A top Meizu phone can't hide Ubuntu's flaws

Canonical's software still needs a lot of work.

The last 12 months have been disastrous for the minor league of mobile operating systems. Jolla's Sailfish OS has started to capsize, while Blackberry has all but abandoned BlackBerry 10 for Android. Firefox OS, at least on phones, is but a few dying embers and Windows 10 Mobile has arrived with a muffled thud. Does Canonical and Ubuntu share the same fate? Perhaps, although the pair are fighting defiantly this month with a new flagship phone, courtesy of the Chinese manufacturer Meizu.

The Pro 5 started life as an Android device, packing high-end specs like an Exynos 7420 processor and either 3GB or 4GB of RAM, depending on whether it had 32GB or 64GB of storage. The "Ubuntu Edition" offers the exact same hardware but, as its names suggests, rips out Google's mobile chops for Canonical's. The result is exactly what you would expect -- the hardware is solid enough, but the software is a bit of an acquired taste.

First of all, the looks. The Pro 5 has an unadventurous design, sticking with the metal back and soft, rounded edges that have served other Android flagships so well. If it weren't for the Meizu logo on the back, it would be almost impossible to tell who made it. There's absolutely nothing that makes it stand out from the deluge of other cheap-but-good-enough devices that roll out of China every day. That's not to say the Pro 5 isn't a sleek handset -- as an imitation of the iPhone, the execution is perfect. There's just little here in the way of new ideas or bold, creative risks.

The design is uninspired, but it's still the best hardware that you can buy with the mobile flavor of Ubuntu pre-installed. The Ubuntu Edge never made it past Indiegogo, so this is the best that Linux fans can expect, at least without installing the OS themselves on another device. It offers the best window into Canonical's vision of a mobile operating system -- which is important, if only to show people what it's currently capable of.

As a platform, Ubuntu for phones has made progress. The core experience is still the same -- you have a set of home screens called a "dash" which contains customisable feeds, known as "Scopes." There are traditional apps too, which are a mixture of native applications and web app. If you haven't tried Ubuntu's phone experience in a while, you'll notice that certain areas have been cleaned up, such as the quick settings and notifications.

But these improvements are marginal, and larger problems remain. Navigation revolves around a series of edge-based gestures, all of which are terribly frustrating. I would swipe horizontally on the dash, for instance, hoping to see a new Scope. But instead, my input would be registered as a swipe-inward from the right-hand edge of the display, launching the multi-tasker instead. The approach is different and commendable, but ultimately inferior to both Android and iOS.

It's not my incompetence either. While demoing the device, Canonical's employees were having similar problems. They would jump to places they weren't expecting and frequently launch features unintentionally. I used to give the company the benefit of the doubt, believing it would pursue these ideas further and improve the execution. But nothing has changed, and with each passing year my patience is wearing a little thinner.

Then there's the performance. The Pro 5 is rocking some high-end components, but their impact is barely noticeable. Admittedly, Canonical says it was running demo version software, but what I saw in Barcelona didn't fill me with optimism. Scrolling was slow and riddled with lag; apps would take too long to launch and refresh; core interactions, such as closing apps, required multiple taps to register. It wasn't good enough.

Last year at Mobile World Congress, I said Ubuntu's answer to Android still needed work. Twelve months on, I feel exactly the same. The platform is moving forward, but at a glacial pace in comparison to iOS and Android. The Pro 5 might be the most powerful Ubuntu phone to date, but given the choice, I would always choose the version that runs Google's OS.