Enso OS 0.2Enso is a young distribution based on Xubuntu. Enso features the Xfce desktop environment running on the Gala window manager; Gala has been used with good effect on the elementary OS distribution. Enso also features the Panther application menu and the Plank dock. The Enso website mentions the project is trying to have a positive environmental impact: "Help plant trees while you search the web with Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees with it's ad revenue, included in Enso."
The project's latest release, Enso OS 0.2, is based on Xubuntu 16.04 and is available in just one edition for 64-bit x86 computers. The ISO we download is approximately 1.5GB in size. The downloaded media boots to a graphical screen where a window appears and asks if we would like to try Enso's live desktop environment or immediately begin the installation process. This window also lets us select our preferred language from a list.
While the live desktop uses Xfce components running on the Gala window manager, the desktop has a certain GNOME-like appearance. There is a thin top panel which includes an application menu, clock and system tray. At the bottom-left corner of the screen there is a dock (powered by Plank) which acts as both a quick-launch bar and task switcher. Enso uses bright colours for the window control buttons and the minimize, maximize and close buttons are presented in blue, green and yellow. The busy mouse cursor is shown as the macOS-style beach ball.
Enso OS 0.2 -- The application menu (full image size: 529kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Enso's system installer can be launched from the dock at the bottom of the display. The distribution uses the Ubiquity graphical installer which is used by Ubuntu and its many community editions. The installer begins by giving us a chance to read the project's release notes. Clicking the link to the release notes opens the Firefox browser and connects to a page on the Ubuntu website which shows a list of past releases rather than showing us any information specific to Enso or any one release. The installer then gives us the option of installing third-party media support and downloading software updates. We can then choose automated or manual disk partitioning. Manual partitioning is, I found, fairly streamlined and we can see a visual overview of how our disk partitions are arranged. We are then asked to select our time zone, confirm the keyboard's layout and create a username and password for ourselves. The user creation screen gives us the option of encrypting our home directory. The installer worked quickly and concluded by offering to restart the computer.
Enso boots to a graphical login screen where we can sign into our account. Signing in loads up the Xfce 4.12 desktop. I found the desktop was pleasantly responsive when running on my desktop computer, but tended to lag a bit when running in a virtual machine. Given my recent experiences with Xfce, I suspect the extra window effects offered by Gala are probably the cause of the desktop's sluggishness in the virtual environment. One of the few other issues I ran into was the Plank dock at the bottom of the screen tended to appear above open windows, which got in the way when I was using large or maximized windows. The dock can be removed by disabling the Plank service in Enso's settings panel.
Speaking of changing settings, there are two ways to access Enso's settings modules. There is a settings panel which can be launched from the application menu. The panel provides a simple grid of modules which will help us tweak the desktop's appearance and behaviour. Alternatively, the application menu contains an entire sub-menu dedicated to listing the available settings modules. When I first started using Enso the sub-menu containing settings modules was simply labelled "Other", but after installing the first large batch of updates the sub-menu's name changed to "Preferences".
Enso OS 0.2 -- Changing wallpaper with a settings module (full image size: 528kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Most of the modules worked for me, but a few did not. Trying to launch either the window manager settings module or the window manager tweaks tool would cause Enso to display the busy, beach ball mouse cursor for a few seconds and nothing would open. The behaviour was the same whether trying to open these tools from the application menu or the settings panel. I suspect these modules were originally put in place to manage Xfce's default window manager and were not updated when Gala was swapped in as the new window manager.
While I was running Enso I virtually never encountered any distractions. There was no welcome window when I first set up the distribution, no messages about background services and no mention of software updates. The desktop is a mostly-empty workspace. We can manually check for new software packages by running the distribution's update manager. This small application simply lists the package upgrades available and we mark which items we want to download or ignore. The first day I was running Enso there were several new packages available, totalling 310MB in size. A few more updates trickled in through the week, around one every day or so.
While the updates all installed cleanly, there were side effects. Earlier I mentioned an application sub-menu changed its name. I also noticed the next day that when I booted Enso the login page had changed. Originally Enso presented me with a simple login page with wallpaper featuring a purple flower. On the screen there was one account icon I could select to sign in. After installing the first big batch of updates the wallpaper disappeared and there were three account icons. One for my user, one for a guest session and a third for signing into other accounts. The new guest account session worked, I could sign in without a password and anything I did would be discarded when I logged out. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any option to disable the guest session. While guest accounts are convenient, having one created post-install without warning and without a clear way to disable it is, in my opinion, a security issue.
Another change I noticed during the week was some icons changed appearance. The Thunar file manager, in particular, got a new and quite different icon. I suspect changing icons on users like this without warning is likely to confuse people.
Enso OS 0.2 -- GNOME Software showing Snap and Deb packages (full image size: 586kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Also on the subject of software packages, installing and removing applications is handled by GNOME Software, a modern package manager divided into three tabs. One tab displays software categories and guides us through browsing categories or searching for items based on key words. The second tab displays a list of installed applications and we can click a button next to each program to remove it. The third tab displays a list of available software upgrades.
