Pantheon desktop environment - A beginning


Updated: March 23, 2013

I almost feel tempted to start with a quote from the Wheel of Time series, something like there are no beginnings and ends, but it was a beginning. Indeed, the guys behind the elementary OS have created their own version of what the next, future desktop for Linux ought to be.

There is not much detail about Pantheon going about the Internet, and it does not seem to have drawn much attention since being launched. Which does not bode well for this young project. Still, I decided to see whether this lightweight and modular environment written in Vala and GTK+ can bring fresh merit to the Linux world. Let us see indeed.

Teaser

Installation

Pantheon is designed to be used on Ubuntu, hence this demonstration will feature on the latest Quantum Quail. The simplest way to configure the desktop environment is to use the official PPA.

Install Pantheon

The tour

Anyhow, it went well, I logged out and then logged into the new session. Pantheon did preserve my various settings, like the wallpaper, the Wireless settings and other little details.

Desktop

From the aesthetic perspective, the first looks are promising. You have a simple, clean desktop, a transparent top panel with monochrome icons that might benefit from being all the same color, unless the color change indicates some state change, and a bottom dock. The system menu is also quite elegant, borrowing from the Gnome 3 framework with a less gluttonous appeal that most resembles the LXDE thingie.

Menu

You can also opt for the categorized view instead of the flat view. In that regard, this menu gives you the best of both world, since you can have more or less Gnome 2 like menu divided into categories or use the more would-be modern expand-all approach with inline search.

Menu categories

The file manager is also quite decent. However, I must admit the simplicity is a bit too simplistic for me, and I am not fond of the smartphone approach of GUI design for the very obvious traditional form factor devices. Moreover, the font was too small for my taste, and the contrast could be improved.

File manager

Switching workspaces is accompanied with a nice filmroll-like animation, which is quite decent, and dare I say, expensive. The usual Ctrl + arrow buttons works as expected.

Switching workspaces

But then, the problems begin

Shortly thereafter, the system complained about some internal error. I did not experiment too much, nor did I go into details, but it seems there's a conflict between what Ubuntu offers and the Pantheon layer.

Error

If you move your mouse into the right top corner and start clicking on the different icons in the system area, like the Wireless, Volume button or maybe your username, you will see a very strange rectangular border marking the sub-menus. I do not know why the border represents, but it's ugly. Then, the font contrast is also problematic, white on gray.

Weird borders 1 Weird borders 2

In the System Settings menu, you only get four options instead of the full plethora. So either this is by design, which is silly, or maybe Pantheon destroyed something, leaving you with a crippled system that you cannot properly manage from within the context of this desktop environment.

System settings missing

Going back to Ubuntu, I learned that Pantheon is rather destructive. It is not a standalone desktop environment like Cinnamon or MATE, which does not alter your system settings in any way or touch the other components. Here, Pantheon did change the Ubuntu font type and size, and other little details.

In this regard, my Unity session was tampered with by an external factor, and this is a big no-no. I do not know if any other elements have been changed, or why. But for all practical purposes, I would be forced to recreate my user or reinstall the box now, were this a real, production machine.

Ubuntu theme changed

Conclusion

Pantheon is a beginning, but not a good one. I do not know what the higher purpose of this desktop environment is, other than being different for the sake of difference and some fun for those involved in the project. Given the really low Internet profile and outdated blog messages and scant site activity, it seems Pantheon is not really going anywhere in its current incarnation. Now I do appreciate the effort of creating a new, sleek, elegant and simple desktop that replaces Unity, but it must be done with style.

The one thing Pantheon does not lack is beauty. But that's not enough. There must be a long and rigorous QA to iron out all the little quirks. The system must be robust, the execution flawless, and the desktop environment must not interfere with any other installed component. Finally, for a greater future acceptance, a whole lot more work is required.

At the moment, Pantheon is a nice experiment, but it is far from being a stable or usable product. It reminds me of several other attempts, like Razor-qt and Trinity, but I am not sure it can take off without significant investment. For most users, Cinnamon and MATE are favorable alternatives, both in terms of overall readiness for mass use as well as the effort and activity involved in their respective projects. Moreover, they do give add new value to existing distributions. Still, Pantheon is worth checking and following. Perhaps one day, our beginning will transmute into something else.

Cheers.

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