Exploring Desktop mode on the Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 16, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I am writing this article on an Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition tablet, using LibreOffice with a mouse and keyboard. I am working in Desktop mode, experiencing what Ubuntu describes as "convergence," the ability of the hardware to run both as a tablet and a personal computer. And make no mistake -- convergence is comfortingly familiar to a long-time Linux user and makes productive work on a tablet much easier. However, when Ubuntu claims that the tablet "turns into a full PC," I have to make allowance for the exaggeration of advertising. 

More accurately, I would say that the current state of convergence reproduces some of the convenience of a laptop or workstation, but not all of it. Nor is using it made any easier by the sparse and sometimes inaccurate documentation provided with the Ubuntu Edition.

To start with, what the documentation does not tell you is that the tablet does not display the toggle for turning Desktop mode on and off until you have plugged in the necessary hardware. Once you have, the toggle displays permanently, but, until you do, you might suspect that your tablet is defective.

Switching to Desktop mode
More importantly, you have three ways of enabling Desktop mode, each with its own peculiarities: connecting to a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard, connecting to a monitor with a micro to ful-size HDMI cable, orconnecting to a USB mouse and keyboard

Of these two choices, the third is the one I would recommend, although none are completely ideal.

To use Bluetooth devices, you must enable Bluetooth in the settings -- support is not automatic. Then you must select a device and connect to it. However, if you have ever worked with Bluetooth, you probably know that its behavior can be eccentric. I have seen the Ubuntu Edition unable to detect a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard a few centimetres away, while detecting Bluetooth speakers fifty metres away.

To make matters worse, while the advertising seems to indicate that the tablet can connect to more than one Bluetooth device, the manual states that it cannot. The manual appears to be correct, and, since the virtual keyboard used in Tablet mode does not work in desktop mode while the touch screen does, logically you want to connect to a keyboard.

Similarly, you will probably need to special order the micro HDMI cable to connect to a monitor. In addition, you will probably still want a mouse and keyboard unless you happen to have a touch screen monitor. In effect, this choice requires two solutions.

Of the three setups for Desktop mode, connecting to a USB mouse and a keyboard is the most reliable. However, what the documentation skips over is that this choice requires a hub if you want to use both a mouse and a keyboard, but the tablet uses a micro-USB plug, which means that a standard USB hub does connect to it. What you want is an OTG hub, which connects with a micro-USB plug, and includes three or four full-sized USB ports, allowing you to connect speakers or other devices as well as the mouse and the keyboard.

The only trouble is, OTG hubs may not be standard stock at your local computer store. I was told by several clerks that such things did not exist, and in the end I had to order mine online. However, once I had it, the hub worked without any trouble -- at least, once I enabled the Desktop mode toggle. The hub even included additional slots for SD cards, which could triple the amount of available storage.

Knowing the Limits
Once you are in Desktop mode, you will find it falls short of a full desktop experience. Desktop mode is noticeably slower than tablet mode, and you may detect a half second or so pause before the cursor responds to the first movement of the mouse. Taking a screen shot by pressing both ends of the tablet's volume button can also bring Desktop mode to a crawl for several moments afterwards.

The tablet's behavior also changes in Desktop mode. You can type in the standard free software applications that come with the Ubuntu Edition tablet, such as Firefox, LibreOffice, and Gedit. The virtual keyboard used in Tablet mode is unavailable, but tablet apps that use it can use your attached keyboard.

Similarly, applications in Desktop mode default to full-screen mode, although dialogue windows appear at smaller sizes at the bottom of the screen, which can mean dragging the cursor a long way down the screen to use them. While for many functions you can swipe with your fingers, just as in Tablet mode, Desktop mode does not appear to support Tablet mode's limited ability to maximize or reduce the size of a window, although you can hide windows in the same way. As a result of these limitations, Desktop mode works best for tasks that require only a single application open; you can swipe to the right to select another open application, but doing so can distract you from your work.

Some reviewers have complained that some of the free software applications are too small for convenience, but that can be partly fixed by using a larger than usual font. In LibreOffice, you can also select Tools > View > User Interface > Scaling to increase the size of the menus and the toolbars. Scaling to 150-200% greatly improves the ease of use, although at the cost of reducing the amount of screen display for your work.

Only the beginning
Desktop mode is somewhat less than seamless. However, once you have learned how to set it up according to your preferences, most of the inconvenience can be avoided by knowing its limits. You would not attempt to render animation on a workstation with two megabytes of RAM, so why would you try something equally ambitious on a tablet with the same amount of memory?

By contrast, if you are doing basic office productivity, the Ubuntu Edition's Desktop mode offers an adequate solution. Granted, the ability to resize windows easily and work from two or three windows side by side would be welcome, but having a decent keyboard and mouse is worth putting up with a few limitations.

Even with the addition of a mouse and keyboard, the Ubuntu Edition is a practical portable computing solution. Give it another release or two, and the clumsier parts of it should be improved. Meanwhile, Desktop mode is acceptable enough that, before I was two paragraphs into this article, I was focusing on expressing my thoughts rather than on the hardware, which is the way things should be. What we have, then, is a usable beginning.

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