Elementary OS has a rather unconventional history. It first started out as just an icon theme. Shortly thereafter, it grew GTK+ and Metacity themes. Along the way came a mod for the Nautilus file browser, default in Ubuntu and most other distributions with GNOME, called Nautilus Elementary; I've mentioned that mod before here, but for those who don't know, this mod organizes the side panel items by category (Personal, Devices, Network), beautifies the breadcrumb-style pathbar, removes some redundant navigation buttons, and compacts the menubar into a button. Then, the project started to expand its focus to include applications alongside aesthetics, with the Postler mail client and the accompanying Dexter address book program. Alongside these efforts came many other mockups for various other applications, such as Mozilla Firefox, Pidgin, Empathy, FileZilla, and others. More recently, the Elementary developers created a new panel called the WingPanel to replace the GNOME Panel on top, along with a new application launcher called Slingshot, all combined along with all the other applications into a new shell for GNOME called Pantheon.
I tested Elementary OS on a live USB made with UnetBootin. Although this is an Ubuntu-based distribution, I tested the installation just for fun (and to see if the developers have made any changes there) in a virtual machine with 384 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS. Follow the jump to see what this icon theme-turned-full-fledged distribution is like.
I rebooted, changed the BIOS, got to the UnetBootin boot menu for Elementary OS, and opted to "try without installing". What followed is certainly a contender for one of the fastest boot processes I have ever seen on my laptop. I saw the elegant pulsating Elementary logo for maybe 3 or 4 seconds, and 3 seconds after that came the full desktop. Wow!
|Ubuntu Software Center + AbiWord + Docky|
|Midori playing YouTube + Gnumeric + GNOME Main Menu|
All Midori-related gripes aside, proprietary codecs are not included, so I had to go fetch them from the Ubuntu Software Center. On that note, it's plainly obvious by the name that the Ubuntu Software Center is not native to Elementary OS and sort of goes against that unified feeling, so I would like to see the developers in the next version of Elementary OS call it something like the "Elementary Software Center" or just "Software Center" as it is in Debian 6 "Squeeze". Anyway, fetching the codecs took a little bit more time than expected, because after the Canonical partner repository was enabled, the cache had to be updated, and only then could I install things like Adobe Flash 10. After that, sites like YouTube worked, meaning Elementary OS recognized my sound card as well as my laptop's FN keyboard shortcuts for changing the volume, though this wasn't particularly surprising considering Elementary OS's Ubuntu roots.
On the note of YouTube, I was a little sad to see Buffalax's account gone; you may have noticed that in my reviews, when I try YouTube, I usually play the "Crazy Indian Video...Buffalaxed!" Well, that's gone now. I guess I have to move on. For this review, though, I found the same video, just without the silly English lyrics. Also note that YouTube allows you to play videos in the 1911 silent movie-style; it's a great feature, and honestly, it makes Rebecca Black's "Friday" look and sound much better. (I was thinking about writing about that song, but I decided against it. If you want me to write that post, please ask me in the comments; I won't do so if no one asks.)
Speaking of sound, I installed Cheese Webcam Booth and Skype. Both worked flawlessly and correctly recognized my laptop's integrated webcam and mic, though once again that's not surprising considering that Elementary OS is based on Ubuntu.
|Nautilus Elementary + Gedit + Gloobus Preview + Compiz effects|
Some of the standard GNOME tools, like the Brasero disk burner, Gedit, and Totem media player are included. Also, Empathy is included for instant messaging, and Shotwell is the default photo manager.
As mentioned earlier, Marlin was not ready for prime-time, so Nautilus Elementary is the default file browser. Alongside that is Gloobus Preview, which previews all sorts of different files, including images, text files, documents, and PDF files, among others, in a pop-up window right above Nautilus Elementary. It's slick, it's blazing fast, and it fits well with Elementary OS.
The three Elementary OS-specific applications present are Postler, Dexter, and Lingo. Postler and Dexter are supposed to be a lot lighter and easier to use than the Evolution mail client; that said, they don't really matter to me because I view all my email in a web browser. Lingo, formerly known as Purple, is the new dictionary application present in place of GNOME Dictionary; it's supposed to be much lighter, simpler to use, and has a search bar that suggests words as the user types similar to Google's search bar. Having used GNOME Dictionary before, I can definitely say that Lingo is a lot nicer to look at and easier to use. Also, all three of these applications have menu buttons in place of menubars. Finally, dear Dexter: I already have friends, but thanks for the advice anyway. Hehheh.
|Lingo + Dexter + System Monitor|
The next small issue is with scrollbars. One of the other changes the Elementary developers have made is making the scrollbars much thinner and removing the redundant navigation buttons. This makes sense, but for some reason I thought the scrollbars were supposed to fully hide away from view unless the cursor hovered near the scrollbar edge. If I'm mistaken, please let me know in the comments; otherwise, I'd like to see this fixed too in the next release.
