Some reviews are easy to write. A new laptop gets released? Check out the specs, see how sturdy it is, test out the battery life—that sort of thing. Pretty simple, really.
This is not that kind of review.
What we’re looking at here is, on the face of it, simply a tablet. And I could do an in-depth review of the hardware itself, but that would tell you next to nothing about it.
In front of me sits the BQ Aquaris M10: Ubuntu Edition, 10.1-in. screen, quad-core, 1.5GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM, 8MP camera. Pretty average specs. It feels like the cutting-edge Android-powered tablets—from about three years back. These can be picked up starting at around $250 USD.
But none of that tells you if you should buy one of these, the very first Ubuntu-powered tablets to ship. This is something new. Something special.
Let me start by saying that I’ve been looking forward to spending time with a shipping Ubuntu tablet for a few years now. I’ve not always been the biggest fan of some of the design and business decisions by Ubuntu’s parent company, Canonical. And I don’t exactly hide that fact. But … I’m a Linux user. And the promise of having a full, powerful (and at least mildly recognizable) Linux-powered tablet fills my heart with gladness.
The promise of convergence—the ability to have one mobile device that can act as a touch-device when on the go, and then the user interface transformogrifies (that’s a word, right?) into a more traditional desktop when connected to a keyboard/mouse—is definitely here. In fact, there’s a simple toggle button that allows us to switch between the two modes on the fly. A feature that warms my icy heart.
That means even when I’m sitting on the couch, using the M10 as a simple tablet, I can have it set to Desktop Mode with different applications running in movable windows. I love this so very much. I’ve heard many people give reasons why the traditional, movable window style of a desktop simply wouldn’t work on a portable touch device, but every single one of those people is dead wrong. This works wonderfully well. (You hear that, Google? Get your tuchus in gear and add movable, stackable windows to Android.)
The star of the show
That’s a cool feature, to be sure. But that’s not what makes an Ubuntu Tablet so enticing. The real star of this show is, without the slightest doubt, the ability to run traditional Linux desktop applications.
Some of you are already crying foul. Declaring that desktop applications aren’t designed for touch input and have no place on a mobile device. If you find yourself thinking that, ask yourself this simple question: Do you ever have a need for a full office suite (like LibreOffice) or a massively powerful graphics editing suite (like Gimp) while you’re on the go? If you’re like me, and the answer is yes, then you want desktop applications on your tablet.
For me, this is the Holy Grail. And, in some ways, the M10 (and Ubuntu Touch) really delivers. In other ways... not so much.
LibreOffice is here, as is The Gimp. And both work surprisingly well, with a few visual glitches here and there (I assume due to the fact that Ubuntu Touch is using its own, in-house developed display server). Though it all runs a bit pokey—significantly slower than even when running these same applications on a (very old) Intel Core Solo-powered laptop with only 1GB of RAM. Menu clicks are slow to respond. Re-draw speed is less than ideal.
Speed is a problem
Everything works—just not at blazing fast speeds. That means I can get my work done on the go, all from a single tablet—which is a huge win for me, borderline game-changing. But the speed is almost bad enough to make me want to chuck the tablet through a window. Not quite, but almost.
The speed problem is noticeable across the entire system, not just with traditional desktop/X11-type software. The main Ubuntu/Unity dock (which sits on the left side of the screen) can also get a bit laggy and slow to respond at times. Scopes (a feature that is a lot like applications, only not applications), in general, are not what you would call “fast.”
Is that due to the hardware of the M10 being a bit dated? Or is it a software thing? Perhaps a bit of both? Either way, it isn’t exactly thrilling that the first (and, thus far, only) Ubuntu Touch-powered tablet—making it, in essence, the flagship device—suffers from poor performance that borders on the frustrating.
But I can forgive a lot if a device gives me full GNU/Linux on a tablet. There’s even a full, honest-to-goodness terminal here. So, I could use the Ubuntu Tablet to live almost entirely in a terminal. How cool is that?
All is not peaches and cream from a “this is straight-up Linux” perspective, though. While we have a full terminal, installing packages via “apt” isn’t really doable—at least not without toggling the tablet into a read-write mode, which is essentially a developer mode. And doing this will disable the ability to get future system updates, meaning you need to decide between the ability to update your system or the ability to “apt install” software.
A situation that straight-up stinks.
The solution to this, from Canonical’s point of view, is Snappy—the future of Ubuntu software delivery. Unfortunately very little software is available this way, and getting much more software (at least more desktop software) available sounds like it could be a long ways off.
Right now, if you want to install desktop software, there is a work-around here. You can create a container using Libertine and install the software within the container. It works. Unsurprisingly, it can be a bit pokey, but it works.
A lot of what I just said sounds negative; it’s really not. There’s a lot to be excited about here. Let me recap:
- We can run just about any traditional Linux software we want. It just might be a bit cumbersome to get running in a container, and it performs a bit sluggishly.
- We can “apt install” software right into the system, but it’ll break system updates.
- We can use the tablet in a “touch” mode or in a more desktop-esque movable window mode. The way the switch is done is seamless and fantastic. Performance of the main interface itself—a bit slow.
If I’m looking at this and being truly objective, what the Canonical and Ubuntu team have accomplished is nothing short of amazing. This is a system that is so astoundingly close to being a “must have” for so many people that it is almost infuriating.
Not quite ready for daily use
In its current state, will I use the M10 as a daily machine? Not a chance. The performance is a deal-breaker (and I love old hardware, so I’m willing to put up with a bit of lag).
If that aspect of the system can be improved through software updates, and it can be made easier to get some additional desktop applications installed (either through Snappy packages being made available or it being made simpler to “apt install” them), I won’t be able to resist.
If those problems go away—and I really hope they do—I don’t think the M10 would ever leave my side.
Honestly? For me it’s almost worth buying my own M10 simply to support the work being done and hope that over the coming months Canonical and the Ubuntu team remedy (at least in part) those few real shortcomings.