If you’re a first-time Linux user, there’s a decent chance you’re using Elementary OS. The relatively young Linux operating system has accrued millions of downloads over the past half decade, with many of them coming from computers running Windows or macOS. Elementary OS brings a degree of focus and attention to detail that sets it apart from other versions of Linux.
But when you use Elementary OS or look at a screenshot, what you see is actually something called Pantheon.
Pantheon Is a Desktop Environment
Pantheon contains everything you see on screen. It’s what displays your desktop background, what switches between open windows, the home to the clock at the top of the screen and the dock at the bottom.
Pantheon is one of many desktop environments available for Linux. This situation is different from that of Windows and macOS, which each only provide you with one interface to use. That’s why most of us have no concept of the desktop environment being separate from the kernel, the bootloader, or any other part of those two operating systems. When you can’t swap out the parts, the distinction doesn’t matter all that much.
On Linux, you get to choose your desktop environment. Most distributions provide a default, but that’s not a choice you’re forced to live with.
Unlike most other desktop environments, Pantheon is closely tied to a specific Linux operating system (more commonly known as a “distribution” or “distro”). The developers behind Elementary OS are the same people behind Pantheon.
Pantheon began as an alternative interface that people could install for Ubuntu. If that name is unfamiliar, Ubuntu is widely considered the most popular version of Linux for personal computers. At the time, it used a desktop environment known as Unity. That interface had a panel across the top and a distinctive dock of icons down the left side of the screen. The design encouraged people to find and open software by searching.
Pantheon was less of an alternative to Unity than it was to GNOME, one of the oldest and most established desktop environments for free and open source desktops. Elementary OS founder Daniel Fore and others knew they couldn’t shift GNOME in the direction they were interested in, so they used many of the same building blocks to create something of their own. Their creation, Pantheon, is written in GTK+ and Vala.
Unlike more established alternatives like GNOME and the KDE Plasma desktop, which you can install on virtually any version of Linux, Pantheon is largely seen only on Elementary OS. That said, you don’t have to use Elementary OS to install Pantheon. As a free project, others are free to use and redistribute the code as they wish.
How Pantheon Works
Pantheon contains a transparent panel, with three core areas, across the top of the screen. You can launch applications by clicking Applications in the top left. In the center, there’s the date and time. Clicking here pulls up a calendar. System indicators sit in the top right.
This panel is known behind the scenes as Wingpanel. The Applications buttons opens an app launcher called Slingshot. Slingshot functions more similarly to the app drawer on a smartphone than the Windows Start menu.
A dock sits at the bottom of the screen, akin to what you may have encountered on a MacBook. This dock’s name is Plank.
Pantheon doesn’t refer to the names of any of these components. Think of them as codenames primarily used by developers. Though as a user, knowing the names can be helpful when trying to troubleshoot problems.
Downsides to Pantheon
One of Linux’s major attractions is the ability to customize every aspect of the experience. Pantheon, however, isn’t all that customizable. Very few options are available to tweak out of the box. You can edit some components by installing Elementary Tweaks, but you will need to get your hands dirty if you want to do much more than that.
As I mentioned before, you can install Pantheon in distros other than Elementary OS. Arch Linux and openSUSE are both alternative options. Why would you go this route? Elementary OS is based on Ubuntu, and that foundation may not be ideal for you for everyone. If you’re more comfortable using openSUSE system apps or comand line tools, it makes sense to install Pantheon on top of what you’re used to. Likewise, if you’re a big fan of Arch Linux’s build-it-yourself-approach and happen to love Pantheon, why not put the two together?
Well, here’s one reason: Pantheon isn’t exactly intended to be used this way. Pantheon’s creators don’t stop other people from installing Pantheon elsewhere, but they really do develop the interface with Elementary OS in mind. When it comes to squashing bugs, that’s where their attention goes. Porting the project to GitHub from Launchpad made it easier to separate Pantheon from an Ubuntu base, but the Elementary team doesn’t have the resources (or much reason) to prioritize making Pantheon work smoothly on other Linux distributions.
Who Should Use Pantheon?
Pantheon is ideal for people who want a desktop environment to be as straightforward as possible. Like the bulk of Elementary OS, Pantheon is simple. The experience takes mere seconds to figure out. This minimalist design is great if you don’t want to give much thought to anything other than the task at hand.
And frankly, many people simply find Pantheon nice to look at. The Elementary team put heavy emphasis on their human interface guidelines, and this provides for a consistent and attractive experience throughout.
This degree of focus doesn’t merely stand out compared to other Linux distributions, but to mainstream commercial operating systems as well. Windows design is all over the place. Chrome OS has little impact on how web apps are made. macOS is the only operating system you will find in a big box store where all the interface elements fit together this well. So if that matters to you, Pantheon is more than worth a look.
Have you used Pantheon? Have you tried using it somewhere other than Elementary OS? How does it compare to other desktop environments? Let’s have a chat in the comments section below!