Updated: May 16, 2011
elementary OS 0.1 Jupiter is the first formal distro release of the elementary project, which previously included themes, icons and applications for Ubuntu. As such, it's a culmination of elementary stuff [sic] that was previously designed or tweaked by the project team. The big question is, how does one translate discrete sets of tools into a complete and fully integrated work environment, in the form of an operating system?
elementary OS aims to be simple, friendly and minimalistic. This is not an easy goal, as you've seen in my Bodhi review. Creating a spartan work environment that retains all of the advantages of bigger, more bloated systems while incurring no loss of usability is a dire challenge. Moreover, elementary is based on Ubuntu with Gnome, which is fairly balanced and usable already. Still, per Eduard's request, one of the elementary devs, here's the review.
Live session - Unique and maddening
elementary features an interesting live session. It sure is visually pleasing. The choice of the wallpaper creates an open, airy feeling. There's no clutter. Distractions are reduced to a minimum. Still, you retain the basic functionality, including Wireless networking, Bluetooth, even Samba sharing works properly.
Notable changes from basic Ubuntu is the vertical battery charge icon and the use of a dock at the bottom. This stands to logic, since the Docky project was influenced by the close cooperation with the elementary devs. In fact, the choice of many of the distro elements is impacted by the same rationale; a cooperation and partial contribution by the team to other projects.
One thing that really annoyed me was the fact I could not make any changes to the desktop layout. Right-clicking on the menu is disabled, and so it any configuration of the dock. This means no ability to add shortcuts or applets to the top panel or any change of the bottom dock. The desktop is frozen solid.
I find this absolutely maddening. I can understand the fact the basic layout is simple and clutter-free, but from that point on, the user must be allowed to make changes as they find suitable.
elementary OS ships with no proprietary codecs, so you won't get any of the fancy stuff, including MP3 playback, Flash or similar. This makes for a rather bland live session experience. You get the standard Ubuntu plugin search window, but then, you don't need elementary or any other Ubuntu fork to enjoy the same disadvantages. And there's the unnecessary double title, too.
elementary ships with its own unique set of programs. You will find few of the typical and popular programs. The default browser is Midori, which I found to be inadequate for daily use. I could not figure out how to get to homepage, for example, and middle-click on links would open new tabs and switch focus to them, which is terribly annoying. Moreover, the program is not yet quite a stable release.
There's also Abiword, Gnumeric, Dexter, and a few other applications. Usable, but definitely unremarkable. Even so, the balance is fairly good, and for average users the minimal choice is actually preferable. However, giving them less known programs creates a new set of issues. For example, how do you debug Midori issues when so few people use this browser? Or Dexter? A funny name for a program that offers to get you some friends.
Even so, you get a handful of utilities that are just ported from Ubuntu without much forethought. For example, you have three keyboard items. Why? Input Methods for keyboard? Isn't there just one, human hands?
Very simple and straightforward. It completed without issues. You don't get any fancy slideshow. Moreover, the option to install proprietary codecs stands to logic here, as you truly don't get them. The branding is decent, including the GRUB2 menu, which read propers entries and is configured without memtest. Most of Ubuntu legacy is well hidden away, but then, Ubuntu Software Center kind of spoils it. But that's neither here nor there. We will talk about software management after the installation.
While installing, the desktop refused to refresh, so I ended up with a weird rectangle of jumbled stuff near the system area. I have not see this before, so this might have to do with the integration of some of the elements or taking away libraries that the panel applets depends upon. Who knows? Or maybe just a simple visual glitch.
But this really, really annoyed me. I suffer from OCD, so you can understand why. Moreover, on a typical desktop, I might have been able to switch between virtual spaces and try to get this thing to vanish. But no, elementary comes with a single desktop only.
Using Elementary - As exciting as a snail race
At first, I believed the inability to change the wallpaper or customize the panel by right-clicking was a glitch in the live session, but it remains in the installed system, too. You can use the Appearance menu to switch the desktop background, but that's about as much custom tweaks as you can get.
We did mention Ubuntu Software Center, so here it is:
I did spend some time reading about Jupiter and was excited to learn there's a so-called Press Kit available, which includes icons and whatnot, so you can use them when you write articles. No worries, I downloaded it - twice - but the archive is corrupt.
Not remarkable in any way, except that it is surprising high for a distro that was supposedly stripped of its less savory elements and unneeded services. At 220MB, it's nothing special or unique.
Suspend & resume
Worked fine, however upon returning to the desktop session, the network was disconnected and it did not automatically reconnect. Not good.
It all makes me wonder ...
elementary OS weighs as much as the typical Ubuntu, maybe a hundred MB less, which is surprising given how much was taken away. It is not remarkably faster, if at all. The memory footprint is fairly high, even though unnecessary services have been removed or disabled. So, you don't gain in either performance or disk space. Customization is gone, too, and so are your favorite programs, replaced by less known, less popular and plain weird choices that no one can help you debug.
So why bother? What is the main differentiating factor in elementary that makes it usable for masses? What are the critical impact and unique value it brings? Why would you bother with this Ubuntu fork, which simply does less for nothing. The math does not compute. Take away 10% fat at the expense of 50-60% usability. That's not a fair deal.
elementary OS has exactly the same problem like most Ubuntu forks. It aims for unique and special, without taking in regard the more important facets of usability and simplicity. You can be unique in any number of ways, but the computer usage is limited to humans staring at their screen, so you best make the smoothest and most pleasant experience of that.
Then, minimalism really hampers the overall use. Taking away from a distro that is already fairly optimized for general use creates huge problems in the long run, which cannot be offset by any number of tweaks or even applications. People have their basic, universal needs; icons, colors, wallpapers are secondary. The tradeoff is just not right. And lastly, people do not want to spend time administering their boxes.
All combined, Jupiter is a fairly bland, unremarkable release. It works, but its purpose and intended audience remain a mystery. There's nothing about elementary OS that is better than stock Ubuntu, nothing that should make you switch. In fact, you get less, since the natural balance and order of things is disrupted by an ill-conceived remastering. The only use for elementary that I can think is for absolute purists, who like their desktop locked down. Maybe Internet cafes or alike?
Overall grade, probably 5/10. Perhaps future releases will be better.