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BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition phone finally here, swaps apps for 'scopes'

The long-awaited first Ubuntu phone offers an interesting alternative to iPhone or Android.

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Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Want to try something different from the iPhone, Android or Windows Phone? Then feast your eyes on the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition, the first-ever Ubuntu Phone.

Ubuntu has long been known as an alternative operating system to Windows or Apple Mac computers. It's open-source and has a thriving community of developers and tinkerers, but isn't widely used among consumers. For the last couple of years Canonical, the British company behind Ubuntu, has been working on expanding the operating system's reach so it works in other devices such as phones and tablets.

Canonical is working with Spanish manufacturer BQ as well as Chinese manufacturer Meizu, and Ubuntu versions of the Aquaris E4.5 and Meizu's MX3 were previewed a year ago . The MX3 is still in the works, but the E4.5 is the first proper fruit of that labour to actually go on sale.

Loaded with the Ubuntu operating system, the phone moves away from the familiar idea of apps downloaded to your phone, instead giving you "scopes", or home screens that mix online sources and the stuff on your phone. Ubuntu combines both apps and scopes, which are simpler to make, so developers working on Ubuntu phones aren't obligated to spend time and money building another proprietary version of their app as they would with iOS, Android or Windows Phone.

The new version of BQ's Aquaris E4.5 shows off Ubuntu software. Canonical/BQ

You control the phone by swiping in from each side of the screen. Bringing your finger in from the left reveals an app launcher filled with icons for your currently open apps and other favourites, all arranged in a column. Tracing your finger from the right opens the multitasking carousel, which lets you quickly scroll through all the apps you have open in a nifty 3D animation that looks like you're turning the pages of a book.

Once you're in an app, swipe up from the bottom for that app's menu or to manage scopes. And pull down from the top for notifications and status indicators, which you select by swiping left or right. They include recent messages, network information such as your signal or Wi-Fi, upcoming events and a battery readout.

Flash sales

It isn't just the software that does things differently: the phone won't be sold like other phones, either. Instead, it will appear in a series of "flash sales", going on sale for a limited time. Flash sales will be announced on Ubuntu's Twitter, Google+ and Facebook pages, and BQ's Twitter account bqreaders.

In these sales the Aquaris Ubuntu Edition costs €170, which converts to around £130, $195 or AU$250.

The phone will only be on sale in Europe. Ubuntu has done deals with GiffGaff in the UK, Three in Sweden, Amena in Spain and Portugal Telecom to offer SIM bundles when customers buy the phone. It's unlocked, so you can use it on any network supported by the phone.

There are no plans for a US launch, as BQ does not have a presence there -- and the E4.5 doesn't support all American flavours of 3G.

"Since we're at the beginning of the journey, we're targeting early adopters," says Cristian Parrino, the VP of mobile at Canonical. "A lot will come from the existing Ubuntu and BQ user bases, but it's certainly not limited to that. This is very much a consumer device."

Apps vs. scopes

The biggest innovation of the Ubuntu experience is the use of scopes. Scopes are home screens dedicated to one topic -- for instance music, video or news -- that pull together content from various sources. For example, instead of having a YouTube app for watching online videos and a separate app for watching the videos saved on your phone, the video scope pulls them all together in one place. Each service on that aggregated home page -- like YouTube or Vimeo -- can then build its own branded scope, which is more like a traditional app.

Ubuntu software uses scopes -- dedicated home screens -- rather than apps. Canonical/BQ

The music scope unites online sources like Soundcloud, Grooveshark and YouTube alongside the songs saved on your phone, so all your tunes are in one place. Brands and services can create their own scopes as well, which are more like traditional apps. For example, the Music scope shows you some local concerts pulled from Songkick, and tapping on one takes you into the Songkick scope to see more information. If you want to go further you can tap to be taken to the Songkick website.

The NearBy scope tells you the weather and shows you interesting things near you, using reviews on sites such as Time Out and Yelp. You can change what you're shown by changing your mood or status: "I'm hungry" shows restaurants, while "On the move" shows you maps and transport links.

Canonical reckons a scope is easier to build than an app, and much cheaper than building a new app for every platform. It's also intended to solve the chicken and egg problem of apps -- people don't buy phones with no apps, but developers don't make apps for phones that no one is buying.

The hardware

The E4.5 is a smartphone with a 4.5-inch full HD 1080p screen. Rather than a new phone designed from the ground up, it's an existing BQ smartphone that usually comes with Android software inside. The only difference from the outside is that the Ubuntu Edition ditches the familiar Android home and back buttons under the screen, as almost everything in Ubuntu is controlled on the screen. The only physical buttons you use are the power button and the volume buttons, which also capture a screengrab when pressed together.

That means there's no physical camera button. Apart from that the camera experience is the same as on most phones, with an onscreen button to take pictures. The Aquaris sports a 5-megapixel camera on the front and an 8-megapixel snapper on the back, with a Largan lens, autofocus and dual flash. The phone comes in black.

Under the bonnet is a MediaTek quad-core Cortex A7 processor running at up to 1.3GHz, with 1GB of RAM. There's 8GB of storage for photos, movies and music.

The BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition will be shown off at industry trade show Mobile World Congress 2015, where manufacturers, app builders and other mobile companies gather to display their latest phones, tablets, smart devices and other wares. We'll be there in force to bring you our first impressions, with glossy hands-on photos and videos of all the coolest kit you need to know about.

The BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition is the first phone to run the software widely regarded as an alternative to Windows and Apple computers. Canonical/BQ