Enso OS 0.4Enso OS is a Linux distribution based on Xubuntu. Enso features the Xfce desktop with the Gala window manager which is imported from elementary OS. Enso OS 0.4 is the project's latest release and the new version runs on 64-bit (x86_64) computers exclusively.
The 0.4 release offers a few new features. There is a new note taking application included by default called Pinny. The AppHive (sometimes written "Apphive") software manager has been updated and allows users to mark (star) favourite applications. Reportedly, AppHive's performance has been improved while it is processing queued actions in the background. This release also includes a new dark theme, though the desktop uses a light theme by default. While there are not many new features in this version's release announcement, the distribution does seem to be placing a focus on minor improvements and tweaks to the user experience.
Live media and installer
I downloaded Enso OS 0.4 which is available as a 1.8GB ISO file. Booting from this media triggers a self-check to insure the download was not corrupted. A short time later a graphical window appears and asks if we would like to Try the distribution or launch its installer. Taking the live option brings up the Xfce/Gala desktop which I will talk about later. Taking the Install option launches the Ubiquity system installer.
Enso OS 0.4 -- The default desktop is mostly Xfce with the Gala window manager (full image size: 802kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Ubiquity is a graphical installer which will be familiar to anyone who has used the Ubuntu distribution or one of its many descendants. The installer quickly walks us through picking our language, keyboard layout, confirming our time zone, partitioning the disk, and creating a user account. The installer offers to show us the project's release notes. Clicking the provided link opens Firefox to display the Ubuntu 20.04 release notes.
Ubiquity gives us the option of installing third-party software packages such as media codecs and wireless drivers. It also gives us the chance to download software updates during the install process. When it comes to disk partitioning we have a few options. We can use guided partitioning to give a disk or partition over the to installer and have it set up the operating system as it sees fit. The guided option supports working with LVM and ZFS volumes. Alternatively we can take a more manual route and use Ubiquity's friendly, graphical partition manager to format the disk and assign mount points. When the installer finishes its work it offers to restart the computer.
Enso boots to graphical login screen and signing in brings up the project's custom desktop environment. Enso uses bright, flowery wallpaper and has a thick launch panel at the bottom of the screen. This panel holds the application menu, some quick launch buttons, and acts as the task switcher. A second, thinner panel appears at the top of the screen and acts as a unified application menu bar. A system tray and logout options can be found in the upper-right corner.
Enso OS 0.4 -- The welcome window (full image size: 554kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Immediately after logging into my account the first time a welcome window appeared, followed a moment later by a second window for the update manager. The welcome window contains two screens. The first contains just a simple greeting. The second window offers us a series of shortcut buttons that open configuration utilities. One button invites us to edit our user's details (such as our address, phone number, and e-mail address). Another button offers to change system settings and opens the desktop settings panel. The button to install applications opens the AppHive software manager and the Learn Enso button opens on-line documentation in Firefox. The documentation mostly provides an overview of the Xfce/Gala desktop and its features. The last button invites us to "join the conversation" and it opens Firefox to connect us with an on-line chat room for Enso users. These buttons and their corresponding tools all work as expected.
The update manager is borrowed from Ubuntu and displays a list of available software updates. On my first day with Enso there were three updates listed, totalling 56M in size. One of these items was a group of packages which was described collectively as "Ubuntu base". These packages all downloaded and were applied without incident.
I began experimenting with Enso in a VirtualBox virtual machine. The distribution did fairly well. The desktop was responsive and the system generally ran smoothly. There was one session where the operating system crashed and failed to cleanly shutdown when I tried to power off the virtual machine, but this error did not repeat itself.
Enso's desktop did not dynamically resize with the VirtualBox window, however I could adjust the screen resolution through the Display configuration module. Unfortunately, every time I restarted the virtual machine Xfce/Gala would forget the display resolution I had set, requiring that I set it again every time I logged into my account.
When I switched over to running Enso on my laptop the system worked well. My hardware was all detected, the desktop was responsive, and everything functioned properly right out of the box.
Enso OS 0.4 -- Trying a darker theme (full image size: 188kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
I set up Enso two different ways. When I ran the distribution on an ext4 filesystem the operating system consumed 475MB of memory when logged into the desktop. When I tried installing Enso on a ZFS volume the distribution's memory usage increased to 860MB. In either case the operating system used 3.2GB of disk space, plus swap space. When I used guided partitioning, Enso set up a 1GB swap partition.
The distribution's application menu is unusual. When we click the application menu button it opens a window in the middle of the desktop. The window contains a two-pane menu which works a lot like the typical Whisker menu often partnered with Xfce desktops. Unfortunately the window the menu is displayed in cannot be moved or resized. I'm not sure why the developers chose to place the menu far away from the application menu button or place it in an unmovable window, but it is a bit inconvenient.
Enso OS 0.4 -- The application menu (full image size: 825kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Enso ships with a small collection of open source applications. We find the Firefox web browser, Transmission bittorrent client, and Atril document viewer in the application menu. There is a launcher in the menu called Web Browser which just opens Firefox. There is another launcher called Mail Reader which doesn't launch any programs by default as no e-mail client is installed. Digging further we can find the Ristretto image viewer and the Parole media player. Enso provides media codecs, assuming we chose to enable third-party packages through Ubiquity at install time.
