Updated: December 6, 2017
System76 is a known player in the Linux world - one of the few vendors that choose to ship their hardware with Linux preinstalled. So far, they've done it with Ubuntu, but now, there's a custom new operating system bearing a funky name POP!_OS. It still has Ubuntu blood underneath, but it tries to be different. The words minimalistic and developer focused are mentioned, and I'm wary. But professional Linux offerings are far and few in between. So this could be refreshing. Or maybe not.
Well, given the ultra-lukewarm performance by Ubuntu 17.10 and its siblings, I am actually quite looking forward to this test. Perhaps this new and shiny POP!_OS will be able to redeem the family and offer something nice to the users come the winter. Let's see how it goes.
Live testing - almost didn't happen
POP!_OS (for the sake of simplicity, I'll call it just Pop or Pop OS) offers two editions for download, one for computers with Intel/AMD cards and one for those with Nvidia. Sounds good, but then, you read the fine print and realize there are some issues with the second ISO, as it does not support hybrid cards or Secure Boot. What? Why?
* NVIDIA ISO Notes:
Installs the proprietary NVIDIA driver. Does not work with Optimus; use the Intel/AMD download. Cannot be used on Secure Boot systems. Disable Secure Boot or use the Intel/AMD download.
Well, no matter. I downloaded this edition and booted on my LG RD510 machine, which indeed comes with an Nvidia card. Lovely jubbly right? There's no GRUB menu, the boot starts instantly with the vmlinuz and initrd loading, and continues with an entirely text boot, no fancy splashes or anything. Then, the system reached a point where the screen would flicker (plus all sorts of rainbow-colored stripes flashing), show a few lines of badly formatted systemd vomit (no EOL characters), and then repeat this in a cycle about every ten seconds. I wanted to debug, except there were no virtual consoles available.
I had to hard-boot the machine, and on second attempt, I saw a quick flashing message that the distro comes bundled with Nvidia 38X drivers and not 34X, which is what the old Nvidia card on the laptop would/could support, and that it was going to ignore it. Ah. How noble. And not very helpful.
Why is it so difficult to perform a rudimentary blacklist check before starting a session, or at least, do it in a nice and graceful way that allows the user to understand the nature of the message? I'm also not sure why the discrimination of perfectly legit hardware that boots the recent crop of Ubuntus without any problems.
Second, where's the fallback option? Where's Nouveau or even plain VESA? Where's the GRUB option to actually make a conscious choice? All of this could have been solved easily and with a single image. Anyway, I decided to try the other ISO next.
This one also started in a similar fashion - no menu, no splash, just text except it was in high resolution this time, and indeed, after a few seconds, the desktop did load. But I was already rather angry that such a simple thing should take so much effort.
Pop is very colorful - pastels, happy, yay! Except - the contrast is terrible. Within minutes, my eyes were under a significant strain. Real physical paint. Pale gray font on pale gray background. This is a horrible ergonomic choice. Plus the fonts also do not feel right. We did talk about Pop fonts, and I came to the conclusion that they are just not as good as what Ubuntu offers. The stock Canonical offering is the best in the entire linux sphere.
In a way, the color choice is ever worse than elementary OS, and I really do not understand why distro teams feel the need to sacrifice readability for the sake of style, when it defeats the whole purpose of wanting to use the distro in the first place. If you can't use it, because you're physically suffering, no amount of pretty and posh colors will make any difference.
Furthermore, the fonts also feel typewriter-like. Take a look at the volume entry for the live image in the Files sidebar. The number zero shape is distinctly different from the number seven. Then, if you use the right-click context, there's literally no separation between that choice and the white background. This low-contrast theme is everywhere, and with less than optimal fonts, it feels exhausting. Even now, writing this text roughly half an hour after having done some testing, my eyes still hurt. I have perfect eyesight, and still, it feels like I've been molested by a horny squirrel, who has mistaken my eyeballs for a nice pair of juicy acorns.
