There are some Linux distributions that have a wide audience and there are others that focus in on a specific customer or user. If I were asked to describe who I think ElementaryOS is targeting, I would certainly say, not me. The reason being, ElementaryOS goes for a particular look and they have a specific design for how they intend that you use the interface. Straying from the interface guideline is not recommended. I reviewed this distribution as a part of the BigDaddyLinux Live Challenge.
This is my biased review as an openSUSE Tumbleweed, Plasma Desktop user that values shaping his environment to suit his needs. Bottom Line Up Front, ElementaryOS has a clear design intent with a goal on user experience. It is a principled project that has a vision of what a human to machine interface should be and how applications should also interact and present information to the user. These guidelines, however clean they may be, are not to my liking. Although I do appreciate the work and the stubborn adherence to an ideal it does not agree with me. I prefer an interface that I can make my own and shape to my needs as they change. ElementaryOS is far too rigid and the lack of system tray makes it a non-starter and a lack of minimize button makes it annoying. There is not dark theme (but it is coming) and no option for double-click. It is almost as if Qt based applications were not even a secondary or tertiary consideration so applications that I must use are encumbered. All that said, this is me, I would never steer you away from trying ElementaryOS. I have my requirements and they may not be the same as yours.
I installed ElementaryOS in VM and on actual hardware. Most of my time was on actual hardware but I also wanted to test it in VM so for the demonstration of a simple installation. If you want anything more complex, I will not be the one to demonstrate it. What I will tell you is that setting up is… elementary.
When you start the media, you are given two options, right out of the gate. I appreciate that you can “try or buy” it and not have to start a mandatory live session. Your next task is to set the keyboard layout.
Next you are requested your preference on downloading updates and to install third party repositories. I select both because I prefer having my system up to date and third party repositories generally pull in all that multimedia goodness required for a “full-featured” desktop experience.
Quite nicely, you are given a “sanity check” before beginning the installation process. It tells you the consequences of your actions. For this VM installation, not a big deal but putting it on the test hardware, this is more important as I am not interested in blowing away the data on my home partition that moves from distro to distro.
Next will be your user preference and from what I can determine, no root preference. Though, it is typical in Ubuntu land to rely exclusively on the “sudo” for any root level actions. Both ways have their positives and negatives.
The installation process continues, surprisingly without any of the typical distribution specific propaganda. Once complete, you are asked to remove the media and and press any key to restart the system. This process is pretty quick, but of course, your results are dependent on your hardware performance.
That’s all there is to it. It’s really very easy and I will refrain from making another “Elementary” joke.
First Run and Impressions
There was much hype around the login screen, so I was expecting something pretty spectacular. I guess, I was, yet again a victim of they hype-train as I didn’t really see anything particularly exciting about the login screen.
I know that each user tile is representational of the user’s session and maybe that is really cool for some but I didn’t see the grand appeal. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the unique touch but it doesn’t exactly do anything for me. I’ll chalk that up to me just not getting it… whatever “it” is.
In order to get going with Elementary, I decided to install my needed applications. Installing Telegram, I was greeted with a warning about this application being “non-curated” and may give you problems. Specifically, that it may not receive bug fix or feature updates and may access or change system or personal files without permission. When actually running it, the version was out of date as well which was a bit annoying.
I am going to try to stay open minded here but this warning just seems a bit over the top. The whole reason for open source software is that the code can be audited by the community and if there are issues, it would be taken care of and the idea of having software in official repositories of these distributions is in a way an honor and usually go through some kind of vetting process. At least, on openSUSE they do and I can look at the change log and see who has last touched it. I tend to trust members of the [openSUSE] community anyway. If I were more involved with the Ubuntu world, I would tend to trust that community in the same way so I sort of feel like this is a bit insulting.
It should also be noted that due to the lack of dark theme in Elementary, my dark theme preference in Telegram looks a bit odd juxtaposed to the light Elementary OS theme. It should also be noted that this version is far behind too at 1.2.17. Not sure if that is due to it being on an Ubuntu LTS or not. It works so I can’t complain much.
