Ubuntu on the Galaxy Nexus

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© wuruiyun - 123RF.com

© wuruiyun - 123RF.com

Going Mobile

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, Canonical showed Ubuntu on a smartphone for the first time. Does this concept have a future?

With Ubuntu, Canonical has had in its portfolio one of the most successful Linux distributions for end users on the desktop or notebook. Thanks to the semi-annual release cycle, the company provides a constantly updated distribution that is easy to install and configure. Now the company wants to expand into "Ubuntu on Smartphones." We took a close look at the Ubuntu phone Canonical presented at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.


Canonical demonstrated its newest offspring on a commercial Galaxy Nexus from Samsung that runs on a 1GHz dual-core processor. Canonical considers this phone, with a Cortex A9 and more than 512MB of RAM, as its entry-level device. Only smartphones with quad-core CPUs and more than 1GB of RAM provide sufficient power to run Ubuntu smoothly on larger displays.

In the presentation, the Nexus proved a bit overwhelmed by Ubuntu. The kind of fluid animations and transitions typical of the Android were absent on the Ubuntu Nexus. Mika Meskanen of the Canonical design team attributed the sluggish behavior to the not-so-current state of the software. Subsequent builds were to run more smoothly but had not yet fully gone through quality control by the time of CES 2013.

Chic or Schlock?

The look and feel of the system is very similar to Canonical's own Unity desktop environment, which is not surprising because Ubuntu on Smartphones is based on the same code. Under the hood, Canonical's mobile spin-off of the Android system is closer to it than you might think: Both systems use the same kernel.

After startup, the smartphone initially displays a "Welcome screen." There is no lock screen (Figure 1) as with Android or iOS; instead, the screen is unlocked through swipe gestures from each of the screen's edges. Depending on which edge you swipe, you can open the key apps or settings, or switch among running applications.

Figure 1: The Welcome screen isn't a true lock screen, because you can open the app overview at any time.

Ubuntu places the launcher bar along the left edge (Figure 2), with the most often used apps ready for a quick start and the currently running apps as icons. You can activate the sidebar with a finger swipe, and you can switch among running apps by swiping to the left or right. A swipe up from the bottom of the screen opens the menus on what is essentially a button-free display. Unlike Android, Ubuntu on Smartphones does not have virtual buttons, which provides more space for screen content.

Figure 2: The sidebar lets you start apps in the typical Ubuntu desktop fashion.

The so-called lenses, with which you will be familiar from the desktop home screen, also come into play. Unity gathers various information in lenses to give you an overall view. There are lenses for installed apps, photos, videos, and contacts.

Together with contacts, lenses show the locally available media files, but they also lead – through a search mechanism  – to music, books, and videos offered by various online providers. The app view includes all installed apps along with those ready to be installed from the Software Center. The latter is similar to the Google Play store and shows apps with short descriptions and ratings from the user community. With a few clicks, you can have an installable app on the device.

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