elementary OS “Luna”: Linux UI, revisited?

After making it through the usual social media channels for quite a while now, elementary OS 0.2 “Luna” has been released a couple of days ago. There is an in-depth article on that on the elementary OS blog which is really worth reading. Personally I stumbled across elementary a while ago on Google+, partially because of Shotwell, my favorite GNU/Linux photo management application that comes bundled with elementary OS, and I have been watching what they do for quite a while now, having elementary OS installed in at least a virtual machine, keeping it dist-upgraded then and now to see how things move along.

Unsorted desktop impressions

elementary is crafted by designers and developers who believe that computers can be easy, fun, and gorgeous. By putting design first, we ensure we’re not compromising on quality or usability.

This is one of the elementary OS goals mentioned on their web site, and it actually is a goal leaving one playing with elementary with quite some expectations. Given the team has spent quite a while working on this release, it is interesting to see how, after all that time, the result lives up to these expectations. So in the end my test drive explicitely was all about not trying to “think”, read or search the web all too much but to “just” use the desktop and use the user interface, tools and interaction options it offers to (a) see whether all I need can be easily done and, maybe a bit more difficult, (b) the desktop can be bent and configured to fit my personal usage habits easily. Things I found out all along the way:

  • Overall look-and-feel of the standard desktop is extremely pleasant. No matter whether you look at themes, images, color schemes, icons, styling of control elements and notifications or other visual aspects of the desktops – it seems elementary OS has seen very much love by some pretty skilled designers willing to come up with a visually very appealing overall result, which also includes styling, images, concept of the elementary OS web page. Even in elementary, I still to some point miss something giving the GNU/Linux desktop a “face of its own” – many of the designs and approaches resemble things already seen before, mostly in Apple operating systems, which however doesn’t much water down the work people obviously spent on that.
  • Being through using computers for a while, I am by now pretty much used to right-clicking anywhere providing me with options or menu interaction to “do things”. In elementary, right-clicking desktop, top bar panel, dock background does nothing. This is a bit unexpected.
  • I heavily rely upon using keyboard to interact with the system, mostly using ALT+F2, enter a command, get going. On elementary OS, ALT+F2 sometimes works (and pops up the “Applications” menu), sometimes it doesn’t, but entering anything into the start menu text field seems broken at the moment. As far as this is concerned, I still prefer the way this is handled in XFCE (auto-completing “application finder” dialog, not much else), and talking completely new approaches of handling this, I also like the way this happens in GNOME Shell or Unity. Honestly, elementary could do better here – start menu handling seems neither “visionary” nor “usable” enough.
  • I very much enjoyed the way how to interact with applications through right-clicking icons in the dock. This is rather nice and something I really could get used to and would be likely to work with on a daily basis, yet I still have to figure out in which situations and with which applications it works.
  • I can’t get anything configured out of the box. Personally, I dislike most of the visual effects such as windows “fading in” / “fading out”, icons jumping, translucent terminals and the like. On XFCE / Xubuntu at least, I am left with a wide range of setting such items (window shadows, terminal background opacity, …) in a way pleasant to my working habits and my visual preferences. elementary OS is in some way pretty limited here, or at least if these options are around, they aren’t exposed via the standard Settings dialog. Instead: Same as with Ubuntu / Unity or GNOME Shell, there seems an increasing tendency to deliver applications with almost no settings at all initially to, just then, provide applications, plugins, addons to “tweak” the configuration according to your needs. Sort of reminds me of early Windows 98 days when everybody was crazy about “tweaking tools” revealing “hidden configuration options” which, in the end, just allowed people to set these configuration options that, on a sane platform, should have been there out of the box from the beginning. It feels a bit sad to see GNU/Linux desktop more and more going right down that road by now, too. However, as things are, while running elementary OS, it is a pretty good idea to install elementary tweaks following these instructions, the PPA mentioned in there also contains some other goodies that might be interesting.
  • Tweaking includes keyboard things: Usually I have a set of re-occurring hotkeys for things I essentially use. CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER has been invoking a terminal emulator window on my desktop for ages now. CTRL+ALT+F (earlier) or LEFT-WINDOWS+F (later) has always been popping up a new “file manager” (XFCE / thunar, right now) window on my desktop. These aren’t just things I am massively used to, these are layouts and setups that pretty much fit into my day-to-day workflow and allow for doing things reasonably fast without thinking much. So far, most of the desktop environments allowed for setting these things somewhere next to the “keyboard configuration” pretty easily. On elementary OS, it again requires the elementary-tweaks utility to configure things such as that. I for sure hope elementary-tweaks eventually will be terminated as a plugin of its own and merged into the regular Settings application.
  • Being clean, concise and easy to use obviously doesn’t apply to anything in elementary OS: Took me quite a while to figure out how to work with the way virtual desktops / workspaces are implemented here. Though in the window menus I still could spot entries such as “send to workspace …”, but the UI lacked an actual, obvious way of how to see / interact with these workspaces. Only eventually reading through some of the keyboard shortcuts helped me figuring out how to use this here. Not sure I like it – so far a desktop pager seems more straightforward, but maybe this is a matter of getting used to it.
  • I love Scratch. The text editor definitely is one of the sweet spots about elementary OS and, all along with the Noise music player and the Shotwell image manager, one of these applications that even by now, using the elementary OS PPA, made it into my everyday XFCE desktop. These apps are really effective, very well crafted and next to perfect talking about managing the balance between providing a sufficient amount of features to be useful and still providing an UI clean and lightweight enough to not be “cluttered”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go for all applications in elementary OS – especially in case of Geary (the e-mail client), this balance is not managed very well as, though the UI is pretty logical and concise, Geary lacks even most of the fundamental functionality you’d in 2013 expect to find in an e-mail client ready for day-to-day use – in my corporate (cyrus/imapd) mail environment, I was unable to even access all my mails below INBOX). Blame it on the early state of development – maybe this will see changes in the future, but right now I wonder whether starting yet another e-mail client really is a smart idea or whether the elementary crowd would have done better integrating something more mature. Balsa immediately comes to mind, a rather robust MUA that already manages to deal with many of the issues and glitches you’ll experience when dealing with IMAP et al, yet a piece of software that hasn’t seen much attention after Evolution moved into GNOME.
  • Talking about Scratch, one of the features that is pretty interesting is the idea to “save-on-changes” and effectively eliminate all “save” / “save as” buttons from the application menu. Driven a bit forth, having added some sort of document repository (rather than an actual file system), or just a dedicated storage space (such as zim does it in its notebooks), plus adding versioning to documents stored – and be that by hammering all the files into a git repository hidden from the user – definitely could provide a whole new way of working with applications and data. I am curious to see where this is heading.
  • In some ways I feel one of the same problems in elementary OS that I feel and see in Android: At times, it’s rather hard figuring out whether an application, when closing its window, has been closed/terminated or is still running in the background. At the moment, Terminal + top do the trick as elementary OS doesn’t come with a task manager so far.

