I got a new pocket computer today. My first smartphone. I have used both Android and iOS – two Android tablets and one iPod Touch – but never got devices with phone capability (I dislike the term “smartphone” because it implies that telephony is the devices’ primary use, which I don’t think is any more true than computers being TV typewriters).
This phone was created by a Spanish company called BQ. They’ve only recently started offering products to Americans, and it shows.
The Process Of Ordering The Phone
I guess this is as much a review of the seller as it is the product, both being new to me. Ordering the phone online was more confusing than it needed to be. BQ’s web site has a language selector offering several languages: “Italia/Italiano”, “España/Español”, “Portugal/Português”, “France/Français”, two different dialects of German, “Global/English”, and “Ubuntu Worldwide”. Naturally, being an English speaker living on Earth, I chose “Global/English”.
Wrong choice. When it came time to enter my destination address, I – or rather my dad, acting on my behalf – was unable to select the United States as my country. It just wasn’t on the list. Puzzled, I immediately took to DuckDuckGo to confirm that BQ really sells to US customers. They do. While I was googling, my dad went ahead and placed the order, choosing Slovakia as our country and adding “Oregon USA” as our region within Slovakia. Hopefully they would be smart enough to ship to the right place. BQ very quickly cancelled our order, refunded our money, and told us by email to order again using a particular URL, https://store.bq.com/gl/ . That address corresponds to the “Ubuntu Worldwide” language selection. So we did, not needing to change the language to English because – except for a few small and unimportant bits of text here and there – it is all in English. This second time, the US was listed as a country.
Five days later – real days, Thanksgiving holiday and all – my PDA arrived by UPS. (Why don’t we call them PDAs? At least that term implies they have multiple functions). BQ’s site still says the order hasn’t been shipped yet, and that shipping will take an estimated 10-15 days. So I’ve got to commend BQ/UPS on their unexpectedly fast delivery.
Opening the Box
The box was very easy to open. None of that stupid blister packaging here, just a cardboard box with a lid. Inside the box I found my device, a case that I’d ordered, quick-start guides in several languages, a pamphlet advertising accessories that aren’t offered on the “Ubuntu Worldwide” section of their site and thus are unavailable to me, a standard USB-A to Micro-USB-B cable, and a power adapter with a European plug. Obviously the power adapter is useless to me, but it’s unimportant. I’ve got tons of others that will work here.
Setting up the phone
My first order of business was to transfer my SIM card from my old phone (and it was little more than a phone) to the new one. That portability is the whole point of SIM cards, so you’d think it would be as simple as just removing the card from one device and inserting it into the other. You’d be wrong. My old phone used a mini SIM, also known as 2FF or second form factor. SIM cards apparently used to be the size of a credit card. So pronounces the great Wikipedia. The new computer requires a micro SIM, or third form factor (3FF). I grabbed a pair of scissors and, using a template I found online, cut the card down to size. It’s easy enough to do, provided you print the template at the correct size and don’t have shaky hands. Still scary though.
With my SIM card properly trimmed, I put it in along with a micro SD card I had also transferred form the old phone, and booted up my new PDA. Ubuntu soon welcomed me. Its setup wizard guided me through the steps of connecting to my wifi, enabling geolocation, and whatever else. It was so easy I don’t even remember what I did; I just breezed through it. The hardest part was remembering my “unforgettable” wifi password!
Where Ubuntu really stands out, compared to Android and iOS, is its interface. The focus on scopes, which can aggregate information from multiple apps, rather than on apps themselves is a refreshing approach to interface design. the Music scope, for example, lets me listen to music either stored locally on the device (aggregated from the similarly-named Music app) or from Soundcloud, YouTube, and other services. The Today scope gives me a summary of things that are temporally nearby – recent calls and messages, current weather, upcoming holidays or other events.
Another big difference, interface-wise, is the lack of a “home” button. Both iOS and Android have these. It may or may not be a physical button. My point is, Ubuntu doesn’t have one. You swipe across the screen to access things. Swipe from the left edge to access your pinned apps (other apps are listed in one of the scopes). A short swipe from the right edge allows for swapping back and forth between two things, whereas a long swipe from the right lists all the apps you have running and allows you to flip through them. Swiping down from the top gives you access to system settings, whereas swiping up from the bottom accesses the settings of the current app.
It seems like there should be a learning curve, but all this swiping just feels natural to me. I can’t figure out why. The fact that I run Ubuntu on my laptop might be a factor, but I doubt it’s a big one: the Ubuntu that runs on laptops and desktops is not the same Ubuntu that runs on PDAs.
Of course, I can’t review an operating system without at least mentioning the software that comes with it.
The email client: It doesn’t come with one. I’ve heard online that Dekko is good enough they’re considering making that the default. I haven’t bothered to install it yet. (Edit: It does come with a GMail web app, so that’s something at least)
The web browser: It’s a web browser. It’s called Browser. Nothing special at first glance. Not particularly good or bad. I do appreciate that it lets you choose DuckDuckGo as your search engine. The only thing I dislike about it is its icon, a compass needle on a map background. That icon seems to me like it should represent a GPS app, not a web browser.
Messages: the messages app gave me a little trouble. Or maybe I should say the contacts app gave me trouble. They’re pretty integrated. The trouble was that I wanted to send a message to my brother but every time I tapped his entry in the contact list it tried to call him. I figured out that the Messages app’s recipient list is really a search bar; typing the first letter(s) of a contact’s name presents you with a list of matching contacts from which you can choose.
Phone: Of course, what good is a smartphone without good phone functionality? Ubuntu’s phone app works fine. When it starts up, it presents you with a keypad and prompts you to enter a number. A person icon (a little small and hard to see in my opinion – just a little) gives you access to your contacts. Beside it is something that slightly resembles a gear which takes you to the relevant system settings.
Facebook and Twitter: I immediately removed these two apps because I don’t use those services. I appreciate that, unlike their equivalents that came with my Kindle Fire, these apps are removable.
The camera app: A basic camera app suitable for taking quick photos when you don’t want to bother setting up a real camera. Doesn’t offer much in the way of control – you can’t even adjust exposure time manually. Does have the ability to display a rules of thirds grid on screen.
The calculator: For some reason the calculator app wasn’t pinned by default, so some users might not realize they have it installed. It’s a good calculator for everyday use, though it doesn’t offer as many abilities as say SpeedCrunch.