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Ubuntu replaces Android on the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition (hands-on)

Android rival Ubuntu arrives on the 5.4-inch Meizu MX4 phone for €299, but you can only buy it if you secure an invite.

If you haven't heard of Ubuntu, I can't blame you. It's a version of the open-source software Linux that has been around for years on PCs, but it's making a bid for mainstream success on mobile phones, going up against the goliaths of Android and iOS. Ubuntu has found its way onto a new host, in the form of the Meizu MX4 -- a phone we've seen already in China running Android .

Ubuntu both looks and operates in a very different way to Android. Home screens are known as "scopes" which you can fill up with shortcuts to Web pages, HTML5-based Web apps, native apps and live-information. You can theme these scopes too -- a football scope, for example, could show you the latest Premier League scores and video highlights. Navigation is largely done with a series of gestures, taking you to contacts, notifications, apps or a multitasking carousel.

The Ubuntu-equipped MX4 is physically identical to the Android-based MX4 Meizu released late last year. It maintains the 5.4-inch display and unusual 5:3 aspect ratio, the same octa-core processor, a 20.7-megapixel rear camera and a 2-megapixel front camera. In his review, CNET Editor Aloysius Low found the buggy and bloated software unpleasant. Whether the phone becomes more usable with an entirely different operating system on board remains to be seen.

The phone feels comfortable to hold, thanks to its glossy rounded back, which sits snuggly in your palm. The metal edge helps the phone feel a touch more luxurious than it otherwise would, although there's no escaping the similarities to the iPhone in the speaker holes, buttons and small gaps in the band. Thanks to a very narrow bezel, the body of the phone hasn't had to expand much to accommodate the display.

It's not the first Ubuntu smartphone we've seen. That honour goes to the BQ Aquaris E4.5 and Aquaris E5 , which became available earlier this year. With better specs and a more attractive design, however, the Meizu MX4 may be the first Ubuntu phone you may actually want to put in your pocket.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

How can I get it?

Strangely, you won't be able to simply buy the phone from a website. Instead, Ubuntu's website will have a collage for you to click, which will bring up information about the phone and, if you're lucky, an invite to buy it for €299 (this converts to about £210, $335 or AU$430). It will be invitation-only at first and Ubuntu wouldn't comment on exactly how many invites will be available. It did say, however, that "Most people who go will be able to get an invite, and those that can't will be able to the second time around," which raises the question of why they're bothering with invites at all.

Ubuntu explained to me that the phone currently isn't expected to be available via more usual means -- ordering directly online, for example -- after the invitation system has ended. I expect both Ubuntu and Meizu are taking a tentative approach here to gauge interest and avoid making too many phones that don't sell. If interest is high, they'll certainly want to do everything they can to get them into the hands of fans.

We have the phone in our office right now, so stay tuned for a full review, along with a verdict on its Ubuntu mobile operating system.

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