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Elementary OS isn’t your typical Linux distribution. Some would say it isn’t a distro at all. Elementary’s developers pitch their creation as a free and open alternative to Windows and macOS.
That description is apt, and with the latest release, version 0.4 Loki, Elementary has blossomed into something beautiful. I love it, and I highly recommend it for new and experienced Linux users alike.
What Is Elementary OS?
Elementary OS is an open source operating system that you can install in place of Windows or macOS.
Technically, Elementary OS is a Linux distribution, and there are hundreds of others that you can choose from. But the project doesn’t view itself this way, and the result is a desktop that feels vastly different.
For the most part, everything just works. The default applications are functional and easy to understand. You can browse the web, check email, manage your calendar, organize photos, listen to music, and write notes without having to install additional software. When you do need more, Loki makes doing so a painless experience.
What’s Special About Version 0.4 Loki?
Elementary OS is based on Ubuntu, another distribution aimed at relatively new Linux users. Piggy-backing off another’s work is common in the open source world. This enables developers to create something new without having to start from scratch. Ubuntu itself is based on Debian.
You could use Ubuntu without having any idea what Debian is, but before now, Elementary couldn’t hide its dependency on Ubuntu. When you needed to install additional applications, you did so by opening a program called the Ubuntu Software Center. In Loki, this is no longer the case.
This is AppCenter, your new destination for installing software and managing updates.
In Linux terms, AppCenter is a package manager. Its existence goes a long way toward making Elementary OS feel like its own thing. Not only that, but AppCenter is a significant improvement over the previous solution. Software categories are easy to explore. Updates are very straightforward. If you know how to install apps on a phone, using AppCenter should be a walk in the park.
New System Indicators
Rather than using an existing desktop environment, the Elementary OS team created Pantheon. The panel at the top is called Wingpanel. The app launcher is Slingshot. The dock is Plank. But one corner of the screen relied on Ubuntu: the indicators along the top.
Loki brings new system indicators created for Elementary OS. Not only do these look better, but they make life easier. The date & time, volume, internet, Bluetooth, power, notification, and session indicators each let you open relevant system settings directly from the menu. The volume indicator includes playback controls when you have music playing.
Expanded System Settings
Elementary OS is not one of the more configurable Linux desktops. The interface is meant to get out of the way, not be something you tinker with. But there are some settings that make or break whether some users can consider Elementary OS. One such change impacts dual monitor users. Now you can choose which screen the dock appears on.
A new Notifications section lists which applications show alerts. You can tweak whether these notifications appear in pop-up bubbles, play sounds, or appear under the notification indicator. Thanks to helpful illustrations and giant toggles, these settings take little work to understand.
The entire System Settings application now lets you search for keywords. This saves you from having to know which section a setting is located under. Just type in the keyword, and the option should appear.
Technically located within System Settings, the parental controls option is worth highlighting on its own. Instead of installing specialized software or replacing the entire operating system with something aimed for kids, you can restrict what children have access to within Elementary OS.
The parental controls let you limit when children can use the computer to certain times of the day. You can prevent them from using certain apps, and you can block specific websites from loading in any web browser.
These controls give parents a reason to choose Elementary OS over many other Linux distros and older versions of Windows. That’s great, because there are many reasons to consider starting kids off with Linux rather than a commercial operating
Better Default Apps
These days, an operating system needs to ship a decent web browser. Elementary previously came with Midori, one of our favorite lightweight options. That said, it uses an aging version of WebKit, and many sites don’t load properly. And when they do, they sometimes load slowly. This didn’t give Elementary OS the impression of being a speedy system.
Loki replaces Midori with Epiphany, the default browser of the GNOME project. The experience is more stable, the browser better blends in with the rest of Elementary, and more sites load quickly.
Epiphany doesn’t offer the feature-packed experience you get in Firefox or Chrome, but you still have the option of installing a different web browser.
