Review: Ubuntu Mobile Edition

By Paul Ferrill

February 27, 2009

Our friends at LinuxPlanet took a look at an early version of Ubuntu Mobile Edition. Conclusion? Overall it represents a good start toward making Linux a viable alternative to Windows for ultra portable devices.

The mobile Internet device (MID) space is one of the fastest growing platforms with new concept designs appearing every month. Nokia was one of the earliest vendors with a product (Nokia 770) in this space to ship with a Linux operating system (OS) and continues to see solid sales with the current model. New concept designs come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, and many sport a Linux OS.

Microsoft made a big splash a couple of years ago with their ultra-mobile personal computer (UMPC) platform. These devices typically include a 7-inch touch screen, Wi-Fi and a variety of other options. Original releases of these products from companies like Asus, Samsung, and TabletKiosk were based on Windows XP Tablet Edition. The latest versions with more powerful processors and more memory typically run Windows Vista.

I was able to pick up one of the original Samsung Q1s from woot.com for around $600. This model has an Intel 900 MHz Celeron processor, 512MB of memory, and a 40 GB hard drive. With an extended 6-cell battery you can expect to get from four to six hours of use from a typical usage pattern. While the Q1 XP Tablet edition combination is functional, it just seemed like it wasn't made to fit the small form factor. Installing software often produced the clipped dialog screen problem where you couldn't see the buttons at the bottom to click on them.

Another big limiting factor for these devices was cost. Most new UMPCs cost anywhere from $900 on the low end, to upwards of $1800 on the high end, and even higher for the solid state disk versions. With the introduction of the Asus Eee PC and other similar form factor, these prices are hard to justify especially when you consider the minute differences in capability. [Read a full review of the Asus Eee PC here.]

Enter Ubuntu Mobile

Canonical and Intel have teamed up to sponsor the Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded (UME) project with a goal of providing the infrastructure and necessary components for mobile application development. Images are available for download on the UME Website for the Samsung Q1 Ultra and Elektrobit MIMD. These devices are based on the Intel McCaslin and Menlow chipsets respectively.

Not to be hindered by hardware specifications, I set out to get the Samsung version running on my Q1U. The UME wiki provides step-by-step instructions for creating a bootable USB memory stick to use for the installation. This is a necessary step as the Q1 has no CD-ROM (although it will boot from an external USB CD-ROM).

The Image Creator software (see figure 1) is a breeze to use and does the job quickly and efficiently. The first step is to download the image (img file) from the UME site to a Ubuntu workstation. Next you'll need a copy of the Image Creator software. This can be obtained by opening a terminal window and entering the command:

sudo apt-get install moblin-image-creator


To start up the program then type:

sudo image-creator


The sudo gives you the permissions you'll need to write directly to the USB device. When that completes you will have a bootable USB memory stick with the base UME operating system image and the necessary installation scripts. I had to tweak the BIOS on my Q1 to make it boot from the USB port first.

Once the installation completes a reboot produces a screen much like the one in Figure 2. The large buttons make it easy to launch different applications with a finger touch. Other areas designed for finger interaction include the top status bar where you have easy access to network / wireless settings, volume control and a quick application filter to display different categories. A good source of information for designing application user interfaces for mobile devices can be found on the UME guide page.

User experience

Browsing the Web with this version of the software works, but isn't really ready for prime time. There are some issues with navigation, and entering a URL requires the on-screen keyboard which is cumbersome at best (see Figure 3). If you're simply hitting bookmarked pages or browsing a site by clicking on links, it works just fine. The Samsung Q1 has a number of buttons on the front face of the device that are programmable under Windows and make some of the tasks like paging down on a Web page much easier.

With my Q1 I purchased the leather case / USB keyboard accessory to make text entry easier. Open Office works just fine under UME, and I was able to enter and edit text using the keyboard with no issues. The USB keyboard also includes an "eraser head" type mouse that works just fine under UME. I did not try to connect a Bluetooth keyboard although this version is supposed to support Bluetooth devices.

Development

There are a number of developer resources if you have an interest in writing or porting applications to the UME platform. The moblin.org website has links to an SDK and a developer forum where development topics are covered. UME has the Hildon desktop in common with the Nokia tablet platform bringing a good source of developer examples to learn from. Python is a major language of choice for many of the applications that have been created for the Nokia tablets and these should easily move over to the UME platform.

You'll find a great tutorial on the Ubuntu site on how to launch one of the images using the Xephyr environment. One hint that I needed concerned a work around for a DNS issue. The instructions are on the same page under the "Temporary issue with DNS" heading.

Overall this version represents a good start toward making the Linux operating system a viable alternative to Windows for these ultra portable devices. You can follow the development on any of the Ubuntu mobile mailing lists and IRC discussions listed on the UME wiki.

Article adapted from LinuxPlanet where it originally appeared in August 2008. The product reviewed was in "alpha" at the time. For more recent Linux reviews and product updates, click here.


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