The Linux Desktop-a-week Review: elementary OS's Pantheon

I spent a week running elementary OS's Pantheon.

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My ongoing quest to live in every Linux Desktop Environment – for one week at a time – has brought me to a relative newcomer -- the elementary OS project's “Pantheon” environment.

Read the journey so far: Enlightenment, Awesome, MATE, KDE Plasma, Ubuntu's Unity

Last week, I was pretty hard on Unity. Specifically, I knocked Unity's lack of customizability and the fact that you can really only use Unity when running Ubuntu (and, even then, if you want the latest version of the Unity desktop, you need the latest version of Ubuntu itself... which is rather annoying).

Of those two reasons that I knocked Ubuntu's Unity, well, elementary's Pantheon has those problems too. In spades. So I'm going to be honest. Going into this I expected to not enjoy using Pantheon. Sure, it looks pretty. And I'm generally a fan of the work that team is doing... but customization is a big deal for me. My expectations were akin to “I'll think this is nice... but I'll be happy to leave for another Desktop Environment when the week is over.”

I was wrong. Pantheon is awesome.

Now, before we continue, I should make something clear. This is not a review of the elementary OS itself. There are many aspects of the system that I am going to completely ignore here in order to focus entirely on the Desktop Environment, which, admittedly, is a pretty large portion of what a full elementary review would be.

Seeing as the next version of elementary (and, hence, Pantheon) is in Beta – and the release is much hyped – I decided to spend the first half of the week running the current stable version of elementary (“Luna”) and the second half of the week in the daily builds of the new Beta version (“Freya”). I would normally just pick the latest public release of an environment but, with the relative new-ness of this system, it seemed to make more sense to spend some time with the Beta (even if it is a bit buggier than the officially released version).

OK, let's get into the meat of this.

First of all, I get why so many people say it is a “Mac clone.” I do. It has the same standard layout that Mac OS X has been using for several years: a dock on the bottom, menu bar up top. But that's really about where the similarities end. My guess is that people who call this a Mac clone haven't actually had the chance to use the system extensively and were going on screenshots alone.

Let's start with the Dock. It's simple, pleasant looking, and comes with a few different themes. I never had a single problem with it... though the fact that it's stuck on the bottom of the screen annoyed me. Although to be fair, it annoyed me slightly less than Unity did by locking its dock on the left side of the screen.

The top of the screen contains what I would call an un-editable panel. It's not really a menu bar (as application menus are contained within each applications window – unlike, say, Ubuntu or MacOS, where application menus reside in the global menu bar at the top of the screen), but it is simply a place to contain the Applications launcher, the clock and your standard “quick access” features (such as volume, logging out, wireless networks, etc.).

The Applications launcher is astoundingly simple and, quite honestly, is a breath of fresh air after using the feature-creep-filled juggernaut that is Ubuntu's Unity Dash. In Pantheon you click “Applications” and a small little pop-up shows you your applications, either in a page-style view where you flip through your apps or in a categorized view where you can find particular types of apps. You can also type to live search for applications.

That's it. That is, quite literally, all it does. In one short paragraph, I just described what I believe to be 100% of the features of the Pantheon Applications launcher.

How awesome is that?

The application launcher doesn't try to be your music player. It doesn't search for you. It just lets you find and launch your apps and then gets the heck out of the way. So many Desktop Environments (Linux and otherwise) have been suffering from a serious case of feature-bloat – resulting in slower, buggier and more... let's just say “cumbersome” desktops. But not Pantheon. With Pantheon, every aspect of the environment does what you expect it to do...and nothing more. This applies to the system settings, the text editor, the video player -- all of the default applications.

(Well, not all of the default applications hold true to that “do one thing and do it great” style. The de facto software package manager in the elementary OS is Ubuntu's Software Center, a piece of software that looks terribly out of place and clunk compared to the rest of the system. But I don't consider that to be part of the Pantheon Desktop Environment itself. So I'll let it slide.)

The end result is a system that is incredibly fast and easy to pick up and start using, even if you've never used it before.

But I'm not new to Linux. I don't need someone to hold my hand. Heck, I'm a big fan of Awesome Window Manager, and that environment barely has a user interface at all. You practically need to be a seasoned software developer just to use it properly.

So why do I care about how easy a system is to learn? Truth is... I don't. It's nice for attracting new users but, if you're reading this, odds are you can figure most things out in any Desktop Environment for yourself rather quickly.

But there are other benefits to that simplicity: Pantheon is free from distractions. It feels simple. It feels clean. It feels... focused.

It took me all of about 3 minutes to understand 100% of the functionality of the text editor, and about 12 seconds for the Applications launcher. So, after spending a week living with Pantheon, I feel like I know this system inside and out. And that familiarity not only is a good thing for productivity (if I need to do something, I know where to go quickly) but also provides a sense of comfort. Pantheon quickly became a comfortable for me... like an old shoe.

OK, perhaps comparing Pantheon to an old shoe doesn't send the right message. More like... a brand new, soft pair of socks. Or a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers.

One other tidbit that is worth mentioning is that Pantheon handles virtual desktops in a similar way to GNOME Shell. When a new desktop is needed, a new one is created. However, the interface for doing this is a bit different. In Pantheon you hit Super Key-S and the view zooms out a bit and allows you to move windows between desktops, an effective and visually pleasing way to go. I'm not sure that it's necessarily faster or more convenient than the GNOME Shell implementation, but it's definitely very usable.

So where does that leave us?

Pantheon is fast, extremely nice looking (one of the classiest of the Desktop Environments available), distraction free, and ridiculously easy to pick up and get comfortable with.

It's also not terribly easy to customize (similar to Ubuntu's Unity in that respect) and not well supported outside of the official Linux distro (elementary). Technically, you can get it for Arch and openSUSE but, if you want the latest and greatest, you'll need to run elementary OS.

I think, in Pantheon's case, the good far outweighs the bad. Don't get me wrong. The bad parts are just as annoying here as they are with Unity. But the good parts... oooh, boy. The good parts of Pantheon are just so damned good.

Would I be willing to permanently leave the comfort of openSUSE for elementary OS just to be able to use Pantheon? No. No, I wouldn't. I would consider it... but then I'd stop myself just before I formatted my drive.

But if a consistently up-to-date version of Pantheon were available for my current distro, would I use it? In a heartbeat. I think it's an amazing Desktop that the team behind it should be astoundingly proud of.

(Side note: I said I wouldn't leave my current distro in order to be able to use Pantheon – and some of that has to do with my investment in the distro I typically use. But what if my current distro were Ubuntu? As elementary is based on Ubuntu, I wouldn't hesitate for a second to jump over to elementary and live in Pantheon full time.)

What environment is next? Time to change things up a bit. Enough with these pretty Desktop Environments, with their fancy “graphics” and their “ease of use.” It's time for me to spend a week in a different kind of environment. This next week I'll be running... ratpoison.


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