elementary OS 0.2 review - Uphill


Updated: April 24, 2013

After posting my Pantheon DE review, a lot of people emailed me, telling me that what I did was wrong, namely install this desktop environment from a PPA and run it on top of a Ubuntu desktop. All right then, so what should I have done, I asked politely. They said, test elementary OS, which is a Ubuntu fork all right, with the Pantheon desktop environment on top it. Aha. Same thing? Supposedly not. Go figure.

I did test elementary in its very first incarnation two years back. Now, the increment has gone up a notch, from 0.1 to 0.2, and it's time to pulsecheck the progress of this distribution, one of the few that hail minimalism as their ultimate goal. Can it be done, without hurting the user, and everything else. We shall see. Follow me, lasses and gents.

Teaser

Live session - Begins nicely then sours

Elementary OS comes with a somewhat Gnome 3 family like look sans the obnoxiousness, and it is reminiscent of the AriOS project. You are still limited in how you can interact with your desktop, but the bottom dock is fairly flexible and lets you manage your programs smartly. You can pin applications and shuffle them about, and you get OSX-like clues on which icons are open, active, minimized, and whatnot. The actions change based on the selected item, so it's somewhat like the Launcher in Unity.

Live desktop

Contextual dock actions 1 Contextual dock actions 2

Remember the weird artifacts I saw in the system area in my Pantheon review? Well, they are gone, and I must admit that elementary OS looks rather nice. The choice of English layouts is funny though. Cameroon and Ghana yes, what about New Zealand or Canada?

Keyboard & language in system area

Volume in system area

The system menu is also quite pretty, clean and easy to navigate.

System menu

I did not like the over-simplified feel of the file manager, known as Pantheon Files, even though it's also quite cute and comes with some neat tricks and semi-animated transition effects.

File manager

Pantheon Files, right click

Problems begin ...

Speaking of Pantheon Files, the file manager did not behave all that well. First, there was no Samba sharing. It just would not display any network shares from my Windows boxes. Then, if I mounted one of the internal drives, clicking on the little eject button in the sidebar would do nothing. The only way to unmount was to right-click and select the relevant command. The worst part is, you do not know anything is wrong, because there's no clue that anything bad is happening. I don't claim that nerdy error messages are the way to go, but something.

No Samba

No umount via eject button

No minimize button anywhere!

So elementary OS did decide to pull some Gnome shit on me, after all. True, you can right-click any window and select minimize, or use shortcuts, but there's no actual button that will do what normal people what to do when they don't want to see an application polluting their desktop space, and yet do not wish to close it.

No minimize 1 No minimize 2

Other errors

Then, when using Shotwell, it complained about trying to recreate the home dir settings folders, too, even time it was launched. This is a bad config somewhere, but I did not dig too deeply.

Shotwell

Multimedia - Nope

I tried playing music and Flash. Both failed. However, while Flash was simply a no-go, with MP3 files, I got into a real predicament. I was unable to retrieve the music from the Samba share, so I had to use a different distro to connect and grab the files and then copy locally, how very old school. Second, when I launched the music player, called Noise, it did warn me about missing plugins. I let it update, and this step supposedly resolved the plugin issue. However, Noise continued complaining how it could not find my music.

No Flash

No MP3 plugin

Noise cannot find music

Clicking on that Locate button would kill any playing track. Selecting the Music folder where my MP3 files were stored did nothing. The player insisted it could not seem to find my music, and indeed, it only seems to be this way. Other than that, the plain and sterile interface is not really inviting.

One other tiny, unrelated thing, when trying to play Thomas Dolby, I also had Hot This Week suggestions loaded in the right side of the Youtube page. What's up with that, turdlings? Why are you offering me diarrhea when I'm trying to listen to proper music? Screw your contemporary crap. This is entirely directed at the Youtube staff, and not elementary OS, but I just couldn't hold myself.

Installation

Fairly unremarkable, uneventful, and 100% Ubuntu with some branding replaced, and no slideshow. In this regard, elementary OS 0.2 is true to its minimalistic mission statement, and only offers the most basic visual elements to get the task done. I installed the distro instead of openSUSE tested recently, and it did not fight with the three resident friends, which include Pangolin of both Unity and KDE persuasion, and Mint.

Begin install

Installing

Using elementary - It's elementary, dear Watson

The installed system had its dock icons repositioned, and there was a new IM icon in the system area. Other than that, it looked like before. The Wireless settings were preserved from the live session, at least.

Desktop installed

And of course, I chose the user name and hostname accordingly:

Username & hostname

Applications

Elementary OS 0.2 does not boast a very large arsenal. At 650MB, it is somewhat smaller than most Ubuntu family members, but then, it comes with a selection that feels too meager for its weight in gold. Virtually, you don't get any of the modern, popular programs that you might expect, or want. The only really familiar names are Empathy and Shotwell, and these hardly meet the everyday requirements. For example, the Office section only has a calendar-like utility and the Document Viewer. Midori is the browser of choice, and that's about it.

Applications

Multimedia still wonky

Remember that I ticked the media codecs and plugins checkbox during the installation? Well, this only worked for MP3. Again, Flash was unavailable. So I decided to fully upgrade the system and see if this helps. Indeed, during the update process, I saw the Flash Player being installed, but this did nothing to alleviate the problem. AND, Noise still could not find my music.

Still no Flash

Noise cannot find music

Package management

Speaking of updates and whatnot, pure and simple Ubuntu Software Center as the frontend, with the word Ubuntu erased. That's all. However, while this one works quite well with the standard Ubuntu framework, something was slightly out of place with elementary OS, as core issues could not be resolved.

More Samba woes

Even after a full system upgrade, Samba still did not work. I manually installed every conceivable package that could be related to Samba functionality, logged out and in, even rebooted, but nothing. So I fired Pantheon Files from the command line, just to see what kind of errors it was throwing, and I must say, it ain't pretty.

Samba errors

System settings & customization

At least here, you get some functionality. The menus are crisp and clear, and you can navigate your way around easily, especially the desktop section.

System settings

Desktop settings

Printing - Nope

If you feel like printing, don't. The applet is broken.

Printing is broken

System stability, suspend & resume

No weird crashes, and the sleep & wake functionality was ok - this time.

System resources - noisy

Compared to its earlier version, elementary OS 0.2 is a little hungrier at 300MB, but this is way less than most other 64-bit distros on this box. However, the CPU was noisy, and even opening the screenshot utility would often spike the processor activity quite a bit.

System resources

Conclusion

Two years have passed since the last time I reviewed elementary OS. In the meantime, the distro has grown some, but the biggest change is its version number, having gone from 0.1 to 0.2. Most of the problems firmly remain, though.

Elementary OS 0.2 failed me in multimedia, Samba sharing, printing, the application choice, and few more things besides. In return, it gave me a well-polished and beautiful session themed around minimalism, but that's about it. And if the price is giving all the rest up, for the sake of a somewhat different style, I do not want this. Like I said before, if minimalism is about crippling things, then something is very wrong. It seems that it is almost impossible to take away from Ubuntu without ruining the user experience.

Elementary OS needs to grow, much more, and much faster. Its progress curve is too slow, and unfortunately, the distribution is quite riddled with serious bugs. While it is much more beautiful than my standalone Pantheon review showed, the core functionality is even worse than it was on stock Ubuntu. So something needs to change, and drastically. For the time being, elementary OS remains a wicked, beautiful and somewhat confusing testbed of a challenging artistic and ergonomic persuasion. The grade for this round remains at half the scale, 5/10, and the climb uphill is long and steep. There you go.

Cheers.

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