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Canonical's new Ubuntu tablet can also be your PC

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Canonical still believes in convergence. The company that makes the open-source OS Ubuntu and tried to raise $32 million for a smartphone that can power a PC has announced its first ever tablet, promising that the device is just a keyboard and mouse away from a full desktop experience. Plug in these peripherals and the 10.1-inch tablet switches from a full-screen mobile layout to a windowed user interface. Add a monitor, and you’ve got an Ubuntu PC. It’s a niche computing experience, but it’s one that’s full of possibilities.

"specific form factors [are] increasingly arcane and outdated."

The definitions of "specific form factors [are] increasingly arcane and outdated," Canonical CEO Jane Silber tells The Verge. "I think what’s happening in the industry is the blurring of those segments and the need for a consistent platform and user experience across those." Silber thinks Ubuntu can supply this.

As with Canonical’s previous mobile devices, the company has chosen to simply borrow an existing product and add Ubuntu — in this case, the Aquaris M10 tablet from Spanish manufacturer BQ. With 2GB of RAM, FHD resolution, and a 1.5 GHz MediaTek processor, the M10 is far from a powerhouse, but the build quality is surprisingly good. It feels solid despite weighing less than an iPad Air, and the matte black plastic body looks neat and businesslike.

The hardware isn’t too important though — the real draw is the software. The M10 is the first device to be shipped with the mobile version of Ubuntu with convergence capabilities. Although this particular flavor of the company’s OS has been out for a week or so, you can’t really get a feel for it on its older mobile devices as their screens are too small and they have no outputs to hook up a larger monitor. (Although, Canonical’s engineers tell me that given the technical capabilities of Ubuntu’s users, they’ll soon find ways to get the OS on other devices.)

While in tablet mode, the M10 retains the quirks of Ubuntu’s mobile OS. Instead of having a single home screen or app drawer, there are scopes — themed screens that collate information from apps in certain categories, say, News or Messages. You can swipe in from the left of the tablet to bring up a task bar with pinned applications, or swipe in the from the right to access for a carousel-style app switcher with recently-used programs.

Of course, you’re not going to find the selection of apps you’d get on iOS or Android (or even Windows Phone), but Canonical is confident its scopes cover the key, non-frivolous, bases: email, messaging, news, music, etc. More importantly, though, is the future of the platform. As the underlying framework for Ubuntu’s mobile OS is the same as its desktop OS, anything that works on Ubuntu PCs and laptops can work on its mobile devices and vice versa. Many of them (like LibreOffice) already do, and Canonical offers developer tools to help coders create interfaces that work with any size screen.

Microsoft is also pushing the idea of convergence

Sound familiar? It should: it’s pretty much exactly the same as what Microsoft is trying to achieve with Continuum. Put Windows 10 Mobile on a phone, plug in a monitor, and the apps will scale up to look like you’re running full-fat Windows. The mobile and desktop versions of Windows 10 are different operating systems underneath, but as with Ubuntu, a shared framework makes it easy to build for both.

Canonical says it isn’t worried about the overlap between the two companies though. "We share a vision with Microsoft," says Silber. "I think they have a very similar view of what’s happening in the personal computing space." She adds: "On the one hand it’s competition, on the other hand it’s reinforcement."

The M10 in Windowed mode with keyboard and mouse. (Image credit: Canonical)

But is convergence actually worth it? During our brief hands-on with the M10, everything worked as advertised. The transition between mobile and desktop mode was pretty snappy — just connect some peripherals over Bluetooth and the apps shrink into more manageable windows. But the OS didn’t exactly seem spritely, and although the version we were using was not the final build, it’s difficult not to compare the M10’s specs with the Ubuntu Edge — the failed crowdsourced mobile that Canonical wanted to be its ultimate convergence device back in 2013 — and think that there simply isn’t enough processing grunt in the M10.

We’ll have to wait for a more thorough test of the tablet and Canonical’s dream of convergence though. For many people, the idea of having just one device that plugs into different screens in your life is still a pretty good one, even if the counter-arguments — for example, just keeping your files in the cloud and having a few small, portable devices — are also convincing.

"It’s a journey. It doesn’t all happen in a single product, but we’re very confident that this is the direction the industry is going, says Silber. "We admittedly don’t have the ultimate answer to all things personal computing right now, but we’re taking some exciting steps that provide a taste of what the future can be."


Verge Video: Microsoft Continuum hands-on