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The latest beta of Canonical's Linux smartphone system shows the outlines of a possible winner
Ubuntu Touch starts getting real
When Ubuntu Touch debuted to developers this winter, it was more of a mockup than an OS, despite its promise. Now a beta version for developers reveals Ubuntu Touch taking shape in an operational way. Design similarities to Windows Phone and iOS 7 prove the "flat," modern look is in.
Great betas sometimes flop in final versions -- Windows Phone comes to mind -- but I'm optimistic about Ubuntu Touch. It's well thought out, nicely designed, and should appeal to users for whom iPhone and Android devices are overkill, where apps are not that important, but lightweight services are.
Once you learn to open the App bar from the left edge of the screen, you can swipe-navigate to the App screen. At top are the running apps, which display live previews; touch and hold to get the X icon to quit any (as in iOS), as shown at right. Below are icons of frequently used apps, and below that is a list of all installed apps, as shown at left.
To quickly change to other screens, drag the screen until the quick-switch bar appears at bottom (shown at left), then tap the desired screen: Music, Home, Apps, or Video. (The Home screen shows frequently used apps, recent videos, and recent music.) You can also swipe sideways to move among open screens.
The simple WebKit-based browser in Ubuntu Touch beta has no bells and whistles, just the basics like Refresh and Back buttons. So far, there is neither bookmarking capability nor any quick keys for .com and so on.
The Activity screen (at right) is where you see your open pages, as well as your history, both shown as thumbnails à la Windows Phone. To get the Activity screen, slide up from the bottom of the screen to get the menu bar -- that Android-like bar is available in most apps. To search the Web, tap the search icon on the upper left.
New to the current beta is the System Settings app, where you set parameters like you would in the Settings app in any smartphone OS. These include network settings for Wi-Fi, cellular data, and Bluetooth, as well as controls for turning on and off airplane mode, GPS, and rotation lock.
The other working settings options so far cover the ground you'd expect, such as screen brightness, alert sounds, and social accounts (Twitter and Facebook, at least to start). It'll be interesting to see if the Updates, Accessibility, and Security & Privacy settings offer anything special when they become functional.
You can check the status of various aspects of Ubuntu Touch's operations and even adjust some settings outside the Settings app, similar to Samsung's modification of the Android notifications tray and Apple's upcoming Control Center in iOS 7.
The trick is to swipe down from the relevant icon in the status bar at top. Here, I show the battery status (at left) and the date and time status (at right). Note how the relevant icon is highlighted to remind you where these came from. Swipe back up to close the status screens.
There are status screens for messaging, sound, networking, battery life, and date and time.
Ubuntu Touch has a facility to search the Web and the current app, but it's hidden. You have to swipe up on the app screen and hold for a second until you see the magnifying-glass icon. Tap it to open the screen at left, where a nonfunctional menu bar appears to provide undo and help functions, as well as access to the System Settings app. I haven't yet figured out the fourth control yet; it may be for screen sharing.
There's a search bar at the bottom with a microphone icon that should in the future invoke voice-based search à la Android or Apple's Siri. Tap the bar to enter your search term, and the screen at right appears. Swipe down to close the screen.
The Weather app is an example of the lightweight widgets featured so far in Ubuntu Touch. The feature set of the so-far-nonfunctional app is simple: refresh, add cities, and change settings such as selecting Celsius versus Fahrenheit, all accessed via that standard menu bar.
As you can see, Canonical's developers still need to work out some usability kinks, such as the unreadable light-gray-on-slightly-darker-gray settings screen used here and in other sample apps.
The beta Ubuntu Touch Calendar app is more functional, and more like those of other smartphone OSes. There's no day or week view so far, though you can expose a scrolling appointment list (timeline) at the bottom of the screen for the current day. And so far, there is no way to create repeating events. But the app is unfinished: If you try to enter a time for a new event, the Cancel and OK buttons don't work, and you have to quit the app from the App screen.
If you tap the > icon to the right of the current month, the other months display so you can quickly jump to them. This hidden-menu mechanism is used in other apps as well.
The Clock app is very simple, but it has a neat little feature: Tap the center of the clock face to display the times for sunrise and sunset.
Camera and Contacts
Both the Camera and Contacts apps (for now at least called Address Book in the App screen but Contacts in the app itself) are typical of what you'll find in basic operating systems like Windows Phone.
The Camera app lets you switch cameras, zoom, control the flash, open the photo gallery, and toggle between still and video modes.
The Contacts app lets you create contacts with, so far, basic contact information.
Notes and Calculator
Likewise, Ubuntu Touch's beta Notes and Calculator apps are very simple. So far, there's no way to associate notes to an account for syncing, and the Calculator app has only basic functions -- no scientific mode as iOS offers when the screen is rotated, for example. But it's nice to see a Notes app at all, as Google doesn't bundle one with the Android OS.
As you'd expect in any smartphone OS other than iOS, there is a file manager to let you see files stored on the device and in any inserted SD card. Via the Actions button, you can create folders, navigate up a folder hierarchy, and see file metadata, as well as change the sort criteria and order and even search for files based on their location metadata.
Finally, Ubuntu Touch wouldn't be a real Linux device if it didn't provide the Terminal app to run Linux. The app's settings let you increase the font size and change the color scheme to something you can actually see on a smartphone screen, as shown at right.