Ubuntu for Android: Everything You Need To Know

News Richard Goodwin 11:27, 3 Apr 2013

Everything you need to know about getting Ubuntu up and running on your Nexus

Ubuntu Phone is finally here, thanks to the recent launch of the developer preview. Although it runs on Android hardware, this new software is an entirely different operating system, offering a gesture-based menu, a totally unique layout and - possibly most exciting of all - full PC functionality when docked to a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

The smartphone battleground is becoming increasing packed, with iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone already on the field and fresh challengers such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS expected to arrive shortly. Is there really any need for another option? Read on to make up your own mind on this topic. 

What is Ubuntu Phone?

Previously known as Ubuntu Touch, Ubuntu Phone is a mobile version of the incredibly popular Linux-based Ubuntu PC operating system. 

Simply put, Ubuntu offers two unique features. When you’re just using your phone you see the Ubuntu Phone UI, which comes with its own applications and gesture-based navigation system. However, once you’ve docked your phone and connected a screen and keyboard, it becomes a fully functional desktop PC.

The developers behind Ubuntu have come to the not unreasonable conclusion that the vast majority of smartphone users aren’t properly exploiting the insane amount of processing power they have in their pockets, and that’s where Ubuntu Phone comes in. 

The objective is to offer a robust smartphone experience with all the flexibility of the open-source Ubuntu desktop UI. The crossover comes with plenty of benefits, including the ability to make and receive phones calls when using the PC interface. Ubuntu Phone runs on Android hardware, but is totally unique, with its own interface and applications.

What advantages does Ubuntu Phone offer over Android?

While Android is all about customisation and power, Ubuntu Phone is a little more focused. The main home screen is packed with content for you to access, such as your more visited sites, most contacted friends and even your favourite music. There’s no “home” button as such - in fact, there are no on-screen buttons at all. Moving around is achieved using gestures. For example, your apps are docked on the left-hand side of the screen, only becoming visible when you swipe from that edge of the display. Quick settings are locked on the top edge of the screen, and contextual app options at the bottom. 

Compared to stock Android, Ubuntu Phone feels more welcoming and alive. The software isn’t finished as yet, but it already has a vibrant and attractive atmosphere and arguably beats many of its smartphone rivals when it comes to UI design.

What are the drawbacks of installing Ubuntu Phone at this stage?

As we’ve already said, Ubuntu Phone is currently in testing. As such, if you choose to install it on your phone you’re effectively becoming a guinea pig. Although Ubuntu Phone supports GSM networking, front and rear facing cameras and Wi-Fi, there will be elements not present that you’d normally find in a “finished” OS like Android. Be aware that Ubuntu Phone probably isn’t currently at the stage where it can power a phone which you rely on each day – it’s fun to experiment with, but beyond that you may find yourself becoming frustrated.

What phones are supported at the moment?

At present Ubuntu Phone isn’t distributed on any phone or other hardware. The developer version is available as a ROM which can be flashed to an unlocked Galaxy Nexus or Nexus 4. Supported tablets are the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. Flashing the ROM to any of these platforms wipes your device and replaces the stock Android operating system, so make sure you know what you’re doing before proceeding - creating a backup is a good idea.

What’s the future of Ubuntu Phone?

Ubuntu developer Canonical is aiming for an October 2013 release for the final version of Ubuntu Phone, but at present it’s not known how it will be distributed. It could just be made available for flashing to current Android handsets, as is the case with the developer version. However, there is talk of Ubuntu working with handset makers to ensure that the OS ships on retail devices - in the same way that Firefox OS will be coming to market on one of Sony’s phones in the near future

It has already been stated that Ubuntu will only be coming to Android-based handsets, because both Ubuntu and Google’s OS share the same Linux kernel. If you’re an iOS or Windows Phone fan, then you’re out of luck.

How easy is it to install Ubuntu Phone?

Ubuntu Phone is currently only available as a developer version, and as such should be considered unfinished and potentially unstable. As the developers of the OS note, it should not be considered a “final” version and is unlikely to totally replace your Android OS in terms of functionality. If you’ve flashed a ROM to your Android device before, then you’ll be familiar with the process. You’ll need to have a phone with an unlocked bootloader. 

Can I get back to Android if I find that Ubuntu Phone isn’t for me?

Of course - you can simply flash a stock Android ROM to the phone, just as you did with the Ubuntu Phone developer preview. However, unless you’ve previously made a backup of your ROM image, restoring Android will not put all of your previous settings back in place. You’ll effectively be starting from scratch.

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