It has been about a year and a half since I dipped my toes in to the spring fed, constantly fresh, warm waters of elementary OS. The elementary team continues to impress with their incredibly well designed user interface that is clearly going for a very focused target of what it sees as their ideal user. As with the last time I reviewed elementary OS, I am quite certain, I am still not their target user but I highly, wholeheartedly, respect the project in their course of action and project goals. They are clearly focused and continually charging forward in their quest for the perfect user experience.
I want to give the elementary OS project a lot of credit for their blog posts and release announcements. They do a fantastic job of informing users what is going on. Their latest announcement paints a great picture of version 6.0, called Odin. The quick stats that are important to me, this is running on Linux Kernel 5.11.0, built on top of Ubuntu 20.04. That means, all the great work and tech from the Ubuntu community is at the core of elementary OS.
Bottom Line Up Front: elementary OS 6.0 is a nicely designed distribution that continually refines their user experience. Their recent addition of a “dark theme” has made using elementary OS a lot more enjoyable for me and makes using it much better than it has historically. The addition of a quick selection for a “highlight color” makes elementary OS a lot more my own than it used to be. From my perspective and personal requirements, elementary OS is hitting a lot of the marks to make it something I could actually use. It doesn’t fit, for me, as well as Plasma does, but maybe it is because I am an old dog, at this point. This is my review as an openly biased openSUSE user that prefers Plasma as my Desktop Environment.
Before starting this exploration into elementary OS 6.0, I wanted to see if I could get everything I wanted, without using the terminal. This is a bit weird for me as I do enjoy the terminal, but out of curiosity, would it be possible to get what I want, or at least close to what I want without going into my comfort zone of the terminal.
The initial boot of elementary OS 6.0 was a bit slower than expected. It took quite a long time for it to get through checking the media. I’m totally cool with that because it is checking the media which is good for everyone. Once booted You were asked for your keyboard layout, first your language then the style of keyboard, essentially. In my case, English, than default.
Next you are asked if you want to try it or erase the entire disk or do something custom. For my case, I wanted to just erase the disk and go. The custom installation for advanced users will give you Gparted so you can do the fancy things there. It is nice that they just use existing projects for disk management than try to roll their own.
Since I was using the entire disk, I had one option on the next screen, unless I wanted to cancel the installation, that is, of course an option but would end the article here…
This last option, before installing, is the question of encrypting your drive or not. I chose not to encrypt. The installation proceeded from there fairly quickly.
I do prefer the more verbose output of what the computer is doing under the hood but the clean simple screen with a bar going across the bottom is perfectly acceptable.
From here, the installation is complete and it will automatically reboot. I am sure you are wondering about user information or passwords, that comes later.
First Run and Impressions
Right after the system is done installing, the computer will reboot and drop you into some more questions. First, by selecting your language.
Then you will select your keyboard layout and finally your user login information. This completes the required initial setup of your system and the beginning of your journey in the world of elementary OS.
Once you are in, the welcome mat is rolled out with a little customization and a short tour. This tour includes selecting your general visual preference. For me, a dark theme with green highlights was absolutely perfect for me… even if the shade was off just a bit, it was close enough.
Something I wish other desktop environments would do is give you such options, right out of the gate. The Night Light feature is something I use in Plasma for my systems to keep me from staying on my computer too late. The Housekeeping is great to have too. Though I think it would be well enough to skip over this, making the user aware of it is also incredibly important.
The last part of the orientation is to set up any Online Accounts and where to get more applications. I will come back to the Online Accounts in a bit, but suffice to say, big smile in that department.
For starters, I want to highlight the Online Accounts Utility. This focuses on the Email and Calendar but doesn’t appear to be “Google Friendly.” This is absolutely just fine by me as I am making the ever slow journey away from using Google Services.
The email portion of this was very easy to walk through, but you DO need to know what your sending and receiving addresses are in order to set this up properly. Unlike Kmail, which will pull this information in automatically and correctly, this application needs a bit more massaging. I must say, I do like how easy this was to set up and how quickly this pulls in your email, much faster than Kmail.