Multiple screens on Elementary works pretty well. No complaints there. I am grateful that the second screen doesn’t get the top bar as well as the the dock along the bottom.
Obviously, the screens are of different size and resolution.
I do appreciate that the firewall configuration tool is available by default. It is, however, disappointing that it is not activated by default. I do realize that makes it less friendly to configure network devices for normal users but I’d rather the complaint be concerning lack of ease in connecting to things as opposed to your machine getting compromised.
In my time of using Elementary to do some of the tasks I set out to do, I needed to download and use an AppImage of xlights. This was my first practical usage of the file manager. To make the file executable, it was as easy as a right-click and setting the permissions. Tho, the file name font excessively large for the size of the dialogue box so it looked a bit rough.
The lack of double-click made for some other usability issues. I inadvertently launched more than one instance of xlights. I also want to note that unlike Plasma, I didn’t get an automatic option to launch from the menu (or krunner) after launching xlights once in Elementary. Not really a big deal, but it is yet another reason why Plasma makes life very convenient. Elementary also didn’t give me an easy way to add a menu entry either, so that was unfortunate. Really, there wasn’t any way to, by default, add this AppImage in a convenient manner to my desktop, outside of navigating to it each time.
I found it rather disappointing that I was not able to change the single-click to double-click in Elementary. There is an option to change the double-click speed but not to actually employ double-click. No idea about this discrepancy but none the less, this is not what I would call a positive in the usability experience.
I was very happy about the ease of adding a network printer to ElementaryOS. It was an incredibly easy and straight forward process.
To prevent from dragging this on too long, I will only mention a few other things. Installation of another browser, outside of Epiphany is a must. I, of course, went with Firefox. The main reason, I was unable to stream media from my local Emby server or Netflix. I didn’t look into the reasoning for its difficulty with multimedia but it’s there.
The process of using Flatpaks on Elementary was also less than ideal, from my perspective. The “sideload” process was not my favorite. I wish it was more like other distros but instead it is a very age-old Windows style of downloading and installer and running it. I can see that it can be easier for some users but I would prefer just using the terminal or even Discover on Plasma.
This process does work but the application didn’t appear in the Applications menu until after I restarted the user session. That is also an unfortunate user experience hit but it isn’t the end of the world either. Just another little papercut.
It should also be noted that I did have some issues getting Syncthing to work but once I was able to get it to connect once, the first time, it was smooth sailing from there. Adding Syncthing to the Start up process was as easy as searching for “Start Up” in the Applications Menu and adding the entry.
The biggest usability hit that basically makes ElementaryOS… not usable… for me is the lack of a system tray. I have heard the reasons for not having one but I think they are all rubbish. Is it a potentially dated method? Perhaps but I happen to really like the system tray. It is such a fantastic place to keep track of the applications running in the background. The lack of system tray on Elementary makes using Discord less than stellar, combine that with the lack of minimize button makes using some applications unenjoyable.
Although I didn’t really address it, a nice feature of ElementaryOS is the “Do Not Disturb” feature. If you are doing something, like, say, live streaming, recording audio or perhaps in a meeting giving a presentation, it’s nice to have a “do not disturb” feature to just shut off the notifications. That is well done.
The App Center gives this great ability to pay for applications to support developers. I am glad that ElementaryOS has pioneered this sort of business model and I hope that this will propagate outside of just the ElementaryOS ecosystem. The ability to easy contribute to an open source project is a fantastic thing.
The simple, almost pre-school like interface. Now, I just ragged on the interface for a bit but I do want to say that this interface is incredibly simple and easy to get along with for those that just don’t need the controls.