Odds and ends

Overally, given the project is somewhat new (at least compared to the other current GNU/Linux desktops), the desktop and overall experience so far is very good, and so are most of the pre-packed applications (Geary possibly being the exception). Most of the things work well, most of my nuissances regarding configurability were resolved doing a bit of web search and in the end installing elementary-tweaks. Of course, working with the system one once in a while stumbles across things that could be improved and in some way done better, but this is not too different to working with any other environment or piece of software. I mainly like what the elementary crowd does here, and I also like the way they focus on creating an aesthetically pleasant user experience in the first place. Maybe here and there they should find a bit more a “face of their own” rather than, starting with the web site, too closely following Apple and their visual approach, but that’s a different thing. I am curious to see how the project will be a few years from now, and whether the community and the manpower behind elementary is strong enough to push this project forth and eventually getting it to the users it addresses best. Challenges I see in store for the project, generally: At one side, they’ll eventually be required to not just keep “their” stuff up-to-date but also operate on an up-to-date infrastructure. By now, core elementary OS is built on top of Ubuntu LTS 12.04. While from the LTS point of view being a good choice, this might hurt users who know their hardware runs well with recent GNU/Linux distributions yet not with an Ubuntu dating back to 2012. Worse, eventually, while building on top of Ubuntu possibly could be, sooner or later, having to deal with the upcoming graphics subsystem changes (Mir, XMir) and finding a way through that.

And, of course, there’s one thing I dearly hope elementary folks are able to avoid: Giving up on features introduced to an applications user interface in favour of keeping the UI clean and lean always poses the danger of people not being able to reach functionality they need to have easily (or at all). I remember painfully well some rather strong earlier disputes around the usability of GNOME which, at the very end, also boiled down to capabilities and functionality being removed in order not to make things too confusing or too difficult to an end user.

There’s an immanent danger in this in the difference between “unusable” and “useless”: Being minimized to a very core of functionality wrapped in a lean user interface, Geary in example is pretty well “usable” (as in ‘being able to access all its features in an easy way’). Yet, it’s still “useless” as it misses some features that are absolutely crucial if you use mail more than just occassionally and do want your mail client to be the tool to control this – starting with the ability to add signatures to outbound mails, or to configure client-side filtering to “automatically sort some mails in dedicated IMAP folders” (old understanding of things) / “apply certain labels to certain message” (new Google Mail understanding of things). I hope elementary team will manage the balance to keep applications both “usable” (in terms of offering simple, lean, straightforward user interfaces) and useful (in terms of providing enough features to use the applications it provides on a daily basis without having to search for replacement). But, given at where they got by now, I guess they do have a good chance of getting that done, sooner or later. Personally I am wishing them all the best on that.

See things…

Given there’s plenty of this online already, I didn’t bother taking and uploading screenshots. Some pointers:

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