Pop!_OS Has Arrived: How Does It Compare to Ubuntu?
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System76 is one of the most well-known hardware companies in the free and open source software world. That’s not to say the brand is by any means a household name. Nonetheless, System76 has been selling computers that run Ubuntu for over a decade. That’s why the company made news when it announced that it would provide its own Linux-based operating system Pop!_OS: Should a Linux Hardware Company Make Its Own Operating System? Pop!_OS: Should a Linux Hardware Company Make Its Own Operating System? Linux hardware company System76 has launched its own Linux operating system. This distro, known as Pop!_OS, will be preinstalled on all new System76 computers. But is it any good? Read More , Pop!_OS.

In the past few weeks, the first official release of Pop!_OS became available for download. Now it’s shipping as an option on new computers from System76. Should you check it out?

How Big a Deal Is Pop!_OS?

If you’re unfamiliar with the Linux world, let’s clarify a few things. System76 isn’t building its own operating system from scratch. Pop!_OS is what we call a Linux distribution, a way of distributing the Linux kernel and all of the free software needed to provide a complete desktop experience. Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu, the most popular version of desktop Linux. The vast majority of Pop!_OS is the same as what you can get from Ubuntu.

pop_os released compare to ubuntu

That’s not to say there’s nothing noteworthy going on here. System76 isn’t merely taking Ubuntu and slapping a different name on it. By providing their own Linux distribution, System76 is taking ownership of the software experience. The company plays a larger role in the interface that greets customers, and it has a greater ability to fix problems. This is akin to how Apple provides both the hardware and the software to people who buy MacBooks, though System76 is ultimately dependent on many outside developers and organizations for most of the code that goes into Pop!_OS.

For People New to Linux

Pop!_OS uses the GNOME desktop environment GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops You're interested in Linux, and you've come across "GNOME", an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. GNOME is one of the most popular open source interfaces, but what does that mean? Read More . While the experience may feel unfamiliar if you’re coming from Windows, macOS, or ChromeOS, don’t let that scare you off. There aren’t that many parts to GNOME to figure out.

At the top of the screen is a panel that displays the time and system indicators. Clicking on the Activities button in the top left opens the Overview screen. There you can open apps from the dock on the left, view your open windows in the center, or interact with virtual desktops on the right. The bottommost icon on the dock opens a drawer containing all of the apps installed on your computer.
pop_os released compare to ubuntu
Looking for help? Most of what’s in our beginner’s guide to Ubuntu Ubuntu: A Beginner's Guide Ubuntu: A Beginner's Guide Curious about Ubuntu, but not sure where to start? Everything you could possibly need to get started with the latest version of Ubuntu is right here, written in easy-to-understand, plain English. Read More also applies to Pop!_OS.

Differences From Ubuntu

If you’re an experienced Linux user, here’s where things get interesting. Why use Pop!_OS if it’s basically just Ubuntu? Let’s take a look at these differences and see if they appeal to you.

For Starters, Check Out That Theme

System76 wanted Pop!_OS to have its own look and feel. To make this happen, the company tweaked the popular Adapta GTK theme and Papirus icon set to create its own Pop theme and icons. The end result consists of a brown, blue, and organce interface that’s consistent with the company’s brand identity.
pop_os released compare to ubuntu
Many people prefer Adapta and Papirus over Ubuntu’s Ambiance and GNOME’s Adwaita themes, so shipping a desktop with that look already installed can save the effort of swapping things out.

Where’s the Dock?

Ubuntu 17.10 says goodbye to the Unity desktop and returns to using GNOME. But to make the transition easier for people, Canonical kept around a dock on the left side of the screen. Unlike most GNOME desktops, Ubuntu’s dock is always visible.

Pop!_OS does not have an ever-present dock.
pop_os released compare to ubuntu
Like most GNOME desktops, your list of apps only appears when you open the Activities Overview. That said, you can still download an extension 8 GNOME Shell Extensions that Improve the Interface 8 GNOME Shell Extensions that Improve the Interface After using GNOME for a while, you may wish to change a few things about the overview mode, or even tweak the panel. These eight extensions help you do just that! Read More to make the dock always visible.

