Pop!_OS: Should a Linux Hardware Company Make Its Own Operating System?

Bertel King 21-07-2017

When you’re a company that sells computers and your operating system vendor announces that it’s shaking things up What Switching Back to GNOME Means for Ubuntu Canonical has announced the end of the Unity desktop. From Ubuntu 18.04, the GNOME desktop will be restored. What does this mean for Ubuntu, and its relationship with Linux users? Read More , that’s cause for concern. You can either go along for the ride or take a different approach.


Left in this position, System76 saw an opportunity to take more control over the experience it ships to customers: rather than continuing to sell Linux-powered PCs running Ubuntu, it would provide its own Linux operating system known as Pop!_OS.

I own a System76 Lemur laptop that I purchased a year or so ago. Since I wiped Ubuntu off the machine as soon as it booted up, I was pretty apathetic about the news. Still, I had mixed thoughts. Why take on the burden with such a small company? Why add more options when there are already hundreds of Linux operating systems to choose from The Best Linux Operating Distros The best Linux distros are hard to find. Unless you read our list of the best Linux operating systems for gaming, Raspberry Pi, and more. Read More ?

Then I listened to Ryan Sipes of System76 explain the company’s rationale. And you know what? It makes sense.

So I decided to give the Pop!_OS alpha a try. Long story short, I like what I see.

What’s Using Pop!_OS Currently Like?

When I loaded up the Pop!_OS ISO using GNOME Boxes, the virtual environment immediately detected my screen resolution. No other ISO has done this for me. What was immediately apparent was that Pop!_OS was largely a themed version of Ubuntu GNOME. To understand how the interface works, you only have to familiarize yourself with GNOME 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 .


pop_os files settings

I still wanted to try Pop!_OS running natively, so I did a full install. There were no hiccups. Rather than set up your user accounts in the system installer, a setup session launches the first time you use the computer. While most of what’s seen here comes from Canonical and GNOME, this is part of the experience where System76 has invested some of its own work.

The ISO comes with a range of pre-installed software that power users may be more inclined to want. This isn’t too surprising considering System76 markets its PCs as tools for makers and creators.

GNOME Tweak Tool, dconf editor, and GNOME’s Remote Desktop are all packed in. You also get Firefox and most of the LibreOffice suite. Then there are games such as solitaire, mines, and Mahjong. GNOME Software is the default app store.


pop_os overview

As usual, I removed a solid chunk of the pre-installed software. I use only a handful of apps on a day-to-day basis, and I don’t want unused apps cluttering my app drawer.

Though in alpha, Pop!_OS has provided a solid experience. In my week spent with Pop!_OS, I’ve only encountered one crash, which isn’t that uncommon even in stable versions of desktop operating systems. That said, it’s worth repeating that System76 hasn’t made all that many changes to Ubuntu GNOME. That’s a stable foundation to build on, making it highly likely that Pop!_OS will be reliable when it launches. The developers are aiming for October.

I don’t have much else to say about the experience, as there isn’t yet much new to see. But I’ve seen enough to convince me that creating Pop!_OS is not a mistake. Here are some of the reasons why I think what System76 is doing is a great idea.


System76 Will Produce the Hardware and Software

In the desktop PC market, this is rare. It’s not some limitation of the Linux ecosystem — Windows users have only recently had the option to buy a computer directly from Microsoft. When a company supports both the hardware and the software, it’s easier to tackle bugs. They can also better optimize code to take advance of a particular system configuration. This has long been a selling point for Apple PCs and phones.

System76 will soon offer a similar experience. No, the company isn’t creating the vast majority of the code that goes into the Pop!_OS. But it will put those finishing touches that matter. Users can expect smoother graphics and sound when there’s a company invested in making sure Pop!_OS works on their specific setup. By making its own Linux operating system, System76 is also less dependent on Canonical to incorporate fixes.

System76 Isn’t Locking Things Down

In the Android world, most of the major handset manufacturers have their own interface Android Skins Explained: How Do Hardware Makers Change Stock Android? Hardware makers like to take Android and morph it into something that is entirely their own, but is this a good or a bad thing? Take a look and compare these different Android skins. Read More . Google has the Google Now Launcher. Samsung has TouchWiz. HTC has Sense. There’s LG UX and Huawei’s EMUI. While Android may be open source, every single one of these interfaces is closed.

In contrast, System76 created its Pop theme out of the existing open source Adapta GTK theme and Papirus icons. The company then shared the relatively minor tweaks it made back to the community. Pop!_OS itself is an open project that anyone can install regardless of whether they’re using System76 hardware.


I don’t want to gloss over this. A company is creating a differentiated software experience without any restrictions. You don’t have to pay for Pop!_OS. You don’t even have to buy a System76 computer. All of its own tweaks and creations are contributed back to the broader community. This is exactly the way we want to see a company utilize open source code.

System76 Is Cooperating With Upstream

Pop!_OS uses the same installer as Ubuntu, but System76 made some changes. Rather than keep these tweaks to itself, it submitted them back to the program’s developers. There’s a decent chance the functionality will now appear in future versions of Ubuntu.

System76 has other plans in mind. One is to integrate KDE Connect with GNOME Using KDE Connect to Sync your Android Device with Your Linux Computer Have you ever wished your Android devices and your Linux computers worked together more seamlessly? KDE Connect is something you should check out because it alleviates the headaches of the multi-device experience. Read More .

