BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition review: A promising start

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  • Editors' rating
    7.0 Very good

Pros

  • Runs Ubuntu
  • Good value for money
  • MicroSD card slot for storage expansion (up to 32GB)
  • Excellent audio performance
  • Dual SIM
  • Unlocked

Cons

  • Ubuntu (for Phones) OS is not yet fully developed
  • Moderate specification
  • Non-removable battery
  • Limited availability
  • Only available in black

The first 'production' smartphone running the Ubuntu operating system is finally here. Designed and marketed by the Spanish company BQ (not to be confused with the Chinese company BQ Mobile) and made in China, the first Ubuntu Phone is based on the 4.5-inch BQ Aquaris E4.5, which normally ships with Android 4.4. Included with the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition are two copies of the quick-start guide (in four languages each, one of the eight being English), a charger (with a built-in two-pin continental mains plug) and a 1-metre USB-to-Micro-USB cable. A comprehensive User Manual is available for download from the BQ website. The list price for the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition, which is only available in the EU, is €169.90 (~£125).

The 4.5-inch BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition phone has a screen resolution of 540 by 960 pixels (240ppi). It measures 67mm wide by 137mm deep by 9mm thick and weighs 123g. Image: BQ

BQ started off in 2009 as Booq, designing and manufacturing e-readers. In 2010 the brand name was changed to BQ (owned by Mundo Reader SL). The company now designs and manufactures a range of e-readers, mobile phones, tablets, 3D printers and educational robots.

What it is and what it's not

Before delving into the operation of the phone itself, let's be clear about what this phone is, and what it is not.

The BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition is a moderately specified smartphone (240ppi screen, 1.3GHz MediaTek SoC, 1GB RAM, 8GB internal storage, 802.11b/g/n wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, HSPA+), running Ubuntu (for Phones) as its operating system, that retails at an affordable price. It demonstrates that Ubuntu (for Phones) doesn't need cutting-edge high-specification hardware to run, and it allows early adopters to buy an Ubuntu phone at a relatively low entry point (around £125). As it stands, Canonical acknowledges that Ubuntu (for Phones) is a work in (rapid) progress and is not yet fully formed and ready for the mass market.

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Promotional image for the Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding project. Image: Canonical

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Although Canonical itself won't be providing multiple installable binaries for the entire range of phones and tablets that might run Ubuntu, early this year it released an Ubuntu for devices porting guide 2.0 and enthusiasts have installed Ubuntu on a number of phones and tablets.

The BQ is certainly not the proposed Edge 'superphone' of Canonical's Indiegogo campaign. It does not yet support a docked Ubuntu desktop mode, although apparently, within the next few months, it will become possible to plug the phone into an external desktop monitor via an MHL link and have the operating system appear on that monitor (an MHL-to-HDMI adapter may be required).

Current connectivity

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The BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition appears as a peripheral device in the Ubuntu file manager on the desktop. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

When plugged in to a computer (running Ubuntu) with the cable provided and unlocked, the phone appears in the file manager as a device (Aquaris E4.5). Opening this device in file manager displays folders for Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures and Videos. When tested with Windows 7 with the phone turned on and active, the same folders were accessible via the file manager, once the system installed a suitable device driver.

Dual SIMs

The BQ Aquaris E4.5 is a dual (Micro) SIM phone, which potentially offers several advantages: you can operate two numbers on the same phone (one for private calls and one for business, perhaps), or you can minimise call costs when travelling abroad by buying a local SIM to avoid roaming charges on local calls, while your home-country SIM still allows friends and family to contact you. SIMs can be inserted and removed through two side slots. The tiny metal carriers for the Micro-SIMs can be ejected by inserting the end of an unbent paperclip into small holes in the end of each carrier.

Look and feel

Only available in black, the styling of the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition seems, at first glance, to be typical generic smartphone: it's flat and rectangular with a glass face and radiused corners. Minimalist and unobtrusive, it's actually very satisfying to hold and use.

The only features visible (apart from the display itself) on the front of the phone are the forward-facing camera lens under the glass and an oval cut-out for the earpiece. A small multi-colour LED is concealed just below the earpiece slot and there's a proximity/ambient light sensor to the left of the camera.

