Pop!_OS 17.10 Review

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Today I take a look at System76’s Pop!_OS. This is a new flavour of Ubuntu created by system builder System76 in response to Canonical discontinuing their Unity interface, which also signaled the end of Mir, Convergence, and Ubuntu Phone, and left many, including System76, wondering how they should proceed.

With Ubuntu 17.10 and forward, Canonical has opted to go back to Gnome for their default desktop environment. System76 clearly likes this move, as Pop!_OS is focused on tailoring Gnome 3 to who System76 sees as their target market. From what I can see, Pop!_OS is essentially Ubuntu 17.10 with select packages and then a different set of Gnome themes, fonts, plugins, and store. This in no way is said to minimize System76’s efforts. Pop!_OS brings a lot to the table, even with these fairly minimal changes.

I’ve been running the Beta for several weeks on my ThinkPad X220. I upgraded to it from the original Alpha that I installed at the end of the summer. I also installed it on my ThinkPad 25 Anniversary Edition. This is a brand-new machine with a discrete Nvidia GPU.

Pop!_OS runs brilliantly on both machines. In particular, it shines on the new ThinkPad 25. The interface is quite subtle and System76’s theme nicely matches the look of the ThinkPad. I like the icon theme, I like the colours, I like the fonts, and the stock backgrounds are a lot of fun. They’ve chosen an interesting palette. I like it. I’m still not sold on Gnome 3 but am getting used to it. So far, Pop!_OS’ take is the one I like most. It’s fairly easy to customize, but I like their defaults. The interface largely gets out of the way, and the look is very consistent.

 

Pop!_OS, despite the terrible name and early release, feels very well thought-out. At this point, it isn’t terribly different from stock Ubuntu 17.10 but I imagine it will diverge more over time, as Ubuntu itself diverged from Debian.

In the meantime, this is the first time that I’ve used Gnome 3 day-to-day. It has matured quite a bit from first release. The system seems quite cohesive. It lacks options, even with Gnome Tweak, but is quite usable. I’m trying to leave things close to stock. I find the notifications a bit annoying, but no more than on any other OS, and find the little nice-to-haves like the Weather app to be well integrated, well thought-out and mature. The Linux desktop in 2017 is looking pretty solid.

Workflow-wise, Pop!_OS works great with an external monitor and I find it quite efficient overall. Gnome 3 prefers vertical workspaces to horizontal ones. This is configurable and has taken me a few days to get used to (I’ve been hitting Windows left/right for years and now have to adjust to up/down.) Now that I’ve been running this way solid for a week it’s feeling more natural. You can easily configure either monitor as default. I have things set so that a large monitor stays with Workspaces and the secondary screen stays static. I am finding this to be an excellent way to work with multiple monitors.

Workspaces are dynamic. Windows + down creates a new workspace, as apps are closed, the workspaces go away. I am used to creating 6-8 static workspaces but I am finding this to be a reasonable approach. You can turn off dynamic workspaces, if you want.

Getting Alt-Tab to work between workspaces was either enabled by default or was so trivial to add that I’ve forgotten that I configured it this way.

Another change that has taken a few days to adjust to is hot corners. In elementary OS and Unity, I would configure top-right as a hot-corner for workspace overviews. I couldn’t find a way to do this in Gnome 3 (no doubt there is an extension for this) but eventually got used to just going to the top left or using the keyboard to bring up the dock and workspaces.

Just hitting the Windows key brings up the overview that I would want with a top-right hot corner. While this has taken me a couple of days to adjust to, I think it’s better long-term. Many people have been confused by my hot-corner setup over the years. One is less likely to accidentally trigger this with the default setup.

I initially didn’t like the Gnome dock as much as Plank. I’ve been using Unity for years now, but tend to mostly push it out of the way by setting the dock to auto-hide and installing Plank. I haven’t needed to do either of these things under this OS, as the Gnome dock auto-hides by default and I’m generally using the keyboard for controls more.

Gnome 3 has many user interface changes from Unity. The settings app is all new to long-term Unity users. There’s a fair amount of having to re-learn how to do things that have become routine. Multi-monitor setup has changed, adding printers, calibrating colour profiles. All of it is still there. Gnome 3 is functionally equivalent to Unity, but there will be some time needed to make this adjustment.

Once complete, though, you are left using what has emerged as the “standard” Linux desktop, used from Ubuntu to CentOS/RHEL. Long-term, this is a good thing for the Linux community, as whether it’s Canonical’s take in Ubuntu or System76’s take in Pop!_OS, or Red Hat’s take in Fedora or RHEL, all Linux devs are now working on one UI and not splitting and duplicating efforts. This has to be a good thing over time.

Canonical is clearly positioning Ubuntu to be a strong alternative to Red Hat. They are partnered closely with everyone, from Dell on the hardware side through things like the Developer Editions, to Microsoft with Azure kernels and WSL. System 76 will be able to take this core and refine it repeatedly specifically for their hardware with Pop!_OS.

At home I tend to use Ubuntu or Elementary OS (except on the ThinkPad Yoga that works perfectly with CentOS 7.) I’ve dabbled with Linux Mint. It’s what Sarah uses. I immediately like Pop!_OS enough that I’m going to start using it at home for any new installations. I put it on the ThinkPad 25 and have no intention of changing it. Right away on their first release, I feel like System76 has provided me with a great, easy-to-use and slick computing experience. The fonts and UI tweaks are enough better to make me use it instead of vanilla Ubuntu on my main home machines. This is pretty impressive for a first release. I don’t tend to hop distros like I did 15 years ago.

I admire their efforts and think that they are justified for taking control of their OS for their hardware. I hope they continue to work closely with Canonical, and also hope that they allow for some way for someone who like their OS to contribute financially to their efforts, even if they don’t buy their hardware.

GoSaBe Blog - Nov 5, 2017 | Linux