Elementary OS Review

Install

The initial installation was fine. Presented the same options as the standard Ubuntu installation. The full disk encryption worked and in general, I appreciated the visual styling of elementary OS as compared to the Ubuntu installation styler. Time zone detection worked along with selecting a local apt-mirror.

First Boot

I loved the onboarding text. It’s a small text box that walks you through some of the new features. My first impression on a 4k monitor is that the text is insanely small. The Settings panel is very MacOS, including the general layout of what options are where. The first step is to Desktop -> Text size to increase it a bit, which works well. First things I turn off is the auto-hiding Dock, change the Mouse direction from Natural to conventional and swap Caps Lock to Control. Very pleased that all of these settings worked as expected. Now let’s try to do stuff!

Firefox Bugs

However, my feelings of happiness are short-lived. I install Firefox and hit a bizarre bug. When I right-click all text on the page is selected. Googling, I uncover this report. The most interesting part of the bug is when I see the “only when Firefox isn’t maximized”. I confirm this and then start playing around with the settings. The correct settings to make this problem go away is as follows:

  1. Go to Firefox address bar and type about:config
  2. Go to ui.context_menus.after_mouseup and set equal to true

This resolves the right-click problem thankfully since this made the laptop unusable to me.

Lack of Minimize

Now that Firefox is working, let’s try a super conventional flow. I’d like to download a PDF to read. I go to a site, download the PDF and then go to minimize the Firefox window only to discover there is no minimize button. This is completely baffling to me. How would I organize the open windows without the ability to minimize windows? I’m not clear if this is some sort of strange stylistic decision or maybe a workflow thing, but this is the beginning of a specific stink about Elementary OS, which is it looks better than it works. While the minimize button might add some visual clutter, it’s also an essential part of a normal workflow. Thankfully we can fix it.

Similar to Ubuntu, there is an Elementary OS tweaks.

How to Install Elementary Tweaks

  1. sudo apt install software-properties-common
  2. sudo add-apt-repository ppa:philip.scott/elementary-tweaks
  3. sudo apt install elementary-tweaks

The instructions say open Settings, but this didn’t work for me initially. Tweaks didn’t appear until I logged out and logged back in. I’m not clear why as I was unable to find any log message that seemed relevant. However once installed you can find it here:

Settings

Then select Appearance:

Appearance

Finally, I selected Layout: Ubuntu which seems to do what I want. Now I have a minimize button. Again very confusing choice by the Elementary OS people not to ship with this but big thank you to the Elementary Tweaks folks here.

No File Explorer in the Dock

I’ve been a Mac user for years before Linux. I got Apple certifications in OS X and even taught classes on OS X. The Finder being at the left of the Dock is burned into my brain. So imagine my surprise when for some reason Elementary OS doesn’t include the File Explorer. In fact, for less technical users, it isn’t clear at all how one would get to your files. There is no Desktop icon showing some concept of a Disk, no File search concept. There is an Applications search option in the top right-hand corner but confusingly doesn’t seem to index files, just Applications.

This is a no-brainer to me. You have to leave breadcrumbs for users to find their files. I understand how to do it but how would a normal user starting ever get to the point where I can access the file I just downloaded? However thankfully it is a quick fix, just drag the Files app to the Dock and there we go.

The Files App Problems

The macOS inspiration here is intense. We even have the concept of Connect Server in the not Finder Finder. However it looks nice, everything seems to work. Let’s search for my file. The address bar says “Search of Type Path” so I assume when I click here, I can type in a search string and it’ll return my files. Unfortunately, not quite. When you click in that field this is what you get:

Files_1

This is confusing to me. I view this as an empty text box that I should be able to just type into, preferably with some sort of autocomplete. Instead, it auto-fills when I click there with the path I currently have. This would be fine default behavior if there was some model for “File search” in the File window as well, but both have been combined into one here. Alright does the search work?

