I was excited when the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition arrived in the post. I quickly opened the impressive packaging, picked up the beautiful hardware and eagerly turned the phone on. Soon, I was using Linux – specifically Ubuntu – on a phone for the very first time.
The Meizu Pro 5 is also available with Android onboard, but the Ubuntu variant is far for interesting - and possibly a sign of things to come.
And at first I was kind of impressed. Gone is the usual design of phone interfaces – instead Ubuntu has a different kind of app tray, similar to the desktop version of the OS, comprised of a strip of shortcut icons that you can access by swiping in from the left of the screen.
There's Twitter on your home screen, and you can have other apps there too; I guess the idea is to give you access to the stuff you're interested in without you having to leave the home screen.
As time went on, however, I found that the appeal of the different look was overtaken by the disappointment of just how slow this phone was. But let's start with the design of the Meizu Pro 5, and look at what the hardware offers.
Like an iPhone 6S, or LG G5, the Meizu Pro 5 has brilliant build quality through and through. There's a metal case and a stylish design, including an oversized camera lens that's clearly a conscious aesthetic touch.
The front glass feels tough, and the phone looks and feels like one that should cost £600 (US$800, AU$1200), rather than its actual price of £380 (US$370, around AU$528).
There's one of them fancy new USB-C sockets that you get on phones like the LG G5 and HTC 10, a headphone jack at the top, which is a good place for such a thing, and a speaker grille at the bottom.
There's a nice big home button on the front of the device, and a volume rocker and power control on the right side.
On the left is a SIM tray that can take two SIM cards, or one SIM card and a microSD card. That's a really nifty idea too, although in a phone this size I don't see why you couldn't have two SIM cards and a microSD; most people don't run dual-SIM phones in the West, though, so it's not likely to be an issue.
All in all, the hardware Meizu has on offer in the Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition is first-class. It has solid build quality, and a heft that's just about right – it's perhaps just a shade too heavy, but ultimately this is a phone that feels like a high-end flagship.
Key features and performance
The Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition has a fingerprint scanner, but while the hardware is in place the software isn't yet – it'll be added later via an update. That's a shame – fingerprint scanners are a key flagship feature these days, and it seems odd to go halfway there but not fully implement this at launch.
Thankfully the Pro 5 has other things going for it, such as the screen, of which I'm a fan. It's a 1080p panel, so not the highest resolution you'll see, but it's bright and detailed and I really like the colors, which pop with the sort of vibrancy you'd hope for on a modern phone.
At 5.7 inches it's a monster in size terms too, which is good for phablet lovers, but bad for those with dainty hands.
You get 32GB of internal storage, and you can upgrade that with a microSD card (as long as you aren't planning on running the phone with two SIM cards). I'm reasonably happy with 32GB, as it's enough for most users and you probably won't struggle to install all the apps you want – although that's largely because there are so few apps.
The presence of Ubuntu means, in theory, that the Meizu Pro 5 could be used as a portable PC. But while you can pair things like Bluetooth mice and keyboards, sadly there's no way to get a video signal out of the USB socket, so you'd need to use screen casting to run an external display, and that isn't currently implemented.
You can run all manner of Linux commands on the phone too, which is great, but what's not so good is that there still don't seem to be sufficient libraries in place for you to, say, compile your own version of Spotify. There are also a lot of gestures – too many actually, and they're bothersome.
For example, if you're playing a game in which you have to swipe you'll end up task-switching to the last open window. I was playing 2048 and experienced this constantly – it's absolutely infuriating, and I'm sure there's a way to stop it happening, but the fact that it happens at all speaks to incredibly bad design.
To a lesser extent the same is true of the app launcher bar, which is activated by a swipe in from the left hand side of the screen – it's handy to have, but it will annoy you when you're trying to do other things.
Oh god, the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition is slow. It's not so slow as to be unusable, but it is slow enough to make using the phone as your main handset a fairly miserable experience. There are a couple of things going on with this device that cause problems – I'll start with apps.
The app problem is a serious one. There are no official WhatsApp or Spotify apps, and whatever app you use most on your current phone, I'd virtually guarantee it's not here. This is a problem for the obvious reason – a phone is only useful if it does the things you need it to do. But it's also a problem because the apps that are designed to take the place of 'native' apps usually take the form of a web app.
Web apps were what Apple used to say were all you needed on the iPhone – before it went and built the world's most comprehensive app store.
The problem with web apps is that they're just a custom interface for the web browser that launches the mobile site for, say, Facebook. This is slow, and it's rarely a particularly good experience.
'Real' apps are also slow to load – the first time I booted up the calculator it took five seconds, and it didn't actually load properly then. Other apps, including the browser, are slow to start too, and it's a really frustrating experience.
