Elementary OS is currently riding high in the Distrowatch rankings and it has been a while since my last review so I thought it was high time I took another look.
The tag line at the top of the Elementary OS website reads as “The fast, open and privacy respecting replacement for Windows and macOS”.
In this review I am going to examine this claim in depth as well as other claims such as “Apps you need, without the ones you don’t”. The website states that the applications have been carefully considered to cater for your everyday needs so you can spend more time using your computer and less time cleaning up bloatware.
Without further ado lets separate the fact from the fiction and explore Elementary OS with a virtual magnifying glass befitting a well known sleuth. After all it is “Elementary” my dear Watson. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
How To Get Elementary
You can download the Elementary ISO from https://elementary.io/. You can pay what you consider fair for the operating system and to try it out for free simply enter 0 into the box marked custom.
So the Elementary desktop is much like the interface on a MacBook with a panel at the top and a dock at the bottom.
You can launch the commonly used applications by clicking on the icon on the dock. To launch an application which isn’t available in the dock click on the “Applications” menu.
By default the menu appears as a grid of icons which you can paginate through using the page up and down keys or by using the arrow keys on the keyboard.
You can also switch to a category view by clicking on the appropriate icon in the top left corner of the menu.
The first item on the dock bar brings up the multi tasking view. This makes it possible to see all the applications currently available and you can switch to another workspace or add a new one.
If you press the super key on your keyboard (Windows key) a list of keyboard shortcuts appear. You can use various shortcuts as shown above to move around different workspaces, bring up the application menu, take screen shots and zoom in and out.
The desktop environment (Pantheon) used by Elementary is superb. It is easy to use and looks great. The only slight drawback is the lack of a right click menu on the desktop for changing wallpaper settings. This can be done but you have to go into a settings screen.
Connecting To The Internet
To connect to the internet either connect an ethernet cable from your computer to your router or for WIFI click on the network icon as shown in the image above, choose the network of your choice and enter the security password.
One of the main claims on the Elementary website is that the applications have been specifically selected to make the computer useful without bloatware.
This section will deal with each of the applications one by one and assess their suitability.
The default web browser installed with Elementary is Epiphany. This has obviously been chosen because it takes up a lot less memory than one of the more well known browsers such as Chrome or Firefox.
Chrome with one tab open is currently taking up 199 megabytes whereas Epiphany is taking 39 megabytes. For general web browsing this makes Epiphany a great choice but….. and this is a fairly big but…. Epiphany cannot be used to watch Netflix. Only Firefox and Chrome are capable of this feat and so you will end up installing another browser anyway should you want to watch it.
The above screenshot is an accurate representation of my attempt to run the default email client installed with Elementary. It starts off with the following screen but after you enter your details it just hangs.
Most Linux distributions have either Thunderbird or Evolution installed and to connect to GMail you just need to enter your username and password and if you have 2 way authentication linked you will need to provide a verification code and accept that the mail client can be used.
With the mail client listed in Elementary entering the GMail username and password either hangs with the image above or says that it can’t validate.
The best answer I have seen for this issue is as follows:
I don’t know about you but I don’t want to lower my mail’s security just so that the mail client will work. I would rather install a better email client.
2 applications down and in each case I would have replaced them with another application.
The calendar application is fairly basic but actually as functional as I need it to be. You basically see a monthly view and on that view you can see events for the selected date and upcoming events.
Adding events is easy and what I like is that there aren’t too many features. It really works like a typical wall calendar, which is all I want really.
The audio application is again fairly basic but actually fully functional. As long as you have put your audio files in the music folder then the audio application will find them without changing any settings.
There are various views available including the default one which displays a list of songs, an artist view which is a grid of images and a detailed view.
To choose the music you wish to play you can choose one of the default lists such as favourite songs, recently added, never played, recent favourites, not recently played or overplayed.
You can also choose to create your own playlist and drag the songs you want into that list or you can create a smart playlist.
The smart playlist lets you create a rule such as choose an artist, album or genre matching certain text and choose how many songs to add.
I found this feature a bit hit and miss.
There are far better audio players out there but not many run at just 39 megabytes and if you are happy creating your own playlists then this audio player is perfectly fine.
The media application is again very basic but it actually does the job very well and the memory footprint is very low compared with other media players.
The default screen lets you open a file, browse your library or play the last video.
The above screenshot is the sort of thing you will see when you choose to browse.
The photo viewer follows a similar theme of being basic but functional.
The menu down the side lets you choose the type of media to view and you can navigate through various dates (known as events) to view the thumbnails of the photos in your collection.
You can increase the number of thumbnails by sliding the slider to the left or reduce the number by sliding it to the right.
There is a search feature but this isn’t overly useful unless you have named your photos rather than leaving the name your camera gave them.
There aren’t any office applications installed by default within Elementary. Most other distributions simply go for LibreOffice as it is pretty much the standard.
I don’t know if the developers decided that LibreOffice doesn’t fit into the correct mantra because it isn’t lightweight but most people need some sort of office suite. I am glad they didn’t go for Abiword and Gnumeric which is the option other lightweight distributions go for.
To install applications you can use the AppCentre.
By default you will see a list of categories in a tiled format. Clicking on a tile will show all the applications for that category.
The applications listed include both free and non-free options.
I am not against the idea of having non-free applications in the app centre (if this is the way Elementary choose to monetise their creation then so be it) ,however, it would be nice to have an option to omit them from view.
Many of the applications you expect are listed in the AppCentre including Firefox and Steam however for Spotify, Google Chrome and VSCode you will need to go to the web to download the installation files.
Here comes a gotcha. There is no default tool for installing deb packages in Elementary so you need to install an application from the AppCentre. I chose to install Eddy which works fine.
Elementary is a worthwhile option for installing on a child’s computer as you can use the parental controls to limit the amount of time the child is on the computer, the applications the child can use and the sites a child can visit.
You can change the desktop wallpaper within the desktop settings screen. There are about a dozen or so wallpapers available by default but you can always download an image of your choice.
It is also possible to set applications to run when you move the mouse into the corners of your screen. This feature is known as hot corners.
Does Elementary live up to expectations?
Elementary is generally easy to install and easy to use so for the Everyday Linux User it is a very good choice.
There are a few improvements I would make however.
- I would provide Firefox by default as opposed to Epiphany. It gives access to Netflix and for me that is a deal breaker.
- Get rid of the mail application and provide something that works such as Evolution. Don’t give up functionality for performance. If it doesn’t work properly then I can’t use it.
- Add a method to install deb packages graphically by default
- Add a right click menu to change desktop settings
- Install a default office suite
I generally like the minimalist nature of Elementary and the look and feel of it is very nice indeed.
I am happy to recommend this as a good option for the Everyday Linux User