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Review of ElementaryOS 6 (Odin)

Written by Solène, on 06 September 2021.
Tags: #linux #review

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Introduction §

ElementaryOS is a linux distribution based on Ubuntu that also ship with a in-house developed desktop environment Pantheon and ecosystem apps. Since their 6th release named Odin, the development team made a bold choice of proposing software through the Flatpak package manager.

I've been using this linux distribution on my powerful netbook (4 cores atom, 4 GB of memory) for some weeks, trying not to use the terminal and now this is my review.

ElementaryOS project website

ElementaryOS desktop with no window shown

Pantheon §

I've been using ElementaryOS a little in the past so I was already aware of the Pantheon desktop when I installed ElementaryOS Odin on my netbook, I've been pleased to see it didn't change in term of usability. Basically, Pantheon looks like a Gnome3 desktop with a nice and usable dock à la MacOS.

Using the Super key (often referred to as the "Windows key") and you will be disappointed by getting a window with a list of shortcuts that works with Pantheon. Putting the help on this button is quite clever as we are used to press it for sending commands, but after a while it's misleading to have a single button triggering help, fortunately this behaviour can be configured to display the desktop or the applications menu.

Pantheon has a very nice feature I totally love which create a floating miniature of a target window that stay on top of everything, I often need to keep an eye on a window or watch a movie, and this mode allow me to exactly do that. The miniature is easy to move on the screen, easy to resize, and upon a click the window appears and the miniature is then hidden until you switch to another window. It may seems a gadget, but on a small screens I really appreciate. You can create this for a window by pressing Super+f and clicking on a target.

Picture in picture mode, showing the AppCenter while in a terminal

The desktop comes with some programs made specifically for Pantheon: terminal emulator, file browser, text editor, calendar etc... They are simple but effective.

The whole environment is stable, good looking, coherent and usable.

The AppCenter and Flatpak §

As I said before, ElementaryOS is based on Ubuntu so it inherits all the packages available on Ubuntu, but they will be only installable from the command line. The Application center GUI shows an entirely different package sets that comes from the ElementaryOS flatpak repository but also the one from flathub. Official repository apps are clearly designated as official while programs from flathub will be displayed as third party and a warning about quality/security will be displayed for each program from this repository when you want to install.

Warning shown when trying to install a program from a different repository than the one from ElementaryOS

Flatpak has a pretty bad reputation among the groups I regularly read, however I like flatpak. Crash course to flatpak: it is a Linux agnostic package manager that will not reuse your system library but instead install the whole basics dependencies required (such as X11, KDE, Gnome etc...) and then programs are installed upon this, but still separated from each other. Programs running from flatpak will have different permissions and may be limited in their permissions (no network, can only reach ~/Downloads/ etc..), this is very nice but not always convenient especially for programs that require plugins. The whole idea of flatpak is that you install a program and it shouldn't mess with the current system, and it can be installed in such way that when you use it, the person making the program bundle can restrict the permissions as much as wanted.

While installing flatpak programs take a good amount of data to download because of the big dependencies, you need them only once and updating flatpak programs will use delta changes, so only difference is downloaded, I found updates to be very small in regards to network consumption. While installing a single GUI app from flatpak on a Linux system can be seen as overkill, the small Gemini browser Lagrange involve more than 1GB of dependencies from flatpak, it totally make sense to install everything needed by the user from flatpak.

If you are unhappy with the current permissions of a program, you can use the utility Flatseal to tweak its permissions, which is very cool.

I totally understand and love the move to full flatpak, it has proven me to be solid, easy to use and easy to tweak despite flatpak still being very young. I liked very much that my Firefox on OpenBSD had the unveil feature preventing it from accessing my data in case of security breach, now with Firefox from Flatpak or Firefox run from firejail I can get the same on Linux. There is one thing I regret in the AppCenter though but this is my opinion and I can understand why it is so, some programs have a priced button like "3,00$" while the other are "Free", there is a menu near the price that let you choose the amount you want to pay but you can also put 0,00 and then the program is free. This can be misleading for users because the program is actually free but in "pay what you want" mode.

Picture of a torrent program that is not shown as free but can be set to 0,00$

I have no issues paying for Free software as long as it's 100% free, but suggesting a price for a package while you don't know you can install it for free can be weird. The payment implementation of the AppCenter could be the beginning of paid software integrated into ElementaryOS, I have no strong opinion about this because people need money for a living, but I hope it will be used wisely.

No terminal challenge §

While trying ElementaryOS for some time, I gave myself a little challenge that was to avoid using the Terminal as much as possible. I quite succeeded as I only required a terminal to install a regular package (lutris, not available as flatpak). Of course, I couldn't prevent myself to play with a terminal to check for bandwidth or CPU usage but it doesn't count as a normal computer use.

Everything worked fine so far, network access, wireless, installing and playing video games, video players.

I'd feel confident if I recommended a non linux users to install ElementaryOS and use it. On first boot the system provides a nice introduction to explain basics.

Parental control §

This is a feature I'm not using but I found it in the configuration panel and I've been surprised to see it. ElementaryOS comes with a feature to restrict time in week days and week-end days, but also prevent an user to reach some URLs (no idea how this is implemented) and also forbid to run some installed Apps.

I don't have kids but I assume this can be very useful to prevent the use of the computer past some time or prevent them to use some programs, to make it work they would obviously need their own account and not able to be root. I can't judge if it works fine, if it's suitable for real world, but I wanted to share about this unique feature.

Screenshot of the parental control

Global performance §

My netbook proved to be quite okay to use Pantheon. The worse cases I figured out are displaying the applications menu which takes a second, and the AppCenter that is slow to browse and the "searching for update" takes a long time.

As I said in the introduction, my Netbook has a quad core atom and a good amount of memory but the eMMC storage is quite slow. I don't know if the lack of responsiveness comes from my CPU or storage, but I can tell everything works smoothly on an older Core2 Duo!

Conclusion §

Using ElementaryOS was delightful, it just works. The team made a very good work for the whole coherence of the desktop. It is certainly not the distribution you need when you want full control or if you want something super light, but it definitely does the job for users that just want things to work, and who like Pantheon. It doesn't seem straightforward to switch to another desktop environment.