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Real life with an Ubuntu tablet—and only an Ubuntu tablet

Imagine: You're leaving for a long work-related trip. What, at the very least, do you take with you? Why, a laptop, of course! A brand-new one, a fancy one, so that you can be just as productive while traveling as at the office. (Not that you will be. Most of your trip will be spent socializing, drinking at hotel bars, and exploring new cities. But you could be, and that's the point.)

But then disaster strikes: Your fancy laptop breaks down, just days before the trip. No time to have it repaired, so you decide to take an old backup laptop instead. Not as fancy, but it will do. But then disaster strikes again: The evening before your trip, you spill coffee on the backup laptop. Dead!

This is more or less what happened to me.

I suddenly found myself laptopless, right before a series of contiguous work-related trips. So I was forced to boldly go where no man has gone before (it's not bold if you've been forced, I suppose, but no matter—I went there): I brought my Ubuntu tablet along as my main computer. The BQ Aquaris M10 FHD to be exact.

My makeshift hotel-room office, centered around the BQ Aquaris M10 Ubuntu tablet.

So what's Ubuntu, and what's an Ubuntu tablet?

Ubuntu is a free operating system, an alternative to Windows or Mac OS. I love Ubuntu, and it was installed on both of my late laptops. Regular Ubuntu is for desktop and laptop computers. Ubuntu tablets run a modified version of Ubuntu, called Ubuntu Touch, which is optimized for mobile devices; it's an alternative to mobile operating systems such as Android or iOS. Ubuntu Touch also runs on smartphones. I've used it on my smartphone for a while now: first on a BQ Aquaris E4.5, which I bought with Ubuntu pre-installed; later, when my E4.5 died in free fall, I installed Ubuntu Touch on a Nexus 4.

Ubuntu Touch is fairly new. The first commercially sold device running Ubuntu Touch was my late E4.5. I think it's fair to say that, as a mobile operating system, Ubuntu Touch cannot yet compete with Android and iOS. It's a decent operating system, and it has a few clever, original touches; but there are not that many apps, meaning that you often have to resort to mobile websites, and the overall user experience is less polished.

But—and this is a big but—Ubuntu Touch promises something that Android and iOS do not: convergence; that is, when you connect a keyboard and a mouse (through bluetooth) and optionally an external display (through a micro-HDMI port) to the tablet, the mobile operating system morphs into a full-fledged desktop operating system. It's as if your tablet (or phone) turns into a laptop!

Sort of.

With the promise of convergence in mind, and lacking a laptop, I brought my Ubuntu Tablet and a bluetooth mouse and keyboard (these ones) along on my trip, hoping that this would allow me to do at least some serious work while away.

So what do I mean with 'serious work'? First of all, I need to send emails, and I need a decent app to write things such as this post and sections of a review article that I'm currently working on. For email and writing you don't really need convergence—an Android tablet would do just fine. But I also need a few traditional programs, that is, programs that you'd normally run on a desktop or laptop computer. For me, the two most important ones are: LibreOffice, a free office suite that I use mainly for presentations (I have to give a few on this trip); and OpenSesame, a program for creating psychology experiments (of which I'm the lead developer).

As I said before, Ubuntu Touch can transform into a desktop operating system, and run traditional programs such as LibreOffice and OpenSesame—but only sort of. So let's take a look at how convergent Ubuntu Touch really is.

The first aspect of convergence is that Ubuntu Touch can switch to desktop mode. In desktop mode, you can run multiple applications side by side in windows, just as you would on a regular computer. (In non-desktop mode, each application is shown full screen, and only one application is active at a time.) Ubuntu Touch automatically switches to desktop mode when you connect a mouse, but you can also activate it manually, as shown below (it's called mode bureau in French). Desktop mode is pretty sweet; I often enable it even when I'm not using a mouse.

When you enable desktop mode, you can run multiple applications side by side, just like on a regular computer.

