Since I haven’t written anything in a while, much less a comprehensive distribution review, a little updated background info is in order. In past years, I’ve toned down my “Linux on everything” push and went slightly more practical in my day-to-day life. I probably will write a short story on my transformation from an obsessed FOSS-only zealot to a privacy-minded, practicality-inclined user of whatever tool fits the best. I still use Ubuntu 20.04 on my workstation at the office, various Ubuntu LTS releases on my servers and a few months ago, I installed Fedora 34 on my home-office workstation (long-term review coming), but I’ve switched from a Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen 3 with a distro-du-jour to an M1 Macbook Air running unsurprisingly macOS Big Sur. I’ve also had the unfortune to support a bunch of Windows 10 desktop, so I think I can at least compare various desktop operating systems and measure their merit. That being said, I must admit, I haven’t felt the need to write anything about new releases for the past year or so, since apart from Gnome 40 in Fedora 34, nothing really tickled my interest, and I’m holding on my review of that huge upgrade until I can try it out in a reasonably stable beta of Ubuntu 21.10. Anyways, back to the distro at hand.
Improvements and changes
If you’ve read my previous Elementary OS reviews (here and here), you probably know my feelings on it. If you haven’t read them, here’s a TL;DR: I like ElementaryOS, I’ve installed and recommended it to users in the past, but I ‘ve found the last release, the 5.1 Hera not measuring up to the likes of Ubuntu 20.04. Today, as a part time macOS user, part time Gnome 3.38/40 user I can say, that Pantheon (the desktop environment of ElementaryOS) is both quite intriguing in its features and, unfortunately also sluggishness on my machine. True, it’s not nearly as powerful as my Ryzen 7 2700X workstation nor my M1 Macbook Air, but it’s far from the lowest of the low-ends and should run any desktop just fine. Can’t even blame the display drivers, as Intel iGPU are usually well supported in Linux.
I won’t bore you with the details of installation process. It’s updated and fancier looking than the old-school Ubiquity installer, but if you’ve ever set up an Android or an iOS device, you won’t be very surprised. What is rather surprising is the fact, that Elementary OS still doesn’t offer an upgrade option. You could try to replace the sources and perform a manual upgrade, but you may as well go for Linux From Scratch if you’re that into self-abuse. For saner folks, the clean install is the only way to go.
At first launch, I was honestly quite surprised how little has changed since Loki, Hera and Juno. There are some welcome visual tweaks here and there, but nothing extremely noticeable unless you know where to look. The small touches, like showing the keyboard shortcuts next to the context menu items (like in macOS),
ability to easily change theme and customize accent color,
and most importantly the changes under the hood of the window manager. The workspaces managment looks suspiciously like that of macOS, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The basic design is a good one and even though many distributions have tried to imitate the looks, most fail at the feel of it. One of the biggest pitfalls has been the responsiveness of trackpad gestures. In the past, users (myself included) have tried to implement them using utilities like touchegg, but these fell short of the real deal, because the requested action would happen only after you’ve completed the gesture. This is a limitation of most XServer based window managers, with the only exception I know of being the one in Odin itself. Other distributions, such as Fedora 34, has solved this by moving to Wayland and Gnome 40, so it’s just a matter of time until desktop Linux manages to scratch off one of the largest complaints of users spoiled by Windows Precision drivers and Apple’s fantastic touchpads.
Fortunately, the gestures are not only for show and are being propagated to the ElementaryOS-specific apps as well. It translates well into the default browser, which emulates Safari quite nicely. I just wish, the same back-forward gesture would work in more apps, but that will hopefully come in the future.
Speaking of distro-specific apps, I still find most of them well-designed and pleasant to use. I like the Files app more than I like Finder, especially since it has the only good feature that failure of a file manager has got – the column view.
I especially like the “Connect Server…” option, which is nice to use and better than the others found in Nautilus, etc.
The only issue I’ve found was connecting to AFP file share, however that protocol is such a dumpster fire, that I find it dubious the issue is on the distro side.
The rest of the desktop
Notifications are hidden in a nice panel item,
sound device can be picked directly from the sound applet,
and Calendar applet shows the calendar and agenda in a two column layout. I just wish it also allowed for a quick creation of new events.
I also like what the devs has done with not-so-common features like screen-time limiters, dyslexia-friendly text and permissions menu.
Ironically, the main reason why anybody should consider ElementaryOS is also the reason why I currently find this to be somewhat of a downgrade. AppCenter, the only preinstalled software store is extremely barren, when compared to alternatives such as Snap Store or even itself in the past. It only shows a few apps, which also often fit into multiple categories, making it even emptier than it first seems.
It is obviously caused by Elementary OS’ move from their own software distribution to flatpak, but the first impression is not amazing. It forces you to look for apps on flathub.org, which while being a perfectly ok place to host an app, it also feels like a step back into the past. Even Windows is pushing it’s users forwards towards Windows Store and WinGet, which is IMO the way to go.
After you install your first application from flathub.org, or any other source, it will automatically add the website as a source to the AppCenter and fill up the software store with applications. This however is rather unintuitive and could do with an onboarding pop-up when you open the AppCenter for the first time.
Compare this to the experience you can get in Snap Store and even though it itself also has problems (a lot of badly packaged or unusable apps), it at least doesn’t force you to go through the web browser in order to download installation packages like an animal.
I must admit, Odin has gained my interest. I intend to keep it on my old laptop to see if the AppCenter fills up with the third party apps ElementaryOS is famous for. I also would like to see performance improvements, but I’m not that hopeful on this front. The desktop is as polished as on any commercial OS. I just hope that their pivot towards Flatpak and the constant struggle to make app developers create native-looking premium applications for the platform eventually pan out. Until now, the older releases were chock-full of beautiful but shallow single-use utilities. Hopefully, with flatpak being one of the three universal app packaging formats, the devs community can reach more users, even if the ElementaryOS-native apps may look a bit jarring on other desktops.