Setting up the Calendar, in my case was a CalDAV account and this is, like the email portion, very easy to complete. The process didn’t take long to get through, but like the email, you have to have some understanding about your calendar service.
The system settings for elementary OS feels a bit light but it does hit all the basics. Not much for advanced configuration as I do enjoy with YaST on openSUSE but this, certainly, is what the average user would need.
I couldn’t locate a way to change the system name so I could call it something other than this seemingly random string of characters. I did some web searching, with no success but I do know that there are terminal ways of fixing this which I have done before.
The elementary OS Panel feels clean and smart. I would basically consider this like a system tray but only for very specific system operations including Night Light, Speakers, network connection, Notifications and Session. I do like how clean they keep it and I understand the design intent on not allowing just any application to throw its hook in the system at that location but I tend to still prefer what Plasma gives me for my system tray. This doesn’t take away from the fantastic design that this is and how incredibly usable and well thought out it is.
I am not totally sure how I rate the Applications menu. It is very minimal and maybe that is best since you have a search function, but I just happen to like a few other menu styles over this. The simple Application Menu that I prefer in the Plasma desktop is also very minimal but not as limited as this. I get the impression that the elementary OS creators do not foresee its users installing many applications. I did try to resize the window to see more at once but that doesn’t seem possible.
The dock is a very Macintosh-like dock at the bottom of the screen. I was once a huge fan of this style of application management but I find that I don’t care for it much anymore. I sort of fell like it is getting “long in the tooth,” as it were. It is by no means a bad design, just a bit dated. Granted, you could argue that my preferred panel for everything is also dated so this is totally a subjective evaluation. I DO like that you are given notifications of application activity on it which is a welcome quality of life enhancement.
The rest of the default applications, are totally fine, easy to use applications. The email, and calendar application work very nicely. The music and videos application work well enough, my only issue is, although I could access videos from a remote source using sftp, Music didn’t seem to like this which is what I almost exclusively use for sharing files between my systems. I am sure there are better ways but it is the way I have chosen for the time being. I am also not able to play them directly from the file manager either which was a bit of a disappointment. The work around here is to use the application itself and browse to the location.
One neat feature of elementary OS is the meta key cut-sheet of short cuts. I stumbled on it because I am accustomed to using the meta / super key for opening the menu and instead I am offered a plethora of meta-key combinations for desktop interactions. The one key combination missing here is minimizing. I still happen to like that work flow.
I would review the included office application, at this point, but there isn’t an office application included by default. Installation of LibreOffice can be accomplished by side-loading a Flatpak and I will get to all that next.
There are a few applications I basically require from day to day that are not in the needed in order to just use elementary OS. Though I could probably use the default Web browser, it does lack a few “creature comforts” that I get from Firefox. In the spirit of doing things the elementary OS way, I have decided to side-load the Flatpak of Firefox from Flathub. Inistallation is done as simply as double-clicking on the application, you get a little warning, install anyway and the reward in this is the inclusion of all the applications in Flathub into the AppCenter!
From here, I kind of went crazy and installed a bunch of things. Telegram, Bitwarden, Discord and LibreOffice. First the positives, they all work and the process of installing applications is just fun with the AppCenter. It was like skipping gleefully down my favorite isle of the grocery store and unabashedly putting one of everything I like in the cart. The AppCenter is very responsive and I like how it queues the applications and gets them all installed as am allowed to continue to browse around.
Discord looks great. It recognizes the dark theme of elementary OS and looks like a first class citizen.
Firefox needs a theme but can be made to look like it fits in the dark theme of elementary OS but be advised, the icons don’t look completely correct.
LibreOffice looks like it doesn’t respect the dark theme at all and Bitwarden, also does not respect the dark theme. These are not curated apps by the elementary folks so they don’t have that visual touch. Perhaps there may be a shim that could be installed to fix this in the future. I don’t know. I can say, Flatpak do seem to have a harder time matching themes than Snaps so maybe I should look at the Snap options.
