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.
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.
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. 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.
Looking for help? Most of what’s in our beginner’s guide to Ubuntu 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 orange interface that’s consistent with the company’s brand identity.
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.
Like most GNOME desktops, your list of apps only appears when you open the Activities Overview. That said, you can still download an extension 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.
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. In Pop!_OS, AppCenter is known as the Pop!_Shop.
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. 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. 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.
At the end of the day, Ubuntu runs on an unfathomable amount of hardware. Canonical targets desktops, laptops, servers, and IoT devices. 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.
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!