Another is choosing an email client that integrates with GNOME Online Accounts and making it provide the kind of experience we’ve come to expect from phones. The company is hesitant to take on the task of maintaining an email client, but if it does fix bugs in software such as Geary, those changes would likely go out to other Linux operating systems as well.

System76 Is Invested in Desktop Linux

Many people have pondered whether a company can make a business out of selling or supporting desktop Linux. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, was born to provide an experience that could compete with commercial operating systems. But Canonical never really made money off the desktop. After shipping a largely unchanged version of its Unity interface for several years, Canonical abandoned the project What Ubuntu Unity Fans Can Do to Keep Your Favorite Interface Ubuntu's Unity interface is going away. So what's a Unity lover to do? Fortunately, the interface isn't gone forever - Unity lives on, with other ways to create a similar look and feel. Read More and is now shifting its focus away from the desktop.

System76 has been selling PCs that come with Ubuntu for over a decade. The company is profitable, and it has a vested interest in desktop Linux — arguably more than Canonical. People are already buying System76 machines to get hardware that comes pre-installed with Linux. If the desktop experience sucks, people can go elsewhere. The machines themselves aren’t bad, but it’s not like they’re better than what the rest of the computer industry offers, or cheaper. System76 needs desktop Linux to thrive.

System76 Creates Linux Products for Regular People

Linux is a commercial behemoth. When you consider that Linux is used to power servers, ATMs, giant telescopes, and the International Space Station, it’s clear that a lot of money is invested in Linux 5 Surprising Ways Linux Is Changing the World From hosting popular websites to the future of science and space travel, Linux is furthering the development of our world, and our understanding of the universe. Read More . Companies such as Red Hat and SUSE make big dollars developing and selling versions of Linux.

But those products aren’t meant for at home use. They’re for enterprise and academia. Many of the people using Linux in that environment aren’t running it on their computers at home. When it comes to the hearts and minds of your average person, Linux isn’t even in the conversation.

System76 is one of the few companies out there making Linux products you can use on your couch. They’ve long made hardware, and now they’re trying to create a recognizable interface that ties to their brand. Among people who don’t know or care to learn about the nuances of the Linux ecosystem, this can make the entire operating system feel more approachable.

Will Pop!_OS Pay Off?

Only time will tell. This move could build brand awareness for System76, increasing sales. Or it could have little effect at all, since many customers know how to install their own Linux operating system and simply want a computer they know won’t give them any problems. We might see other companies follow suit, or System76 may end up in its own niche.

What do you think? Should more companies take System76’s approach? Would that be chaos? Are you ambivalent either way? Share your comments below!

Image Credit: Blackboard via

Related topics: GNOME Shell, Linux, Open Source.

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  1. Gazoo
    July 25, 2017 at 5:12 am

    System76 should focus on improving the battery life of their laptops - Linux-friendly hardware for general distro, out-of-box, compatibility - better pricing - document-friendly screens (3:2, 16:10 aspect ratios) - supporting some additional distros (if they used Linux-friendly hardware!!) - I could go on...

    Linux needs good hardware vendors. They don't need another psuedo-distro.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      July 25, 2017 at 5:01 pm

      I do agree that the battery life needs to be improved. That's the weakest aspect of my System76 laptop.

  2. jymm
    July 23, 2017 at 10:42 am

    What System 76 is doing makes perfect sense to me. It takes a lot more work to customize each Linux install on every laptop and Desktop they make than to make a OS specifically for their hardware. Ubuntu with it's LTS releases makes sense for that too (the other option would be a rolling release)

    . Leaving the OS open source for everyone even makes sense as sooner or later you will have to upgrade your System 76 installation when the LTS release you have installed is no longer supported.

    All that said, I hate the Gnome 3. Unless they offer Classic Gnome or Mate, I will not be using their Pop! OS.

    • Brandon
      July 24, 2017 at 5:59 pm

      This is precisely why they should not be making an OS but addons specific to their hardware, and apps specific to helping professionals. Then you can have your MATE, I can have my KDE, and someone else can have Gnome, or whatever else, and we just install the system76 repo, do an upgrade, and everything works.

  3. fcd76218
    July 21, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Clickbait title! Reading the title I had visions of some Linux hardware company starting to sell PCs with their own independently developed version of Linux, or at least a distro based on Gentoo or Slackware. In reality, all System 76 is doing is putting some new make up on the Ubuntu pig. A totally non-mews.

    "A company is creating a differentiated software experience without any restrictions."
    Not so. If the problem occurs in the cosmetics that System 76 changed, they can fix it. But of the problem occurs in the distro code itself, users have to wait until Canonical decides to fix things.

    "since many customers know how to install their own Linux operating system and simply want a computer they know won’t give them any problems"
    Precisely! I wonder how many people buy System 76 computers without an O/S, and how many uninstall Ubuntu and Install their own favorite distro.

  4. Brandon
    July 21, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    Why not just make a custom desktop environment instead of an entire OS?
    Why not just make a custom repo with drivers and apps that any user can install on top of the Linux flavor they choose for their system76 machine?

    I say this as I also know as a proud and passionate Linux user, that while I may like your hardware, your OS is getting over written 30 seconds after I turn my brand-new system76 on.

    And if your really selling to professional Linux users, they are going to do the exact same thing. Don't waste your precious time and effort. Focus on making the computers and the drivers and apps for those computers.

    • jymm
      July 24, 2017 at 10:22 am

      I would think it is more about optimizing hardware than Desktop Environments or Applications. I doubt most drivers would be written over that quickly.