elementary OS 6.0 "Odin"Think of elementary OS as the distro that - in a perfect world - would carry Linux to desktop domination. It's slick, it looks good, it's surprisingly nimble, and its developers have only the best of intentions.
So why doesn't it come with a word processor?
One would think, in the second decade of the 21st century, that a word processor would be standard equipment, showing up next to the email, calendar, and other apps after installation. But not in the new elementary OS 6, code named Odin. Yes, with a little bit of command line keystroking, you can add LibreOffice or Calligra or even AbiWord.
But an office suite, just because almost everyone uses a word processor or a spreadsheet or a presentation app these days?
And this, more than anything, points to the reason why elementary, despite its fame and accomplishments, makes so many of us install something else. Early on, I used elementary as my daily driver. It was that fresh and that amazing and even I began to wonder if it was the future.
elementary OS 6.0 -- The default desktop layout (full image size: 1.9MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
But as soon as it moved from Jupiter to Luna, I switched back to Xubuntu. I need a distro that helps me work - not one that sits on the screen so I can admire its beauty. And, sadly, Odin continues that tradition. Is it fast and mostly intuitive? Yep. Does it include terrific documentation and does it look gorgeous? You bet. Is it also annoying, frustrating, and even occasionally aggravating?
Of course it is.
elementary starts with surprisingly simple recommended hardware: Just 4GB of memory, an i3 processor or equivalent, and only a 15GB hard drive. In fact, the installation directions, and even how to write the ISO download to a thumb drive, are well-written and easy to follow. In this, it may be the best how-to for accessing a BIOS boot drive I've seen.
Odin is based on the Ubuntu 20.04 LTS release and uses the 5.11 kernel. It includes a variety of changes, improvements, and updates from elementary 5.1 Hera, many of which make the distro even better looking and even smoother in use. Look for updates for many of its bespoke applications, like the web browser (GNOME's old Epiphany browser, relabeled Web) and the email app (Mail), as well as a new to-do app called Task. The other apps, like Music, Video, Calendar, and Camera, do pretty much what they're supposed to do.
elementary OS 6.0 -- The welcome window (full image size: 1.6MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The installer has been streamlined and takes up only three screens once it appears - a most welcome change. My laptop booted in seconds, so quickly that I barely noticed. Battery life was good, too - some word processing, web browsing, emails, testing the video and music players, and the like, and I got about 3.5 hours on my well-used machine.
Multi-touch support has been improved, there's a firmware updater (also most welcome), and new wallpapers and app decorations have been added. Plus a dark mode, since everything has to have a dark mode these days.
elementary OS 6.0 -- Adjusting the theme of the virtual terminal (full image size: 957kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
But perhaps the most important change? The App Center focuses on installing software using Flatpak and includes Sideload, a dedicated Flatpak installation app. This is a fundamental change in the way most Linux distros handle software availability and installation. Yes, you can use the command line to install LibreOffice or Firefox, or to pull down Synaptic to handle the chore; Odin still accesses the Ubuntu repos. And, depending on how the App Center updates (since it's buggy too, just like most software centres in the Ubuntu family), all of the available apps may not show up right away. In my case it took three boots for the App Center to populate.
elementary OS 6.0 -- Trying to fetch package updates (full image size: 714kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
But the distro's developers would prefer you use their stuff - so much so that there's a warning if you try to install any other software: "Install untrusted/non-curated app? 'LibreOffice' is not curated by elementary and has not been reviewed for security, privacy, or system integration." Why this warning for major open-source software, which is certainly not anything like some phishing expedition on Android?
And, because it's elementary, the developers anticipate a variety of installation and use problems. There's a note in the FAQ outlining the App Center changes, as well a recommendation to only install software via Flathub, the Flatpak repository. There's also a mention of the distro's failure to install in VirtualBox (which I found to be spot on despite repeated attempts to make it work).
Installation, though, is not always easy and straightforward. If you don't use Etcher to put the ISO on a thumb drive, good luck. This is odd for an Ubuntu-based distro other than Pop!_OS; most typically install using any ISO writer. I have rarely had difficulties using Multi-System, for example.
And even if you use Etcher, there might be problems - hanging at "stdin: not a typewriter" on the initial installation screen, for example. And a Reddit post reported problems upgrading from Hera, which might even bork the box (which, to its credit, the FAQ says not to do in favor of a fresh install).
Getting some work done
This is where elementary reminds us that it can be so frustrating, even after "sudo apt-get ..." delivers a word processor.
The top panel, for all practical purposes, can't be changed. So no Nextcloud or Zoom icon. And if you don't use Bluetooth, which I don't, a grayed icon stares at you ... and stares at you ... and stares at you. There is, apparently, a third-party PPA workaround for this, but I didn't want to take the chance it would make matters worse.
A single click opens folders in the file manager (Files, also known as Pantheon), like KDE's Dolphin. But opening files in folders requires a double click. It's not so much that this is odd or that it can't be changed. The truly annoying part is that unless you know elementary, you double click on a folder and find yourself down two levels instead of one. It takes a half dozen or so double clicks before you can figure out what's going on.
Odin recognized my Canon MX-922 printer, which connects through Wi-Fi, but it wouldn't print. It still wouldn't print even after I used the tweaks that lets it print on Fedora and the Ubuntu distributions.
The Pantheon Tweak tool, a third-party app, enables changes in Files. This includes moving the close button to the upper right hand corner and adding a minimize button. But it doesn't fix the click/double-click thing.
Odin uses the Plank dock, but makes it more difficult to change settings - and it's not like changing Plank's settings are intuitive to begin with. Here, it's Ctrl-right-click, as opposed to right-click.
By themselves, these minor niggles are just part of the Linux experience. How many of us still hold a grudge because Unity isn't GNOME, and vice versa? The catch, though, is that these minor inconveniences add up. If I don't use Bluetooth, why should I be forced to look at the icon, but not see icons that I want, like Nextcloud and Zoom?
Finally, the non-elementary apps business may well be more than a minor niggle, despite good intentions and long explanations on elementary's website. It will scare away a lot of people who might want to try Odin because it is so pretty, works as well as it does, and gets such good reviews. The normal, intuitive thing to do is to look in the App Center for software; what will they think about Linux when there's a warning about using LibreOffice and Firefox?
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Hardware used for this review
My physical test equipment for this review was an HP EliteBook Folio 9480m laptop with the following specifications:
Processor: Intel Core i5-4310u, 2.6GHz
Storage: 240GB SSD
Memory: 8GB of RAM
Networking: Intel Wireless 7260 802.11ac dual band Wi-Fi + Bluettoh
Display: Intel Haswell-ULT Integrated Graphics
When he is not testing out new versions of Linux distributions, Jeff Siegel can be found writing about all things related to wine at Wine Curmudgeon.