Review: Elementary OS 0.1 "Jupiter"

Main Screen
Well, after quite a long wait, it has finally happened: the first official release of Elementary OS is here! Codenamed version 0.1 "Jupiter", it's based on Ubuntu 10.10 "Maverick Meerkat", so you may be thinking to yourself, "Why should I care about yet another Ubuntu derivative?" I'll admit that I had (and still have) slightly bought into the hype about Elementary OS, but there are plenty of reasons to care about Elementary OS. Let's look at some history.

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
Unfortunately, many of the really cool innovations that the Elementary developers promised, such as WingPanel, Slingshot, Marlin, and Pantheon, were not ready for this release; I do believe the developers have promised that these components will be ready for the next release. That's not to say, though, that the desktop present is bad. Far from it (and I'm not trying to "damn it with faint praise"): the desktop looks quite elegant, with a soothing sky-themed wallpaper, a GNOME panel on top, and a dock on the bottom. The panel contains a typical 3-part GNOME main menu on the left, and a bunch of indicator applets making up the system tray on the right. Interestingly, the developers have locked down the panel; I guess this is to ensure that new users don't accidentally mess it up. I think that's fine, because users who would really want to change the panel would know how to do so anyway: use GConf-Editor. Also, for some reason, the calendar is disabled in the clock applet, which is really weird, and if I wanted to change that, I would have to go to GConf-Editor to change it. I would rather see the clock applet with the calendar enabled, and I don't know why the Elementary developers decided otherwise. In addition, they seem to have locked down the main desktop screen itself, because right-clicking on the wallpaper does absolutely nothing. That's weird, and in my opinion that's a bad thing because I have a feeling that users coming from Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X (the target audience) would be used to something happening when right-clicking, possibly related to creating new folders on the desktop or changing the desktop background. The bottom dock is an instance of Docky, with a bunch of applications like Postler, Dexter, Empathy, Midori, AbiWord, and the Ubuntu Software Center, among others, pinned to the dock. Of course, the dock also functions as a task manager and not just as an application launcher. The Docky icon is missing, which is good in one way because it makes Elementary OS feel more like a unified operating system and not just a collection of applications from different sources. On the other hand, it took me a couple tries to correctly bring up the Docky configuration window, so for a while I thought Docky was locked down too. Overall, the desktop looks great, though I'm not sure I agree with disabling the right-click function on the desktop wallpaper.

Midori playing YouTube + Gnumeric + GNOME Main Menu
Midori 0.3.2 is the default browser here, and I have to say that using it here has made me like it less than before. Though it was always stable, it seemed slower than Mozilla Firefox 4, and it rendered some sites like OMG!Ubuntu! weirdly with some page buttons overlapping with text, among other issues. Its shortcuts were all different for no good reason; for example, CTRL+ENTER didn't append ".com" to the end of a website name, and unless I'm missing something, enabling the "Shortcuts" extension to change the keyboard shortcuts didn't help, because there was no option to change that particular shortcut. In Mozilla Firefox and Chromium, when I'm writing a post in Blogger, I can press CTRL+S to save the most recent revision of the post as a draft in Blogger. In Midori, pressing CTRL+S brought up a dialog to save the actual Blogger post editor HTML page on the hard drive, which is not at all what I wanted to do; that said, the point was made essentially moot by the fact that Blogger automatically saved the current post every minute or two. I liked the fact that the menu is compacted into a button and the buttons to close tabs are on the left, which is consistent with all the windows in Elementary OS having the window controls on the left, but I didn't like how double-clicking the tab bar doesn't open a new tab; I had to click on the specific button to open a new tab, and it was unfortunately not next to the rightmost tab. Finally, I didn't like how when the cursor hovers over a link, Midori previewed the URL in the URL bar itself; in Mozilla Firefox 4, this preview occurs in a faded color next to the current URL, but in Midori, the previewed URL totally covered up the current URL. Thankfully, this could be fixed by enabling the status bar.
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
Moving on to other applications, AbiWord and Gnumeric are the two productivity programs. They're both quite fast, but although they are fully compatible with older Microsoft Office file formats, that's not true for the newer formats. In that sense, I would rather have seen LibreOffice included, because it's much better in handling Microsoft Office file formats, and it's supposed to be a whole lot faster than its predecessor OpenOffice.org. And even though it isn't included, that means Elementary OS lacks a presentation creation tool. I would have liked to have seen Ease included, because it really seems to mesh well with the goals of this project. That said, that application seems to have been inactive for the last few months; maybe that's why it wasn't included.
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 part about menubars brings me to one of the small issues I have with Elementary OS and its goals. Only the Elementary OS-specific applications, Midori, and Nautilus Elementary have compact menu buttons; all the other applications have menubars. The Elementary OS developers want to replace all the menubars with menu buttons because these correctly move the emphasis from the menubar to the actual content of the application; plus, the menubars are typically way too complex and cluttered for their own good. I totally agree with these assertions, but I see some applications in Elementary OS with menu buttons and others with menubars, which isn't so great for consistency. I realize that changing the menubar to a button in an existing GNOME application requires fiddling with some front-end stuff that's deeper than just icons and Metacity themes, but for the next release of Elementary OS, I'd like to see many of the standard GNOME applications like Gedit and AbiWord with menu buttons instead of menubars.
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.