Loki marks the first release of Mail, the new default email client born from the remains of Geary. It’s a basic tool, to be sure, and I’ve encountered the occasional issue, but this is easily my favorite desktop email client on Linux.
Then there’s Screenshot, a useful tool that I used for all of the screenshots on this page.
This is hardly the end of what’s new in Elementary OS 0.4. You can get a complete rundown in the blog post announcing this release.
Loki came out in September, but I didn’t start using it until a few months later. I had used Elementary OS in the past, and I wasn’t expecting version 0.4 to make so large an impression. Here is what I’ve taken away from the experience.
This Is as Polished as Linux Gets
The Elementary OS team sweats the details. Fonts look great. Icons are clear. Scrollbars are consistent. Even right-click menus offer spacious text and rounded corners.
This is why I checked out Elementary OS, and it’s why I’ve stuck with it for most of the past month. The small things that used to irk me aren’t problems here.
Many people have no problem glossing over visual quirks, but I’m the type to obsess over them. Irregular spacing and a font that doesn’t match leaves me searching through forums and threads trying to find which deeply buried text file I can edit to make the issue go away. This is a waste of time that Elementary OS doesn’t force you into.
Apps Are Consistent
Like many other Linux distros, Elementary OS comes with a suite of default apps. But as mentioned before, the software all fits together. Learn how to use one program, and you know how to use the next.
I’ve been a long-time fan of GNOME, but I find the design differences between GNOME 3 applications and all other software to be jarring — including GNOME apps like AbiWord. But no matter which desktop environment you’re using, inconsistent design plagues many open source applications.
Elementary OS isn’t immune to these issues. Non-Elementary apps do stand out compared to default software. You could even make the case that they stand out more because the default ones are so consistent.
Speaking for myself, I typically only need to remove a toolbar to make other applications feel okay. To me, working in LibreOffice feels better integrated on Elementary OS than in GNOME.
But for the most part, I get by using predominantly Elementary apps, and I’m glad to see the project’s developers put such focus on this aspect of design.
Elementary OS takes seconds to understand. The application launcher lists your installed software, the dock shows your favorite programs, and indicators line the top of the screen. Click the X to close a window or the expand icon on the right to maximize. There really isn’t anything else to think about.
This simplicity makes Elementary OS quick for newcomers to grasp. But this is also what I consider the biggest draw for experienced Linux users too. Just because I know how to tinker with panels and mess around in a terminal doesn’t mean that’s how I want to spend my time.
The lack of distractions leaves more time to focus on whatever I’m doing, whether that’s browsing the web or writing a novel. Elementary OS’s simple design helps me get more done.
Is Elementary OS Loki Perfect?
Not at all. Most of the software in AppCenter does not adhere to Elementary’s design, and screenshots don’t appear for much of the available software. This will leave first-time users exploring through applications with wildly varying degrees of quality and integration.
To make matters worse, it’s hard to find and install third-party Elementary applications. Most aren’t available in AppCenter, and you can no longer add developer’s personal package archives or install DEB files without first grabbing additional tools.
On a similar note, I have faced crashes in a few of the default programs. This is a particularly scary experience when there aren’t yet alternative Elementary applications to turn to.
And personally, I’m not a big fan of using Ubuntu as a base, even if it is the most widely supported Linux ecosystem at the moment. With the Ubuntu brand being so relatively well-known and Canonical having a different vision than most of the broader open source ecosystem, this presents confusion and its own set of challenges.
Elementary OS is by no means ideal for everyone. If you want the freedom to change any component of your operating system, swap out the desktop environment, and create an interface that suits yours particular needs, there are much better options out there for you.
But I love the work the Elementary OS project is doing, and Loki is the first release I feel comfortable adopting on my own computer and recommending for others to do the same.
What about you? Have you taken Loki for a spin? What do you think of the Elementary project? Is there a different Linux distribution that you feel is providing a better experience? Let’s have a chat in the comments section below!
Image Credit: Joe Collins via YouTube