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Ubuntu Mobile hands-on review

14 Mar 2014

Canonical announced earlier this year that the first Ubuntu smartphones will be made by BQ and Meizu. That created a wave of interest in how the open source Linux operating system (OS) distribution will look and work on a smartphone or tablet.

We tested the Ubuntu Mobile OS running on a Google Nexus 4. Upon powering up the device we were confronted by a user interface similar to the one seen on Ubuntu tablets.

Ubuntu smartphone home screen

Opening the phone from its lockscreen required us to scroll right from the phone's bezel. Once in, we were confronted with the main Ubuntu Mobile homescreen. Unlike iOS or Android, Ubuntu Mobile doesn't have multiple menu windows and is managed directly from a central homescreen. The homescreen is separated into paneled sections, and includes panels for things like recently used apps, contacts, music, video and messages. The order of the panels can be customised to suit the user's wishes. Scrolling down brings you to the full app library, which shows every app installed on the phone.

Testing the phone we found navigating Ubuntu Mobile is entirely touch and gesture based. Accessing new features is done by scrolling up, down, left or right from a specific point on the phone screen's bezel. A short scroll from the left bezel brings out the Ubuntu Unity Application launcher - a menu similar to the one seen on Samsung's Touchwiz Android skin, while a short scroll right brings out the last open application. A longer scroll right brings up a new window showing all open applications on the phone.

While the system felt alien at first and far different than the multi-window Android and iOS mobile operating systems, we soon got used to it and found it intuitive and quick to use.

Apps and multi device functionality
The demo device we had a play with featured a number of Ubuntu telephone, text, contact and web browser apps. Sadly we didn't get to test any of these during our hands-on, as the handset did not have an active 3G or WiFi connection.

Ubuntu smartphone file manager

We were impressed by how many apps there were, with the device featuring everything from a custom note-taking app to Openoffice, calendar and weather services, all of which matched up nicely when compared to their Android and iOS equivalents. For example, firing up the phone's calendar app, we were met with a clean user interface that displayed meetings in a manner similar to Google's Calendar app.

We were also impressed by Ubuntu's file manager. The file manager can either be opened using a shortcut on the homescreen or with a quick swipe from the right-hand bezel. The user interface is similar to that of any file manager system, displaying file shortcuts to various items like pictures, video, documents, music and downloads. We found that the addition was a definite bonus, as gaining access to the same feature on an Android device requires you to plug it into a PC, and it made it quicker and easier to manage the files stored on the device.

The open nature of Ubuntu also means that the selection of mobile apps will likely increase after launch. This is because Ubuntu's open Linux nature makes it very easy for app developers to create or port apps to the system. A key reason for this is the Linux support for a variety of coding languages, with Canonical listing support for everything from HTML5, Javascript and CSS to C++. The support also means means that Ubuntu Mobile can seamlessly run both web apps and native apps.

As an added bonus, Ubuntu Mobile also lets developers set up their own third-party marketplaces and sell their wares outside of Canonical's Ubuntu Software Centre.

Enterprise services
The flip side of an open source project like Ubuntu is that the freedom it offers can benefit hackers as well as legitimate developers. This trend was most recently showcased by Android, which is being besieged by mobile malware.

Ubuntu smartphone open apps

However, Canonical has worked hard in recent years to ensure that Ubuntu is enterprise ready with a variety of security services. The most important of these is Canonical's proven systems management tool Landscape. The tool is designed for enterprise users and lets IT departments monitor and control what actions can be executed on Ubuntu devices.

Another big draw for businesses is Ubuntu Mobile's potential to turn phones into full-on PCs. Canonical has worked hard to make sure that Ubuntu Mobile is a converged mobile operating system. This means that users should theoretically be able to turn a Ubuntu phone into a PC by connecting it to a full-sized screen and attaching a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. Sadly we didn't get a chance to test this during our hands-on.

The only issue we noticed during our hands-on was that the Nexus 4 demo device we were using to try Ubuntu Mobile did feel fairly buggy. During our hands-on the handset often lagged and at times stopped working altogether. However, to be fair to Canonical we were testing Ubuntu on a fairly old, beaten up Nexus 4 and the issues we noted easily could have been hardware rather than software based.

Ubuntu smartphone shortcut

First impressions
Overall our first impressions of Ubuntu Mobile as a mobile operating system are positive. While the operating system's swipe based user interface is very different than anything we've seen before, it is fairly intuitive. The open nature of Ubuntu Linux and its support for web apps as well as native apps means it is very developer friendly.

Tesla Model X debuts in-car Linux-powered control centre

17 Jan 2013

DETROIT: Car technology is on the increase with self-driving cars and health-monitoring seats all turning from science fiction to science fact.

As such, when V3's sister site THE INQUIRER headed to the North American and International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit to see some of the latest innovations on show, we were keen to see what they unearthed.

One of the most interesting announcements they came across was from Telsa, which was showing off its Model X SUV featuring an in-built tablet control panel.

The car was actually first unveiled in February 2012, and the Model X SUV is still in the prototype stage. However, with gull-wing doors, a front-mounted boot and seven seats it's clearly no small-scale project. It's also said to have a zero to 60mph time of around five seconds. Speedy.

