In the world of Linux distributions, it’s fairly easy to get lost trying to figure out which “flavor” of Linux fits you best. As the user, you have a plethora of desktop interfaces, default apps, package managers, and bundled services to choose from. This can be a major barrier for someone new to Linux, and an endless journey for a veteran user who hasn’t yet found their “perfect” distro. For either type of user, there’s a new distribution in town that can meet their needs: elementary OS.
elementary OS released the first version of their Linux-based OS, version 0.1 “jupiter,” in April 2011 and recently released the beta version of their upcoming version 0.2 “luna,” which is nearly a complete overhaul of the OS. I recently installed elementary OS on an older Asus Eee PC and gave it a spin. Overall, I was very impressed with what elementary had to offer.
elementary uses the Pantheon desktop environment, developed by the elementary team. Pantheon includes elementary’s greeter, panel, app launcher, dock, window manager, settings app, and theme. The design is very simple and clean, with clear app icons in the dock and a full list of applications in Slingshot, the application menu. Slingshot has two display modes: a paged grid of icons, or a category list menu that will feel more familiar to GNOME 2 users. The app list can also be searched by typing the first few letters of the application name into the search box in the menu.
elementary OS comes bundled with a fine set of default apps. I found most of the built-in default apps in elementary simple and easy to use with pretty much no configuration needed. As an Ubuntu-based distribution, elementary can take full advantage of Ubuntu’s extensive package repositories, and users can install software through the Software Center that is familiar to Ubuntu users. LibreOffice, Firefox, Synaptic Package Manager, and Banshee were among the apps that I was sure to install following my first boot-up in elementary OS.
One of the programs that comes with elementary that I was very impressed with is the default email application, Geary. Geary combines all the benefits of webmail with the convenience of a desktop email application. Geary has full support for Gmail (something that is hard to find in other email applications) including labels, a threaded conversation view, and full access to Gmail’s “All Mail” and spam folders. If you don’t use elementary but you would like to check out Geary, you can download it here.
One of the other built-in applications worth noting is Scratch, a text editor that has a feature that many others lack: an auto-save feature. An article I read back in July ponders why we still need a save button when computers are fast enough to constantly write to disk the small changes that are made to a file as a user types a document. In the “old days,” saving a file could take several seconds to minutes, depending on the size of the document and speed of the disk. Today, saving a small text file can happen quickly enough to have an auto-save feature for text documents. It’s one of those nice conveniences that you’ll miss if you switch back to another editor. Aside from the auto-save, Scratch features syntax highlighting for many languages, making it the perfect source code editor for developers. Again, if you’re not using elementary but want to download Scratch, you can find it on Launchpad.
As far as Linux distributions go, elementary OS offers a clean and simple interface that beginners can easily adapt to and advanced users can find refreshing and infinitely configurable. Bear in mind that elementary OS luna is still in beta, so there may be bugs that pop up here and there, though from my own experience I have found it to be fairly stable. The OS comes with a quality set of built-in apps, but lacks some that may be more familiar to users of other distributions, such as LibreOffice, Firefox, and Synaptic, though these can be installed with the click of a mouse or the entry of a command in a terminal window. elementary is easy to try on a live CD or USB flash drive, and simple and fast to install. If you’re ready to give it a try, download it here or check out the screenshot gallery below.