Ubuntu Touch are definitely not for everyone. That’s OK. Not every device or piece of software (or anything for that matter) is meant for everyone. That’s a fact that seems to elude many people.

Does Ubuntu Touch have a future? I don’t know. And, to be honest, I really don’t care. It’s an alternative to the major players in the mobile world, and we don’t have enough of alternatives in that world. But if this experiment with BQ hardware dies and Ubuntu Touch dies with it, it dies. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. That won’t have any impact on me. I’m not so attached to my mobile techology that losing a platform will change my life.

Do I like the Aquaris M10 and Ubuntu Touch? Yes, I do, even with the rough edges. I want to see how the platform evolves, and wouldn’t mind seeing how Ubuntu Touch runs on more powerful hardware.

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