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In a market that’s crowded with smartphones trying to outdo each other, we’re spoiled for choice. We scrutinize smartphones based on their weight, size, speed, and a plethora of other criteria. And far away in their towering corporate castles, the bigwigs like Apple, Microsoft, and Google look on. They’re keeping a close eye on the market, and more specifically on what phone you’re buying.

But beyond the fierce grips of these tech giants comes a new contender, one that might be new to the mobile space, but is certainly grabbing a bit of attention.

A new challenger approaches

The new contender is of course, Ubuntu. Having prided itself in being a safe, free, and efficient desktop OS for a number of years, the company is now turning its gaze to the smartphone and tablet segments. At this year’s MWC, Canonical showed off a few devices running a prototype of its OS, and overall people were intrigued. But is Ubuntu trying to dethrone anyone or place itself as direct competition to the likes of giants such as Android? Probably not. The brains behind the Ubuntu mobile OS know that there’s certainly a lot of effort that goes into a desktop OS, and likewise the same amount of effort will go into developing one for a mobile platform. Since MWC, the company has made a developer preview of the OS available on its website, and having used Ubuntu on my PC before, I was keen to see how it translated to a smartphone environment.

Say hello to a new homescreen

The main Ubuntu environment consists of five homescreens, which you can’t customize like you would in iOS or Android. Each screen is designed for a specific purpose or to display particular information, and navigating between them is as simple as swiping left or right. Your five homescreens are divided as follows:

Music: this screen displays music you’ve recently listened to, as well as displaying albums and songs available in the Ubuntu store. Presumably this would depend on whether or not purchases in the Ubuntu store are supported in your country or not.

People: the People screen is like an expanded phonebook, allowing you to bookmark certain contacts as well as see contact updates from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

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Home: the Home panel combines the best of the other four homescreens. You have six popular Apps at the top that you can switch around, a carousel of favorite contacts, and a list of people you’ve recently contacted as well as music you’ve listened to or videos you’ve watched.

Apps: the Apps panel is similar to what you may have seen on other mobile platforms, starting with a thumbnail view of running apps and a list of frequently used apps. You then have a list of all apps installed on your phone, along with a list of ‘available’ apps that you can grab from the Ubuntu store as developers publish their apps.

Video: the last panel is for videos, as the name suggests, and again this features new trailers and content that can be bought from Amazon.com or rented from the Ubuntu store.

Everything is a swipe away
Borrowing from OSes like BlackBerry 10 and Windows 8, Ubuntu OS relies entirely on gestures to navigate around. Swiping from the right edge lets you cycle through your running apps, while swiping from the left edge slowly will bring up recently launched programs – swipe in a bit further and you’ll return to the home screen. Swiping from the bottom will bring up an options panel for the app you’re in, while swiping from the top panel will bring down a quick navigation panel that will show alerts such as new emails, text messages, or missed calls. You can also swap over to the Sound or Wi-fi settings from the same menu by partially dragging the menu down and swiping left or right. It’s an interesting implementation, but it’s practicality might be questionable given that the menu is a bit sensitive to your swipes.

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Other standard gestures such as pinch-zooming in the web browser work fine, and the bundled browser was able to render most websites comfortably. The typing experience was a bit half and half, as there were many times when the correct keys weren’t being activated, but this will hopefully be fixed in future updates.

Getting Ubuntu on your phone
If you’re excited enough to want to try Ubuntu on your phone, then there are a few things you need to keep in mind. Firstly, the OS will only run on the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 7, or Nexus 10. Secondly, you’ll need a PC running Ubuntu or a Linux distribution in order to download and deploy the OS. Lastly, you’ll need to enable developer mode on your phone and unroot it. One you’ve got all of these steps covered, it really is just as simple as connecting your phone via USB, issuing the ‘phablet-flash’ command, and the system will download and automatically update your phone. Canonical warns that the system is still under development and there is a small chance of your phone being bricked if you don’t follow their instructions carefully, so make sure that you read everything in order. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the OS is filled with just placeholder images to show you what’s coming in future versions.

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“A change would do you good”
That’s what Sheryl Crow sang way back when people found her relevant. And indeed, change is often a good thing. It brings us new experiences, new challenges, and above all, new life lessons. So is Ubuntu heading out to change the smartphone ecosystem? Well that depends really on how many people actually adopt the OS on their smartphones. While Canonical is actively looking for manufacturers to adopt the OS and release Ubuntu-powered smartphones into the market, in the interim it would be smart (and faster) to just offer consumers the ability to download the OS and deploy it to compatible hardware. If you’re interested enough to give Ubuntu a shot, then take the dive and follow the instructions here.

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