Preview: Elementary OS 2 "Luna" Beta 1

Almost 2 years ago, a bit after its official release, I reviewed Elementary OS 0.1 "Jupiter". There I said that there was a ton of hype surrounding its release, and that I had bought into the hype a little bit. Since then, there has been hype of a few more orders of magnitude surrounding version 2 "Luna", given the higher expectations and greater promises. Even so, there hasn't been an official release yet, so I am reviewing the first official pre-release version possible. I'll probably review the official release when that comes out as well.

Main Screen
Elementary OS was born out of the Elementary project, which started as simply a theming project for GNOME 2 and GTK+ applications. It spawned more sophisticated projects like Nautilus Elementary, and then eventually turned into an OS project. The first version was essentially a lighter, faster, optimized, and prettier-looking but otherwise standard Ubuntu-based GNOME 2 distribution. This second version promises much more. For one, many of the GNOME applications and even the GNOME desktop environment itself have been banished in favor of Elementary-developed applications. For another, many further optimizations and design decisions have been made to make it stand out from the pack.

I tried Elementary OS using a live USB made with MultiSystem. Follow the jump to see what it's like, how it has improved, and whether it is worth the hype. For the record, it didn't work correctly the first time that I tried it, so what follows is the result of the second attempt. Also, be aware that in this review more than in others, the focus will be on the desktop environment and not as much on whether specific applications did or did not work.

After getting past the boot menu in the second boot attempt, I was greeted by the white Elementary OS logo on a black background. The boot time elapsed this time was not as phenomenally low as it was last time; it was more on par with contemporary versions of Ubuntu and Linux Mint. After that came the desktop.

This time, all the things that were promised for the last release are present. Pantheon is the desktop environment with Gala as a compositing window manager. WingPanel is on top, though instead of taking up a little bit of room on the side like it was originally meant to do, it now takes up the full screen width like a traditional panel. It looks and acts a lot like the GNOME 3/Shell top panel, in fact. From left to right, there is a button to launch the Slingshot menu, a clock/calendar applet (with a working calendar now), a system tray, and a session management button. On the bottom is Plank, which is a dock replacing Docky. Except for the wallpaper (which sticks out like a sore thumb in looking like something from Microsoft Windows 95, despite the presence and inclusion of many other high-quality wallpapers, one of which I use personally in Linux Mint), pretty much no other part of the desktop can be significantly customized, and even changing the wallpaper takes some effort (which I will come to later).
The Slingshot menu is pretty lightweight and low-feature, but for what it is supposed to do, it works quite well. It goes between menu pages quickly and launches applications with minimal fuss.
The WingPanel applets all work well, though it's a little weird that it is not possible to slide between the clock and the other applets, where it is possible to slide between the other applets that reside on the right side of the panel. Also, it would be nice to see some further integration between the calendar applet and the Maya calendar application (which I will discuss afterwards).
The Elementary theme looks basically the same, except for the presence of thin scrollbars as in Ubuntu along with the following major change. All windows have buttons only to close and maximize, and the button to maximize looks suspiciously like the button to enable full-screen windowing in Apple's Mac OS X, yet traditional maximization rather than true full-screen windowing occurs. One thing that is nice is that the window buttons now appear to be in shaded boxes when the cursor is hovered over them, so it is more easy to tell if a button is really being clicked or not. There is no ability to minimize, except by clicking on an application's icon in the dock. Even so, the dock makes no indication of whether or not an instance of an application is open unless it is the active window, because the Elementary OS developers have consciously made the design decision to follow the lead of Apple's Mac OS X in not distinguishing between opening an application for the first time versus reopening an existing instance of it. It is not a design decision that I would agree with, but it certainly is consistently applied; there is one exception, in that using the 'ALT'+'TAB' keyboard shortcut to switch between windows will allow for switching to minimized windows too. Also, regarding maximization, it is possible to make a window take up one or the other half of the screen or the full screen by dragging the window to edges of the screen as in GNOME 3, KDE 4, and Microsoft Windows 7. Finally, it appears to not be possible to move windows from any part by clicking and holding down 'ALT' as it is in most Linux distributions; that has become one of my preferred ways to move windows around, as I don't have to move the cursor all the way near the top of the screen, so I am disappointed to see that feature go away.

