Elegant Ubuntu Touch OS impresses for phones and tablets (hands-on)

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/ Updated: 28 February 2013, 10:05 pm AEDT

BARCELONA, Spain--Ubuntu is coming to your phone and tablet, and in style. I got my hands on the forthcoming Ubuntu Touch operating system for smartphones and tablets at mobile industry shindig Mobile World Congress, and I'd say on first impression it knocks rivals like Firefox OS and Samsung-backed Tizen into a cocked hat.

Ubuntu Touch is developed by Canonical and set to be available to the public in October. Manufacturers are yet to be confirmed, but you can try the software right now on selected Google Nexus devices. I tried out the new OS installed on a Google Nexus 4 smartphone, and the tablet version on a Google Nexus 7 slate.

The phone and tablet versions are identical in design and operation, except the tablet version has wider screens. Here's how the new OS works.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At the top of the screen at all times is a thin black bar that shows the usual status indicators: battery, time, and phone signal. But it also has a search button, so you can always instantly search no matter what you're doing or which app you're in, on phone and tablet. Very handy.

Instead of shortcuts to open apps, the home screens show you your "stuff": messages, music, videos, and so on. The main home screen has a selection of the highlights, such as favorite videos. I like the widget for recent messages, as it displays messages in a Cover Flow-style sideways-scrolling carousel showing pictures of your friends -- a much friendlier and more human way to see who you're communicating with than a list of text.

Swipey happy people
Swiping left and right takes you to home screens dedicated to different types of content: one for video, another for music, and so on. That puts your content on a home screen instead of in an app, making it quicker to reach.

The interface does away with buttons. Instead, you begin by swiping your finger in from the edges of the screen. Swipe in from the left to reveal the main menu, a column of app shortcuts down the left side of the screen. You can change the order of the apps and features in the column, to make sure you always have your favorite apps close by.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Swipe in from the right side, and you scroll back through the apps you have open, in the order you visited them. The apps slide over quickly, although if you have a bunch of apps to scroll through before you reach your destination, it's not as fast as the Android task switcher, which pops up thumbnails of open apps to go straight to the one you want.

Swipe down from the top for notifications and settings. Here you see a handy list of messages, including e-mails and other types of message. The coolest thing about this is you can reply right there in the notification screen, without having to open an app -- just tap on the message and a text box appears so you can type a quick reply.

Swiping up from the bottom reveals a menu, called the HUD or head-up display, that varies in each app. For example, in the photo gallery app you can crop or retouch pictures, with plenty of options to play with, including color balance and saturation.

The app situation
Like Android, iOS, and other smartphone operating systems, you can download more apps and games to customize your phone. One of the most important factors in deciding whether to buy into a new smartphone OS is the number -- and more importantly, the quality -- of the apps available. Like all new platforms, Ubuntu is therefore trailing behind the established Google Play for Android and Apple's App Store.

But alongside the native apps, Ubuntu Touch supports the open and increasingly popular standard HTML5. Web apps that work online should work on Ubuntu -- so even though there's no official app store yet, Ubuntu already has access to HTML5 apps including big names like Facebook, Twitter, and Evernote.

Phone apps work on the tablet, too. Unlike on the iPad, where phone apps are marooned forlornly in the middle of the screen, Ubuntu phone apps sit on the right side of the tablet screen, leaving the other two-thirds of the screen for a different tablet app. Both apps work simultaneously and independently, and when you're done with the phone app, you can just swipe it off the screen.

The software seemed super-responsive and superfast, even this far ahead of launch. Unlike the woefully unfinished Firefox OS and Tizen operating systems also shown off at Mobile World Congress, it appears ready for prime time. It's worth noting that the Nexus devices showcasing Ubuntu are high-speed, whereas Tizen and Firefox are lumbered with underperforming cheap devices. What form of hardware brings Ubuntu to shop shelves remains to be seen.

But on first impression I'm hugely taken with Ubuntu Touch. It's elegant, thoughtful, and versatile, while remaining beautifully straightforward. Compared to the messy Android copycats Firefox OS and Tizen, it's by far the strongest potential rival to Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. In fact, I prefer it to iOS, which long ago lost its shine, and heck, maybe even to Android, too. Fingers crossed that manufacturers and phone carriers get behind it, because I'd happily lay down my own cash for an Ubuntu Touch phone.

For the latest smartphones, tablets, and loads more, check out our in-depth news, previews, and videos from Mobile World Congress.

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