The Pantheon Desktop is designed specifically for elementaryOS and is considered one of the most visually appealing desktops around. It clearly draws a lot of inspiration from macOS, which makes it a great alternative for those who are looking to make the switch or who have always wanted to master that workflow. In this Pantheon Desktop review, I take a look at user experience and performance, as well as some notable features, and deciding who should use the Pantheon desktop.
Pantheon First Impressions
At first glance, I’m struck by how modern and simple Pantheon looks. As a longtime Mac user, it feels quite similar, with a sharp, updated theme and a minimalist appearance. Things work a lot like you’d expect for a desktop, and I appreciate how approachable it is. The layout is comfortable, and I’m able to settle in easily.
The experience is quite similar to that of a Mac. If I wasn’t paying attention and there was a slightly different theme, I may have to look twice to tell the difference between a laptop running Pantheon vs. a Mac. The dock along the bottom, Plank, is incredibly simple and lightweight. It starts off with a default light theme from elementaryOS, but you can change a lot about Plank with the command
plank --preferences. Additionally, there’s a great search function in the Application Menu in the upper-left corner. You can either click it or use the keyboard shortcut Super + Space to open the Application Menu and then start typing to search for your application. This will also search AppCenter, which is the software center for elementaryOS.
There’s a clock-calendar combo in the center of the top bar, just like with GNOME Shell. It’s a nice way to check dates and see events at a glance. The system tray is in the upper right, which houses sound settings and media controls, networking, notifications, and power and session controls. The interface is easy to navigate, and everything is simple and welcoming. The applications, theme, and icons are beautiful, and they make for a really attractive system that works incredibly well as a FOSS rival to macOS.
The Pantheon Calendar App
Many of the default applications that ship with Pantheon by default are written from scratch or significantly modified from existing applications in the GNOME software pack. The Pantheon Calendar app is no different. It integrates beautifully into the default theme, and it works well by showing both a month view and a daily view by default. It’s incredibly simple, but it works beautifully for what you need. You can choose different months and days, manage calendars, add events, switch back to today’s date, and that’s about it. It’s elegant and stays out of your way.
AppCenter is more a feature of elementaryOS, but it’s an integral part of Pantheon as we know it. AppCenter is the graphical software store in Pantheon, and it’s not only beautiful but also very functional. It integrates Flatpaks beautifully, which is something the elementary team has been working on for some time, and it also gives developers the chance to have a suggested donation and maintain a “pay what you want” model, just like elementaryOS itself. As far as graphical front ends for repository packages and Flatpaks go, AppCenter is one of the most clean and integrated.
The Pantheon Code app is one of the cleanest, simplest text editors I’ve ever used. It’s beautiful and provides you with all the options or choices you could want in a basic text editor. You can choose a language or framework, the number of spaces you want in your tabs, and also the lines and characters to jump to in the top menu. It’s the perfect GUI text editor, and it allows for as much modularity as you would want without impeding your work.
This is a small one, but I have to mention the excellent global settings menu called Switchboard. This is another one of the great calls from macOS, wherein you have one single global settings menu and can choose all your options from it. Also, there’s a powerful search function, so if you’re not sure where to set your display options, you can search “resolution,” and it will bring up the option for it.
An awesome feature of Pantheon is that there are tons of great keyboard shortcuts. For example, you can open the Application Menu with Super + Space. You can switch workspaces with Super + Left or Right, tile windows with Super + Ctrl + Left or Right, and show an awesome multitasking view with Super + Down. Plus, applications have hover menus that show useful keyboard shortcuts. This is quite similar to macOS, but they’re much easier to find. Just press the Super key, and it’ll bring up a list of keyboard shortcuts that are baked right into the system.
Performance with Pantheon is generally good but can be a bit of a mixed bag. At true idle, the system uses about 550MB RAM and about 1% CPU. That’s quite light, but as I watched this virtual machine, I noticed that occasionally Pantheon’s window manager Gala would occasionally spike the CPU to around 50%. This doesn’t always happen, and it could just be that I opened the terminal at an absolutely clean fresh boot, but it still gave me pause.
In my personal experience, I’ve had Pantheon run on 12 year old hardware with a Core 2 Duo and have absolutely no problems. The performance is excellent, and animations work well even in a virtual environment with absolutely zero 3D acceleration. This is something I haven’t seen since I reviewed Elive, a Debian-based distro using a great implementation of Enlightenment that is specifically touted as working well on computers with no 3D acceleration. Pantheon works beautifully on low resource machines.
The Cons of Pantheon
While there is a lot to like about Pantheon, there are several things that many users won’t like. One of the main things is that there is almost no customization. You can’t even minimize the application windows. This is also a lot like macOS, where Apple limits your ability to customize the desktop beyond changing wallpapers, hot corners, and dock icon sizes. This has been worked around with Elementary Tweaks, but it involves adding a PPA and building the tweaks from source. It’s an overly complicated way to get a dark theme and change the minimize and maximize buttons in the window bars.
Where to Experience Pantheon
The obvious choice for Pantheon is elementaryOS. It’s easily the best and most complete implementation of Pantheon. The theme looks great, locking and screensavers work well, and it all melds together into one nice-looking finished product.
There are also versions of Pantheon available for stock Ubuntu, Arch, and Fedora. From what I’ve heard and experienced, experiences vary wildly between users, so I’d only recommend it if you’re specifically looking to tinker and mess around with things.
Who Should Use Pantheon
Any user who values form over customization would love Pantheon. Everything looks and works great out of the box, and if you don’t mind a light theme or no minimize button (just hit Super + H), you don’t have to change everything. Plus, if you do want a dark theme, you can wait until elementaryOS 6 releases later this year, where the team is putting in a dark theme toggle out of the box.
Additionally, any user who’s coming over from a Mac should try elementaryOS. It’s an awesome alternative, and there are many different little tweaks you can do and apps you can install to make your experience more comfortable.