Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Elementary OS Review

"Elementary: Of, relating to, or constituting the basic, essential, or a fundamental part"


Probably one of the most anticipated distro releases in a long time, Elementary OS JUPITER finally came to life just a few days ago. Building on the popularity and success of some of the projects own applications, most notably Nautilus Elementary and Postler, this distro has raised high expectations, but does it live up to them? Come on in and let's find out.


Elementary OS, as its own name already hints at, is all about simplicity. Good simplicity, that is, the kind that removes bloat and strips applications to the core of their functionality so nothing stands in the way of the end user. On top of that, in a sometimes controversial way (due to the obvious Apple influence), it also attempts to bring up the elegance and beauty of such simplicity, aiming at a sleek and clean Look&Feel.

That's the theory, at least.


Booting from the LiveCD/USB, the Plymouth theme already showcases that "simple yet elegant" vibe, showing the Elementary OS Logo (a big 'e') surrounded by a neat glowing animation. Nothing groundbreaking, but nice.

As is the case with most Ubuntu forks, Elementary OS sticks pretty close to the original installation wizard, just tweaking certain elements to make them fit with the distro's own branding (and simplicity motto, in this case). If you have seen the Ubuntu 10.10 installation, you will find nothing surprising here.

The GDM theme is pretty standard, but it does show a little bit of the Elementary GTK theme. The default background, which is the same that is used in the desktop, is somewhat cheesy and cheap, failing to convey that sleek-looks vibe that the distro sports in other areas.

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Leaving the default wallpaper aside, another element that strikes me as odd is the default icon theme, which again does not seem to stand the comparison with other portions of the desktop. This is all entirely subjective, of course, but after seeing the project official Website and how carefully everything Look&Feel was being put together, I must admit I was expecting better. As far as the choice for default wallpaper is concerned, I think it is quite unfortunate, as there are others available which would have fit better.

Looking for some fancy GTK themes and window decorators? Look elsewhere, the elementary theme is the only one available.

Click on image to enlarge

The application catalog continues with that idea of simplicity, particularly obvious in the distro's own apps: Postler, Dexter and Lingo.

Postler is an extremely simplified email client. It's got some nice features, like a very clever account creation interface, which is as easy as it gets. In addition, thanks to its simplistic interface, Postler loads very quickly and is surprisingly snappy for a mail client. On the down side of things, I think the interface is too simplistic and I found myself missing some options I often use in other mail clients. Surprisingly, Postler did not all messages from my Gmail account, but just a portion. I have messages from today all the way back to 2005, but I could barely get anything from 2009. I have not tried Postler in other circumstances, so I am not sure if this is expected behavior or a true bug/application limitation. (Can anybody comment from their experience?)

Click on image to enlarge

Dexter is a neat address book that seems to offer cross-applications support. Once again it sports an extremely simple interface and snappy performance. Adding contacts is simple and automatic import is supported. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to see no obvious integration with online contact address books (ie. Google Contacts) or worse yet, Postler. Both Thunderbird and Evolution offer easy integration with their address books, so one can very quickly add contacts from existing messages just by right-clicking on the contact's address. Not here.

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As for Lingo, it is another cute little application, a dictionary to be specific. I haven't played much with it, but I see nothing here I didn't get from Gnome dictionary. The GUI is simple, as one can expect from any application in this project, but again, nothing groundbreaking. From a philosophical stand point, I am not sure that a dictionary fits the definition of Elementary, as in a fundamental or critical application.

Click on image to enlarge

Other apps included Gnumeric and Abiword, both of which try to cope with Office Suite duties, but falling terribly short, unfortunately. For example, it only took 10 minutes before I got a message with a PPS attachment and guess what? There is nothing available to open it with.

I personally like to keep the full OpenOffice or LibreOffice suite installed, but it could be argued that they are heavy and take quite some room. Looking at it from that perspective, I like the Peppermint approach better... Why not integrate Google Docs straight from the desktop?

Another application that made me scratch my head was Midori, the default Web browser. I was curious to test it because I had read good things about it, but boy did it disappoint. As another browser based around the WebKit rendering engine, one expects speedy browsing from Midori, but I got the complete opposite. In my experience under Elementary OS, Midori is ridiculously slow and unstable. It consistently took more than 20 seconds to partially load my Blog page, only to systematically crash time and again. After a few tries, I downloaded Firefox 4.0 and it was back to browsing fast and reliably.

Another "pleasant" surprise was the lack of Flash plugin... In an Ubuntu fork? Really? Come on!

