Elementary OS has a reputation for elegant minimalism and user friendliness, enjoying a strong fan base. Its latest release, Hera 5.1, has been out for a while now, but the company has recently made an interesting move in one of its updates. In this Elementary OS review, as we put Hera through its paces, we’ll explore what’s new, what to expect if its your first time using the OS, and how it stacks up against rival desktops.
As this is a minor (5.x) release, changes to Elementary are mostly evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Nevertheless, Hera comes with two big changes. Firstly, users can now install updates without administrator permission. This has certainly made it more convenient for the user, though many will think it is a bad move.
The second big change, and the one that resulted in the above change, is the use of Flatpak apps as the default. The reasoning is that Flatpak apps are sandboxed, so there is no real need for administrator permission to install and update it any further.
Head to the website, and you’ll be presented with a kind of paywall, but don’t panic, it’s a pay-what-you-want deal. That price can be $0 if you’re tight or merely elementary-curious. There’s one ISO file, which is 64-bit only and works perfectly under any USB boot creator. It booted on every machine tested.
As Elementary is based on Ubuntu, the live USB follows the same desktop-based installer structure, so you can try out the OS before installing it. It leaves an excellent first impression. From icon sizes and fonts to carefully chosen wallpapers, Elementary’s creators have gone to painstaking efforts to make sure everything is as simple, elegant, and pleasant as possible.
As for the installer itself, it’s the usual Ubuntu fare. There are no nasty surprises in store, and you can do other things while elementary installs itself.
Boot times are quick, and it’s not long until the desktop is fully loaded. If you’ve never used elementary before, expect a chiefly Mac-inspired interface with a large icon dock interface instead a Windows-style Start button and taskbar.
The dock hides when not in use and is used to launch and minimize apps. The dock acts as a central focus point and is intended to be customized by the user, removing any apps that are not regularly used and adding your own regularly-used apps from the Applications menu.
Exploring the rest of the OS, the team’s design philosophy is apparent throughout: minimal documentation, immediate usability, and restricted configuration. The System Settings stand out in particular: easy to navigate but definitely sparse.
The app store is split into two sections: one for getting new apps, the other for applying updates. It’s very simple and easy to use. It was lacking a little in choice back in 5.0 but is now greatly improved thanks to those additional Flatpak packages.
However, it’s when you press the Windows key that elementary really comes to life. Behind the simple GUI lies a powerful set of keyboard shortcuts that work in combination with a clever virtual desktop system.
When it has just started, Elementary has a single empty desktop. But then you start opening full single windows in new desktops, flicking quickly between them with two buttons, and the whole experience becomes incredibly satisfying.
The obsessive-compulsive neatness comes in to play when you close those windows and find the now unused desktops have been deleted behind you and there is just the one desktop remaining. It’s all very neat, very impressive, very OCD.
Some Necessary Caveats
Sometimes Elementary’s stripped-back philosophy goes a little too far for its own good. I appreciate that restricting configuration helps in not overwhelming the user, but at some point most users will probably need to change something that’s not there. Also, plugging in a USB drive doesn’t bring up any kind of automount prompts – you need to open it manually in the file manager.
Then there’s the issue of minimizing windows. This is easily done, either through the dock or by a shortcut key, but it’s not obvious to all users and isn’t even listed in Elementary’s keyboard shortcut screen. Whether or not a minimize button should be there by default is something you can decide, but Elementary Tweaks – which lets you add a minimize button – probably should be installed by default.
Furthermore, some libraries and packages that would normally be included with other distros aren’t installed, which genuinely gets in the way of basic operations. If you want to add a repository, you need to install
software-properties-common, and that requires googling. The Elementary ISO is only 1.48 GB, so it would be worth adding a little flab for some “it just works” convenience.
Elementary OS is a gorgeous product that will leave an excellent lasting impression and will likely win over new Linux users. Nevertheless, there are situations when all this tasteful minimalism may become a hindrance. Sometimes elegance needs to make way for brute force, and if you have a desktop PC and rely on heavy customization, you’re probably better off with something like KDE, MATE, or Xfce.
However, on portable computers this system is right at home. There are times when it genuinely feels like you’re using the future of Linux. I’m personally using KDE Neon on my main workstation, but when I’m on the go, I use Elementary on an ultra-mobile PC. The two machines complement each other nicely, and together, they make for a very powerful and satisfying combination.
Is Elementary too Mac-like for your tastes? Check out our list of the best Linux distros for Windows users. Or maybe you just want to see the competition? Check out our list of 5 of the Best Linux Distributions for Mac Users.