It does but then it does something really weird. So now it’s showing me the path to the file I just selected, but it isn’t that text string anymore. It’s a series of icons. This looks great, but the file name arrow isn’t interactive. I can’t edit this text to select something else. If you click the Downloads button then you go back to the Downloads folder, which is nice for tree navigation. However, no matter how many times you click it, you can’t edit the text in there. Only if you click outside of the Downloads arrow further in the text field do you get the /home/matdevdug/Downloads editable text string?

This is completely mind-boggling behavior to me. It alternates between this text string and the icons seemingly randomly depending on what I’m doing. It’s a shame because I like how the File path icons look and the Search itself looks great, but combining both functions into the same window is madness. Give me a file search option and then show me the path. They aren’t interchangeable flows, I’m either trying to move up or down a directory tree or I’m trying to search for a file. Again I get the sense that visual simplicity was chosen over practicality.

Also who decided a single click to open by default was a good idea? There doesn’t seem to be any way to turn this off except inside of Tweaks. It’s incredibly annoying to make such an aggressive decision for the user and not let me configure it in the system.

File App Troubleshooting

Generally speaking, developers test their stuff pretty intensely, so let’s assume there is some happy path through this system. So Ctrl + F also runs search which does work consistently and returns the same result. This system doesn’t index the text of files through, just the file names. If you want to add searching through the actual text files here is what I did.

  1. Install Gnome Search Tools sudo apt-get install gnome-search-tool
  2. Create find.contract in /usr/share/contractor [Contractor Entry] Name=Search Here Description=Find files MimeType=inode;application/x-sh;application/x-executable; Exec=gnome-search-tool --path=%f %U
  3. Right click in any folder and select “Search Here” or whatever name you entered.

Credit for this solution.

File App Troubleshooting

Generally speaking, developers test their stuff pretty intensely, so let’s assume there is some happy path through this system. So Ctrl + F also runs search which does work consistently and returns the same result. This system doesn’t index the text of files through, just the file names. If you want to add searching through the actual text files here is what I did.

  1. Install Gnome Search Tools sudo apt-get install gnome-search-tool
  2. Create find.contract in /usr/share/contractor [Contractor Entry] Name=Search Here Description=Find files MimeType=inode;application/x-sh;application/x-executable; Exec=gnome-search-tool --path=%f %U
  3. Right click in any folder and select “Search Here” or whatever name you entered.

Music

Alright, I’ve got my files working and I can find them consistently. Let’s throw on some music and write some code. Putting mp3s in the Music folder and opening the Music player works great, the files are discovered without me having to do anything. However I notice I had forgotten to edit some of the metadata for the files, so I right-click and select Edit Song Information:

Music

It looks right but nothing I enter here is saved to the actual files. This is a known bug as reported here.. At this point, I lose confidence in this Music player and install Rhythmbox. I understand this is a small problem but whenever a UI tells me they’ve done something to an underlying file that they haven’t ended up doing, I completely lose confidence in the app. Throw an error message, remove the menu option, do something. Don’t tell me I can do something I cannot do. Thankfully Phythmbox works great as always and all of the system Music keyboard shortcuts work as expected.

Still, I would encourage the developers of the elementary/music app to either remove it as an option from the menu or fix it.

AppCenter

AppCenter is the ElementaryOS app store, an interesting idea that I love the visual styling of. Search results are fast and I like that there is a small ecosystem of apps that work well with the visual styling. One thing that is confusing to me is the pricing. Go to any category of Apps and you’ll see something like this:

store

Now the way I read this is: that app, Outliner, costs $10. Except it doesn’t cost $10. You can select the arrow by the price and make the app free. I did buy one of the $1 apps and the checkout flow worked great and the app downloaded, but I’m extremely confused by this. Am I supposed to be buying these apps or should I be downloading them for free? I think the purpose of it is to get me to think about paying money for it, but then why set the prices at what they are? It makes me feel very strange as a user. Am I breaking the rules by downloading it for free?

