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Hands On with Ubuntu Mobile, the OS which could be worth the wait

Canonical’s Ubuntu Mobile has had a difficult start to life, lagging behind competitors like Firefox OS and Sailfish OS, both of which are already in the hands of consumers, along with the failure of the ambitious Ubuntu Edge crowd funding campaign. Unless you’re a keen developer, there’s a good chance you won’t have used Ubuntu Mobile at all. We had a hands-on tour of the OS at Canonical’s booth during Mobile World Congress, to see how the software is progressing.

The operating system was running on a Nexus 4, which made it feel a little more familiar, but initially we were baffled by the lack of a lock screen. Canonical wants to push users away from this established trait of smartphone operating systems, and calls its own version a “welcome screen,” designed to draw users into Ubuntu Mobile.

It’s cool too, with the center circle showing pertinent information – which includes emails and notifications received, data used, talk time remaining on the battery, and the chance to enter a PIN – which can be cycled through with a tap. Once inside the OS, the usual app drawer is nowhere to be seen either. Instead, favorite apps are grouped together in a side bar, which is swiped in from the left. Anyone who has used Ubuntu on the desktop will be familiar with this layout.

Apps are also stored in Scopes, which is something like Microsoft’s Hubs on Windows Phone. Scopes group together apps or media content ready to be searched through. Web-based content is added in, reminding us of Firefox OS’s Adaptive Search. Canonical gave us a good demo of Scopes in our hands-on video.

Scopes are accessed with a swipe, a common theme throughout Ubuntu Mobile. Pull down from the top of the screen to reveal the notification drawer – this is interactive, so alerts can be replied to without leaving the screen or entering another app – or pull up from the bottom of the screen to see app specific controls. Swipe all the way across the screen to see a carousel filled with running apps.

It’s these gestures which make Ubuntu Mobile a challenge for newcomers. We’re so used to at least one physical or virtual button to get us out of trouble, that it’s removal feels jarring. You’ll get used to them, but the learning curve is quite steep. Jolla’s Sailfish OS is similarly afflicted.

Ubuntu Mobile felt polished, didn’t display any lag, and is a different user experience to its peers. Canonical has signed up two manufacturers to produce smartphones running the OS, and provided the hardware is compelling, Ubuntu Mobile could attract a similar following to Jolla’s Sailfish OS. We may have been waiting a while for Canonical to get its mobile OS off the ground, but it appears to have been worth it.