There Are Fewer Pre-Installed Apps

Ubuntu comes with quite a bit of pre-installed software. Pop!_OS dials back on the number of apps and groups what’s there into logical groups.
pop_os released compare to ubuntu
Big names include Firefox and the LibreOffice suite. A few GNOME apps come included, such as the text editor, terminal, calendar, and weather apps. You don’t get any games, and there are fewer system utilities. Rhythmbox is nowhere in sight. Though anything that isn’t pre-installed you can grab via the Pop!_Shop.

AppCenter Instead of GNOME Software

Ubuntu comes with Ubuntu Software, a renamed version of GNOME Software. Rather than use that, System76 has opted to use AppCenter, a project developed by the Elementary OS team Can the Elementary OS AppCenter Prompt a New Era of Linux App Development? Can the Elementary OS AppCenter Prompt a New Era of Linux App Development? Elementary OS developers have introduced a pay-what-you-want model for apps. Could this be the beginning of a whole new era of app development on Linux? Read More . In Pop!_OS, AppCenter is known as the Pop!_Shop.
pop_os released compare to ubuntu
Much of the excitement surrounding AppCenter has to do with the apps made specifically for Elementary OS. That software isn’t available for Pop!_OS, so you won’t see a banner or sections highlighting releases. Instead you’re greeted to a simple way to download software organized into various categories.

More Keyboard Shortcuts

Pop!_OS, despite the cute name, is a system aimed at power users. System76 calls it an OS for developers, makers, and computer science professionals. In line with that, Pop!_OS comes with a wide range of keyboard shorts on top of the one you’re used to Save Time with 20 Linux Keyboard Shortcuts GNOME, KDE, & Unity Save Time with 20 Linux Keyboard Shortcuts GNOME, KDE, & Unity You know about Windows keyboard shortcuts, but having just migrated, you're wondering "what about Linux?" Well, try these 20 awesome shortcuts for three of the most popular Linux desktop environments: GNOME, KDE, and Unity. Read More . Many use the Super (Windows) key. Super + A opens the app drawer, Super + F opens the file manager, and Super + T opens the terminal. Here’s the full list.

A Separate NVIDIA Version

For newcomers to Linux, proprietary hardware drivers can be a showstopper. You need to know that you need a driver, have an internet connection to download it, and know how to install it How To Install Proprietary Graphics Drivers In Ubuntu, Fedora, & Mint [Linux] How To Install Proprietary Graphics Drivers In Ubuntu, Fedora, & Mint [Linux] Most of the time, you'll be fine with open-source software on Linux. But if you want real gaming and graphical power, you'll need proprietary drivers. Here's how to get them. Read More . Some distros make this easier than others — one of the reasons Ubuntu became so popular in the first place.

Pop!_OS goes a step further by providing a separate version for machines with certain NVIDIA graphics cards. This way you’re good to go from the beginning.
pop_os released compare to ubuntu

Better Support

At the end of the day, Ubuntu runs on an unfathomable amount of hardware. Canonical targets desktops, laptops, servers, and IoT devices Linux Is Everywhere: 10 Things You Didn't Know Were Penguin-Powered Linux Is Everywhere: 10 Things You Didn't Know Were Penguin-Powered Read More . Most of this hardware isn’t stuff that Canonical actually owns. It has to work with many community members to confirm that things are working. Most Linux companies and organizations are in the same situation.

System76 is a hardware company. It configures machines to ship with Linux pre-installed. This means its entire business model centers around delivering a quality desktop Linux experience.

As a result, the company pours more attention onto the desktop. It can fix visual issues and may be able to provide a smoother overall experience than you would have installing a different version of Linux on your machine yourself. Providing Pop!_OS also empowers System76 to make certain fixes for users directly rather than having to coordinate with Canonical or the broader Ubuntu community.

A Few Minor Gripes

I don’t have much bad to say about Pop!_OS. If you like Ubuntu, System76’s tweaks will mostly feel like a custom theme and a change in the default apps, plus an extra layer of polish. But while I like the theme, apps like LibreOffice don’t quite look right when they lose focus. The menubar is no longer the same color as the titlebar.
pop_os released compare to ubuntu
On a similar note, the changes made to app icons are nice, but as is usually the case with icon packs, they don’t impact every app. So there may be some visual inconsistencies between apps that do have a Pop-themed icon and those that don’t.