There are no mechanical buttons on the front, as all user input is through the Ubuntu touch interface. A small on/off button and a longer volume rocker are located towards the top of the right edge. Once the phone has booted, brief pressure on the on/off either opens or blanks the Welcome display. A two-second press on the on/off key will either cause the power-off dialogue to be displayed (with Power off, Restart and Cancel options) or, if it is powered off, start the boot process.

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The power off dialogue. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

The response of the 5-point capacitive touch screen is sharp and accurate, and the 'all four edges' user interface design of Ubuntu (for Phones) makes the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition a pleasure to use.

In use

With Ubuntu for Phones (or, as it will eventually be known when the code base is fully converged, Ubuntu), Canonical is seeking not only to deliver a fully converged operating system, but also to provide mobile phone users with a superior user interface for smartphones -- one that's a compelling alternative to Android, iOS and Windows.

Even in its current state of rapid development, Ubuntu (for Phones) showcases the very elegant design palette that Canonical has developed for the mobile version of its OS.

Initial power up

On initial power up, Ubuntu (for Phones) runs a Set-up Wizard, a series of six screens offering: a choice of user language and SIM card; security settings; Wi-Fi settings; location (GPS) settings; and something called 'Improving your experience', which allows privacy settings on what information you share, or don't share, for debugging and use analysis with Canonical. The security settings allow the phone to be set to unlock on a swipe (no security), on a 4-digit passcode or on a pass-phrase of numbers and letters.

Swipes

The Ubuntu user interface utilises swipe gestures from all four edges of the display. A top-down swipe reveals phone settings and notifications. A long swipe from the right edge inwards reveals a carousel of running apps (apps can be closed here with a swipe up or down), while a short swipe from the right edge inwards swipe switches between a running app and the previous app. A swipe up from the bottom reveals context-related controls and a swipe from the left edge inwards reveals the familiar Ubuntu launcher bar.

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Network settings are accessed by swiping down from the Settings and Status bar at the top of the display. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

The swipe functions of the edges do not currently auto-rotate with a rotated app, such as a browser or a game.

The Launcher

The Ubuntu (for Phones) launcher with web browser, gallery, camera, settings, contacts and phone dialer apps pinned to it. The Ubuntu button at the bottom opens the active Scopes display. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

The launcher is a vertical bar that appears on the left of the display. Its operation is similar to the launcher on the desktop, although rather than open the Dash display the Home button always displays whatever you choose as the home scope. By default this is the Today Scope. App icons can be pinned to, or unpinned from, the launcher just as they can on the desktop.

On the phone, the launcher is 'inverted' with the Home/Ubuntu icon on the bottom rather than at the top, as it is on the current desktop. During testing it was found that phone users preferred to pin apps to the launcher above, rather than below, the Home icon. By default and from the bottom up the Launcher displays the Ubuntu Home button, dialler, Contacts, System Settings, Camera, Events and Browser apps.

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The Ubuntu (for Phones) System Settings (left) and the dialler (right). Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

Scopes

According to Canonical, Scopes -- which are described as "the new way to surface content to users" -- are one of the features that make Ubuntu (for Phones) revolutionary.

Scopes are a way of gathering, organising and navigating information, and there are two types: aggregated and branded. An aggregated Scope gathers together resources related to a theme, while a branded Scope contains material from a single source. For example, the general (aggregated) News Scope contains news from many sources such as CNET, CNN, Yahoo!, BBC News and so on. By contrast, a 'branded' Scope such as the BBC News Scope will only contain BBC-sourced news.

There is an extensive framework for developers, such that the coding involved in developing a Scope is quicker and easier than current mobile app development. Rightly or wrongly, the supporting ecology, and the availability of a large pool of apps, is generally regarded as being very important for the success of a smartphone OS. Canonical's Scope framework, supported by a new toolkit within the Ubuntu SDK, should promote fast growth in third-party content for the Ubuntu (for Phones) platform.

Queries from the search bar that appears at the top of each Scope return results relevant to that Scope, from both the phone's local storage and the internet (similar to the searches from the Dash on the current Ubuntu desktop).

The BQ Ubuntu phone comes with seven aggregated Scopes loaded by default: Apps, Today, News, NearBy, My Music, My Videos and My Photos. Each of these collects or aggregates widgets and apps that relate to their themes or titles. The Today scope, for example, shows the weather, the date and time, events planned for that day, your most frequent or important contacts and so on, while the NearBy scope provides information on local facilities based on your current location.