And how about listening to music? Fancy downloading or copying your favorite MP3s over to give them a listen with the on board default audio player? Don't bother, there is none.

Click on image to enlarge

As I continued to play around in the desktop, I started to get more frustrated with lots of features having been removed or heavily limited. Right-clicking on the desktop, the panel or the main menu had been disabled, as well as drag-and-drop, so lots of things could not be done, at least not in an obvious way. The same applied to Docky, which did not support effects, addition of new launchers and had no apparent settings edition available. As already mentioned, the application catalog was poor, so I started to wonder "What is so good about this simplicity to begin with?".


I cannot understand the rationale behind using GNOME but limiting its flexibility and/or options. If a distro builder is willing to deal with the extra weight, what's the point in stripping it down? It certainly doesn't make GNOME faster nor cuter. On top of that, there are other alternatives out there that better fit the simple-and-fast category, such as LXDE, Openbox or XFCE, to name a few.

The application catalog feels weak, lacking in many areas, and it seems to fall in the middle of nowhere. It does not provide enough firepower to be considered a heavy client that can do most things offline, yet not light enough to be able to compete with other simple-and-fast distros out there. Elementary OS' own software is alright, but I personally find it too simplistic, often lacking features I use on a daily basis.

Another element that seems to be part of the Elementary "identity" is a sleek Look&Feel, but I only saw that partially in Jupiter.


Long story short, Elementary OS was a bitter disappointment for me. I think the concept is there, and it could be a successful one with the right implementation, but I don't see that happening in Jupiter. Moon OS, Zorin OS, Linux Mint... The list of Ubuntu forks that do better is long and I don't see that changing as long as the Elementary project does not realize that Linux without flexibility is hardly an option.

Is Elementary OS for you? I find it hard to believe if you enjoy Linux, but by all means do give it a go. After all, looking at Unity and GNOME Shell, lack of flexibility may be the theme moving forward.


  1. hai chema,what is your favourite linux distro for your main desktop now,..?

  2. @guff8: At the moment I am very happy with Zorin 4 OS and Moon OS 4, both of which are superb Ubuntu derivatives. Ubuntu 10.10 is also great. As far as KDE is concerned, I am missing an up to date PCLinuxOS release.

  3. Elementary OS, Im sorry, but its totally unnecessary.
    So, I agree with your disappointment.

  4. I really don't get the midori trend lately. I've run it on Arch, Debian Stable, Bodhi and Elementary OS and always gave me crashes. It's still a 0.x.x software and everyone picks it for their distro as the default browser. Yes it is very light (and has great potential IMO), but also very limiting at the moment. I run Firefox 4 on my modest 2Ghz Athlon, it launches quickly, and the browsing is blazingly fast. Chrome/Chromium is also an excellent alternative. Why _default_ to a browser at such an early dev state?

    As for elementary os, congrats to the developers, I think it has good potential. I like the fact they are making their own apps, which will become better, richer and more integrated.

  5. Sigh. Another "not-even-close-to-prime-time" distro to compete with the myriad "not-ready-for-prime-time" distros.

    All the fragmentation and lack of progress is disheartening.

  6. Well I had a decent long comment typed out and then blogger just took a crap a "failed to complete my request". So I'll just rewrite part of it -

    @Jim I don't know about the others, but Bodhi Linux uses Midori because of it's small install size. We discovered that around 2/3s of our users where uninstalling Firefox 4.0 in favor of Firefox 3.6 or Chromium. Because of this we felt it was unfair/not needed to choke up every Bodhi system with a browser that takes so much space. Midori was the perfect solution, small install size, works for basic browsing, and allows for easily changing browsers via the online Bodhi software center.

  7. @Jeff - Blogger does that to me all the time but only on this site. I've gotten into the habit of putting a copy of my comment in the clipboard before submitting.

    Elementary is an interesting OS, it looks like Fuduntu with new wallpaper, and different icons / theme. More interesting though is the name "Jupiter" which was already used for an OSS project.

    Just an observation, not a complaint.

  8. Thanks all for your comments!

    @Jeff & Fewt: I hacked that feature myself!!! Don´t you love it?? ;-)

    Jeff, I will check Midori under Bodhi at some point, but my experience under Elementary was terrible. I am not sure why the big fuzz about Firefox 4.0 size, though? After installing it in Elementary, I see it roughly takes 30 MB. What´s that to a modern computer?... Even to a 16GB USB?

    Fewt, What´s your view on Fedora 15 and GNOME Shell? I know you will stick to current Classic GNOME, but do you see Fuduntu moving to GNOME Shell eventually?

