Pop! OS Review

Having used Debian Stable for a few years on my laptop, I was on the hunt for something new. I’d like something a bit more updated with some quality of life stuff baked in. I tried Elementary OS for a few weeks but found the experience miserable. From weird bugs all over the place to unexpected behavior by applications and the operation system itself, it came across to me like having been inspired by MacOS but missing all the quality. A friend of mine recommended Pop! OS, saying he had purchased a System 76 laptop and had liked the operation system it came with enough not to replace it with Arch. I decided to give it a shot and I have to say, I’m extremely impressed.

Installation

Like my Elementary OS review, I don’t want to spend a lot of time with installation. I see a linux installation screen every 2-3 years, so unlike a lot of reviews I don’t want to dwell. However I loved the robot artwork, the instructions were clear and everything just worked. Rebooting was fine and I thought the entire process was as simple as the last time I installed Windows or MacOS.

First Boot

First impression is again very positive. Everything works as expected, I’m logged into my user account and ready to go. However there is a bit of learning for users that perhaps are more used to a traditional operating system. The first thing I notice is, once again, no Minimize button on the windows. However since Pop! OS (I’m not going to keep typing the exclamation mark folks, the use of a word like pops implies the punctuation) is mostly a workspace/tile based workspace and doesn’t have the concept of a “dock” like Elementary OS, I think its forgivable.

Navigation

The super key opens the Application Navigation screen, with workspaces on the right, your collection of often used applications on the left and a search tab for applications. I appreciated that hitting the super key and starting to type did search for applications right away with no further interaction. If you have used stock Ubuntu in the last few years this is a pattern you are used to, but either way I thought it was fast to pick up and start to use. It wasn’t until I turned on the automatic tiling functionality though with this small icon that my opinion of this OS went from acceptable Ubuntu skin to something very exciting.

For the record I love tiling window managers. I used i3 for years and thought it was excellent, however usually you need to spend so much time memorizing how they work and function to get value out of them that I would sometimes get annoyed. The bigger issue though is i3 or a system like i3 is amazing when I’m at work. However when I’m at home hanging out on the internet, I don’t need such a strict tiling system. It also completely eliminates the ability to hand your laptop to a less technical partner when you have something like i3 setup. So while I see its value, sometimes I need a more flexible less severe approach to windows management.

This is why I completely love the pop OS approach. This is, hands down, the best workspace/window management system I’ve ever used. It excels in its simplicity. Here’s how it works. By default your window takes up all the space you have. If you open another application, the window will split between the two applications. You can rearrange the applications with the shortcuts shown in the tiling dropdown. ctrl + super + arrow keys switch between the workspaces, which is a workflow you will be using a lot with this particular setup. super + shift + arrow keys will move the active window into other workspaces. There are options for setting the gaps between windows here.

My typical workflow

Outside of the tiling process the rest is pretty standard. Super key gets you to a very normal looking search window with a small frequently used dock on the left hand side, something I never use. Search works well for file names, but once again does not search for file content. I find this bizarre for any modern operating system. It appears this is a result of a decision by Canonical to disable tracker as shown here. I attempted to fix it with apt install tracker gnome-shell-extensions gnome-documents but despite how I read the issue, it didn’t seem to work. I know there are alternative File Managers out there but right now I’m fine with locate on the command line and find for files not caught by locate.

I still think this is a mistake though for basic user navigation through the file system. As disks have gotten larger the expectation is that I’m able to sort of arbitrarily store and name files wherever and find them by remembering something that was in them. It’s a pattern people are trained in on the big operating systems and it is disappointing to see it not work here out of the box.

Getting More Software

pop_shop

Here I think Pop really shines. I found their Pop Shop really well curated and frankly just more professional looking than Ubuntu. Everything I hoped to find was here, I got set up with my development tools quickly and easily. One thing I found interesting was how Pop Shop offers flatpak and deb files when both are available. Personally I will always prefer the deb package to the flatpak or snap package, but it is nice that both are offered for people with strong investments in one or the other. In addition it was delightful to not have to go to all the various websites to get my deb packages like I do with other distributions. Instead they are all listed on the shop. Tons of credit there.

