elementary OS: One Week In

This week I’ve been getting acquainted with elementary OS, on my Dell XPS 13" DE (9360). My aim has been to use the features, and discover the intentions behind elementary OS, while customising it to fit my own needs. I’m big believer in instant usability, with perks for those users able to learn shortcuts and tailor their experience — but it’s crucial that users at all levels are comfortable.

My intention is to solve any issues that crop up (if possible), and explain what I’ve done, rather than pick things apart. I make two assumptions:

  1. elementary OS is virtually ready for the masses
  2. elementary OS is not ready for the masses (yet)

I’ll be testing these assumptions as I explore further, and individual features will either be ready or not, as I see it.

I Have a Confession

I have allowed myself to blur the distinction between Linux, 3rd Party Software, hardware, Ubuntu and elementary OS in this article — because only users who understand these distinctions will truly appreciate who’s at fault on any single issue.

In spite of this, I think elementary OS can be held up to the highest bar, by which I mean the ecosystem is ready, and as the vendors for the OS distribution it is their responsibility to bring all the rest to the user, and if they cannot, they must help the user to understand/troubleshoot. Apple, and Microsoft also have plenty of OS issues, so I’m not expecting perfection, just a great experience.

Core features

AppCenter

After install, AppCentre is the first piece of elementary OS software a user will likely encounter, as it delivers system updates, and lets face it — even though there is pre-bundled software to get you going, most users have some specific needs that will be met by third party software. I installed updates and Darktable, it all worked well, was easy to navigate. The basics of this — ready!

I do think there should be a tab for “recently installed” that includes software currently being installed. This is a minor complaint though, as software showed up almost immediately in Applications (top left corner of the topbar), and my laptop touchscreen worked out of the box, so sometimes it is easier to poke it than open with my mouse!

Notifications

The notifications are great, I’m particularly fond of the terminal integration. Being notified when long running commands complete, that’s a nice touch. elementary OS have got a lot right here. You can customise the behavior easily too. You get a custom setting for each internal app, and then a general setting for all others (show bubbles, play sounds, keep log). My main experience was with Spotify, where I liked the bubbles popping up, but didn’t want a sound, or a log of song notifications I hadn’t suppressed, so I had to alter the default settings. Notifications are a hugely personal thing though, but it’s a great integration, and behaved similarly to the MacOS notifications, but with a greater simplicity. Apple are always desperate to show you stock prices and weather — I don’t care, I just want the notifications. I can only see this continuing to be central to elementary OS, and getting deeper integration, but retaining it’s behaviour and simplicity.

I have one suggestion for notifications — a shortlink (maybe right click menu) to edit the settings for that particular notification source. I accidentally edited the wrong settings on first try.

Multitasking

A couple of days ago I was running multiple programs, multiple browser tabs, and I accidentally stumbled upon the shortcut for switching workspaces.

Windows Key (cmd) + Number

The screen subtly animates as it switches to whatever software you have loaded up, smoothly and conveniently. This feature is intuitive, and certainly seems ready.

While writing this article (and trying to learn the Medium.com hotkeys) I stumbled upon the zoom feature for elementary OS.

Windows Key (cmd) + (+ / -)

This feature really makes life simple, and is extra helpful on a HiDPI screen, where for various reasons sometimes things load up miniscule.

WiFi

WiFi worked in the installer, it works really well on startup, and often re-connects on system suspend and wake, however sometimes when I wake up the computer it doesn’t see networks, and I need to run:

sudo service NetworkManager restart

Maybe there is something I’m missing, but it seems more effective than using the GUI WiFi off/on toggle switch in the interface.

HiDPI

If you don’t know what HiDPI is, I suggest you look at elementary OS contributor Cassidy James Blaede’s excellent article on the subject. I was very impressed that the scaling settings were applied correctly for my HiDPI laptop screen from the install, there used to be less variety on this front and many software developers continue to neglect accounting for this. Some users also prefer to have greater screen real-estate where everything is just tiny, although I’m not one. I just like the crisp details.

Spotify was an offender here. It’s not really anything to do with elementary OS, but Spotify opens tiny on HiDPI Linux, the fix is simple:

Open: /usr/share/applications/spotify.desktop and edit…

Exec=spotify — force-device-scale-factor=2 %U

Second Monitor

Initially I was very excited my USB-C to HDMI adapter worked instantly, and I was able to plug-and-play, however on an standard HD monitor, the scaling set for my almost 4k screen is ridiculous on a normal DPI screen. The settings are not the same for both screens, and there is no auto-detection. Work is ongoing, in the Linux community, as this variable DPI issue won’t be going away any time soon, and it’s complex because a screen’s size, dpi and viewing distance (very different for a projector and laptop screen for example), are all related to the viewing experience. Things like the size you’d want text to be, for comfortable reading.