  9. We are going to stick with classic GNOME for now and continue to mature Fuduntu 14. We have postponed Fuduntu 15 to allow GNOME 3 to mature further.

  10. @Chema 30megs increases the size of our liveCD by almost 30%. Why make 66% of users download an extra 10%?

  11. @Jeff: Sorry, you lost me there. According to distrowatch.com, your ISO for version 1.0 is 383MB? How's 30MB a 30% increase? I think you meant to say a 10% increase, and it would be more like 8.5%.

    In any case, percentages mean little here, I think, because 10 or 100%, 30MB are 30MB, less than 1 minute download on average fast networks... I would gladly go through that to get a decent, well-supported, robust and fast browser with a huge community behind it, as opposed to a slow, not properly tested nor supported one. My opinion, anyways.

  12. Thanks for this review of Jupiter & for sharing your thoughts! I'm on the elementary team & wanted to help you understand why some things are as they are, & to hopefully encourage more feedback.

    Regarding Postler, I'm pretty sure it pulls in all my email from Gmail. As I don't frequently pull up emails older than a few months, I could be wrong. If that's the case, I'd say it's a bug & it can be easily reported from the app's menu.

    We didn't include LibreOffice because we're committed to shipping native & snappy apps; LibreOffice is, unfortunately, neither. Of course users are always free to install the office apps of their choice from the included Software Center.

    Flash player (& other closed stuff, like codecs) is most certainly available out of the box; there's a section in the installer that explains this to the user & lets them choose whether or not to install it. If you were only running Jupiter from the live session for your review, it would not be included. This is due to legal & philosophical issues, & is exactly the way Ubuntu does it.

    It's true, we did not include a music player with Jupiter. Some people think this is preposterous, but it's a founded decision for a few reasons. First, we are currently working on a very nice music player that was intended to be released with Jupiter, but didn't make the cut in time. We didn't want to offer one player for our first release, then change it for the next release. Second, not every user needs a full-on music player with library management & everything, & music can be played with the included media player. Third, if we were to choose between the two popular music players, Banshee & Rhythmbox, there would be about half the users that would download & install the other anyway. We decided to give the users a choice of their music player from the start, & to include our polished music player when it's ready (instead of rushing it out in time for Jupiter).

    You point out that we made some decisions regarding simplifying the panel, desktop, & dock & you're exactly right. The reasoning behind this is twofold. First, we've all seen beginning users mess something up with their panel, then not know how to get it back. By enabling the built-in "lockdown" feature, it prevents this from happening. The same idea goes for the dock. The second reason is because we're pushing to bring innovation & sensible defaults so that typical users won't need or even want to change the setup; they can just use their computer. This is peeking through a bit with Jupiter, but will be there even more in future releases. Of course, the nice thing is that Jupiter is, after all, built on Linux. This means anyone can go in & change a single setting to unlock the panel or tweak whatever they would like.

    Finally, I'd like to wrap up with a brief comment about our target audience & our aim. We want to bring the best-possible experience to everyday computer users. This includes the more "geeky." hardcore, customization-loving Linux users, but also includes the larger group of non-technical I-just-want-it-to-work crowd. The people that are used to Linux can easily customize Jupiter, or find out how. For everyone else, the default setup works for them & they love it. Every "average" computer user I've shown elementary to has been impressed. Not impressed "for a Linux distribution," not impressed "for free," but genuinely impressed by the simplicity & ease-of-use it brings to the computer, regardless of it being Linux-based & free.

    Thanks again for your thoughts & hopefully you'll continue to give feedback as the project grows. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot us an email at press AT elementaryos DOT org.

  13. @Cassidy: Thanks for your long reply, I appreciate it!

    Unfortunately, after I wrote my review, I spent another two weeks using Jupiter quite extensively and I must say my review would have been more negative had I written it now.

    I did write my review based on a full-blown installation (on a USB). The installation process, as I mentioned on my review, was the same as Ubuntu's (minor the branding, of course) and like Ubuntu's, at no point in the process did I get anything asking me if I wanted to install Flash. Not sure if that was a one off, but you might want to double check that that what you are saying truly works.

    As for the simplification, I must say you guys took it way too far. Removing rights from the user's own desktop? Removing right-clicking on it? If GNOME is famous for one thing is that it "just works". It is a robust, easy and intuitive desktop manager that any kind of user can understand fairly quickly. Removing so many options not only goes against the Linux spirit (which I could understand if it did benefit usability, but it doesn't), but it even "stupidifies" with policies even more restrictive than Microsoft's!!

