The elementary OS team finally released the beta of their upcoming version 6. Up until now early builds were only available to their sponsors and they had made it abundantly clear that they didn’t want people writing about it just yet. Even now, with the beta download, comes the following stern petition:
Please refrain from publishing reviews or other in-depth looks of early builds. We’re excited that you’re excited, but formally presenting unfinished products can damage our reputation. If you’d like to share informally, we’d appreciate a focus on features rather than quality or performance, which will change before release.
While I fully understand that they are trying to protect their work, I think this kind of language is going a bit too far. This is the internet, accessible by billions and when you put something out there you just have to accept and deal with the response you’ll get – Whatever that may be. At the end of the day you would want to get as much feedback as possible to improve the system, after all that is the point of releasing Betas. So, let’s move on to the testing and see if they have anything to worry about!
I downloaded the 2.5GB ISO beta from their site and passed it onto a USB stick with Etcher. I’ll be using my usual Dell E7240 test laptop to run it through its paces.
The installer offers to erase the whole disk or do manual partitioning. As the drive was full to the brink by now with three distros, I opted for the whole drive option. By default it offers to encrypt the installation which I opted out of for my test. The installation was quick taking a good four and a half minutes. Boot times are also quite respectable at around 8 seconds to the log-in screen. Thankfully htop was installed by default and I got the following values after a reboot with WiFi switched off:
- 547 RAM
- 91 Tasks
- 201 Threads
These are excellent values coming in just below Ubuntu Mate 21.04 figures. So far so good!
We are greeted with elementary’s nice Welcome app. The first slide reminds us that this is still Beta and highlights some known issues. There are links to online resources and the choice between light and dark themes among other things.
Elementary OS 6 doesn’t stray far from its roots. The visual first impression tells me that any user of previous versions would feel right at home here. I haven’t used elementary OS for some time so I cannot appreciate the visual tweaks here and there. I will therefore limit my comments to a general overview.
They call their desktop environment “Pantheon” and it is modeled after Mac OS X. We get a transparent top panel with the app menu “Slingshot” on the left, calendar in the middle and the system tray on the right. At the bottom we have a “Plank” dock for our most used apps and the multitasking overview. The default floral wallpaper is quite nice with its blurry background and fits nicely.
The icons have been carefully crafted by the elementary team over the years and it shows. They strictly follow a design language and thus give us a very cohesive look that also fits well with the applied window decorations. Most of the included basic apps follow the same design as well. This is one of those distros where the user is supposed to use the system as is. Trying to change any appearance elements would most likely lead to ugly inconsistencies. Although it isn’t really my cup of tea, I do think it looks very good!
I was pleased to see pressing the super key reveals the keyboard short cuts. It tells us we need to hit super + space to open the menu. That’s OK and I also learned the short cuts for different screen shot options – neat!
The file manager was oddly not pinned to the dock but that is easily fixed. Open items on the dock only have a very small dot beneath their icon indicating they are in use. Hardly noticeable on my mediocre screen. On a a very positive note: I appreciated the general size of items. Many modern desktops tend to have an overly huge default size of apps and control surfaces that would gobble up my 1366 x 768 screen in no time. I’m looking at you Deepin! Elementary OS also includes a zoom in feature that works nicely.
The desktop settings give us a good set of basic options to play with. We can choose between a light or dark theme, set the accent color, font size, icon size, dock behavior, panel transparency and may favorite: Hot corners. I wish every desktop offered that in their settings. My brain is hard wired to the top left corner overview and I would sorely miss it in any system that didn’t support it. It is such a simple tweak that dictates my whole workflow – borders on embarrassing, I know! The dark theme does a better job at highlighting open apps on the dock but apparently it is still a work in progress. I noticed it didn’t respect the accent color chosen.
Bluetooth: Worked perfectly fine. Hit the Bluetooth symbol in the system tray, pair it with your speaker then launch Music and voila “Noise” (as their music app was originally called) magically comes out from the speaker. Opening the sound settings lets us toggle between internal speakers and the Bluetooth speaker seamlessly. Well done!
Media Playback: A mixed bag. “Music” played all my music files but “Videos” only did well with WEBM files. MP4 video files refused to play while AVI files played only the sound with no video output.
Display Options: No fractional scaling options available. We only get the options to scale 1x, 2x or 3x. Connecting the laptop with the lid closed to my dock nicely opened the desktop on the connected external monitor. Opening the laptop’s lid seamlessly added the real estate to the desktop. We can also easily switch between main screens. When disconnecting the laptop from the dock the only issue I noticed was that it didn’t remember the original screen brightness and went to minimum.
I do appreciate the minimal software set-up elementary provides. We only get the bare minimum of apps preinstalled and most of them have been adapted or developed by the elementary team for the system: Files, Music, Videos, Photos, Terminal, Code, Task, Calendar and Mail. The names speak for themselves. While somewhat minimalist, these apps have come a long way and offer a decent set of options. I only tested a few more thoroughly: The Photos app offers some picture tweaking tools but failed to let me add a new folder. I also tried out Mail which I believe is derived from Geary. I entered my test account settings but nothing happened. There is no proper feedback on what went wrong and no way to modify the credentials. For each attempt, I had to delete the account and make a new one. A bit tedious and I was ultimately unsuccessful.
Elementary tends to include non mainstream browsers as default. I remember Midori being there at some point. Now it is Gnome Web (Epiphany). While I love its appearance I am not a big fan of its performance. In this case it didn’t work at all! It would start loading a page and then say oops! It only managed to open the Google search site. As soon as we search for something, however, it goes oops again!
AppCenter: As mentioned in the release notes, this has been stripped down to the bare minimum for the Beta and mostly serves to do updates for already installed apps. I do like, however, how it describes changes implemented on apps that needed updating. There were 8 updates waiting after installation.
I did my usual test installing AbiWord and since it wasn’t in the AppCenter I used the Terminal. It installed just fine, remember this is based on Ubuntu 20.04 Focal Fossa and its repositories. Same goes for VLC and to my pleasant surprise, it played all the video formats the stock Videos app failed to play. So It wasn’t any issue with missing codecs.
This was a perfectly fine Beta experience. Sure, there were a few issues but that was to be expected. Elementary OS has a large fan base and I am sure they will be pleased with the final product once released. It has all the “elements” for an excellent desktop experience: Modern, minimal, light weight, and beautifully cohesive. It won’t appeal to everyone due to its rather locked-down interface but they have proven there is plenty of demand for just that. They were among the first to showcase a beautiful Linux desktop. Today, we are more spoiled for choice in this regard but that doesn’t make elementary OS any less interesting. We wish them the best of luck with the final release!
We’ll take another look once the finished product is out. Have you tested the Beta? What was your experience and how did it compare to the previous version? Let us know in the comments below.