The apps themselves are great and while there aren’t a lot of them, I have enjoyed my time with the ones I’ve tried. Outliner in particular is a very nice little writing tool. However, when trying to figure out why something isn’t working, I realize something truly bizarre. There’s no help dialogue for these apps that I can find.

There doesn’t seem to be much tutorial or instruction at all. Outline has a keyboard shortcuts help which does tell you everything the app can do, but again it’s a confusing design for this kind of OS. I see something that looks like MacOS I expect it to be mouse-friendly. ElementaryOS isn’t mouse-friendly though, it’s keyboard shortcut heavy. My desktop uses the i3 windowing system so I’m not against keyboard shortcuts, but I feel like the initial impression vs the normal usage is very different with elementaryOS.

This wasn’t just Outline. I tried the Notes-Up app and couldn’t figure out how to change the title of a note until I figured out that it just took it from the first line. The output of my markdown looked off until I added another carriage return after the title of the category. Not to keep repeating myself but again these apps look great, then you try to use them and the illusion falls apart. To use them effectively you need to commit yourself to learn the keyboard shortcuts, which is fine but I almost feel like you need to warn users more or at least onboard them with a video or something.

Photos

Problems again from launch. I open it and I adore the visual styling. I click “Import Photos” to grab a jpg from my downloads folder and:

Photo Import

Why is a jpg not a photo? If not a jpg, then what is a photo to the Photos app? It doesn’t let me import webp or png either. Alright well, this is confusing but perhaps I’ve misunderstood how it works. Maybe it imports the entire directory if I just hit import?

Indeed that is how it works. You go to the directory of the photos, hit import and it brings the photos in. Once in the photos app, I loved it. The editing tools were great, the tags worked, search worked. Big fan of everything. More feedback to me about what “import” means would have been good though. Like either let me select the files individually for import or just show me a directory tree. Currently, it reads to the user like I can’t import these photo files.

Despite my hiccup with importing confusion Photos is a great Linux app and something the team should be super proud of. Great works.

Code

Code is an interesting app and one I could use in my life. Sort of a programming scratchpad to take the place of sublime editor. I normally work in Vim as my primary programming environment but I enjoyed my time with Code. macOS could desperately use a tool like this and all of the suggestions and layout options were excellent. Nicely done and a great built-in for the system.

Code language options:

Code

Code with Python3:

Code_2

Nice work on this one! Very fun.

Misc Thoughts

I was excited to see Fastmail listing in the Online Accounts in Settings. I was disappointed when I realized it didn’t include the calendar. Whatever at least I get email! Except….I didn’t. Entering my Fastmail credentials in the Online Accounts didn’t seem to configure Mail to do anything. Disappointing stuff.

Conclusion

I wanted to love Elementary OS. I love the visual styling, I think in general the team did a great job with the AppCenter. There seems to be a lot of very nice looking apps that cover a wide variety of apps. Installation was great and I was impressed with how stable the system has been for my daily driver.

All that said, I’m extremely disappointed. This is a distro that is all visual flash and no actual function. From the confusing Search interface for users to find their files to a complete lack of help for users in apps, this is a distro that is better to take screenshots of than it is to use. I was shocked by so many things just not working, from the Online Accounts to missing a minimize button.

I hope the distro gets better, I think there is something here worth saving. It has a very professional feel to it and some of the apps are excellent. I like the terminal app, the Code app, and the Photos app once I got through some of the confusion. There’s something here, but it needs a lot of work.

If you are a technical user who mostly works in a web browser and terminal, Elementary is an option. I don’t know if I would recommend it, but it does look nice and it is quite stable. However if you are looking for an alternative distro to install for a family member who grew up on OS X and is looking to maybe reuse some older hardware or just getting off the Apple train, they will be sorely disappointed.

I’m going to stick with Elementary for another week or so to see if the experience gets better as I use it. I’m hoping that I eventually adjust to the quirks and start to admire some of the polish. Right now though it feels very alpha-level software and therefore isn’t something I would be able to recommend to anyone who isn’t very comfortable using the terminal to go into the Linux system to make changes or tweaks.