After a bit of a pause due to moving homes and lots of renovation work I am back with another distro review. Today we’ll be taking a look at the latest version of the hugely popular Pop!_OS 20.10.
Pop!_OS as most of you well know is based on Ubuntu and follows its release cycle and version numbering. The distro is developed by System76, a small but very committed Linux focused company. They have been around for 15 years, mainly building desktops, laptops and servers for Linux. Since 2017 they have added their own distro, Pop!_OS, to further express their passion and philosophy.
Version 20.10 is mostly a fine tuning of the previous release, adding more refinement to their signature tiling feature. Like Ubuntu, the desktop environment is based on Gnome which has been updated to version 3.38.2. The Linux kernel is now at version 5.8.
My new setup for testing. The Dell E7250 (i5, 8GB RAM) laptop is docked with the lid closed and connected to a 19 inch 1440×900 monitor. The flashed USB drive with the ISO as well as a 250GB external SSD are connected to the powered dock. The laptop’s internal drive is deactivated.
The ISO was a 2.5 GB download and recognized upon boot. Once booted, everything seemed to be working correctly. As usual we are offered to test the system or proceed with the installation. After a quick look around, I went ahead with a full installation to the external SSD. Full encryption is available if desired. The installation took just around five and a half minutes which keeps reminding me why I like Linux. Pop!_OS includes a recovery partition which functions the same way as a flashed USB drive. If for whatever reason you need to reinstall the system, this can take care of that and offer to preserve your personal files.
Once installation is complete, we can reboot to complete the process. A welcome app guides us through the final steps of connecting to a WiFi network, setup a user and connect to online accounts. Unfortunately, here I encountered what appears to be one of two bugs I had testing this system. As the system logged me in upon completing the setup, it went to sleep immediately as if noticing for the first time that the lid was closed. This would keep on happening throughout my time with the system, always going to sleep when logging in. It is easily awakened by the press of the power button but annoying never the less.
In terms of resource usage. I installed htop and rebooted in order to take the readings from a fresh start. WiFi disabled to prevent the system from searching for updates.
- RAM: 961 MB
- Tasks: 105
- Threads: 245
These are good values for a Gnome based system.
Look and Feel
Pop!_OS takes a minimalist approach. At first sight it looks just like stock Gnome with a different icon theme and wallpaper. Since System76 aims their system at STEM and creative professionals, they have changed the way the user would interact with the system. While stock Gnome is mouse and gesture driven, Pop!_OS is geared towards keeping both hands on the keyboard. To achieve this they have developed an impressive tiling system that has been further improved upon in 20.10. At the same time, to my dismay, they have disabled classic Gnome features like hot corners and track pad gestures. I do not see why they wouldn’t be able to coexist. I managed to re enable the hot corners via an extension but I couldn’t get the gestures to work. On the laptop I normally use the four finger swipe to move between work spaces. Funnily, the gesture is still present on the touch screen!
The look of Pop!_OS fits it’s name perfectly and the theme is carried on throughout the company and website. I personally like it a lot and their robot featured wallpapers are one of my favorites. We can choose between a light and a dark theme both of which look very good.
The Tiling System
An icon on the top panel next to the system tray lets us enable this feature. Thankfully, it also provides insight to the basic keyboard shortcuts needed to use it. If you have never used a tiling window manager, it will all feel a bit overwhelming at first. There is a learning curve involved. The blog at System76’s website explains the added features that come with this release. Just scroll down to the release notes.
When enabled, every app you open is added to the screen in a non overlapping fashion. This is “tiling”. The more apps you open, the smaller the space available per app and hence the smaller the window and information displayed. You can then use keyboard shortcuts to cycle through the apps and maximize/minimize however needed. A cool available feature is “floating”. You can choose which apps would always float on top of all other windows when opened. Ideal for, let’s say, the settings app. Another feature worth mentioning is “stacking”. This lets you group apps together into a single window and then cycle through them using the keyboard.
These features are very useful for programmers and other professionals who need to have many smaller apps open at the same time. For most standard users spending most of their time in the web browser and/or using just one app at a time this will probably remain unused.
Pop!_OS’s software selection is thankfully also quite minimal. Nautilus is the file browser. We get Firefox for the web, Geary for email and the usual LibreOffice Write, Calc, Draw and Impress. For multi-media there is only Gnome’s Image Viewer and Totem for videos and Music.
To install additional software we have a software center: Pop!_Shop and Eddy, the .deb installer.
Opening the Pop!_Shop we’ll notice they went for Flatpaks instead of Snaps.
As a test, I searched for VLC and got two results: The .deb version and the much larger Flatpak version (892 MB!) . I chose the .deb version and it installed in a timely fashion. Overall, the software center seemed responsive and stable. Something I was a bit skeptical about after my experience with Ubuntu Budgie 20.10. I also searched for and installed AbiWord without any issues. Checking other popular titles like Inkscape, Gimp and Krita I was disappointed they were only offered as Flatpaks. Gimp in particular is a 1.7 GB download! That’s the average size of a Linux ISO!
Regarding restricted codecs. They were not installed by default and I do not remember being asked about them. In any case, once you launch a media file for a first time that require these, the system prompts you to install the missing codecs and software. That worked without a hitch.
Day to Day Use
I used the system for most of my needs for a couple of days . It was easy for me to adapt as I am a long time Gnome user. I didn’t really use the tiling feature myself but appreciate it is there. The system was fluid and behaved as expected. CPU load hovered at around 2-3% at idle, a normal Gnome value. I am glad that fractional scaling was there and worked well when I disconnected the laptop from the dock. I did, however, encounter a second bug that again had to do with suspending the system. I would get endless errors of “unable to read itable block…”. I suspect it might have to do with my particular set-up of having the system installed to the external drive via a dock. A quick online search also indicated I might have an issue with corrupted data on the hard drive. In any case, we shall see if the issue repeats itself in future tests.
Pop!_OS has character! It comes from a friendly company that adds a lot of value to the Linux universe. It’s a system you want to like even if it is not perfectly tailored to your needs. Taking beefy Gnome and turning it into a keyboard centric tiling system doesn’t seem to make much sense at first. However; sticking with Ubuntu, which they can rely on to be always current and compatible with their hardware, gives them the opportunity to concentrate on their own system extras. They are also working on their own mechanical keyboard that I am much looking forward to!
If you have any remarks on Pop!_OS or experienced any issues like the one I described, please share it with us in the comments section below.
Thanks for the review, Mike. Looks like something I might take for a spin. I happen to like tiling, and used it when I had Awesome window manager with it’s 3 tiling modes exactly like you described. Just need to find a zoom-like application that’ll fit with the “outside world” if you catch my drift.
I installed Gnome KDE and lost the network management icon in the notification area. There’s nothing in Settings either. How can I get it back? Thanks.
Hey George, for support you should go to Pop!_OSs forum page: https://pop-planet.info/forums/ and post your question there. You better be more specific as “installed Gnome KDE” makes little sense, they are both desktop environments. Pop!_OS is based on Gnome. Cheers!
I tried Pop OS 21.04 and felt it moved too far away from Vanilla Gnome to my liking. I probably will move back to Fedora which seems to embrace the pure Gnome experience. I still wonder why a small outfit like System 76 has to make their own Distro?