The second aspect of convergence, installing traditional programs, is considerably more difficult: You need to be comfortable with the Linux terminal to do it. (See this blog for instructions.) This will become more user-friendly in future updates to Ubuntu Touch, but right now you still need to get your hands dirty. (The version I'm using is OTA-12.) On the plus side, a handful of traditional programs, including LibreOffice, GIMP, and Firefox, are pre-installed, so you can use those without trouble.

So how well does this work in practice? I feel I can speak with some authority, because I've been using the tablet as a real computer for almost three weeks now, without being able to fall back to a laptop. And here's my feeling: It works. It's sometimes frustrating, and often slow, but it gets the job done most of the time. And it's fairly stable: Crashes do occur, but not often. Below I'll discuss a few things that I noticed. This will come across as negative, because you tend to notice things only when they go wrong. So don't forget what I just said: Despite sometimes being clunky and frustrating, Ubuntu Touch usually gets the job done.

One of my main annoyances doesn't have to do with convergence per se, but with the default webbrowser app. Although it's a decent browser, it tends to kill non-active tabs; that is, the browser detects when the tablet is running out of memory (which happens quickly), and then silently unloads non-active tabs to free up memory. When you then switch back to a tab that has been killed, this tab is reloaded with a noticeable delay. This also causes problems with some sites, especially those that use popup windows: Popups are shown as new tabs, and often cause the original tab to be killed; when the popup then wants to communicate something back to the original tab, things go wrong. (That's what I think happens, at least. My analysis may be slightly off, but—whatever the technicalities—problems certainly occur.) In principle, if memory is really running out, killing inactive tabs is a sensible thing to do; but I have the impression that the Ubuntu Touch webbrowser app is unnecessarily aggressive, and does more harm than good.

Furthermore, although traditional programs, such as LibreOffice, do run, they do so in a funny way, as if they are isolated from the rest of the operating system. For example, you cannot copy-paste from or to traditional programs. Also, when a traditional program opens a new window, this new window appears floating awkwardly at the bottom the original window, as you can see in the screenshot below. These are not deal breakers, but do make running of traditional programs on Ubuntu Touch feel unpolished. But, and I keep emphasizing this because it's so cool, it does work: You really can run traditional programs on your Ubuntu tablet. I've successfully worked on a presentation in LibreOffice Impress, and even managed to download and install the Expand Animations extension so that I could export my presentation to a PDF while preserving the slide animations. I haven't tried to actually give a presentation using the tablet; but, in principle, if the presentation projector can connect to a mini-HDMI output, this should be possible.

Traditional programs run, but they seem disconnected from the rest of the operating system. For example, if a traditional program opens a new window, this new window floats at a fixed location at the bottom of the original window.

Finally, there are a few problems with using an external keyboard. One problem is that an external keyboard bypasses the spell checker. When you use the virtual keyboard (i.e. on the touch screen), there is a system that suggests words and automatically corrects misspellings; this works pretty well. But if you use an external keyboard, there is no such system, and no way to check spelling (except in traditional programs that have their own spell checker, such as LibreOffice). As a result, my emails now contain more mistakes than they used to.

Another problem—and a major one—is that certain accented characters cannot be entered with an external keyboard. On regular Ubuntu, you can type accented characters by holding down the compose key (usually the right Alt), and typing two characters, which are then magically combined into one. For example, "Alt + ' + e" becomes "é". But with Ubuntu Touch this is not possible: There is no compose key. Consequently, it is impossible to write in a language that relies heavily on accented letters, such as French. Yes, you heard that right: When using an external keyboard, you cannot write French, Portugese, or other languages that rely heavily on accented characters. (Some accented letter are part of the keyboard layout, so-called 'dead keys.' Those can be typed with an external keyboard, but they cover only the most common accented letters.) This problem only affects external keyboards: With the virtual keyboard it's no problem to type accented letters.

So what's the verdict? I'm impressed with what Ubuntu has accomplished: They've been able to develop a decent mobile operating system that can morph into a full desktop operating system. Will I—barring another multi-laptop-breakdown catastrophe—bring my Ubuntu tablet along as my main computer again? No, at least not until Ubuntu Touch has matured further. Has it gotten me through this trip? Yes. And that's already quite an accomplishment.