Midori 0.4.7 is the default browser, and it has become even more polished and integrated with Elementary OS. Unfortunately, YouTube did not quite work, in that when using HTML 5 for videos, it would only play the sound without showing a picture. That said, my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts were properly recognized. I am also happy that Elementary OS even has the volume changing notification as a Notify-OSD style notification in the top-right of the screen, while other distributions have moved it to the middle of the screen and made it too much like the corresponding animation in Apple's Mac OS X.
Files (yes, it is really called "Files"), replacing Nautilus Elementary and then Marlin (the latter essentially in name only), is the default file browser. Ironically, one of the features that I really liked about Nautilus Elementary and Marlin, which is both file browsers' respective integration with Gloobus Preview, is missing from Files, which is sad. Also, Files has an odd feature turned on by default where because clicking on a directory or file opens it, hovering over a red dot on the top-left part of the icon allows for selection of multiple files and folders at once by just hovering. It seems like a more rudimentary version of the same feature in Dolphin. The problem is that it is too easy to do this, and I feel like something bad could easily happen by accident.
Even Gedit has been replaced by Scratch. It's a pretty basic text editor that hews closer to Elementary OS design guidelines in doing things like eschewing a menu bar in favor of a menu button. Similarly, the much lighter (and feature-lacking, as its only outstanding feature aside from normal terminal emulation is tabbed browsing) Pantheon Terminal has replaced GNOME Terminal, the music player Noise has replaced other music players typically included, and the email application Geary has replaced the previous Elementary OS applications Postler and Dexter.
Switchboard + Slingshot + Scratch
The one really new application is the calendar application Maya. It's fairly basic, in that it allows for basic event and reminder setup, and it is not integrated with the calendar WingPanel applet, but it does the job it is supposed to do while following Elementary OS design guidelines.
Other applications are holdovers from GNOME and Ubuntu, like Evince, the GNOME System Monitor, Empathy, Totem, Shotwell, and GNOME Simple Scan. Additionally, the software manager is the Software Center [with the "Ubuntu" name removed]. Unfortunately, it was unable to connect to repositories, so I was unable to test my usual round of applications. That said, given that this is based on Ubuntu, I am fairly confident that those applications would work under better circumstances.

Elementary OS has its own control center called Switchboard, which is labeled as "System Settings". I would prefer some more consistency there in the naming. Anyway, it is necessary to use Switchboard to change the desktop wallpaper; otherwise, it seems pretty much the same as the GNOME System Settings tool, which makes me wonder why it was really created from scratch.
That said, everything in Elementary OS, from opening and closing applications to moving windows around was really fast. It got to the point where even Shotwell was so quick at opening images that I did not care anymore that something else might have been a better candidate as the default image viewer. The GNOME System Monitor backed this up in that Elementary OS used about 310 MB of RAM at idle. That's a little worse than last time but shows a much slower growth in RAM usage compared to Ubuntu versions in the same time period.
Elementary OS also has compositing and desktop effects. As Gala rather than Compiz is the WM, there is no desktop cube effect, but the effects are tasteful, like sliding between workspaces, showing previews of workspaces just below, and others like the effect for minimizing windows.

Pantheon Terminal + Maya
Well, that's where my time with Elementary OS 2 "Luna" Beta 1 ended. I most certainly would not use this because it is way too restrictive in its workflow and allows for no customization whatsoever. I am also rather put off by its almost slavish devotion to the principles of Apple's Mac OS X, but I have a feeling that more than a few people would be more attracted to Elementary OS for exactly that reason. From the locked-down nature of the desktop to the window controls, window management, and features included in programs, it seems like this would be the ideal candidate for someone who might like what Apple's Mac OS X has to offer in terms of a desktop experience but may be wavering on whether or not to actually buy such a product from Apple. While I definitely disagree with the way many things are done, there don't seem to be any visible bugs with the system, and it is put together to be solid, consistent, fast, and workable. It is a pre-release version, so things may yet change in either direction between now and the official release, but I see no compelling reason not to highly recommend it to those whom it might suit. In fact, unless Apple sues it out of existence, I could see it becoming successful if Elementary OS wanted to partner with producers of inexpensive computers to provide an affordable computer with a a well-built OS for an average user.
You can get it here, though be warned once more that this is not a final release and may therefore contain some show-stopping bugs that I may not have encountered purely by chance.