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User options for the Today Scope. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

You can customise your Ubuntu (for Phones) experience by turning off default loading for any of these Scopes (except for Apps) by tapping the star icon in the title bar. Features within each Scope can be turned on or off via the Scope settings (gear wheel icon in the title bar), although a system restart may be required to make these changes effective. You can page through the loaded Scopes with left and right swipes on the title bar.

Updates

Canonical places updates for Ubuntu (for phones) on its servers on a regular basis and the phone can either be updated by selecting Updates from System Settings or set to auto-update. Auto downloads can be set to: 'Never'; 'When on Wi-Fi'; or 'On any data connection'. App updates take place separately and require the user to be logged onto Ubuntu One.

The Ubuntu App Store

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The Ubuntu App Store. The second image is the App Store display scrolled up. Where appropriate, all displays on the phone can be scrolled up to reveal further content. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

Canonical currently operates the Software Centre for the desktop and an App Store for phones. These will eventually merge into one, but Canonical says that the applications in this store will be clearly differentiated as suitable for desktop or mobile use (or both). The Ubunutu App Store has little to offer at the moment, with only fifteen apps listed.

Audio

Audio quality is excellent, with clear lows and highs and plenty of volume to play with. The BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition phone performed faultlessly when tested with a range of earbuds and over-ear headphones. The 3.5mm audio socket is a four-pole jack wired to the CTIA standard, so a mono audio input is supported for a wired hands-free headset, or for recording.

For calls, a noise-cancelling microphone is mounted on the back of the phone behind a tiny pinhole, which is a real boon in a noisy environment.

Cameras

Most people carry their mobiles everywhere, so a smartphone can always conveniently double as a stills or video camera. The trade-off, against even a compact digital camera, is in image quality. Smartphone cameras often boast a high-megapixel sensor resolution, but this is usually coupled with a small, low-sensitivity, low-resolution lens.

You can take stills using the 8-megapixel rear camera with Basic, Normal, or Fine quality settings. These settings appear to be for the degree of compression applied.All three result in capture at 2,448 by 4,352 pixels, which is a software-enhanced resolution of 10Mpixels. The front camera's native resolution is specified as 5Mpixels. You can shoot video with the rear camera at 1080p, 720p or 480p, although video is currently quite jerky. Stills are stored as JPEG and video as MP4 files.

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A street scene shot with the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition's 8-megapixel rear camera. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

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A zoomed portion of the street scene gives some idea of the effect of sharpening and compression on stills shot with the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition rear camera. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

Buying one

At the moment, the only way to buy a BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition phone is via the limited 24-hour Flash sales on the BQ website. The Ubuntu phone first went on Flash sale to countries in the EU on 11 February, and initial demand was so high it crashed the vendor's servers. Order rates of 12,000 a minute were reported and the entire allocation sold out in around 10 minutes. A second Flash sale on 19 February was somewhat less frantic. In effect, these first two sales were preorders, since phones weren't actually delivered until the end of March (a phone we ordered during the second sale was delivered in the UK on 24 March).

Further 24-hour sales took place on the 26 February, and 12 and 26 March. There are rumours that BQ may eventually offer an Ubuntu phone as a standard production item. Network connection in the UK is currently provided by GiffGaff's free-SIM, pay-as-you-go service.

Conclusion

Some critics have sneered at the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition phone, saying that it's nothing special in terms of hardware. It's certainly no Edge superphone, but it is a perfectly capable smartphone offering a well-balanced set of features at a very reasonable price. For those seeking an Ubuntu phone with more processing power, the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition (a 4G phone with a customised versions of an octa-core MediaTek 6595 CPU/PowerVR G6200 GPU, from around $449/£300) is expected to be available (including in the US) in a couple of months' time.

The fact that the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition is the first phone running Ubuntu (for Phones) is what sets it apart, and it's clear that the OS has made a promising start. That said, it's not yet ready for prime time. Ubuntu enthusiasts will get a buzz from seeing Canonical's promises starting to become a reality, but neutral smartphone users are likely to be annoyed by the oddities and bugs in this new smartphone platform. However, development continues apace, and rapid improvement -- delivered through frequent updates -- is to be expected.

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