Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition review: A flagship Linux smartphone

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Sharp and vivid 5.36-inch display
  • Powerful octa-core processor
  • Magnesium alloy case frame
  • 20.7-megapixel rear camera
  • Dual-band 802.11ac wi-fi
  • Stylish design
  • Light weight (147g)

Cons

  • Only one Micro-SIM slot
  • 16GB of storage
  • No storage expansion slot
  • Non-replaceable battery
  • Ubuntu presently limits video to 1080p
  • No MHL support
  • Glossy white plastic on the back of the 'silver' model
  • No protective case
  • Ubuntu for Phones is not yet a 'prime-time' smartphone OS

The MX4 Ubuntu Edition from Chinese maker Meizu is the second Ubuntu smartphone to reach the market. Originally released for purchase only by linked request and invitation, the MX4 is now available for regular purchase direct from Meizu's website at €299 euros (around £220). Note though, that the MX4 Ubuntu Edition is currently only available within the EU.

Canonical announced plans to port its popular Ubuntu Linux distribution as Ubuntu for Phones in January 2013, and in April this year we reviewed the first Ubuntu phone -- the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition from Spanish manufacturer BQ.

Like the BQ phone, the Meizu MX4 is very much a device for early adopters, since Ubuntu for Phones is still in the development phase. While the €169.90 Aquaris E4.5 is a mid-range phone, the Meizu MX4 delivers considerably more computing power for €299. It runs on a Meizu-customised octa-core MediaTek MT6595 SoC with four ARM Cortex-A17 and four ARM Cortex-A7 cores, with a PowerVR G6200 GPU to handle the graphics, all supported by 2GB of LPDDR3 RAM.

Also like the BQ phone, the Meizu MX4 is an existing model that has had Ubuntu ported to it. The 'parent' version of the MX4 runs the Flyme operating system, which is based on Android. Various reviewers have said that Flyme is rather buggy so, even in its current form, Ubuntu for Phones may deliver a better experience on this phone. With the Flyme version there's a choice of either 16B or 32GB of internal storage, but the Ubuntu version offers only 16GB. Unlike on the BQ Aquaris 4.5, there is no Micro-SD slot for optional storage expansion.

The Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition has a 5.36-inch (diagonal) display with a resolution of 1,920 by 1,152 pixels, giving a pixel density of 418ppi (the 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus, by contrast, offers 401ppi). The display panel, a joint development between Sharp and JDI, uses NEGA LC (negative dielectric anisotropy liquid crystal) technology, in a twisted nematic design that offers higher performance than the earlier positive TN panels. The MX4 measures 75.2mm wide by 144mm deep by 8.9mm thick.

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The Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition smartphone in profile. Image: Meizu/Canonical

Design

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The Meizu MX4 is a good-looking smartphone that borrows some styling cues from the Samsung Galaxy S6. The aluminium/magnesium alloy frame has softly rounded corners and smoothly rolled edges blending into the shallow curves of the back, so even though it has the width required to accommodate the large display, it sits very comfortably in the hand. It's available in two finishes: matte silver or matte gold. Despite its apparent appearance on the Meizu website, the 'silver' finish device has a glossy white plastic back, which looks as though it will scratch very easily. This entire back cover must be removed to access the Micro-SIM slot -- a fiddly business since there's just one small pry slot and the back is held tenaciously in place by 14 snaps.

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The Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition with the back cover removed. The battery is visible, but not removable, and the Micro-SIM slot can be seen at top left, just below the power button. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

Early reviews of the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition noted that, despite what seems to be a fairly high-capacity battery (3,100mAh), battery life was under a day and the phone became warm during use. Based on the battery use statistics for our review sample, battery life appears to be around 27 hours (for light use). After extended periods of use, the back of the phone did become noticeably warm. The BQ E.4.5 Ubuntu Edition also initially suffered from a short battery life, but this was fixed by an operating system update shortly after launch.