    As for Elementary being impressive, I don't doubt that could be the feedback from many users, but I bet they would be even more impressed by other Ubuntu forks, like Linux Mint, MoonOS, ZorinOS or even Ubuntu itself! The Linux desktop has improved incredibly and new users notice, but that's far from being an Elementary exclusive characteristic.

    Anyways, I think Elementary can truly become something special if the implementation of those elemental features is more carefully planned and executed. Like I said, it's good to remove bloat, it's good to remove settings that are perhaps "too out there" for new comers, but please do not remove part of what makes the Linux desktop special.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work!

  14. Come on this is most polished and sophisticated ubuntu derivative and to be frank wow ubuntu is too closed while handling windows elementary os is next big thing in linux world and you're gonna experience it i'm not on dev or so but i totally loved their work maybe you were rational while writing review still whatever !!!

  15. I think that its commitment to "pure GTK+" principle is really appreciated; It should save a lot of work and time from developer's perspective, and offers more usability from user's perspective.

  16. This is one of the linux distros that look absolutely beautiful. And this DOES matter. Yeah, it's the first version and it does have some bugs. Give it a chance, as I can see the next version is going to rock.

  17. Running this on my eeepc901 and have to say its fast and pleasant to use, and i know it will only get better. I actually like that its so simple and locked down, for daily use it just works and there is all that is. Apart from Midori which I do not like even though I tried to. I'll stick with Opera, but thats the beauty of it, include a lightweight browser so its easy to choose your own.

  18. Okay, I might be a little late to the party here, but you seem to be missing a few things.

    1st, "Looking for some fancy GTK themes and window decorators? Look elsewhere, the elementary theme is the only one available."

    WRONG. I'm using the same version you reviewed. Did you bother to hit "customize..."? All of the defaults are there.

    2nd. This is a CD-sized disc image. They through in the bare essentials to get you going, and you can easily install anything else you need on top of that. Linux is all about making your computer your own. If you're gonna bitch because you have to install a powerpoint application, then don't use linux. Buy a Windows PC with office pre-installed and be done with it.

  19. Anonymous, you obviously didn't read slow enough to understand. What I meant is that most Linux distros based on GNOME Classic, incorporate more than one GTK theme by default, no need to customize anything. Of course I know that you can click on the customize button, but that's not what I was talking about?

    Funny that you mention me bitching about Linux. Please, read other articles and learn more about me and my opinions before you jump into conclusions like that.

  20. the review seems a bit biased, did you try to peep under the hood? But I will give it a try.
    Well, for me at least it doesn't touch linux fsh like moonos)

  21. As of 2014, i would say Elementary OS is one of the coolest distro's i've ever seen.

  22. Elementary OS Luna is based on old 12.04 LTS. Is there a fork or newer alternative to Elementary OS?

  23. I just tried out Elementary OS Freya and I was impressed mostly by the design. However, as I began using it, I realized it was some what of a broken experience. This is not targeted for casual desktop users at all. This is an OS you can install for use maybe in a school library where simplicity actually makes sense.

    The OS itself is very restrictive of features and really destroys the user experience when it comes to "productivity". We live in an ERA of broadband now, most computers in homes can download over 1 gigabyte in just 13 minutes and that goes by fast.

    The OS is also very laggy when heavily multi-tasting.

    The only thing that makes Freya look inviting is the beautiful icons located at the bottom dock and the programs menu.

    You have designed an OS that is tailored for LIBRARY audience, where theme, productivity, usefulness and customization are not needed or aren't important but now a days even the most simplistic people prefer a more mature package that works right out of the box with all the bells and whistles rather than waste an entire day or longer than that customizing the experience to work for them.

    Sadly to say, Elementary OS seems like Ubuntu caught a case of EBOLA and lost 60% of its functionality.

    It looks beautiful but it does not for the geeky, nor the casual user nor for simplistic users in general. Your implementation of this Ubuntu fork is more tailored for a library where the experience is inviting and simplistic, yet not bloated but again, today's average user likes to have everything at the tip of the fingers ready for use, that's why Linux Mint is at the top of the distro watch and has even placed its derivative in the second position!

    Finally, this OS has several years to go before it catches up with the rest of the crowd. I would say perhaps another 3 or 5 years worth of work and even then, it might still be too simplistic to deliver on it's philosophy.

    You guys have a great day! I had fun test driving your OS for a few days, next up XUBUNTU :3