These are minor nitpicks that an update could easily fix. Even if one were to never come, you can change the theme to one that doesn’t have these issues.

In addition, the Pop!_Shop feels incomplete. It’s functional, but without all the exciting Elementary apps, it feels like something’s missing. You could say that partly has something to do with Elementary OS being my current Linux distribution, but I felt the same way about AppCenter back before Elementary added more stuff. That said, you can use AppCenter to install GNOME Software if you want to use an alternative.

Who Should Use Pop!_OS?

If you buy a System76 machine and you like Ubuntu, you might as well give Pop!_OS a try. If you change the theme and install GNOME Software, it will largely be the same thing. But if you’re nervous, you still have the option to order a PC that comes with Ubuntu 16.04 (the most recent long-term support release) instead.

If you’re not running a System76 machine and are interested in installing Pop!_OS, I’m assuming it’s because you like the look. By all means, go ahead! But now that Ubuntu 17.10 has embraced GNOME, that’s one less reason to install Pop!_OS over Ubuntu.

Have you used Pop!_OS? What do you think? If you haven’t, are you interested in giving it a go? Do you wish System76 would continue focusing exclusively on vanilla Ubuntu instead? Let’s have a chat in the comments!

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  1. Glenn
    November 15, 2017 at 2:08 am

    I think it's misspelled. Should be Poop! Too buggy

  2. Adam Monsen
    November 12, 2017 at 12:01 am

    The first paragraph ("...stop shipping...instead...") makes it sound like you won't be able to get a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed from System76, but then later on it sounds like you will be able to ("...if you’re nervous, you still have the option..."). So which is it?

    I doubt there's much difference to me between Ubuntu and Pop!_OS, I mostly just use a terminal and a web browser. But I'll probably always choose Ubuntu over a derivative because I'm used to it and I don't see any strong reasons to change.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      November 13, 2017 at 9:12 pm

      You're right -- that's not exactly clear. We've changed the sentence.

      Going forward, System76 is emphasizing Pop!_OS over Ubuntu, and Pop!_OS has replaced the option of Ubuntu 17.10. But you can still choose for a System76 computer to come with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS instead.

      • Adam Monsen
        November 14, 2017 at 12:08 am

        Cool, thanks!

        FYI, I just pinged System76 support and asked them about their plan going forward. Apparently shipping with Ubuntu pre-installed will only be an option until April 2018.

        • Bertel King, Jr.
          November 14, 2017 at 4:59 pm

          Thanks for passing that info along!

  3. Som Harsh
    November 11, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    So, they are just like elementary with an additional focus on lesser bloat. Then why shouldn't I just choose elementary os and remove bloat by my self

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      November 13, 2017 at 9:16 pm

      I'd say Pop!_OS has much more in common with Ubuntu or Fedora than Elementary OS. The Elementary team created their own look and a suite of apps to go with it. Pop!_OS is not that different from any other GNOME-based desktop, just with a few extra touches here and there.

  4. jymm
    November 11, 2017 at 11:16 am

    Probably the best thing about Pop OS is that it will be customized for System76 hardware. That means it will preform well on their computers. Shouldn't have to worry about missing drivers.
    As a system for other makes of computers it may not have the same results. I also think the Desktop limited to Gnome will not help them. Gnome is still losing popularity. Cinnamon, Mate, XFCE or KDE all would seem better choices to me. I certainly see no reason to install it on my computers

    • johnny5
      November 11, 2017 at 10:59 pm

      Your personal dislike about Gnome doesn't affect Gnome popularity lol. Every poll clearly shows that Gnome is the most popular DE by far. Now that it's the Ubuntu default too, it can be called the standard linux DE lol.

