Elementry OS · Linux Distribution

ElementaryOS: An evaluation

I recently had to install Linux on my parents’ computer. They’ve been running Ubuntu with LXDE and were NOT happy with it. The desktop configuration kept breaking and sometimes, it wasn’t usable at all. I laid down some basic criteria for the operating system I was going to install:

  1. It must be intuitive and easy to use even for non-technical folks.
  2. No terminal. If I have to use the terminal to set things up, the distribution loses points.
  3. The distro must work out of the box without a problem. Basic applications included should be useful.
  4. Good hardware support.
  5. No trying to optimize performance for hardware. I decided to buy more hardware for better performance.

The fight was between Manjaro, Elementary OS, and Debian(For some Reason). Ubuntu desktop broke far too often for me to even consider it. I eventually settled on ElementaryOS because I’ve been hearing really rave reviews about it and I was unsure about Manjaro because I wasn’t confident enough that my parents could troubleshoot any problems that might crop up.

The good stuff

Elementary is beautiful to look at. It aims to be a replacement for MacOS so, yea, that shouldn’t be a surprise. The auto-hide by default seemed like a decent default setting. Lots of screen real-estate too which is good. It’s mere cosmetic stuff but still, it’s comforting to see some thought put into user experience, esp. for a Linux distribution.

Btw, the desktop can’t be right-clicked upon. I mean it makes sense. What’s the point in right-clicking on the desktop anyway? My heart hated it, my brain liked it. I right clicked to try to refresh desktop change the wallpaper. A few minutes of frustrated, temple vein throbbing, self restraint from formatting the disk and installing Debian later, I found out that I could do it from the Displays Desktop section of the system settings.

I was quite skeptical about the default browser, Epiphany, a.k.a. Gnome browser. But it surprised me by working perfectly. Sad that “Whatsapp web” didn’t like Epiphany’s  UserAgent and recommended that I use a better, “modern” browser, whatever that meant. Google seemed to have issues with Epiphany while I was editing Google docs., displaying a small banner suggesting that users switch to a mainstream browser. But otherwise, it seemed to work fine. I tried playing a Youtube video and it worked fine. However, when I loaded gaana.com, the music streaming site, the webkit process choked the system resources. Dunno if the problem lay with Epiphany or the site. Other services like Saavn worked without a hitch, so probably the site.

On an AMD FX 6-core processor with 4 Gigs of RAM, the performance was quite good. I did find the App center freeze in the middle of a full system upgrade. I killed the window but found apt lurking in the process tree. I let the bugger live and it finished its job after a few minutes. I found the system response to be chunky while doing some heavy browsing. A few minutes of DuckDuckGo-fu later, I decided to install amd64-microcode by ubuntu-drivers autoinstall (from the terminal. ugh.) I noticed performance improved a lot but it could be a coincidence. Every other time, the system felt butter smooth. I’m planning to upgrade the RAM because my parents do switch users often with heavy applications open in their work-spaces.

ElementaryOS a lot to be desired. Here are my problems:

Dearth of applications: Elementary’s App Center is impressive! It has all the mainstream Linux applications one would need. That said, there are a few applications that could have been included in addition to the standard ones. I didn’t find Skype or Google talk-plugin. I had to manually install those. I couldn’t find the password manager I use, KeepassX(C) in the repository. Nor could I install Bitwarden plugin on the Epiphany browser.

No one click application support: Once I realized I couldn’t install KeepassXC from the standard repositories, I downloaded the Appimage for it only to find later that Elementary (Loki) does not include support for Appimage, Flatpak or Snap.

No way to add repositories: Elementary Loki is based on Ubuntu LTS. The installation manager is Debian’s famous child: apt. When I tried to find how I could include a custom repository (PPA), I couldn’t find a way. The AppCenter had no way to add the repository either. The only way I could install Debian packages was to download .deb files and install them. Speaking of which…

Deb packages can’t be clicked-on: The .deb packages should be click-able to install them. Instead Archive Manager would open the .deb file. Deb files are simply compressed archives. Culmination of this and the previous points led me to break the “no-Terminal” rule. I had to dpkg -i package.deb only to see dependency issues. So I had to apt -f install to resolve dependency issues. Can’t expect my non-technical parents to do this if things break down later on.

I discovered an app called Eddy on the App Center that can install .deb files, but it doesn’t come installed by default.

The Email application didn’t have any instructions for configuring Gmail. I have two-factor authentication enabled in my Gmail. Weirdly, auto-configuration for Gmail just fails when you have 2FA enabled. I searched online and came across several posts stupidly suggesting that users should disable 2FA. The correct way to handle this is to create one-time application passwords that you can use without having to worry about 2FA.

Also, why isn’t there support for OAuth2 logins for the Mail App? Seems to me like an obvious thing to have in 2018.

The contacts application wasn’t very helpful to me due mainly to it’s abject lack of existence. It would have been nice to have a decent contacts application with LDAP and DAV support.

 

Notes on Epiphany browser (Gnome Web)

Popular opinion is that Epiphany isn’t a good enough default browser. Some suggest that Mozilla Firefox be made the default browser on Elementary. I say nonsense. Epiphany can do most things Firefox or Chrome can. Sure, it doesn’t have fancy features like U2F support, etc., but it’s still a functional and complete web browser. Take the feature set of the latest release of Epiphany, as of today it supports

  • Progressive Web Applications !
  • Mozilla Sync – sync history, open tabs, and config
  • Ad / Popup Blockers – ’nuff said
  • Tracking protection (not sure if merely dnt flags or active protection)
  • Safe Browsing API
  • Forced HTTPS using `libhttpseverywhere` – No plugin required.

Hopefully, it’ll get all the other fancy features but until then, it’s no less a browser than other mainstream browsers.

Conclusion

I like ElementaryOS Loki. It’s clean and it works. Loved the mail app and the notifications menu bar widget. Epiphany isn’t bad either. I challenged myself to not install Firefox / Thunderbird and stick with Epiphany / Mail to be able to evaluate the default applications fairly. These applications are quite underrated. People should give them a try. That said, I would have loved for it to have more applications available in the App Center.

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