Enso also ships with the Xfburn disc burning software, the Gigolo remote file browser, and the GNU Compiler Collection. The distribution also includes manual pages, the systemd init software, and version 5.4 for the Linux kernel. Apart from the Gala window manager, the desktop identifies itself as Xfce and mostly uses Xfce 4.14 elements.
I had hoped to find tools included to leverage the features of ZFS, however I did not find any installed. It also looks as though GRUB does not integrate with ZFS snapshots, slightly limiting the usefulness of having ZFS as the root filesystem.
Perhaps the biggest drawing feature of Enso OS is its unusual Xfce/Gala desktop. This desktop environment has a few nice characteristics. It was fairly responsive during my trial and it looks nice. I wasn't a big fan of the default theme, which is quite bright and uses transparency, but I was able to switch to a dark theme and turn off transparent terminals.
Enso OS 0.4 -- The desktop settings panel (full image size: 809kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
One of the first things people are likely to notice is Enso defaults to placing window buttons on the left rather than the right. Personally, I like this approach as it requires less mouse movement most of the time. I looked to see if it would be easy to change this and did not find a clear way to adjust window button placement. There is a low-level settings editor that makes it possible to adjust button order, but it is archaic. There may be a settings module for adjusting button placement, but it was not obvious to me.
Speaking of defaults, when running Enso on my laptop the desktop set the mouse up with inverted (natural) scrolling. This is a matter of taste, but I really do not like it. I understand people who use mobile devices may find inverted scrolling more familiar, but it's going against 30 years of habit in my case. I also don't like that "scrolling up" on the volume control turns the sound down, and "scrolling down" turns the audio volume up. This behaviour can be adjusted in the settings panel.
When we first sign into the desktop the top panel shows directory locations: Documents, Music, Pictures, etc. Clicking on these menus shows files in the selected directory and clicking a file's name opens the selected file. This is a great shortcut But once an application opens the top panel becomes the application's menu bar. Sometimes, once all applications are closed, the last application's menu remains in the top panel, preventing access to the file/directory shortcuts. I found that if an application window is closed using the red close button, the top panel reverts to displaying file locations in our home directory. However, if the last application is closed using a quit option located in the panel menu, then the program's menu stays behind. This appears to be a glitch which will hopefully be fixed as I like using the location menu.
Enso OS 0.4 -- The application menu lingering after Thunar has been closed (full image size: 1.1MB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
On the subject of appearances, programs installed from Snap packages do not match the desktop's theme. This makes the applications look oddly blocky and out of place in the otherwise sleek Xfce/Gala interface. This problem is certainly not unique to Enso, but it does make Snap applications look non-native.
Apart from its hybrid desktop, one of the few features Enso offers that sets it apart from other distributions is the AppHive software centre. AppHive begins by showing us three tabs down the left side of the window. These tabs show popular applications, categories of applications we can browse, and the third tab shows updates & new drivers.
Enso OS 0.4 -- The AppHive software centre (full image size: 169kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
On the surface, AppHive works much the same way as GNOME Software or Discover; it provides us with a slick interface for browsing collections of desktop applications and clicking on an item brings up a full page description. I like that AppHive tells us whether an application is provided by a classic Deb package or a portable Snap package. This information can be found on a program's description page.
In theory AppHive allows us to mark a program for installation and then continue browsing for additional software. However, in practise I found that the software centre's interface would lock up and fail to respond sometimes while I was browsing for more programs to download. The good news here is that even if we force AppHive to close when it locks up, the system will continue to download software in the background.
I don't feel as though AppHive is doing anything distinctive compared next to other modern software managers, but it doesn't really have any serious problems (apart from the responsiveness issues I mentioned already). It looks nice and gets the job done.
One thing I find interesting about the Enso project is it comes across as relatively humble. The distribution's website doesn't make bold claims about changing the computing landscape or leading the way in innovation. It doesn't claim to be especially easy to use or perfect for gaming. The project does mention a few things it does differently, such as its software centre and the hybrid desktop. This understated approach was one I found somewhat endearing. The project sets out to do a few things differently from its parent, but not with an apparent quest for glory.
The AppHive software centre, as I mentioned above, is a capable software manager. It mostly functions well and makes it easy to find new applications. I would have liked more status and progress information during the install process, but otherwise AppHive is a decent software centre.
To me the more interesting feature was the Xfce/Gala desktop. It offers most of the flexibility and performance of Xfce while serving up a more modern (or alternatively more macOS-style) desktop interface. Whether modern/macOS is a characteristic that appeals to the user will likely be entirely a personal choice. For me, the desktop did not introduce many features that really appealed to me. Though to be fair, it also didn't do anything that caused me serious problems. The application menu in a window concept never really clicked with me, but otherwise the hybrid interface worked well.
The top bar with its shortcuts to files in my home directory certainly appealed to me. On the other hand, having the top panel also act as a unified menu bar for the active application felt awkward. In the end, it mostly balanced out.
On the whole Enso didn't wow me, but it also functioned well. It provided a decent experience and mostly stayed out of my way while I was working. I can see how this style of desktop experience would appeal to people, especially those who like macOS or elementary OS style desktop environments.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast