I’ve watched Elementary OS from a distance over the years. I loved the screenshots, but the experience wasn’t quite ready. For years, it came off to me as a themed version of Ubuntu. There was great work going on, but as long as I was opening the Ubuntu Software Center and having to install Personal Package Archives for anything Elementary-related, that feeling wasn’t going to change.
That isn’t the case anymore. Elementary OS has really come into its own. If you’re sitting on the fence wondering if now’s the time to make the switch from your current Linux operating system, there are quite a few reasons the answer might be Yes.
1. It Has a Clear Identity and Vision
The difference between most Linux operating systems (“distros”) is hard to describe to people. Fedora, openSUSE, and Ubuntu all provide largely the same software. Yes, they don’t use the same package formats and choose different defaults, but you could spend the better part of one or two podcast episodes discussing the differences and still not walk away with a clear answer.
That isn’t the case with Elementary OS. This Linux operating system has its own desktop environment (called Pantheon, but you don’t need to know that). It has its own user interface, and it has its own apps. Technically, you can run Elementary OS software inside another distro, but there isn’t much reason to do so.
This makes Elementary OS instantly recognizable. This also makes the entire project easier to explain and recommend to others.
2. It’s Easy to Learn
Elementary OS is simple. When you fire up the desktop for the first time, it takes mere seconds to figure everything out. You launch applications from the menu in the top-left corner labeled Applications. When you do, they appear in the dock at the bottom, where you can also save your favorites.
Indicators in the top-right let you tweak volume, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and power settings. There you can also check notifications and restart your computer. At the top of the screen, you will find the date and time. It’s all rather self-explanatory.
Do you remember what desktop environment you’re using? Again, it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot that goes into making a Linux operating system, and Elementary OS does a great job of obscuring those details. Figuring out Elementary OS isn’t a homework assignment. It’s as simple as picking up a tablet.
3. Its Interface Is Consistent
Consistency. Consistency. Consistency. When you open up an app in Elementary OS, it looks and works similarly to the one you opened before. That’s because the team has not only established clear design guidelines, but it sticks to them. Elementary also makes it easy for other developers to create apps that conform to the rules. They’re not left wondering how many pixels should go between buttons in the toolbar.
This means once you learn how to use one Elementary OS app, you’ve largely figured out how to use the next one. I find it jarring to switch from a GTK-based app to a KDE one. Even going from a GNOME app to a GTK one like GIMP or LibreOffice can be jarring. Elementary OS isn’t immune to this issue, since you will likely need to install non-Elementary software at some point, but at least all of the software designed for Elementary is similar. As far as I’m aware, that’s not something any other Linux operating system can say.
4. It Has Few Distractions
Thanks to a lack of distractions, Elementary OS helps me stay focused. When I use KDE, I spend a little time each day tweaking various aspects of the interface. I lose hours of productivity moving panels around, searching for themes, tweaking widgets, and altering applications. There’s this persistent thought that my desktop isn’t perfect yet, but with a few more tweaks…
I don’t have that problem with Elementary OS. There are two (inherently subjective) reasons for this:
- The desktop isn’t customizable.
- The desktop doesn’t need to be customized.
Elementary doesn’t let you move the panel around and doesn’t provide themes, which is rare for a Linux desktop. Out of the box customizations are limited to the dock and hot corners (the ability to view all windows, see the desktop, or perform other actions when moving the mouse to the corner of the screen). I’ve spent minutes playing around with the options and decided I prefer the defaults.
The interface is minimalist, keeping the focus on apps. There is no dashboard. Right-clicking the panel or the desktop doesn’t bring up a context menu. Nearly every option is contained within System Settings, and there aren’t all that many there. The Elementary OS interface doesn’t provide much to see or do, so you might as well stay focused on what you came to your computer to do in the first place.
5. It Has Great Default Apps
There are differing opinions on whether default apps are all that important. As long as you have a reliable internet connection, you can download alternatives. But I find default apps matter a great deal on desktop environments that don’t fit the usual paradigm, such as GNOME and Elementary OS’s Pantheon. Most alternatives simply don’t integrate well with the rest of the environment or other apps.
Even if I ignore looks and integration, I simply love the default apps on Elementary OS. The Mail app (a fork of Geary) is my favorite email client I have ever used, even despite the semi-regular crashes. The file manager does what I need without looking cluttered. The Photos app (based on Shotwell) is capable of importing photos, organizing them, and performing minor tweaks. The Music app doesn’t automatically fetch album art, but the layout is intuitive and the features I want are all there.
6. It Has a Steady Flow of New Apps
These days, Elementary OS is enjoying a regular supply of new apps. Sure, the number is nothing compared to what you see in a mobile app store. Sure, new apps launch for Windows and macOS at a faster rate. But we’re comparing with the rest of the Linux landscape, and by that metric, the amount of new releases is impressive.
If I were to switch back to GNOME right now, the apps I’d use would likely be the same as those I used six months ago. The homepage of GNOME Software highlights programs that have been around for years, if not decades. New software does come out, but the pace is slow, and unless you know which blogs to follow, you will likely miss it.
The Elementary team has invested much of the past year or two creating an app store and distribution system that was easy and enticing for developers. Now we’re seeing the fruits of that work. Whenever you check AppCenter, you might be in for a surprise.
Most of these apps are simple, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of these apps do things that other Linux programs can already do. That, too, isn’t that big a deal. It’s nice having choices, it’s great having a consistent interface, and it’s lovely having programs that aspire to be simple and fun.
I do hope Elementary OS gets more expansive software, such as an image editor and word processor, but those take more time to make than a notepad or ambient noise app. Hopefully someone is in the process of making that happen. After all, there’s already an app for making slideshows.
7. Things Are Happening
What was the last big thing to happen in your distro? Do you even know what changes the last major release introduced? The features I look forward to most in Fedora are updates to GNOME, updates that eventually go out to every distro. In Ubuntu, the big news right now is that Canonical is showing less interest in the desktop.
Meanwhile, the last major release of Elementary OS introduced an app store. Then Elementary gave third-party developers the ability to publish apps from GitHub into AppCenter and have them quickly appear in front of users — and they can roll out app updates just as quickly. No more adding a Personal Package Archive or waiting to upgrade your OS in six months only to get a newer version of your favorite app.
AppCenter also lets you pay what you want for Elementary OS apps, a new way for developers to make money supporting the Linux desktop. That’s news worth watching closely even if you don’t use Elementary OS.
All the while, the Elementary team continue to refine the desktop. The crew has clear plans that make the experience more cohesive with each release. Frankly, all of this makes Elementary OS a fun place to be!
Is Elementary OS for You?
Elementary OS isn’t ideal for everyone. If your workflow depends on a number of heavy applications (e.g. image editors, video editors, IDEs), then you may be better off using a desktop where such software doesn’t look out of place. Elementary OS is great for casual use. It’s great for writing. You can even do quite a bit of gaming. But many other tasks will require you to install a number of non-curated apps.
These remain early years for Elementary OS, and the company working on the project is rather small. As a result, some bugs stick around for a while. AppCenter used to show an alert for new updates when none were there. The Mail app occasionally crashes and, if I start it back up too soon, reliably crashes a second time. The default web browser (Epiphany) sometimes deletes the first few characters I type into the URL bar.
None of these issues are showstoppers, but they do get annoying. The core experience has been very stable for me these days, but I still wouldn’t recommend Elementary OS if stability is a primary concern. There are plenty of more established and less adventurous Linux operating systems for that.
But Elementary OS is a heck of a lot more exciting!
Have you used Elementary OS? Do you use another Linux operating system but find yourself drooling over Elementary OS screenshots? What has to happen before you would consider making the switch? Share your thoughts below!