Pop!_OS 21.04 Review with Cosmic Desktop


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System 76’s latest Ubuntu based distro Pop!_OS version 21.04 now comes with an even more customized Gnome desktop. In keeping with their spacial theme, the new iteration based on Gnome 3.38 is aptly named Cosmic! While previous Pop!_OS versions concentrated on tiling and keyboard centric operations, Cosmic finally indulges the mouse and track pad users among us.

You probably thought “Cosmic” was merely a gimmicky name that a System 76 developer came up with one night? You couldn’t have been more mistaken:

Pop!_OS COSMIC (Computer Operating System Main Interface Components) gives you the freedom to navigate your workflow via your mouse, keyboard, and/or trackpad.

Now that we’ve cleared that, we can go take this space ship for a cosmic test flight, shall we?

Pop!_OS 21.04 desktop with tiling options
Installation

Pop!_OS 21.04 is a 2.5 GB download. I passed it like always to a USB stick using Etcher and proceeded to install it to my test Dell 7240 (i5, 4300, 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD, 1366 x 768).

Booting from the USB stick was a fairly long affair. Once booted up it automatically launches the installer. The installer unfortunately does not offer to install alongside other systems. By this time my SSD was sporting no less than 4 operating systems so I opted for a clean install. We are offered hard disk encryption if so desired. The installer while quite minimal does please with its overall cosmic theme that System 76 have been using for some time.

The cosmic Pop!_OS installer

Total installation time took a bit longer than your average Linux at 7:45. There was quite a long pause at 70% while it was  “Configuring the system”

Boot times are around 10 seconds to the log-in screen. Examining htop after a fresh boot and WiFi off, we get the following surprising results:

  • 748 MB RAM !
  • 102 Tasks
  • 240 Threads

That is around 250 MB less than Fedora 34 with a newer stock Gnome 40! My previous Pop!_OS review of version 20.10 used 961 MB of RAM under similar conditions. Zorin OS 16 beta showed the same amount of tasks and threads in use while RAM usage stood at 1.15 GB. There seems to be some cosmic magic going on here! Well done, System 76!

The Desktop

Upon first boot, we are greeted with the Welcome app. It lets us choose how we want our bottom dock and top panel to look like. It shows us how to launch apps and switch between them and introduces the various track pad gestures. It also acts as the final setup stage for the installation asking for the time zone, WiFi password and whether to enable location services.

Welcome app

I kept everything to it’s default layout. We get a bottom dock that spans the whole desktop with all icons placed in the middle. The top panel looks pretty standard Gnome with the added tiling toggle. Hitting the super key opens an app launcher instead of the usual applications overview.

The bottom dock, apart from the pinned favorite apps, features three special icons from left to right: The app launcher, the work spaces overview and the applications overview. Basically, Pop!_OS has completely separated these three functions that are normally combined in standard Gnome. This makes for a cleaner experience but I am not convinced it really makes the workflow any more efficient. The app launcher has a few tricks up its sleeve but you need to learn them first. You can, for example, type: “run sudo apt install neofetch” and it will automatically open the terminal and ask for your admin password and proceed to install neofetch. Quite neat! I was only missing the option to minimize open apps when clicking on their respective dock icon.

Applications overview separated from desktops overview

In the system settings we have the ability to modify many of the above mentioned items. We can assign the super key, enable hot corners, change the dock size and its position and move the work space picker to either side of the screen. We can also choose between a light and a dark theme and enable/disable minimize and maximize window buttons. There are also plenty of good wallpapers to choose from, including my favorite: The “Unleash Your Potential” robot.

Track pad gestures have also been enhanced. You can now swipe four fingers to the right to open the applications overview or to the left to open the activities overview. Swiping up and down with four fingers moves between work spaces. Since the newer Gnome 40 now sports horizontal work spaces I wonder if the next Pop!_OS release will switch around those gestures too?

htop & neofetch perfectly side by side with tiling enabled

Most of these features aim to please mouse and track pad users. This comes after heavy development of their signature tiling features aimed to please the more keyboard centric users among us. System 76 has recently even launched their own amazing, albeit expensive, mechanical keyboard. Tiling has now reached a high level of maturity. I have already written about the tiling feature in my last review of Pop!_OS 20.10 so head over there for more details on that. Tiling is not perfect, though! I found that the tiling implementation didn’t work well with all apps. Especially Gnome apps didn’t quite behave as they should, probably because they needed more space than they could get allocated. My measly 1366 x 768 screen resolution is of course also to blame. In the example below you can see how the calendar tile was a bit cut off. Same happens with other apps too.

Some apps work better with tiling than others
Usability

Multimedia playback: MP3s could be played back out of the box but M4As needed additional codecs that the system immediately offered to install. Attempting to play an MKV video file prompted another codec install. After that all my various media files played flawlessly with no need to reboot. Well done!

All media playback goes through the only available app: Gnome Videos.

Bluetooth: Pop!_OS paired nicely with my JBL speaker at the first attempt and sound output was automatically switched to the speaker without any further user input. Great!

Display options: This part of testing was performed on my 1080p Dell 7250. Fractional scaling worked perfectly well. The ideal balance of usability and real estate was at 125% on my 12.5 inch display. Docking the the laptop with an external screen attached also worked like a charm. This is how it should be and is thanks to advances with both Gnome and Wayland.

Overall, I encountered no issues during my testing. The system was always responsive and behaved as it should.

Software

Pop!_OS comes with a reasonable selection of software out of the box. While it sports the complete LibreOffice suite, there isn’t much in the multi media section except for Videos, the Gnome video player to which all media playback defaults.

The most prominent installed apps:

  • Internet: Firefox in version 89, Geary email client
  • Office: The complete LibreOffice suite
  • Multimedia: Videos
  • System: Nautilus file manager, Pop!_Shop, Eddy and an assortment of Gnome apps
Pop!_Shop – With fitting background wallpaper!

In order to install additional software we have the Pop!_Shop to our disposal. It comes in the same consistent cosmic theme. It is quite responsive and I installed AbiWord for my usual test. The search result returned two versions, a .deb and a Flatpak version. Checking the settings confirms that Flatpaks are enabled by default instead of Snaps as is the case with Ubuntu proper.

We also have the utility Eddy to install any .deb files directly by dropping them into the open app.

Final Thoughts

My previous review of Pop!_OS 20.10 is the most read article on this humble site. If anything, this shows how popular Pop!_OS has become. The consistent beautiful theme and thoughtful enhancements to Gnome while keeping resource usage in check seem very convincing to many users. Add to that their beautiful and informative website, their extensive Linux hardware offerings and it becomes really easy to become a fan. In some ways I feel they are taking over Ubuntu’s perceived legacy position as the world’s favorite Linux distro. They seem to be doing everything right and we wish them continued success!

Mike

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Mike

Chief geek (editor) and maintainer of distrocrunch.com
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