Telsa's Model X was on show at the NAIAS in Detroit

Based on the four-door Tesla Model S that Tesla also showed off at NAIAS, the Model X features some updates such as all-wheel drive, thanks to an additional electric motor mounted at the front wheels.

The main feature that caught our eye, though, was that the Model X exhibited Tesla's updated in-car control centre that features a 17in capacitive LCD touchscreen, the biggest we've seen in a car yet.

Debuting in the Model S when it ships in the US later this year, the Linux-based technology will allow the driver to manage features such as climate and music control as well as navigation via Google Maps.

Better still, you'll be able to browse the web and program driving settings, such as "ride feel". Such settings allow drivers to optimise the vehicle with sounds to make it feel more like an authentic motor vehicle, because the silent drive on an electric-powered car generally lacks that factor.

Tesla's Model X was on show at the NAIAS in Detroit

The 17in display is powered by an Nvidia Tegra 3 chip, meaning it will be powerful enough to run a variety of content without lag. However, one drawback is that you cannot view video on the screen, for safety reasons, even when the engine is turned off.

Tesla said that early customers of the technology won't have to pay a penny for it during the first year of use, although monthly pricing might be introduced later on.

Another feature with Tesla's in-car technology is that you can tether your phone or tablet and use its data plan to stream content from your mobile device to the display. Tesla's control centre also has upgradable firmware, giving the driver peace of mind that it is future-proof too.

Telsa's Model S was on show at the NAIAS in Detroit

The instrument displays including the speedometer and fuel gauge are also based on digital displays, allowing the driver to customise what is shown via buttons on the steering wheel.

Deliveries for the Tesla Model X will begin in 2014, however in-car technology will come as standard on the Tesla Model S, which has already started shipping across in the US and can be expected to reach the UK by early 2014.

Raspberry Pi “Wheezy” hands-on review

04 Sep 2012

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has updated the recommended Debian Linux build for its low-cost single-board computer a couple of times since we reviewed the credit card-sized Raspberry Pi device in June, and we've been trying out the new versions.

Based on the Raspbian build of Debian, the latest "Wheezy" version of the Raspberry Pi software released on 16 August contains a similar set of development tools to the original build, along with example source code for multimedia functions, according to the Foundation, but has numerous tweaks, including a few to make it more user friendly.

The first thing users will notice if they upgrade is that the newer release throws up a lot more messages onto the screen as it starts, possibly indicating that the device is loading up more drivers than before.

Raspberry Pi Raspbian update

The Raspberry Pi then runs a configuration tool, Raspi-config, which allows the user to set various options, including the keyboard layout, locale and timezone, as well as expanding the root partition to fill up the SD Card, if you are using a larger card than the minimum 4GB size.

As before, typing "startx" at the Bash command prompt loads the LXDE desktop GUI environment, but Wheezy now displays a text message handily informing you of this. Alternatively, Raspi-config lets the user set their Raspberry Pi to automatically boot straight to the desktop on startup.

The desktop environment itself has changed only slightly, with icon shortcuts to all the relevant tools now placed directly on the desktop itself, along with a handy Debian Reference document that loads in a browser.

An extra browser, Netsurf, has been added to the Dillo and Midori options previously available, while the develop tools now comprise the Idle environment for Python, the Squeak programming language, and the Scratch environment, along with a set of sample games and other simple applications.

Raspberry Pi Scratch demo

The Wheezy build also has numerous enhancements under the hood, including taking greater advantage of the processor's floating point hardware.

We found performance under this build still somewhat sluggish, but it must be kept in mind that this is a £25 computer designed for education and experimentation, and not a games console or fully-specced PC.

Office 365 on Mac and Linux

06 Jul 2011

When I reviewed Microsoft's Office 365 last week, I tested the cloud-based productivity suite on Windows PCs, running either Windows 7 or Windows XP.

To recap, Office 365 provides access to cloud-hosted versions of Exchange and SharePoint, plus Microsoft's Lync telephony client and web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

However, with most of the capabilities of Office 365 provided through a browser, it should be possible for users on other platforms, such as Mac or Linux, to gain access to Office features.

To find out, I tried accessing my test account on an Apple iMac and a PC running Ubuntu with a version of Firefox.

Office 365 Home portal on Mac

The results were encouraging, everything looking and functioning exactly as it does when you access it from a PC. It would seem that Microsoft has done a pretty good job of ensuring cross-platform support via the browser, with this suite at least.

On both the Mac and Ubuntu I was able to access Outlook and send and receive email, check the calendar, and even edit shared documents stored on SharePoint using the Office Web Apps such as Word.

Office 365 Word on Linux

The one area where this falls down is with Lync, Microsoft's messaging and telephony tool. Unlike the other functions, this is a full-blown software client that must be installed locally, and non-Windows users are out of luck here.

While there is a version of Microsoft's Communicator (the old name for Lync) for Mac OS, Microsoft states on its Office 365 web site: "At this time Communicator for Mac 2011 will not work with Office 365."

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