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Ubuntu's answer to Android is finally here, but it still needs work

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At long last, the first Ubuntu phones are here. It's been more than two years since Canonical first showed off its Linux-based mobile platform, and fans have been clamoring for consumer devices ever since. The Ubuntu Edge never made its ambitious $32 million crowdfunding target, and the first handsets from BQ and Meizu were delayed last year. But finally, it's all starting to come together. BQ has started selling its "Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition" in Europe and Meizu shouldn't be too far behind with its modified MX4.

Both handsets were on display at Mobile World Congress this year (we saw prototypes in 2014), offering an early glimpse at how the platform runs on different hardware. The software has come a long way since Canonical's initial unveiling, but the fundamentals are still the same: A swipe in from the left activates the app launcher, while dragging down reveals some settings tabs, which you can slide between with your finger. Scopes are where Canonical seems to have made the most progress. They're themed feeds that pull in content from various online sources; a "nearby" scope, for example, might show the weather forecast and recommendations from Yelp and Time Out. These can be tweaked and personalized, and Canonical says it's easy for developers to create their own.

Navigating the OS feels a little messy though. Scopes often feature horizontal carousels, and I found myself scrolling through them accidentally, when really I had been trying to swipe across to the next scope. Furthermore, dragging your finger too close to either the left- or right-hand edge of the display triggers other features in the OS, which meant I was constantly hunting for "safe" gaps in the UI. When I handed the devices to the staff at Canonical's booth, they also seemed to struggle with the number of gestures that can be activated by mistake. The company is trying to compensate for this with sparse Scope designs and plenty of white space, but the trade-off is a waste of precious pixels.

Nevertheless, it's refreshing to poke around a mobile operating system that isn't Android or iOS. Canonical employees told me on more than one occasion that this is just "the first step" for Ubuntu on mobile, and that the platform will be continuously updated. That's fine, but it's hard not to feel a slight pang of disappointment. Fans have waited years for these first devices, but in many ways the software still feels like an early beta. It's not bad, but it's not like Android and iOS haven't moved forward in the last few years as well. Canonical is late to the smartphone game, and needs to move faster if it wants to catch up.

The upcoming Meizu MX4 handset, meanwhile, is a fairly attractive piece of hardware. The metal shell and narrow bezels give it a premium feel, and the 5.36-inch display is bright and sharp. It offers an octa-core MediaTek 6595 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 3,100mAh battery, alongside a 20.7-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2-megapixel selfie snapper. During my brief time with the device, I noticed few irritations or design blemishes. But were it running Android, I can't say I would be drawn to it. The design is bland and completely unoriginal, embracing the shapes and materials that have proven popular before.

The adapted Meizu MX4 and BQ Aquaris E4.5 represent a huge milestone for Ubuntu on mobile. But it's difficult to imagine Canonical attracting any significant market share in the near future -- in fact, the staff I spoke to in Barcelona said they had already accepted this fate. These devices are for the Ubuntu fans, first and foremost. It's a niche proposition and will remain so until Canonical improves the software and attracts new hardware partners. It's not the most exciting state of affairs, but at least the company is being realistic.

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