It is often touted that ElementaryOS is the nicest looking or highest polished desktop. I can see why people say that but I don’t agree with that statement at all. There are far too many paper-cut issues that negatively affect usability of the system. It’s the little things like lack of double-click, lack of system tray, lack of menu editing function, menu entries not automatically populating from Snaps and Flapak unless you restart the session, AppImages you launch are not remembered as a recent application and with the lack of menu editing functionality, combined with the inability to add links to applications on your desktop just makes it frustrating.
I will say, there could be a way to fix all these things but that requires doing some digging and seeing how other people fixed ElementaryOS to make it more functional. You can install MenuLibre or AppEditor. Here is an article on how to fix this.
Firefox not installed by default, Epiphany does not have feature parity with Firefox. I know that Epiphany fits the look better but it is just a subpar web browser. Many distros will install Firefox by default and that would be preferred. The main issue I had was my inability stream video content on Epiphany from Emby server. This is quite surprising because every feature reduced browser I use can stream video content.
The dock doesn’t display additional windows when there is more than one of the same application. For instance, if you have more than one full screen window open, like Firefox, a click on the dock button opens all the instances up. In order to select which instance, you have to right-click and select it. Plasma has a far more sensible tool that allows you to select the appropriate. Another option would be some kind of hover pop up that would show you your options. Essentially, the dock is very lacking so I don’t care for it.
Lack of minimize button is somewhat aggravating. Sure, I can click on the dock button but that time to search for the appropriate icon is far slower than just clicking the minimize button on the corner of the window. Super+H is a good alternative but that keystroke does take my hands off of the mouse, which again slows me down. Alt+Tab is an incredibly linear way of getting to other applications. It wouldn’t clutter the window at all to add the feature.
Flatpak setup is not what I would consider ideal. The workflow to download a .flatpakref and “sideload” is fine but it would be nice if they just had the Flathub activated by a flick of a switch. I see that it WORKS but it is just more frustrating to use than not. It could be a me problem but I have seen better solutions implemented elsewhere. I will concede that if this is the better way to do it I still don’t like that the Flatpak for Syncthing GTK is fairly out of date and has one of the irritating multiple entries bug going for it. This version of Syncthing’s auto discover on the network was not working either. That is not a ding on ElementaryOS.ElementaryOS Home Page
Filemanger is a bit anemic. It is incredibly basic and doesn’t have some of the nice features you would see on other file managers like Dolphin, specifically split view so you can see two directories side by side. The work around is to use the tiling feature of ElementaryOS and put two file managers beside one another but that is also less than ideal. The Properties tool has the font size so large that the name is unreadable. So, that needs some work too.
Although I have a long list of things I do not like about ElementaryOS, it is really not a bad experience. There just happen to be a lot of paper cuts and the lack of built in ability to tweak the issues. Many, many desktop environments may have these small paper cut issues that gnaw at you but they also give you the ability to smooth them out by giving you access to tools to do it. I am sure, with enough time and effort, installing the right tools and tweak packages, I could have fixed all the irritations that I had with the interface. However, it is quite clear, that is not what the designers want you to do. They want you to not have certain features to fit their vision. The issue is, as I see it, ElementaryOS is targeted for those that like a specific way to work with their computer. Since I am unwilling to give up the efficiencies provided by Plasma, Elementary OS does not fit. It is too far of a step back in time for me to be comfortable here.
Keep in mind, this is my opinion. These are my irritations and they may all be nonsense to you. I would never discourage you from trying ElementaryOS. It is unique in its style and flair with an incredibly stubborn design intent and I don’t think that should change their course at all. Whatever it is that they are trying to accomplish, I hope that they achieve those goals. Computers are supposed to be personal and developers are making it personal, as they see fit.
I do think you should give ElementaryOS a spin, at least in a VM, maybe on a spare laptop you have laying around. See what you like about it or don’t like about it. If you think my observations and impressions are wrong, feel free to leave a comment or send an email. I only spent a couple weeks on ElementaryOS so there is a lot I don’t know. I will not continue to run it, for the time being. I will certainly give it a try again in the future.