I’m not the only with these issues, my solution (thanks to a bit of research), was to put this command into a file, and run it when I need:

xrandr --output eDP1 --scale 1x1 --pos 3840x0 ; xrandr --output DP1 --scale 2x2 --mode 1920x1080 --fb 7680x2160 --pos 0x0

This works, but if the elementary OS topbar stays on the laptop screen, which it doesn’t always, it covers the top of fullscreen apps and you can’t reach some of the controls (such as selecting browser tabs). Get in touch if you have any ideas why this might happen, as if I wasn’t comfortable with keyboard shortcuts, this would have been a real problem.

I also have a problem where the Displays settings app doesn’t fit the screens inside it’s constraints, which makes it very difficult to use. Notice the settings cog is not available on second screen in this setup.

When trying to document this, the screenshot app (installed with elementary OS) crashed the whole machine, which I’m confident was caused by my custom settings above — my machine panic rebooted and I had to use the default settings to get a screenshot. When I tried to return to my custom settings, I had a nightmare. After loads of messing around, I discovered that if I plug in my monitor after login, it has much more stable behaviour, but otherwise Pantheon (the elementary OS desktop software) kept crashing when I adjusted the scaling.

Localisation

I found that while the timezone and keyboard were set correctly, when I looked at keyboard / language settings, I discovered that you need to manually install the locale (English UK for me), and select the appropriate formatting. This was easy, but should perhaps be part of the initial setup.

My keyboard also jumps to US configuration erratically, there is an icon so it’s easy to switch back, but I haven’t got to the bottom of why this happens.

Colour Profile

I like editing photos, but I don’t have the reliable environment needed for a perfect calibration, nor tools. I opted to install a custom colour profile for the XPS 13" (9360). The installation was simple, all I needed to do was open Device Colour Profiles from Settings, and add in my new profile, it then installed the necessary dependencies via the interface and then it was set.

Immediately I was able to see my white balance neutralise, it had been on the blue end, and looking at photos in a colour managed environment, things seem to have improved. I paid $4.96 for the Office / Web Design profile.

USB Key

I had a USB key, with ExFat encoding from using in a Mac, and that meant it didn’t load and mount initially. This could be problematic for a lot of users. Microsoft and Apple are incredibly unhelpful in supporting each others file systems though, and they are the cause of these types of problem, but the primary solution is to get ExFat file system handling (update: previously I had incorrectly suggested NTFS package, and NTFS should work out-of-the-box):

sudo apt-get install exfat-fuse exfat-utils

Wrapping Up

I’ve found elementary OS to be generally stable, simple, fast and fun to work with, only needing to reset the machine when playing with commands I haven’t fully understood. I do feel that there are a lot of potential risk factors for new users, and I’m a little on the fence as to whether or not elementary OS is ready for the big leagues or not, but I am certainly happy to keep using it, and I’d happily recommend it to friends looking to leave the Mac/Windows environment (knowing I could point them in the right direction, if they get into any issues).

I think my two assumptions about elementary OS being virtually ready, but not ready for the masses are true. One could easily argue either way on this point though, as the vast majority of features work perfectly well. I think — if the direction of development continues going in such a positive direction, elementary OS will be absolutely incredible, and I’m definitely glad I tried it over just using stock Ubuntu, as they get a lot right.

The only thing that is a non-starter for many, is that to get to a satisfactory system setup, most users will still need to jump on the command line. I don’t know how elementary OS could mitigate some of the licence issues that make things like Google Chrome a command line installation, and closed-source software that tracks users in numerous ways is controversial, in the Linux world at least. More critical mass in the Linux world will only help this though.

Final Words

I think, all things considered, you should go ahead and install elementary OS right now. It’s really a positive experience, and you can always visit the support site if you need, there is a lot of energy around elementary OS and by using it, you will be improving it! It’s pay-what-you-want, and while I did pay, if you are unsure, you can always start without paying a penny (but money for them does mean more budget for improvements for you), and you could potentially even earn it back by fixing bug bounties yourself! There is very little to lose, and lots to gain.

Feel free to comment or tweet me

P.S: Rather than complain about struggling to install Chrome, I wish more people would give Firefox another chance, as with their current development plans, they’ll be competing head-on with Chrome again in great ways, I’m confident, and they have their users and open internet standards as an end-game, they don’t try use the browser as a vehicle for selling your data, or distributing tools built on proprietary technology (and showing warning messages for using Google apps in other browsers).

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