I also found that notifications – when you're using a real app, not a web app – were slow to arrive. Twitter was a good example of this, with five other devices on my desk bombarding me with updates while the Pro 5 dozed through it all.
My suspicion is that the version of Ubuntu Touch running on this phone has not been well optimized. Now I'm no operating system expert, but I know that the Samsung Exynos 7420 processor and MALI T760 GPU have plenty of power to give, and 3GB of RAM is more than enough. This isn't a hardware problem, it's a software problem.
Battery life and camera
The battery performs well. I ran our 90-minute test video, with the screen set to full brightness and apps updating over Wi-Fi in the background, and in that time the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition dropped from 100% to 87% charge.
That's a loss of 13%, which is about right for a premium high-end smartphone; in fact, for such a large screen it's actually quite impressive.
You'll need to be aware that using two SIMs will have an effect on battery life, but I quite like the fact that you get a decent amount of flexibility with regard to which SIM is used for what. You can, if you like, bump one down to just voice calls on 2G, to save power, and have the other SIM blasting through 4G data.
To save power beyond that there's an auto screen brightness option and, erm, that's mostly it. As I say though, there's no noticeable problem here, and I got a day of use out of the phone. Perhaps having no apps is helpful in this regard.
I have to say that the camera in the Meizu Pro 5 is a bright spot – photos from the rear-mounted, 20.16MP snapper are actually very good, save some minor focusing hiccups that are likely just teething troubles as I get used to the interface. I like the fact that colors aren't overblown – they feel natural and realistic.
Low-light indoor shots, taken at dusk with an overhead light on, are solid enough. Detail remains solid, with lots of sharpness to give photos that all-important zing. There's not too much noticeable noise reduction applied to images either, which is something you see a lot with lesser camera phones.
I'm old now, so the selfie camera is lost on me, but I tested it and it works well enough – I could certainly see a depressingly realistic representation of my tired face, looking back at me with the desperation of a man who's just waited three seconds for the camera mode to switch.
For me, the question I ask at the end of any review is: Would I pay my own money for this? And in this case the answer is: No, I would absolutely not buy the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition. However, this is very clearly an enthusiast device, and it has a place.
The problem of performance remains though. The hardware within the Pro 5 is fast enough – as other Exynos phones prove – so it's clearly Ubuntu that's making things feel sluggish.
From the moment you take the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition out of its box it impresses. The build quality is, and I'm not joking here, as good as that of any high-end phone from big brand names, such as the iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy S7. It's got a decent-sized screen too, and the quality of that is also excellent.
The camera is a solid performer. Photos aren't perfect, but there's a good amount of detail in them, and with a bit of patience you can produce nice-looking and well-balanced images. It's true that the camera lacks manual options and 'trick' features, which surprises me given the enthusiast nature of this phone, but it's not a deal-breaker.
There are also some really nice integrations in the Ubuntu Touch user interface too – your Twitter stream can appear on the home screen, and you can log in to your Fitbit account and see how your day's exercise is going at a glance.
And Ubuntu Touch isn't Android, which means it looks fresh and has a few nice tweaks that set it apart. You can do a lot on this phone, at least in theory, and if you're someone who lives in Ubuntu then this might feel like a sensible choice for you.
I'm one of a very small number of people who thinks that Windows 10 Mobile is a really good operating system. I really like the fact that Windows phones take the simplicity of iOS and give you low-cost hardware, along with software that's perfectly optimized for the hardware and runs well.
So the idea of a phone running a full-on version of Linux is actually appealing, because it could in theory bring an entirely new set of tools to mobiles that Android, Windows and iOS don't offer.
The reality, though, is that this isn't the case. You can't install WhatsApp, only Telegram. There are some WhatsApp third-party apps that claim support, but they're using the web interface to do so. The same goes for Spotify – there are third-party apps, but they obviously aren't official, and there's no support. You also need to have a paid account in order for them to work.
And then there's the real killer: using Ubuntu on a phone feels like pushing treacle up a hill. It's slow, messy and you're going to end up doing an awful lot of yelling. I could forgive the app situation, but what I really can't ignore is that this phone feels sluggish doing pretty much anything, and that's just not cool.
So I am disappointed. My initial excitement about the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition was genuine, and it has lots of decent features. The dual-SIM is going to be really handy for some, I like the fact that there's enough built-in storage, with room to expand via microSD if needed, and the camera impresses.
But my overall impression is that the Ubuntu Edition isn't a great choice for most users. Some will love the ready access to proper Ubuntu, and for those who use the Ubuntu operating system on their desktops it might have appeal.
I can certainly recommend the Meizu Pro 5 based on the hardware. For most of us, however, it's going to be a lot less frustrating to get the version of this phone running Android.