First impressions of Ubuntu touch and the M10 tablet

M10 in tablet mode

(Disclaimer: this was written in the time of OTA-11. As the Ubuntu touch platform evolves and updates are shipped, many of the things mentioned here will improve. Unlike on Android, all devices get all updates and they are rolled out as soon as they are ready to be delivered, which is quite often. As of July 16th, OTA 12 is just around the corner, and some of the issues mentioned here are fixed there. Others are fixed in individual app and scope updates.)

I am writing this on the M10 with an attached bluetooth keyboard and mouse. The tablet and operating system function quite well with the newest over the air update (OTA-11), but there are still some bugs that need fixing and additional features that are needed to make it the converged laptop killer it could potentially be for some of us. However, the main bits and pieces are in place and taking into consideration that the first Ubuntu phones and tablets shipped quite recently, it is looking really promising.

I don’t want to repeat what everyone else has said about some scopes not being that useful since they don’t let you read all the content without leaving for the browser, or that there are still not that many apps, and that many of them are little more than websites packaged up with an icon in a separate browser. I also won’t repeat that webapps might be very useful sometimes, while awful when more limited than the actual sites in an ordinary browser other times, and that some of the apps in the Ubuntu store are really great. However, I probably need to say it anyway, as it is part of my first impressions. The idea behind scopes is good, and some scopes are really nice, but most of them seem a bit underdeveloped and not all that useful as of now.

As for the hardware, it feels high quality while at the same time being lightweight. I like that there are separate connectors for headphones, micro HDMI and micro USB. This makes it easy to connect an external screen and still charge the tablet or connect a USB mouse and keyboard or whatever else to the USB port. It is also easy to feel the difference between the long volume up/down button and the on/off button on the opposite side of the screen from the ports, which is nice when using the tablet in the dark. The screen has got vivid colours, and it looks very crisp and sharp with its 1920 x 1200 pixels. (Beware when ordering that the HD version only has 1280 x 800 pixels.) I think over the air update 11 (OTA-11) solved some of the sluggishness earlier reviewers complained about for the touch input. Now, it feels instantaneous and natural.

Using the tablet in tablet mode works very well. All of the tablet mode apps feel at home at the 1920 x 1200 resolution on the small screen, and the user interfaces are usually consistent enough between apps to make them easy to navigate. Using the same apps in desktop mode (with an attached mouse and/or external screen) also work very well. However, the desktop apps LibreOffice, Firefox, gEdit and the GIMP look tiny and would be more useable if scaled to 150-180%. I scale the documents in LibreOffice Writer to 180% and that makes the text large enough, but the menus are still tiny. (I usually remove the top toolbars and add the sidebar on the right side as this gives me more space for my content in the direction screens have the fewest. On the M10, it also makes the user interface less tiny, as the tools on the right side change size according to the size of the sidebar, while the toolbars on top do not.) I was looking for a place to file a bug report about the scaling of the desktop apps on the FHD tablet, but I was unable to find it, so I didn’t. However, I did find a way to scale resolution in Firefox in the Arch Linux wiki. It should probably be easy to make the app check if the resolution is HD or FHD and scale accordingly.

I have mainly used the tablet for internet browsing, watching films, email and trying out some features thus far, so I have really only gotten a first impression. The software will only improve over time, but it is already good enough to be very useable. It was a pity that many reviewers got the tablet before OTA-11, since it seems like that update really improved the overall experience. Most of the core system seems highly functional, but there are some bugs and lacking features here and there. You would still have to be somewhat enthusiastic about Ubuntu touch to buy this device in my opinion. The software is still not at the point that it is just as good as Android, iOS or Windows, but it is pretty close and probably soon will be.

One annoyance is that the Calendar app presently only syncs with Google. There are plans for CalDav and iCal support in the future, so it will be possible to sync with NextCloud, Kolab and other more privacy aware services later, but for now, this limits the usefulness of the Calendar app for non-Google users that want to keep their calendars in sync between devices. The Address book app also lacks import and export of .vcf or .csv files, but it imports from Google. Since many users of Ubuntu touch will probably be privacy contious Linux enthusiasts moving over from Android to free themselves of the Google spyware/adware/services/whateveryouliketocallit, easily configurable alternative sync services is even more important on Ubuntu touch than on other OSes.

A problem I encountered when attaching an external bluetooth keyboard and using the Norwegian keyboard layout was that the alt gr key does not give alternative glyphs when used in combination with the other keys. This makes it impossible to write common signs like @, £, $, {, }, [, ], and accented letters with accent ague (á, é etc), double dots (ö, ë and so forth) and use the very homey glyph ~. And that is why I am writing this paragraph on my ThinkPad in stead of on the M10. That being said, I could have disconnected the bluetooth keyboard for these special glyphs and used the onboard keyboard which has an excellent Norwegian layout that works well in stead. I have filed a bug report, so hopefully this will be fixed soon.

I have watched some videos on the tablet, and in the process I have encountered some annoying bugs. If you want to watch a video, you can select one in the Videos or My videos scope. Unfortunately, the videos are not sorted in a very obvious way in these scopes. After you have selected the one you want to watch and clicked it, in stead of going straight to the media player app, you have to select the video once more in a new separate window that pops up. It isn’t a real problem, but it is a bit annoying. The real problem is that there is a small, but noticeable lag between audio and video when watching vidoes in the media player app. It’s not a long lag, but it is long enough to be annoying.

An additional annoyance with the media player app is that it currently does not play HLS streams (.m3u playlist files downloaded from a browser). Neither does the Ubuntu touch browser if the stream is embedded in HTML5. This means that watching videos from and twich is currently not possible. The app also lacks an app icon in the apps scope which seems strange.

I am secretly hoping that someone will port VLC to Ubuntu touch. The Android version of VLC is quite nice and it handles whatever media or streams you give it, so having something like that on Ubuntu touch would be great. If I am not mistaken, it is also Qt based, so porting it over should probably not be that hard. I am not certain if the built in media player app is meant to be as all-encompassing as VLC in the future, but I know that I would love to have such a swiss army knife of media amongst my apps.

Home screen and search with categories in Ubuntu store scope

As is tradition in Ubuntu on the desktop, the software centre, or rather the Ubuntu store scope is not that great in its present condition. It is hard to find scopes separately, finding the categories of the store is not very intuitive either, as they are hidden in the search field. Additionally, there are no categories for installed apps and installed scopes , the store also lacks a category for games (turns out that you have to scroll the list of categories, but there is no visual cue to show that it is possible and that is why I missed a lot of app categories including games) and clicking “All” does not show all programs and scopes, but brings you back to the front page of the store with “Featured apps”, “Game of the week” and such. This is not great on a platform that have few apps to begin with…

As this is a true open source project (not a “we drop some code over the wall once in a while” project like Android or Apple’s Darwin), anyone in the community is free to contribute towards improving the Ubuntu touch experience with code, bug reports, translations etc and this makes me optimistic concerning the speed of improvement. Cannonical also have some paid developers that are working hard on Ubuntu touch. The M10 FHD tablet is capable hardware. What it needs to shine is software with similar quality. And Ubuntu touch with the convergence idea is really close as it is right now, but not yet fully ready for prime time. Within a few OTA updates and some app updates, many of the small kinks would probably be evened out.

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