Other ergonomic issues
Then, let's not forget, this is Gnome, the least friendly desktop environment in the world, with its odd, nebulous choices that match no expectations or usage models. No minimize or maximize buttons. This stupidity, in 2017. The Activities nonsense. You don't have a visible ribbon of icon shortcuts, you must first activate the overlay to see them. Utterly pointless and the first thing I'm going to Chuck-extension-Norris after the installation.
In the file manager, the oh-glorious Files, you don't get the little settings cogwheel to change preferences, like files/folder order - and people mentioned how I missed the obvious in my Fedora 26 review - this regression has been around ever since. Nor any ability to right-click create new files, only folders. This stupidity, in 2017. All of these are Gnome issues, but the System76 team could have chosen, just like Canonical, to try to mask them from the user. Ubuntu Aardvark has all the buttons, it does have some basic right click context, it has a dock, and black fonts! Golly.
So far, the very first impression was rather bad. I was actually considering not continuing with the testing. I am immensely grateful for all the hard work that System76 have done in the Linux space, but that does not excuse horrible design and bad decisions. There's no real need, technical value or rubber-stamp approval for yet another arbitrarily modified Gnome edition. Ah well, let's see what else gives.
Wireless fine. Bluetooth, we will do this after the installation. Printing works, including both Samba and Wireless options, so that's neat. Samba sharing is fast once you establish the connection, better than most other distros, but the initial handshake still takes a super long time, plus of course the security stupidity of having to authenticate, even if you have your Windows shares configured to accept Everyone, because security zealots know better than you, right. This is another regression freely ported from Ubuntu across the entire family, without any proper validation or checks. But hey, validation is overrated as long as you have lots of commits on GitHub!
No MP3 codecs out of the box - stupid, because even Fedora O'Freedom does this without issues now - but at least it works AFTER you download the codecs, not like Ubuntu that didn't even manage this little step. You won't immediately get any playback, you need to close the player and then open it again. No system area context, and if you close the player, the playback ends. HD video works without any issues. We don't get any color funk like we had with Kubuntu 17.10, and no desktop color funk like we saw in Ubuntu with Nouveau.
This is Ubuntu stuff, with some branding changes. Surprisingly, the partitioning step only took a few short seconds and not half a stone age like other distros in this family. The inconsistency is killing me. I can't begin to describe my frustration in seeing how much variance and randomness there is in pretty much every single operation the user might undertake on a Ubuntu-based system. There's literally NOTHING that all these different distros agree upon. It's like colon-spray-painting.
The setup was painless - perhaps too much, as there are several steps missing from the wizard, but I guess Pop follows the Red Hat two-part installation process. We will see. Then, there's a very simple slide there, nothing too fancy. Not sure about the skip button, but the install worked, and I did indeed have a dual-boot configuration in place for some more testing and fun. The second term is optional.
After reboot, you actually continue your installation setup. Alas, no screenshots. I took some, but then they disappeared, which kind of makes sense given that one of the last steps is your user (home dir) creation. You're asked to choose your timezone, create your user, configure online accounts - there's a whole bunch of these, and a few other things. Not bad. Wireless settings were correctly carried over into the installed session.
Package management & updates
I got a prompt for updates right away. Pop uses Pop!_Shop, a version of AppCenter from elementary OS, and it has some rather good points. On the update page, it also offered Nvidia drivers as well as Intel microcode firmware, which I gladly installed, alongside roughly 60 system updates.
On the Home tab, you can search for programs - and the partner channel is included, so you will see the likes of Steam right away. I accidentally closed the program while it was downloading updates, but this was a harmless action. When I opened it again, it picked up right where I stopped, including the search string. This is quite nice.
It looks all right, somewhere in between deepin and default elementary OS, with no reviews or star ratings for programs, and it takes quite a while for application screenshot previews to load and display. All in all, it can be better, but the biggest problem is that it acts differently compared to both Ubuntu and Xubuntu Aardvark. This is my one true gripe.
After the reboot, I had my Nvidia drivers installed correctly - no more text splash, you get a low-res loading thingie, two Nvidia splashes rather than the expected one, and the whole sequence is terribly long. But at least it works. Ah well.
