Elementary OS is a Ubuntu-based Linux distribution for desktop computers with unique UI design and in-house applications. The main goal of the project is to offer a complete user experience from ground up.
History and Introduction
Elementary started out as a GTK2 theme and icon set created by DanRabbit. As the popularity grew, elementary was going beyond being a theme and a group of developers and designers started working on Elementary OS 1.0 Jupiter, which was initially released April 2011 (using Ubuntu 10.10 as its base). Jupiter used Gnome 2.32 as its desktop environment but added a custom theme and icon set, Docky dock and few in-house application like Dexter contacts and Postler email client. They also made modifications to Nautilus file manager.
Luna, the second iteration of Elementary OS, is based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS release and inherits most of its underlying code and sometimes its problems as well. Most of the visible UI and applications has been developed by elementary team themselves.
Desktop Environment and Applications
From the first bootup, everything in Luna feels nice and polished (with an exception of Grub boot loader, which ships with default black and white look).
Plymouth is used to display boot screen of white Elementary logo glowing on a black background. Log in screen is provided using LightDM and like everything else in Elementary, looks simple and clean. It pops up with a subtle animation, uses your desktop background image and displaying current date in a nice manner.
On the desktop, Luna uses in-house developed Pantheon as a desktop environment, which consists of panel, app launcher, dock, window manager, settings app, and theme. There are no desktop icons or widgets on the desktop itself, which might be a turnoff for some users, but for me is not a problem.
WingPanel is a panel applications placed in the top of the screen. Similar to Gnome 3 panel, it has a application menu link to the left, clock in the middle and system notification area on the right.
Dock application in Luna is called Plank. It is developed by the creators of Docky, but has less features and is less configurable. Currently you can add or remove items and also make right click actions on some of the applications (compose mail, open specific folder etc). I would also like to see keyboard shortcut support in Plank to launch application like in Windows 7, where you can launch pinned apps using Win key + number. It grew on me quickly.
Application menu is called Slingshot and is in my opinion one of the best menu solutions in Linux currently out there. There’s a great graph displaying Slingshot usability compared to Gnome 3 and Unity.
Pantheon also includes System Settings application, which has a familiar look and simple logical layout. Some of the settings seem to be a default Gnome preferences, but some are unique to Luna. For example desktop settings window is called Switchboard, which enables users to change wallpapers, dock setting and desktop hot corners. Control in Luna is rather limited for a power user, but for a new user, everything feels simple and intuitive (thanks to Elementary Human Interface Guidlines).
Live session and installation worked without problems. If you’ve installed Ubuntu lately, installation process is nothing new to you.
Elementary uses Midori as its default browser instead of popular choices like Firefox or Chromium. Midori is a simple WebKit based browser, which offers a full set of features: private browsing, tabs, a speed dial and follows the elementary Human Interface Guidelines. I tend to use Chromium (Chrome) in all platforms, because of its syncing with your Google Account, but otherwise Midori seems like a real contender for other well-known browsers.
Files is a default file browser in Luna. If you have used Nautilus-elementary before, you’ll feel right at home. It has a simple intuitive interface and by default, one-click actions.
Geary and Maya handle your productivity needs by offering a pair of clean mail and calendar applications. Both seem to work quite well, but are both with a limited functionality. Geary can only handle one mail account and I didn’t find a way to sync Maya with Google Calendar or other services, which makes it a bit useless for me.
Totem video player and Noise music player are responsible for media playback. After installing ubuntu-restricted-extras package, both seem to handle most modern media formats. I do most of my music listening on the web nowadays using streaming services like Grooveshark and Stereomood (which support Noise doesn’t offer, although Last.fm audioscrobbler is supported), so I can’t really comment on Noise much, other than it works.
Luna also bundles new text editor called Scratch and Elementary’s own terminal client. Both work as expected.
When it comes to performance, Luna Beta 1 performs quite nicely on my 5 year old laptop. Default memory usage is around 500 megs and applications launch quickly. Problems occur when viewing flash content in browser, but that’s a bigger issue and we can’t blame Elementary devs for that.
The little things
Elementary project has always been known for attention to detail. For example, when you make a screenshot of your desktop using print screen key, screen flickers for a second and a camera shot sound is heard, which let’s you know, that the picture has been taken. A nice little touch.
Or when you’re typing in terminal and want to delete the line using backspace, a little sound tells you that you’ve reached the end of the line.
There are these small subtle animation in application and desktop which make Luna nice and fluid. For example, opening a new folder in Files, the file structure bar nicely slides into place.
Issues in Beta 1
Although I’m overall very pleased with Beta 1, there still are some issues to it. One mayor issue that I’m having on my Dell Vostro 1400 laptop, is that the system will not shutdown or restart. When halting the machine, system just stops and leaves you with a blank black screen. Then a force shutdown holding a power button is in order. It’s quite weird, because sleep and resume works perfectly, taking just a matter of seconds. Back in the day, it used to be vice versa.
Other issue is with Elementary’s own applications crashing, when there’s a update available. After software update, everything works again. I once even managed to crash Pantheon all together so it didn’t close, but opened new instance of itself on top of the old one as a application (with taskbar and dock).
There are also some problems with Microsoft fonts package, which doesn’t seem to install, but I assume this is a upstream Ubuntu package issue. One can always install these fonts manualy using Font Installer application, although I can’t seem to get some web fonts to display nicely.
A heated discussion is happening in Elementary project page concerning the lack of minimize button on windows. I also find myself trying to minimize window by searching for the icon, so I hope Elementary team will give us at least a option to enable the button. Currently you have to click on the active application icon in Plank to hide a window.
I’ve been using Luna from its launch for few weeks now as my main OS at home and I’m very pleased with the experience. Elementary has come a long way, everything feels well integrated and polished offering a Mac like experience. There are some minor issues, but this being a beta release, it’s understandable.
I see great things for Elementary down the road. Times, when Linux world is getting more and more fragmented and disoriented, Elementary seems to move on the right track. They’re not trying to create a touch friendly interface for desktop computers or overwhelm users with bloated applications. Elementary OS is not for everyone, but it has found its niche. Less is more is back on the desktop.