Ubuntu-Touch 13.10 and why Ubuntu on the phone is not here yet.

Ubuntu-Touch 13.10 was released yesterday with a lot of hype and promise.  And it had been a year since they released their tech preview so I gave it a whirl on my Google Galaxy Nexus,  one of the top phones supported by the new Ubuntu phone OS.  Which is a bit of a mis-labelling by the way,  Ubuntu-Touch is a linux on top of android,  Underneath everything it's a Cyanogenmod Android kernel and system.    I can live with that.

Installation is actually easiest from ubuntu linux.  But those of you that want to try it from windows, it's just as easy if you have the latest android tools installed.  All you really need is the correct adb.exe and fastboot.exe and their libraries in a folder.

First go to http://cdimage.ubuntu.com/ubuntu-touch/daily-preinstalled/current/ and grab the files for your phone  AND the saucy-preinstalled-touch-armhf.zip at the bottom, something that several guides leave out.

Now boot into fastboot, typically by holding down volume up, down, and power all at once.  Now install the img files in order...

adb reboot fastboot
fastboot flash recovery saucy-preinstalled-recovery-armel+grouper.img
fastboot flash boot saucy-preinstalled-boot-armhf+grouper.img
fastboot flash system saucy-preinstalled-system-armel+grouper.img
  • Boot your device into recovery mode
adb reboot recovery
  • Copy the zip file to the /sdcard/ directory naming it "autodeploy.zip" on the device using adb
adb push /path/to/your/downloaded/saucy-preinstalled-touch-armel+grouper.zip /sdcard/autodeploy.zip
  • Reboot into recovery mode
(This will install the file you copied in the previous step)
adb reboot recovery
  • Make sure you are in recovery mode again for the second step
  • Get the saucy-preinstalled-touch-armhf.zip file
  • Copy the zip file to the /sdcard/ directory naming it "autodeploy.zip" on the device using adb
adb push /path/to/your/downloaded/saucy-preinstalled-touch-armhf.zip /sdcard/autodeploy.zip
  • Reboot into recovery mode
(This will install the file you copied in the previous step)
adb reboot recovery

  • The device should automatically reboot into the Ubuntu Touch UI
Now I am betting you had a failure when you rebooted after the first adb push.  This is because you need to format the media in the phone.  I used the menuing on the recovery mode to format the media section and then format /sdcard.   I then issued the adb reboot fastboot and started over.  This time it worked just fine.

Now you have Ubuntu-Touch on your phone,   If you want to have your google contact on it,  that is going to be tricky. but still possible.  you need to use adb once again after the phone is booted. and follow the instructions at http://sergiusens.github.io/posts/google-contacts-on-ubuntu-touch.html to get the contacts synced to your phone.   Note it will only do it from the command line for right now.   I tried going through the GUI on the phone setting up accounts but contacts never arrived from google.  Using the command line I was able to get what I needed.

I experienced several problems right away.   First any internet access over Wifi or Cellular data was like using a 28.8 modem.  All of it incredibly slow and very very laggy.   Even google.com took over 35 seconds to load the front page.  Facebook never actually loaded it's mobile site (the facebook app icon on the desktop is just a shortcut to the website)   Changing or setting your ringtone or wallpaper does not work from the GUI and I noticed that button push events either had to be held or touched several times.   The whole OS will go out to lunch for a few seconds while you are typing a username or password.   Same for the browser,  typing a url would just hang from time to time.

What was a major failure was the phone operation.  Making phone calls worked every time,   hanging them up is another matter.  Nearly 50% of the test phone calls I made (10 of them) failed to either hang up or actually dial.   And incoming calls had a 25% failure rate of actually ringing the phone.  One it went almost 6 rings before I had the "incoming call" pop up on the phone.   It is as if there is not interrupts at all being used.  Hanging up the call should fire an interrupt and force all other tasks to wait while it ended the call.

Data also had it's own issues.   It kept asking for the wifi password on a WPA2 access point.   I would give it the correct password, it would successfully connect and  data transfers would work.  Suddenly it would drop the wifi connection and then ask for the password again.  Cellular data was so slow that I could not complete any tests at all.   the exact same phone running Android 4.3 has 1.2mbps at this exact spot, and after restoring the phone I regained the speeds so it was Ubuntu and internal problems keeping cellular data incredibly slow.  

They say that Ubuntu -Touch is not ready for users,  but I see that it's not even ready for developers.  If I was to try and test my app in that unstable of an environment I would lose the last of the hair I currently have.   Nothing is worse that chasing a failure that is not even in your software.  For users that are curious,  I say go ahead but be sure to back up the phone first.  Installing this will completely wipe your phone, so don't be surprised when everything is gone.  Honestly you will come to the same conclusion and restore your phone back to Android within an hour like I did.  I really wanted it to be useable even just having the phone side useable would have been acceptable to me for a day.  But it is not even ready for that.    It's ready to demo to a board room full of executives that don't know better, and that is pretty much it for now.  Here is hoping that next year they make significant progress and fix the problems that make it very slow and unstable.

The UI changes feel right, but at times the swipe up from the bottom to bring in the "back button" did not work making me wonder how to go back or did it just not see my swipe again.   Will I try it again on the next release?   you bet.   I am very interested in seeing where this will end up.  It  has the potential to be the ultimate linux techie Phone OS if they can get the critical problems fixed.


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