There are some other small issues too which aren't directly related to the Elementary developers' goals. One is that although Compiz is the default WM, CompizConfig Settings Manager is not present, so users must either install said application or change the plugins and settings using GConf-Editor.
Another is that the main "System" menu is missing its icons next to the items' names. I don't know if this is intentional or not.
Another is that windows don't snap when moved to be adjacent. I would prefer that snapping windows were turned on, but that may just be me.
The last one is that in the "Places" menu, opening Nautilus Elementary at the home folder is faster than opening it in any other place. I'm not really sure why this is.
Speaking of Compiz, desktop effects were enabled and running out-of-the-box. I was also able to successfully change the set of effects used through GConf-Editor.
Also, running Compiz typically makes the desktop run slower, but here, Elementary OS used only 274 MB of RAM at idle, which is relatively svelte for an Ubuntu derivative, even with all the whiz-bang effects running. Even with Midori opened to YouTube alongside Dexter, Lingo, AbiWord, and Gnumeric, the desktop only used 390 MB of RAM. That's quite good, and certainly better than Ubuntu. Maybe this light weight explains how it was able to boot so quickly.
At this point, I started the installation process by booting the ISO file in the virtual machine. It took a little time to reach the desktop probably due to the low RAM allocation, but when that happened, I was greeted by the newest version of Ubiquity. The nice thing about that is that it gave me the option of either trying out the live mode or going straight into installation. I went into installation, and then it showed me some requirements and recommendations, such as the hard drive having more than 2.6 GB of space that can be allocated to Elementary OS, the computer being plugged into an outlet, and the computer having a steady Internet connection. It also let me download updates within the installation procedure as well as install proprietary codecs which cannot be included in the live session for legal reasons. I checked all those boxes and proceeded to partitioning. This step is essentially the same as before, so I manually created the usual layout and continued. To my surprise, the installer let me proceed with user creation and locale setup while the partitioning and installation occurred in the background. Unfortunately, after that was done, there was no slideshow. Hopefully there will be something like that in the next release. Despite the relatively low RAM allocation, the whole process took about 10 minutes, which isn't too bad.
After that, I rebooted into a desktop almost identical to that of the live session, which is to be expected. Even with only 384 MB of RAM and 12 MB of video memory for the guest OS, the system felt extremely responsive, to the point where even resource-hungry Docky animations worked well. This was true even with AbiWord, Gnumeric, and Midori all open, the latter with YouTube and Zombo.com open simultaneously. That means Elementary OS might just be a great pick for someone with an older (but not too old) computer who doesn't want something any more minimalistic than standard GNOME. And that's where my time with Elementary OS ended.
So what's the deal? Elementary OS is blazing fast, lightweight, looks beautiful, feels very tightly-integrated, and is quite easy to use. Its homegrown applications (Postler, Dexter, Lingo) seem to work much better than those shipped in vanilla GNOME. Its habit of locking some desktop components down is a double-edged sword; it removes the chance of user error, but it becomes more annoying to change things for those who do want to make changes. I'd like to see AbiWord and Gnumeric replaced by LibreOffice, but not as much as I want Midori to be replaced by Mozilla Firefox, because although Midori fits in nicer with the goals of Elementary OS, Mozilla Firefox is a far more compelling choice otherwise, and with its compact menu button and increased theming potential with version 4 along with better memory consumption and shorter loading times, there's no real compelling to pick Midori over Mozilla Firefox. Plus, there are some consistency issues regarding the main "System" menu as well as the retention of the "Ubuntu" name in the Software Center. Finally, there are a couple things that were really talked up in the community, primarily WingPanel, Slingshot, Marlin, and Pantheon, that were promised for Elementary OS but couldn't be included in the interest of releasing version 0.1 "Jupiter" in a timely manner. So really, aside from a few small niggles, there's nothing truly wrong with Elementary OS as it is right now; in fact, there are many, many things to like about it. The disappointments just came from broken promises and misunderstandings relating to aesthetics (e.g. scrollbars, menubars) and new components of Elementary OS. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a slick, fast, and pretty OS, but I am personally more looking forward to the next version. That'll become important because that's supposed to use GNOME 3 and GTK+ version 3, which will allow the inclusion of Slingshot, Pantheon, Marlin, and WingPanel; it'll provide something new and fresh for people turned off by the GNOME 3 Shell.