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The Linux desktop-a-week review: ChromeOS

A look at ChromeOS as a desktop environment, specifically discussing Aura and Aura Shell.

This is not a review of ChromeOS. Nor is it a discussion of the viability of using a Chromebook as your primary computer.

No, sir. We’re simply going to be looking at ChromeOS as a Desktop Environment from a usability perspective, and how it compares to the other Linux Desktop Environments I have reviewed in my “Desktop-a-week” series thus far.

Specifically, what we will be looking at are “Aura” and “Ash.” Aura is a hardware-accelerated display system. ASH (aka “Aura Shell”) is the actual window manager and desktop environment that sits on top of Aura. Technically, it is possible to run ASH on any traditional Linux distribution, but for the purpose of this review I have been using it in its native state on a ChromeOS-powered Chromebook.

In many ways ASH is a pretty simple, no-frills Desktop Environment. Applications (in this case, basically web apps and Chrome instances) can run in an overlapping, movable window environment. Windows can be maximized, minimized, and snapped to edges of the screen. You can Alt-Tab between windows or hit a key to show all running windows in a grid. Pretty standard stuff in terms of window management.

The bar along the bottom is, likewise, very much what you would expect. On the left side of the bar you have your application launcher menu. And, taking up the bulk of the center of the bar, you have a row of icons for launching commonly used apps (and showing which apps are running). Everything is…very traditional. Very functional.

Where it starts to get a little fancier is in the status indicators on the far right hand side of that bar (or panel… or whatever you’d like to call it). It shows all the expected bits of information – time, Wi-Fi strength, battery, etc. – but no matter what indicator you click on, the same unified settings panel appears.

That pop-up panel contains a variety of options – volume adjustment, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Locking, etc. – and it does so in a very minimalist, yet very powerful, way. Here's an example…

On that panel is a simple sound volume slider. Plug in a headphone and a headphone icon appears next to it. Click on the headphone icon and the panel slides over to reveal some optional settings, allowing you to choose which device you want to use for input and what device you want to use for output. The way it works is simple…but profoundly obvious and intuitive. It may be a little thing, but it’s the nicest sound device selection UI I think I’ve ever seen (at least for the majority of users).

And that’s really where ASH shines – simplicity and polish. It provides you with enough functionality to let you launch your apps (or open web pages) and then gets completely out of the way. And it does so while looking quite classy.

I’ve heard many people say that the purpose of a Desktop Environment is to let you launch and manage apps – and then to just step aside and let people get things done in those apps. If that truly is the ultimate goal for a Desktop Environment, then ChromeOS is (so far) the champion. The system takes mere minutes to master and never interferes with what you are working on.

Oh, I should leave you with one little thing that I both love and hate about ASH: The actual desktop itself. You can set the desktop wallpaper, but that’s the extent of what can be done with the “desktop.” There are no icons there – you can’t drop files on the desktop to work with them later.

At first, I found this rather annoying (I tend to toss all sorts of files on my desktop all day, often resulting in a relative mess of icons). But, on the flip side, having a desktop that’s always clean and free from clutter is rather pleasing. In the end, I consider that a wash.

Now, the big question – if ASH were able to handle running standard desktop Linux application (Gimp, LibreOffice, etc.), would I opt to use it over any other Desktop Environment? Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I’d probably consider it to be one of my top five environments. It’s fast, clean, intuitive and – perhaps most importantly – it gets out of my way.

I really dig it.

For the next installment in this series, I’m going to tackle one more environment that runs on Linux, but isn’t exactly your traditional Linux desktop system – Android.

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