The Meizu MX3 guns for Android as one of the first Ubuntu phones

Ubuntu is coming to phones and tablets, and the Meizu MX3 and BQ Aquaris offer a glimpse of what that could be like.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
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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The Meixu MX3 will be one of the first Unbuntu phones. Rich Trenholm/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- Look out, Android: Ubuntu is coming to phones and tablets, starting with the plucky pairing that is the Meizu MX3 and BQ Aquaris. Read on to find out what's different about Ubuntu, and what's the score with the Chinese-made MX3.

I caught up with Canonical, the British company behind Ubuntu, at Mobile World Congress 2014, where I got my hands on prototypes of the Meizu MX3 and BQ Aquaris. Neither are working models just yet, but they give an idea of what we can expect when Ubuntu phones do arrive.

Both phones are existing Android smartphones, which will be kitted out with Ubuntu software some time before the end of the year. Exact dates, specs, and prices are yet to be confirmed.

The phone
The MX3 is powered by a Samsung eight-core processor under a 5.1-inch screen, with a single capacitive button and an 8-megapixel camera.

First Ubuntu phones revealed (pictures)

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The Android version reminded us of a classic iPhone; unlike BQ's Ubuntu phone, there's nothing distinctive about the MX3's curved, glossy shell.

The software
The MX3 will be powered by Ubuntu software, which boasts an elegant and intuitive interface. Home screens are called 'scopes', which you can load up with different types of shortcuts and quick access to your favourite content.

The scope screens for your music, videos, or photos, say, look just like the home screens you're used to for your music player or gallery apps. But scopes can be themed too -- so for example a World Cup scope shows you the latest footie-related news and content on a dedicated home screen. Or your carrier can also create its own scope, displaying your account profile, your bill, or useful links.

Ubuntu Touch software running on a Google Nexus 5, showing off a World Cup-themed 'scope'. Richard Trenholm/CNET

You control the phone by swiping in from each side of the screen: swipe in from the left for an app launcher, which puts icons for your currently open apps and other favourites in a column on the side of the screen.

Trace your finger onto the screen from the right side for a 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.

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

How does Ubuntu work?
So on the surface Ubuntu looks like a polished and accessible new operating system. But what's going on behind the scenes? Deep down, Ubuntu shares elements with Android, but Canonical has spent the last year replacing Android's innards with its own technology -- for example, replacing the Surface Flinger compositing engine with the own-brand Mir engine.

Ubuntu is also designed to avoid the delays to updates faced by long-suffering Android owners. The back end is divided into three partitions: one block of code for the device, one block of code for Ubuntu, and one block of code that can be customised by the manufacturer or carrier from whom you bought your phone. That means that each individual element can be updated without delay.

The Meizu MX3 on the right, next to the BQ Aquaris, set to be the other Ubuntu phone launching this year. Rich Trenholm/CNET

So for example if there is an upgrade or a problem that needs to be fixed on a specific type of phone, the device-specific partition can be updated for just people who own that phone, without having to go through the carrier. If there's an upgrade to Ubuntu, there's none of the delays faced when Android updates are released by Google but held up forever by networks. And if a carrier wants to update its Ubuntu phones, it just goes ahead and does so without worrying about what other carriers are doing.

Speaking of updates, Ubuntu is designed to be the same software on any device, regardless of size and shape. So whether it's a 5-inch phone or an 8-inch tablet, in theory an app will work the same. That does away with the headache that Android app developers face because they're trying to make their apps fit so many varieties of phone.

In theory, anyway -- until we actually see working models, we'll have to reserve judgement.

Apps perhaps
Speaking of apps, they'll always be the Achilles' heel of new operating systems -- caught in the vicious cycle of developers sensibly waiting until more customers are on board while customers sensibly wait until there are more apps. Ubuntu apps are built using QML but the OS also runs Web apps, so any app designed to work online using HTML5 code will work on an Ubuntu phone or tablet.

Until the MX3 and the Aquaris turn up, you can try Ubuntu for yourself by downloading it to your Android phone. I'm a fan of the sleek interface, but as with all new operating systems it remains to be seen if it can compete with established and popular rivals like Android. Ultimately, though, the actual phones will be the deciding factor -- so the Ubuntu-flavoured MX3, BQ Aquaris, and all that come after, have a lot riding on them.

For more of the coolest new phones, tablets and wearable technology, check out our in-depth coverage of Mobile World Congress 2014.