Elementary OS is a Linux distribution based on Ubuntu that features the custom developed Pantheon desktop environment. One of the key aspects, aside from the unique look and feel, are the custom coded apps and paid app store that are available with Elementary. Today, we're going to take a look at the whole picture in this Elementary OS Review.
I'm not going to get into the Installation process here as it's pretty much identical with every other Linux distro out there and there's not much to see. It worked without issue in all of my testing on multiple devices so I'm going to call it stable and solid.
Elementary OS Review – The Desktop
On boot-up, we're greeted with the Elementary OS Pantheon desktop, which you can tell took inspiration from Mac OS. That's not a bad thing however as many people are fond of the look and feel and it just works.
There is now a new welcome screen with the recent 5.1 release. It walks you through some basic options such as enabling location reporting, setting up Night Light which reduces eye strain at specific times and more.
Along the top we have the Applications menu on the left, the date centered in the top panel and the system tray on the right side. At the bottom, the dock where you can launch and pin apps that you use most frequently.
When it comes to the default apps, the developers tend to go with those ones that are geared towards simplicity and minimalism. For example, the default web browser that is installed is Epiphany.
The issue here, however, is that this web browser simply isn't good enough by today's standards. It froze up on numerous websites I tried it on causing the whole system to lock up.
While it's not a terrible web browser, it's certainly not something that's commonly used or up to par when compared to the standard Firefox and Chrome/Chromium browsers. Sure, you can install different ones from the app store but I think it's a waste to install something most new users are going to find less than adequate. Epiphany is not in the same league as the big boys and is likely going to not be able to correctly be able to display complex sites as well.
Originally forked from Geary, Mail is now developed under the Elementary banner and is slowly being rewritten to allow for more robust capabilities (source) but it's suitable for most users.
Other included apps are Video, Music, Files, Calendar, Terminal and Photos to name a few. All of these are custom to Elementary OS.
Taking a look at the system settings, we see there are numerous icons to help you configure your new environment:
While system settings do exist, the one thing that I personally dislike is the limited flexibility of the environment. The entire distro focuses too much on restricting flexibility with the pretense that it's helping users. The issue, however, is that it's not allowing new users to experience one of the best benefits to using Linux - variety and customization.
An example of this is the fact that you simply cannot theme Elementary with any of the default tools without installing a third party (and unsupported) app such as Elementary Tweaks.
For example; take a look at the limited selections available when you click on Desktop within System Settings.
As you can see above, you can change two toggles and the text size and that's it for appearance options.
You can also change the background, but that's about it.
Some may disagree on this but I feel like Elementary is trying too hard to be like Apple - limiting people to very few choices because they feel that it's for the greater good of the user and that the user shouldn't have flexibility because they might break something.
Part of Linux is about breaking something. In fact, breaking something is one of the only ways people learn how to do things. Look at Windows, it's breaking all the time and most of what I learned came from fixing things. Believe me, Mac OS has just as many issues so let's not assume that because things are limited, breaking won't occur but one shouldn't hold people back from discovering what their OS can do, otherwise we're just encouraging sheep to join the flock.
Now that I've got that off my chest, let's continue.
Additional System Settings
There are a few key items here that I feel need to be pointed out, notably Parental Controls and Online Accounts.
Online Accounts only provides operating system integration for FastMail, Last.fm and Email which is pretty limiting.
Parental controls are also available within Elementary OS and it's a great addition.
AppCenter is Elementary OS' answer to a software store. It's one of the only one's I've seen that functions on a Pay-What-You-Want model.
This has actually worked out quite well for the Elementary OS team and there are now plenty of developers offering paid apps through the store. You can, of course, also download free ones, not everything is paid (just to be clear).
Here's what the team had to say about the AppCenter:
AppCenter is our built-in app store where users can download free and paid apps that are purpose-built for elementary OS. With AppCenter we’re doing things a bit differently from our competitors.
First, every single app in AppCenter is open source because we firmly believe in the world-changing power of freely-licensed code and open source software. Second, all paid apps are offered with a developer-provided suggested price, but are ultimately pay-what-you-want. Users choose what to pay — if anything at all — when they download paid apps.
Issues I've Encountered
For some reason, the recent 5.1 update seems to have caused more issues than previous releases for me. I found the system freezing up more often than prior releases.
I also noticed that when I went to mirror my display to my TV via HDMI, everything scaled to twice the size and wouldn't display correctly no wonder what I tried. Furthermore, I couldn't get sound to output properly either, and finally I just gave up trying.
Elementary OS Review – My Conclusions
First let me state that the intent of these reviews is to cover the quick and dirty basics that a new user will experience on first use. They are not power user reviews or benchmarked ones. My goal is to give those new to the OS a general overview and some points to consider.
There's not much that a new user to Linux can actually customize in Elementary OS. While they do offer easy-to-use apps and an interface that is simple and easy to use, as I mentioned, I found it quite limiting in capabilities without replacing major apps with better and more mainstream options from the AppCenter. Epiphany seemed to do an OK job but it doesn't support extensions. It does, however, offer Firefox Sync capabilities but it's just not good enough in my opinion.
I feel like the Elementary team went a bit too far in being restrictive with the OS but at the same time, limiting things is something Apple has turned into a successful experience and given that Elementary seems to take inspiration from Apple; perhaps it's not a bad thing. I wouldn't recommend trying to use Elementary if you are like me and love customizing things because you won't be satisfied. If you want a “just works” OS and aren't concerned about this, it's a decent option.
I'm giving it a 3/5 on the basis that it's a bit too limiting for new users and with the recent 5.1 update, I experienced more freeze-ups and annoyances than before. I'm basing this on what it comes with by default. Is it a great choice for the minimalist? Absolutely.
Interested in trying it out for yourself? Grab it from here. What do you like about Elementary OS?