All in all, I find this whole situation to be rather bleak. If a super-nerdy Arch-based distro like Antergos can successfully manage this, and come to think about it, it turns out to be one of the better Linux players in the second half of this year of sad and pointless testing, and if Mageia 6 can do this out of the box, there's no technical reason why Ubuntu and friends cannot handle graphics driver in a seamless way.
I actually tested a whole range of devices here, including an iPhone 6s, which has entered my arsenal of gadgets, both Lumia 520 and Lumia 950, a Moto G4, plus another Android device, and they all behaved rather splendidly. Well, I could not copy files off these phones directly to Samba shares, which is something that Kubuntu does all right. On another positive note, I was able to play music, complete with cover art, in both Videos and VLC. Rhythmbox is nowhere to be found, and that's a very good thing.
There was no prompt to setup additional codecs during the installation, and indeed, trying to play MP4 files resulted in more searches and more stuff being downloaded. This is a bit disruptive, and there's no reason why you can't have everything installed nicely from the start. I also did installed the necessary Gnome extension to be able to control media through the system area user applet.
The default set is humble but functional - Firefox, Geary, LibreOffice, Videos. Not much else, I'm afraid. It can definitely be better, but I'm wondering why we get such a small collection?
I decided to make major changes to the desktop to actually be able to use it, and in the end, ended up unraveling the entire Pop set as it wasn't friendly enough to my eyes. First, I installed Gnome Tweak Tool, then several new extensions. I did have to setup the Firefox addon first, but that worked without additional hacking, as the native host thingie is installed by default. Good. I then enabled user shell themes, min/max buttons, changed fonts to Ubuntu, changed theme to Adwaita, added Dash to Panel, and the final result was a generic Gnome. Makes it all rather redundant, don't you think.
A mixed bag of surprises and disappointments. Of course, we have the initial fiasco. Then, webcam does not work, similar to Xubuntu. Suspend works, unlike Xubuntu, but like all of them, the resume is totally screwed up with ATA link reset. Bluetooth works.
Resource utilization, performance
Pop is very similar to Ubuntu 17.10 in terms of its behavior and responsiveness. Middling results on this old, 2009 laptop with its two ancient cores and 4 GB RAM. Nothing too bad, but then, there are faster players out there. Memory wise, 1.2 GB, and the CPU ticked at about 9-10% on average without you doing anything really important.
The laptop was rather hot during my tests - slightly less so with Nvidia rather than Nouveau. Terminal colors are nice, probably the one aesthetic redeeming factor in the whole system theme. Samba performance remains erratic, even after updates, making me want to try to slit my wrists with a gummybear. Font and theme changes lead to ever so small but noticeable discrepancies in the overall visual layout, making me almost as sad as I was watching E.T. At least the first half, right.
POP!_OS is a rather average Gnome spin of a Gnome-based Ubuntu, which itself is a pale shadow of its former self. System76 did create their own operating system, but it is not drastic enough to warrant a special place in the charts as an independent entry - this is true for 94% of all distros - and not good enough in the first place. It does somewhat improve Aardvark, but it's still a weak offering.
We had hardware issues before we ever got into the live session, all sorts of hardware problems in the installed system, the ergonomics are awful, Samba performance is flaky, overall system responsiveness is average. Package management and updates are rather robust and good and so is smartphone support, but then you need Gnome extensions and codecs to really experience the desktop as it's meant to be. All in all, you can accomplish all of this on your own in any which Gnome, or use something that actually has a sane layout and offers genuine productivity, like Plasma or Windows.
This is an interesting experiment, but ultimately, I can't see a reason why anyone would prefer this over stock Ubuntu (with Unity, a good ole 14.04 LTS), Plasma or even any other tailored Debian-based Gnome system. The differences aren't large or important enough, and there are way too many bugs and issues, making it an even more difficult choice. Overall, POP!_OS deserves something like its 4/10 for its debut. There's only so much you can do with a broken foundation. Well, let's see how this one evolves. For now, skip.