Elementary

I’ve been keeping tabs on Elementary for a while now, and with the latest version finally out, here’s my review of sorts.

As soon as Luna came out, I set it up on a couple of old netbooks 1 – one of them with a dead hard drive but able to boot off an SD card, but which has ironically become my favorite simply out of sheer wonder - 1024x600 pixel screen, a piddling 800MHz CPU and an 8GB SD card, and yet it’s usable enough.

So, is it a rip-off?

Elementary has been somewhat controversial among the zealot hordes for ditching a lot of the junk you’d ordinarily find in a Linux distribution and putting together their own desktop environment in a way that is, well, uncannily like Mac OS X.

The thing is, I’d be hard pressed to call Elementary a rip-off at first glance. Yes, it has a dock, status indicators appear at the top of the screen (just like Unity, by the way), and the window decorations are sparse (and, alas, reminiscent of brushed metal). But the whole thing is built from scratch atop Vala and pretty normal GTK, making it intrinsically native to Linux.

Guess what, most of my XFCE desktops over the past few years have looked exactly like that. But then again most of my Linux desktops never looked this good. Or matched its overall responsiveness and attention to detail.

But there are indeed a lot of visual cues that are, well… too similar, and the more you use it, the more you come across tiny details that are either unlikely coincidences or convergent implementations.

For instance, the built-in file browser has a Finder-like column view that feels quite similar to the original when navigated via keyboard, even though it’s clearly done atop GTK. And even though there are only so many ways you can implement window switching or a three-pane mail client, the overall feeling is quite similar to the Mac, regardless of whether or not it’s a consequence of picking the best way to do it.

So it’s rather like being in the uncanny valley of modern desktop environments – you know it’s not a Mac, and yet…

Still, I can’t help but think that Elementary is doing precisely what other Linux desktop environments ought to have done instead of going off into the wild and come up with, well… Unity.

Or Gnome 3, which I find incomprehensible and, in a word, awful. Or the (now vastly more subdued) intricate maze of configuration options and spurious window decorations that KDE barfed up over the years2.

Because simple is good. Simple and polished is better. But simple, polished and coherent makes a sizable difference, and as a user, I find it rather pleasant that a good deal of the user experience I take for granted on the Mac – or a close analogue – is now conveniently bundled for Linux.

The folks at Infinite Loop, however, might take objection to the way so much of it has been put together in such a neat package, even if it’s very far from being a replacement (it feels more like a pamphlet than a whole UX story right now), and my personal bet is that pretty much every Apple zealot out there will cry foul and reminisce about the days when Windows 95 “ripped off” Mac OS.

Selling Points

I spend most of my “Linux time” in terminal windows and am extremely unlikely to switch from Mac OS X to Linux in the foreseeable future (if ever), but if I were to have a Linux box as my main computer, I daresay it would be running Elementary right now.

The first selling point for me is that it’s not Unity. I’ve settled on XFCE over the past couple of years largely because it was the simplest (yet functional) desktop environment you could get in a clean Ubuntu install, and yet there was always some assembly required to make it work “right” for me. Elementary does away with all that, because the basics feel right, largely by dint of aligning themselves with what I’m used to.

The second is that it doesn’t toss in a bucketload of “useful” junk by default (like a broken office suite), but only the bare minimum – a WebKit-based browser, a (somewhat broken, but usable) IMAP mail client, a standard IM client, and a mostly civlized way to browse photographs. And, of course, a decent, lightweight and fast terminal app without any bloat3.

And the environment is pretty keyboard-friendly, to boot. Windows can me made to snap to each half of the screen (which is nice and my preferred least-effort approach at window tiling), workspace management is sane (I don’t use it much, even on a tiny netbook, but yes, it’s entirely too reminiscent of Mission Control) and the dock works well enough to get out of your way when required.

The above makes it a great foundation to build upon when setting up a development machine – just toss in vim-gtk and Sublime Text, and you’re pretty much done.

So yeah, I say give it a whirl, if only to annoy partisans from both sides. And while you’re at it, make sure you get these tweaks , since some of them make it even more Mac-like.

1. I also tried to set it up on my VPS to use remotely, but Gala (the window manager) refused to work under VNC, since it apparently relies on having a bare minimum of hardware acceleration. Which is sad, but understandable. ↩︎

2. Oh, and yeah, I’ve used Mint, in both MATE and Cinnamon flavors. The reason I don’t mention them here is that they’re better than the mainstream offerings. ↩︎

3. I don’t want or need the music or video players, but they’re well received by normal folk. As to the terminal, I spent a fair amount of time putting together a remote desktop for iPad use, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of pain involved in picking out a minimalist, functional terminal from the hordes of existing packages. Alas, like I mentioned Elementary doesn’t work properly over VNC (the compositor blows up), so I’ve stuck to Openbox and LXterminal for that. ↩︎