      • jymm
        November 12, 2017 at 12:15 pm

        Survey says: KDE Plasma is the most popular desktop Linux environment
        https://www.cio.com/article/2881172/survey-says-kde-plasma-is-the-most-popular-desktop-linux-environment.html

        Linux users love to debate about desktop environments. KDE Plasma Desktop took first by a hair's breadth over the popular lightweight Xfce desktop. Other well-regarded desktop environments, such as Cinnamon and MATE, got surprisingly few votes. The once popular GNOME still hasn't recovered from the blowback from its disliked design change from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3.
        http://www.zdnet.com/article/linux-poll-results-and-the-winners-are/

        I could go on, but you get the point. I did not say there should not be Gnome, I said it should not be LIMITED to Gnome.

        • Bertel King, Jr.
          November 16, 2017 at 8:15 pm

          This survey merely shows that KDE Plasma was the most popular desktop among LinuxQuestions users who opted to take the survey. It's not an accurate reflection of the preferences of the wider Linux community or the number of people using which Linux desktop environments. That's not to say it's useless data, but it isn't sufficient evidence to make definitive claims about anything other than the views of LinuxQuestions survey takers in early 2015.

    • johnny5
      November 11, 2017 at 11:04 pm

      Your personal dislike about Gnome doesn't affect Gnome popularity, it's just your personal dislike. Every poll shows it's the most popular DE by far. That's why it's the default on most major distros. Now it's the Ubuntu default too, so Gnome can be called the standard linux DE lol.

  5. dragonmouth
    November 10, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    Bottom line is that POP!_OS is just another of the dozens of Ubuntu knock offs. They all say they are a New & Improved take on Ubuntu but, in reality, they are Ubuntu with different eye candy and with/without some minor apps. Being Ubuntu respins, they have inherited Ubuntu's warts, such as its monolithic structure where the user is stuck with all the software that is installed by default. All software has 'Ubuntu-minimal' file as its dependency. Any attempt to uninstall something silly like cowsay or fortune, or any of the hundreds of unnecessary language packs will result in the deletion of Ubuntu-minimal and then disabling of the system. The last time I attempted to uninstall unwanted/unneeded software from a Ubuntu-based distro, I found between 800 meg and 1 gigabyte of junk. And I'm not talking about apps such as LibreOffice or VLC or a desktop environment. It was 200+ language packs other than English, video, printer and other drivers for hardware I do not have do do not plan to get, and silly and annoying programs like cowsay.

    System 76 being a corporation will do what is best for their bottom line. Whether that means selling their PC with Ubuntu or Pop!_OS or any other distro is of no importance to me. If I were to purchase a System 76 computer, it would be for the hardware only because I would wipe the hard drive and install a distro over which I have control.

    • Sriram Ramkrishna
      November 10, 2017 at 8:25 pm

      That seems very premature to judge when you haven't even tried it. Quite a bit of things have been removed. Also, if you check our latest blog http://blog.system76.com/ you can see some of the work that was done by System76 engineers on HiDPI on mixed resolution monitors on Intel and NviDIA systems. That said, it is your machine and you should be able to put whatever you want. :-)

      Bertel - thanks for writing a great article, very nuanced and well written!

      • dragonmouth
        November 16, 2017 at 9:00 pm

        I have tried enough Ubuntu-based distros to know that they are all basically the same and have the problems I have mentioned.

  6. Brenden Barlow
    November 10, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    I've been using Pop!_OS as my Linux environment for almost a month now, and I absolutely LOVE it (when I drink, I rave about it in every Overwatch match I play, I like it that much). Maybe I've finally started dealing with Linux enough that I no longer feel 'limited' when using it (I now feel my gaming desktop severely lacks usefulness since it runs windows, but a virtual machine has helped that problem), so I can finally enjoy what the os offers. Or, maybe it's just a fantastic distro.
    (I'm betting it's just a fantastic distro).

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      November 10, 2017 at 7:21 pm

      That's awesome! What's something you love about Pop!_OS in particular?

  7. Cameron Summerson
    November 10, 2017 at 3:32 pm

    Bertel, my brother! Good to see you man! Glad you're still writing. Hope everything is well with you and your family. Miss you.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      November 10, 2017 at 4:52 pm

      Cam, always a pleasure! Family's good. Little guy is starting to get old enough where I can spent a little more time on writing, even though I'm still not nearly pumping stuff out like I used to. I hope things are going well on your end, too. I miss our old chats.