I didn’t encounter any paid apps which is a bit strange. I also didn’t see any options regarding payment in the settings of pop shop nor did I encounter any prices next to apps. My understanding is that the Pop_Shop is based off of the Elementary AppCenter as compared to the GNOME Software app. However given the amount of energy invested with Elementary OS in getting users to pay for applications I was surprised none of that seems to have made it over to Pop. I liked a fast and easy route to paying developers for their work, even if it ends up being a “suggested donation” or something. It was a little disappointing to keep the great elements of the Elementary AppCenter but drop the part I felt was progressive in supporting the greater Linux developer community.

Settings

Settings Overview

The Settings app manages to avoid committing the cardinal sin of Linux distros which is: looking nice but with toggles and switches that do nothing. In my testing I wasn’t able to find a toggle that I expected to work that did not. The naming conventions make sense and I didn’t run into any obvious snags. I appreciated touches like a Do Not Disturb Mode for notifications along with allowing me to control the search result listing and whether you returned things like Contacts or not.

The Privacy screen was fine although I’m not sure if I think of “automatically delete my trash or not” as a Privacy issue. This is a small nitpicky issue though and I did like that searching for Settings options in the system search returned the correct panel for the user. I understand this is kind of table stakes in 2020 but I still liked it.

Privacy

Problems

Is Pop OS perfect? No unfortunately, many of the familiar Linux problems crop up here as well. I run my laptop in clamshell mode, which results in at best inconsistent experiences. Sometimes I get back and my external monitor wakes up, sometimes I need to open the lid and log in there before I’ll get the video on the external monitor. On some occasions I’ll still need to disconnect the DisplayPort connection, reconnect, then go back into clamshell mode. I will say this is still a better out of the box experience than I am used to with Linux and clamshell mode as in the past I’ve had to write custom scripts that run when I log back in to get the settings I want. However there is still some room for improvement here.

Updating through the pop shop also presents weird issues. I have had situations multiple times where I hit “Update All”, enter my password, wait and then come back only to be told there are still updates available. Hitting Update All again doesn’t seem to make them go away. I’ve always resolved this by going to the command line but it seems strange that this bug seems to appear for a few update cycles, then disappear, then come back. I consider this a very high priority bug since due to the lack of default sandboxing and other security features baked into Linux for desktop users updating individual applications as quickly as a possible is really their best option for having the most secure experience.

I also didn’t see any GUI options for “automatically apply updates” which I think is a huge miss. There is always unattended updates through the CLI and this experience works fine, but again if this is for normal users it might be months between times they open the Pop shop, if at all. I appreciate that unlike Ubuntu I’m not getting notifications for updates that I need to get all the time, but I would worry putting this OS on a less technical users machine, coming back in six months and finding them wildly out of date. It’s a hard balance to strike and one way Linux distinguishes itself from MacOS and Windows is a less aggressive approach to updating. However given the pace of upstream development it seems like a miss for users not to opt in more aggressively.

There also never seemed to be any indication that I needed to reboot. I don’t mind checking /var/run/reboot-required but how long might a normal user go between knowing they need to reboot to get a new kernel or firmware? It’s a hard problem to solve and nobody wants to nag more technical users, but at the same time even I get into workflows where I might go a few months between reboots on a normal Linux laptop. More customization around updates and update notifications would be greatly appreciated.

Conclusion

What the Pop OS team has done here is really impressive. They’ve taken Ubuntu and stripped away a lot of the cruft. This is a fast and responsive OS with a store that allows normal users to get the software they need and want without too much additional work. I applaud them for that and also for not limiting the OS to their own machines. I’ve switched over to it for my daily use for a few months now and I have no regrets about doing so.

However all of this comes with some disclaimers. Were I looking to install a new OS for a developer coming onto the team, I would choose Pop OS without too much debate. If I were picking a Linux distribution for my dad though, I would stick with stock Ubuntu. While some components like getting new software through a GUI is harder, I would sacrifice those conveniences for more aggressive update options that would do a better job of keeping him in the loop. Tiling managers are great for technical users, especially ones that work mostly on their laptops since it allows for maximum use of small screen real estate, but on larger external monitors it becomes less a must have a more a nice to have. In that scenario I would love to see more options about bringing the dock out of the search box and making it a permanent resident on the screen.