Theme matching or not, I appreciate being able to have access to these applications and use them-within the comfort of elementary OS. When you boil it all down, computers are tools to accomplish some sort of task, if I can accomplish the task effectively, that is what is most important.
What I Like
The big feature that makes elementary OS much more palatable is the addition of a dark theme with the choice of a highlight color. I am appreciative that the elementary OS team opened up the possibility of, very easily, making adjustments to the interface to make it more agreeable for various tastes that users have. Sure, you are locked in to a work flow, in every other way but this is rather significant.
The installation process has been distilled into a very simple, direct process that just about any moderately competent user can complete. I am strongly confident that I could hand just about anyone a USB stick imaged with elementary OS 6.0 and that user would be able to easily follow those steps and achieve a successful installation.
The little tweaks and improvements in the desktop are well crafted. The notifications in the panel or in the dock look good. Everything has a purpose and it looks like much time was taken to ensure that the placement of icons, indicators, and notifications were all well planned and implemented. It looks like an incredible, cohesive, effort to make something truly special. It is obvious to anyone that spends a modicum of time using it that this was indeed a labor of love.
What I Don’t Like
The default, packaged browser is just a bit lacking in features. Just be aware of that as you embark on your elementary OS experience. This is a minimal browser and if you have extensions that you use regularly you will need to install Firefox, Chrome / Chromium or Edge to have those features. Although I didn’t try anything other than Firefox, be aware that the browser you choose may or may not fit well into the desktop theme and design language as well as the default web browser.
Flatpak applications from Flathub don’t seem to respect the system theme. This is a bigger issue with the dark theme as it is very obvious. This is not unique to elementary OS as I have the same problem in Plasma but the way Plasma handles window boarders makes it slightly less obvious. For me, this isn’t a huge deal but for those that are all about a consistent user interface and user experience might find this off putting.
There are several applications that I use regularly that are not part of the elementary OS AppStore. For me to use the application stack that I prefer to use, it will take a little extra work to make it happen. This is also not a huge issue, it’s just another step. It should also be noted that some of the application I prefer are Qt based and don’t look like “first class” citizens in the elementary OS world. It is just very obvious that these applications are “outsiders.”
I understand the projects arguments against having a system tray. I respect the arguments but at the same time, I am not in complete agreement. I do agree that some applications unnecessarily dump their things there but I prefer it to the merging the notifications into the task bar / dock tool. I may be wrong on this one and I can accept that, I just happen to like what I like.
Elementary OS is a fine distribution of Linux and the fact it is based on Ubuntu, I have a lot of trust in the underpinnings that makes this a reliable and enjoyable experience. I was able to accomplish everything I had set out without going into the terminal. I DID go into the terminal to poke around but that was only out of curiosity and in no way necessary to have a good experience.
I feel like elementary OS has come a long way in making the user experience palatable for more users. The inclusion of the dark theme and choice of highlight color makes the user experience much more enjoyable and comfortable for long term use. It is the little things that make its use better. The inability for elementary to force the theme and icon placement on non-curated apps is a bit disappointing but in no way a show-stopper. The applications work, they just don’t look as good. The lack of system tray is a bit of a problem for some applications, specifically Discord and Telegram. It wouldn’t be a problem if there was a proper minimize button. I do believe there is a hot key combination for that but it isn’t in the meta key menu.
Although elementary OS doesn’t fit my needs as completely as openSUSE Tumbleweed with the Plasma Desktop environment, that doesn’t diminish at all the quality, the heart and soul put into this work of art. The ease of installation makes this a distribution that anyone can install. If you are the least bit curious about elementary OS 6.0, have an opening in your schedule and the free machine to give it a try, invest the time, it will be worth the trip, even if you don’t stay. Elementary OS is truly a fine product that will certainly bring you smiles.