Adventures with Ubuntu Touch

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In March of last year I bought a new phone. Or, more accurately, I bought a second hand Pixel 3a, intent on "daily driving" Ubuntu Touch. I needed a new phone anyway, so this seemed a good time to try something new. My experience was mixed, but largely positive. Most things I enjoyed greatly, or found amusing, but others eventually presented seemingly insurmountable problems.


Before I begin, a disclaimer. I haven't used Ubuntu Touch in over nine months at this point, so everything here should be taken with some skepticism. I used it before the update to 20.04, which I was really looking forward to, and so my opinions cannot represent the current state of the OS.

I left Android for a few of reasons. Firstly, I disliked how close to Google it is. I'm not someone who hates big tech for the sake of hating it, and I'm not an FSF fanatic, but any one with even a passing interest in news will have some reason to dislike Google (which is pretty ironic, because I bought a google Pixel!). But that wasn't the main reason I left Android. No, I left Android because I thought it would be fun! Experimenting with new operating systems has always interested me, and I enjoy tinkering with technology. I knew of projects like Lineage, and Graphene OS, but decided not to go down that path because they seemed pretty boring. They're too close to Android, too familiar, too dull. And computers should be FUN! Mainstream phones have always bored me, so I've always tried to experiment. Does this sometimes result in inconvenience, or technical trouble? Yes. But it's all part of the fun!

So why Ubuntu? Despite all that I've said, I didn't want to move to many of the Linux based alternatives. Many of these seemed to focus squarely on the Pinephone, or to be too technical. But at the end of the day, they just didn't seem mature enough for daily usage. Ubuntu Touch is some years older than its competitors, and has in extra time more programs have been developed.

What I enjoyed about Ubuntu Touch

Even though I eventually stopped using Ubuntu Touch, I enjoyed most parts of it. Chief among these was the gestures. Moving from BlackBerry 10 to Android, one of the things I really disliked was Android's reliance on buttons to get things done. Swiping instead of using a home button was one of BB10's best features, and so I found Ubuntu Touch's gestures really cool. I also quite liked the panel, I think it's a very good way to organise programs, even on mobile. Some people who saw me using it thought Ubuntu Touch looked old fashioned, one person said it looked like it was designed in 2012. There are reasons for this, but I actually liked this aspect. I never used the desktop feature of the OS, but it seemed pretty cool, but I did experiment with Waydroid and especially Libertine which was fun. Overall, I quite enjoyed the basic functionality Ubuntu Touch, to the point where I enjoyed just using the phone; which I can't say about many other systems.

The other big thing I liked about Ubuntu Touch was both the software available and the software community. While some pieces of software are missing, or could be improved, (which can't be totally resolved without the support of large companies), a lot of the programs on Ubuntu Touch are quite good, or at least amusing. The web browser was slow, but I used the unofficial Sappot browser, which was a bit better. I also quite liked the mail client, which is a small thing, but I think this is an area overlooked by many people, even though it is an essential feature of any smart phone. Often the software wasn't perfect, but just as often it was humorous. One example of this was an error I once got when I tried to open my junk mail (I think? I'm a bit hazy on the details) and it gave an error saying essentially "This is broken, remember to fix it before release". Obviously the dev had not remembered.

To further illustrate what I found entertaining about Ubuntu Touch was the "Flip a Coin" app. The purpose of this app, as its name suggests was to flip a coin, but by all accounts it wasn't a very good app. It was ugly, scaled horribly and because it lacked animations when the coin flipped, it was difficult to tell when you'd tossed the coin. That being said, the response to it in the reviews was probably a bit harsh, and sometimes a bit pedantic, but always entertaining. For example, Walking-octopus described it as "A proprietary app that looks like it came straight from a Java phone". One user complained, rightfully, that some kind of animation was needed, and gave it a low score. Once this feature was added, another user complained about the scaling (which was terrible even on my Pixel), but also demanded a greater choice of coins including a Euro and also gave it a low score. Finally, the user Alfred E. Neumay requested a "funny money" option and gave it a good score. The part of this that I found funny was that the poor developer just could not get a break! The app wasn't great, but every time they addressed the issues new complaints came up. I guess what I'm saying is that I really enjoyed the smallness and amateurish aspects of the community.

Before I start the next section I want to stress that most of the software just worked, and I really enjoyed using it. Ubuntu Touch is pretty well made, but things are more interesting, and more memorable, when they go wrong.

What I left Ubuntu Touch

If the software was good, and the community was fun and I enjoyed using it, why did I leave Ubuntu Touch? There were two main reasons. Firstly, my own personal reliance on proprietary software, and more importantly one specific bug. I'm by no means a free software evangelist, but I do try to avoid proprietary software. This very weak commitment gave me some confidence I could make do without significant problems on Ubuntu Touch. The issue was Whatsapp. Because Whatsapp has no native client on Ubuntu Touch you have basically three options, Waydroid or a Web app. Using a web app requires you to occasionally turn on your old phone to stay logged in, and if I recall correctly it didn't have any notifications. It was also a bit buggy, though after reading recent reviews it seems to have improved a lot. Overall, I didn't have a good experience. Waydroid works pretty well, but if I recall correctly notifications didn't work and it eats battery. This could be solved by running Whatsapp in Waydroid and accessing it through the web app, but then you still have the web app's problems.. That being said, this was actually a very small reason why I stopped using Ubuntu Touch, I put up with Whatsapp for a year and would have for another.

The main reason I stopped using Ubuntu Touch was because my phone had trouble receiving messages. Sometimes I wouldn't get messages for weeks and then get them all at once. This was not good for my friends, and I missed many social events because of it. I can only imagine it would have been worse if I'd had a job, luckily I was studying to finish high school. The GPS also only worked occasionally, and when it did only after a very long wait. I did not have the skill to work out what was going on and could not find the right help online. After almost a year of trying to fix these issues I gave up and installed Lineage.

Conclusion and Epilogue

Would I recommend you try Ubuntu Touch? Absolutely. It's a fun and altogether very usable OS with a good community. As long as you can put up with some inconvenient solutions to proprietary apps, it is pretty comparable to Android. And in this regard it seems to have improved a lot over the last year. But eventually I had to leave because my phone had difficulties receiving messages and with GPS, which I could not fix. I'll probably return to Ubuntu Touch whenever I next get the chance, and would heartily recommend it to anyone interested! To reiterate, I'm writing this from memories which are now ten months old, so my experiences do not reflect the current state of Ubuntu Touch and should be taken with a bag of salt.

After ubuntu touch I moved to Lineage. Being based on Android, I had no serious problems, even without GAPPS, but it's a pretty boring way to use tech. If I buy another Pixel, I might try Graphene, which seems like a cool project.

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