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Screen capture of battery performance on the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

A thin highlight of polished silver (or gold) around the frame sets off the sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 which is bonded to the front to protect the display and form the OGS ('One-Glass Solution'). The bezel width on either side of the screen is only 2.6mm, resulting in a screen-to-front-panel ratio of 79 percent on the MX4, which apparently is near the limit for smartphones. An 11mm border above the display features a central slot for the earpiece/loudspeaker; to the right of the speaker is the ambient light sensor, and 16mm to the right of that is the front camera lens. The combined touch button and status light occupies centre of the 11mm border below the display.

On the back of the MX4, a 14mm disc of coated Gorilla Glass 3 protects the rear camera lens and its black surround. This design detail may be intended to make the lens, which is only about 2mm across, look bigger than it is. This 'lens' protrudes a little beyond the back of the phone, making it vulnerable to picking up dirt and scratches when the MX4 is laid on its back. Below the lens is a two-colour LED flash.

In use

Once charged, the phone can be booted by a brief pressure on the on/off button on the right-hand side of the top edge. On the initial boot nothing appears to happen for a few seconds, and then the power-up splash screen appears, followed by a sequence of one-time setup screens -- Language, Lock security (swipe, none, passcode or passphrase), Wi-Fi, Location and Improving experience. There is then a short on-screen tutorial about Ubuntu gestures which seems impossible to skip.

With an activated Micro-SIM and a network connection, system updates can immediately be downloaded and installed by choosing System Settings from the launcher and then selecting Updates. However, in order to receive app updates users are prompted to log in with their Ubuntu ID. If you don't yet have an Ubuntu ID, you'll need to create one.

In addition to the power and volume buttons and the on-screen touch controls, the MX4 has a touch-operated button in the centre of the lower display surround. This is delimited by a circle which can be illuminated by a white LED status indicator. With the phone unlocked, touching this button displays whichever scope is selected as first in order.

Stills and video

The MX4's NEGA 418ppi display shows bold saturated colours with great clarity and definition. This benefits the operating system graphics, which look clean and colourful, but colour looks a little oversaturated on stills and video.

The MX4 has a Sony IMX 220 20.7-megapixel rear camera sensor that, in conjunction with the four-channel 1.5Gbps ISP (Image Signal Processor), apparently has the ability to shoot 4K video at 30fps. Under Ubuntu, however, video is limited to 1080p. There is a double colour temperature flash (5,500K and 2,200K) for warmer, more natural-looking, still portraits. The camera lens is a five-element f2.2 unit, 2.8mm in diameter with a 4.8mm focal length.

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A Fine quality shot from the MX4's 20.7-megapixel rear camera. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet.

As on the BQ phone, the Ubuntu camera app offers three image settings (Basic, Normal and Fine), although these affect compression rather than resolution, with the Fine setting resulting in the least image compression. There is also an HDR (High Dynamic Range) on/off setting. The app settings are common to both cameras; the front camera has a four-element f2.0 lens and a 2-megapixel Sony IMX 208 sensor.

Conclusion

The experience of Ubuntu for Phones is a little different between the BQ Aquaris 4.5 and the Meizu MX4, each exhibiting different minor glitches. For example, the Meizu phone seems unable to automatically reacquire the default wi-fi connection after having moved out of range or having been turned off, which is not a problem with the BQ device.

The Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition offers a number of high-end hardware features at relatively low cost, but Ubuntu for Phones seems unable, yet, to take full advantage of the hardware. Compared to the BQ Aquaris E4.5, you might think that the Meizu MX4's extra processing power would make it noticeably more responsive. While some apps do load faster on the MX4, the difference between the two phones is not that great in this respect.

If you particularly want an Ubuntu-powered smartphone you might choose to buy the Meizu MX4 for its styling, high-resolution 5.36-inch display and 20.7-megapixel rear camera. However, you might also want to look at BQ's new €199.90 Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition, which has a 5-inch screen, a 13-megapixel rear camera and 16GB of storage (plus a Micro-SD card slot).

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