We take a look at Ubuntu for Nexus 7, made possible with the new one-click installer promoted by Canonical. What we found certainly surprised us…
Ubuntu is second only to Android in terms of Linux popularity. It’s the last, best hope today for saving the PC from a walled garden universe. With Apple and Microsoft now doubling down on their walled gardens, the options to sideload on a PC are quickly dwindling from every-PC to no-PC.
Sideloading is important, it’s something that we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from big advertisers, because we’re so persistent in our crusade for it. Sideloading ensures you can run software that you want, on your device. A small business can now be destroyed with an App Submission Denied email. It has happened. People, real people, are being bankrupted by this. It’s wrong.
Apple has ensured mobile devices are practically a lost cause, with only Google joining us in our sideloading crusade. Ironically, Apple has embraced sideloading with Gatekeeper on OS X Mountain Lion, trying to play both sides. Windows 8 modern/metro apps are also walled-in. That means all Windows RT desktops and tablets, as well as all Windows Phone 7 and 8 apps.
If you want to sideload on Windows, you basically have to code for Windows 7, not Windows 8. We think that’s wrong, as it ensures sideloading apps that can be made profitable, are on borrowed time in both the PC, and mobile industries.
We know, if you read PhoneNews.com, you’ve read this time and time again. Ubuntu stands alongside Android as one of the only commercially-viable operating systems that is serving as a deterrant to turn the tide on sideloading.
To install, you must first unlock your device’s bootloader. Thankfully, with Nexus 7, that is an easy process. You first run the Nexus 7 Ubuntu installer, which of course right now requires you to install Ubuntu. You can do this without installing Ubuntu on your PC by using a Virtual Machine (VM) with the free VirtualBox software. The VM deployment of Ubuntu can pass through USB 2.0 devices, but make sure you install Oracle’s VM additions as well as VirtualBox.
Once you install the Nexus 7 installer, it only takes a couple of quick terminal commands to unlock the bootloader on the Nexus 7. Once done, you are set to run the Ubuntu Nexus 7 Installer.
The installer then pulls down pre-built images for Ubuntu ARM 12.10, and flashes them onto the Nexus 7. Canonical notes that the image does use proprietary drivers, including Wi-Fi and Tegra 3 graphics drivers. No open source, non-proprietary alternatives exist today.
Once finished, the device will take several minutes to de-compress the disk images on the device. But, you’re done with the PC. However, we strongly suggest you keep that VM instance or Ubuntu install handy.
This is early software… really early.
We thought we had the holy grail on our hands. Open, OpenGL ES accelerated, true Linux with a Linux userland, and armed with NVIDIA’s Tegra 3. It was supposed to be the last mile between Android and total Linux bliss.
It isn’t any of that.
What we got was a very early, unstable release distribution. Nothing totally works. Where, oh where to begin.
First, while Ubuntu’s GNOME-forked user interface, Unity, was supposed to be OpenGL ES ready, it doesn’t seem to be working properly. Everything is rendering in software mode on Nexus 7, at least, as far as we can tell. We do have to caution this may not totally be Canonical’s fault, NVIDIA has been very poor with its Linux driver support for a good decade or two.
OpenGL ES is totally new territory and a lot of this is going to have to be reverse engineered to talk to a proprietary driver meant for Android. Android and Linux may now have undergone a “kernel unification”, but they are vastly different userlands. We suspect the Tegra 3 driver has no tunings for a traditional flavor of Linux. And, we suspect, bugs in Unity also prevent OpenGL ES from “going live” just yet.
We’d be okay with all that though.
The problems continue, however. First, Unity is set to use the Desktop interface, not Unity’s custom Netbook/Tablet interface. Canonical says they are aware of this, and working on a fix.
Also, the DPI is 1:1 pixel for a desktop. That means icons are smaller than your fingertips. Menu bars are half your fingertip… if you have a small finger. You’re going to need to make some UI adjustments to get the interface functional.
Touch support is dismal. Unity crashes… a lot. The combination of the two is bad. It took three reboots just to get the device through the checks for software updates. None are available as of today.
Some of this can be worked around. USB On The Go (OTG) support is available for Nexus 7. While Bluetooth is too buggy to work (yes, you read that right), you can plug in a keyboard and mouse.
USB OTG works fine, but charging with USB OTG does not. An alpha-grade patch is live already to address that.
So, what we’re left with is a seven inch tablet that works best when paired with the assets of a notebook. And graphics acceleration is absent. Wi-Fi and other features are stable, but showcase how an ARM CPU is different from an x86 CPU. ARM CPUs may be causing laptop and desktop prices (along with x86 CPU prices) to crater. But, that doesn’t mean ARM and x86 are equal. x86 crushes ARM in performance. So, while an x86 tablet with similar clock speeds can load Firefox almost instantly… ARM will take several seconds to load full Firefox.
Oh, and thanks to Adobe pulling out of Flash on traditional Linux, that’s a goner too.
This is for extreme nerds, for now. That will change over time, Ubuntu has tons of promise.
But, the ease of installation betrays the pains after-install. It is going to give many their first taste of Ubuntu… and it’s going to taste like a bar of soap.
We realize Canonical has cautioned all of this. But, if something is easy to install, people are going to ignore that. They may read it, but they’ll dismiss it out of hand. After all, it’s easy to install, so it should just work, right? Unfortunately, that is the flawed psychology that we fear many will take away from this.
We really urge Canonical to offer up a warning page at the start of the Nexus 7 installer, warning how buggy things are right now. Otherwise, they run the risk of turning away a good chunk of the potential future userbase. It’s easy, but it’s not for normal people… just yet.