GNOME Software generally worked well for me. I was able to find programs I wanted fairly easily. I do wish there was a search box to find or filter items while we are browsing a category, the search box is only visible at the top-level of the available software tab. Otherwise, finding items and removing old items was pretty easy. Installing upgrades worked as well.
I ran into two minor issues while using GNOME Software. One was that performing searches was slow, compared to searching with other software managers. It's a minor problem, but one which mintInstall and Synaptic do not have. The other concern I had was GNOME Software sometimes displayed duplicate entries. For example, searches for VLC or GIMP displayed two entries for the same program. As it turned out, what I was seeing was one entry for the Deb package and another for a Snap package. There is very little to distinguish one format from the other. Snaps don't have user ratings and tend to be much larger (VLC's Deb is 5MB while its Snap is 202MB), but otherwise there is no flag to set them apart. On the one hand new users might appreciate package format transparency, but on the other this may confuse people and result in them downloading much larger versions (and new, development versions) of software by accident. Both Snaps and Deb packages add launchers to the application menu when they are installed.
Enso ships with a fairly standard collection of applications. Firefox is included along with the Pidgin messaging software and the Thunderbird e-mail client. For some reason there are extra launchers in the application menu for Firefox and Thunderbird, apart from their standard launchers. These extra launchers are called "Web Browser" and "Mail Reader", respectively. The distribution provides us with LibreOffice and the Orage Calendar application and the Ristretto image viewer. There are other handy tools such as a desktop dictionary application, bulk file rename utility and the Thunar file manager. The distribution also ships with the Xfburn disc burning application, the GNOME Music player and the Parole media player. Enso ships with the systemd init software and version 4.4.0 of the Linux kernel.
Enso OS 0.2 -- The LibreOffice suite and a dictionary application (full image size: 224kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
One application I used quite a lot this week was Gigolo, an application which makes it easy to connect to remote computers, typically working through the OpenSSH service. Gigolo makes it easy to set up bookmarks to resources on remote computers and, with a few clicks, we can open a terminal on the remote machine or mount a remote directory and open it in our file manager. For me, having Gigolo installed by default largely replaced my usual tools of Filezilla and Yakuake for working on remote machines.
Enso OS 0.2 -- Connecting to remote computers using Gigolo (full image size: 201kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
One launcher in the application menu, called Learn Enso, opens the Firefox browser and displays some basic steps for navigating the desktop environment. There are also tips provided on the topics of finding desktop settings and installing new applications.
While using Firefox I looked for evidence of the Ecosia search engine mentioned on the distribution's website and did not find any. Google is Enso's default search engine. I could find no mention of Ecosia in Firefox's extensions or alternative search engines.
Enso OS 0.2 -- Browsing Enso's website with Firefox (full image size: 197kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I found that while the GNOME Music player worked without any problems, the Parole media player was unable to play either audio or video files when run in VirtualBox. An error would be displayed indicating a driver was missing. Parole did work flawlessly when run on my physical desktop computer. I also found alternative media players, such as VLC, ran smoothly in the virtual environment so the playback issue was limited to Parole.
One final quirk I ran into while playing media is Enso does not display any volume controls on the desktop. When using a keyboard with media keys we can use the keyboard's volume up/down keys, but on keyboards without media controls the user has no convenient method of adjusting audio volume. There is a PulseAudio mixer launcher in the application menu, but it is a cumbersome and slow method for making minor volume changes.
I experimented with Enso in two test environments, a VirtualBox virtual machine and a desktop computer. In both situations, Enso performed fairly well. My hardware was detected, sound and networking worked and Enso integrated smoothly with VirtualBox. I found the Xfce desktop was quite a bit more responsive on the physical desktop computer than when running in the virtual environment. I suspect this is because of Gala's visual effects. I had hoped to disable the extra effects, but the window manager control settings were inaccessible through the control panel. The system was stable in either environment and used about 440MB of RAM when signed into the desktop. A fresh install of Enso used about 4.5GB of hard drive space.
On the surface at least, running Enso feels a lot like running Xubuntu. The two distributions use the same core software and the differences, beyond desktop theme, seem minor. Both projects run the Xfce desktop and offer some of the same applications. The main difference I noticed was Enso uses Gala as the window manager. This seems to offer more eye candy, but on low-end hardware or in virtual environments, may cause reduced desktop performance.
Most of the time I enjoyed using Enso, the system was stable and provided the tools I wanted to use to work. GNOME Software's transparent mixture of Deb and Snap packages will probably appeal to people, especially users who want to run cutting edge packages on a stable, long term support platform.
My main issues with Enso tended to involve little rough edges. Nothing really showstopping happened during my week, but there were little quirks like the "release notes" link going to a generic Ubuntu page, or the window manager settings modules not opening. Having the default media player, Parole, fail to function in a virtual environment was a minor problem and worked around by using VLC. Having updates change program icons and the functionality of the login screen will probably unsettle new users.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the missing Ecosia search engine. The website had talked about Enso striving to be environmentally friendly, but I found no evidence of this feature. I'm not certain if the search engine was removed in version 0.2 or I just missed something. In the end, using Enso was a pretty good experience for me, but the little missing bits and changes introduced through software updates made me think I might have been better off with the distribution's parent, Xubuntu.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: