A standard in the Linux desktop is back in the latest version and again goes a few steps further. But how far? Let’s see.
A lot of time has passed since the last test, version 6.1 has been on the market since around Christmas 2021 and we even skipped version 6.0 Odin. That’s not a big deal, though, as it often takes some time for major releases to run well.
elementary OS 6.1 “Jólnir” comes with some innovations: better AppCenter, Flatpak support, better ARM64 support, faster window switching, better dark mode, extended search in the launcher, housekeeping for old data and many small improvements in all areas anyway. It is based on GNOME 41, which is actually not noticeable.
elementary OS 6 “Odin” came with dark mode, multi-touch gestures, better notifications, new “Tasks” app, built-in firmware updates and also a lot of updates in almost every area again.
In my opinion, the really remarkable thing about the system is that the developers release an update every few months and also break down what is happening in a blog. Version 7 is currently being worked on in parallel, which corresponds to the previous cycle and with the release of Ubuntu 22.04 LTS, GNOME 42, libadwaita and GTK4 there is a lot to do for the next version anyway. The current one will of course continue to be maintained, probably with security updates until 2030. Full system updates may soon be a reality, more on that in a moment.
As so often, the installation is easy to do, but one thing has to be said in any case. Because: Updates from a main version to a newer one are not possible. What isn’t a problem on the test laptop, since it’s constantly being reinstalled anyway, is a bit “stupid” on a productive system. Do you really want to have to set up a new PC every year? Advanced users are tougher, beginners would see it as a misunderstanding. And rightly so.
They announced they are working on full system updates, I’m personally not sure why this is such a big problem and why it couldn’t be ironed out with a different delivery model. Rolling release isn’t a problem for many systems, and with elementary OS constantly evolving, it might not be amiss. But this behavior has nothing to do with beginner-friendliness.
You are also introduced to the system in elementary OS with a nice welcome in the form of an app. But the focus is on personalization: you choose your design, the accent color, whether you want to use nightlight, but also whether you want to delete data in the recycle bin after 30 days, or whether you want to register with online accounts. I think everything is very good, you’re done with your preferences right away and the system feels more like your own.
However, nothing is explained here about the system, you would have to click on a button at the right moment. What was actually funny then was that I didn’t get to see this window again. It was just nowhere to be found. Well, then the next point is to install updates, which is also important.
The lock screen is also nice, it looks stylish and solid – but once it didn’t allow any input after standby. The result was a forced restart. After all, the speed is flawless on the 5-year-old laptop.
As is so often the case with elementary OS, there is always a lot of talk about the design. And yes, it’s still something special, even if it’s not as fresh as it used to be. Because even with an empty desktop, it is noticeable that the bar at the bottom with its design language, shape and icons simply cannot be classified as very modern anymore. This was already criticized in the test for version 5.1 and will probably continue until something happens here.
On the one hand, it’s something very unique – because even if you’ve obviously copied MacOS, you’re now on your own with the design, because MacOS has long since evolved. The dock looks very different in MacOS, much more modern. All menus and windows also look a bit dated in elementary. But does that bother you? Not really.
The file explorer as an example is kept quite clear and gray, with folders in a yellow/orange color in between. Not really ugly, but not really pretty either. But at least one thing is the case: everything fits together. And that’s probably the trick the system is trying to pull off here. A redesign would also cost a lot of work and that is better put into details and functions. But you have to say: If you use it every day, the system simply pleases with its simplicity and the nice design.
What I also like is that you can design a few things yourself in the system. In addition to the typical dark mode, you can set accent colors and make some settings that affect the dock and the bar at the top. After all, that makes a good and independent picture.
elementary OS has little pre-installed, which is often not a problem for a Linux system, because you have the store or the AppCenter. So you will find a web browser, an email client and also a calendar, music and video player, what photos and also quite new, a to-do list. I would also like to mention the “Code” editor, which is also pre-installed and can do a number of things that can be used for simple tasks. In addition, there is also a pleasant dark mode and can even manage projects in folders. And: As so often in elementary OS, here is a nice detail that you can simply close the code app and still nothing is lost. You will not be asked to save, it is simply saved temporarily. Others can learn from that.
But let’s get to our standard programs. So you open the AppCenter and search for LibreOffice. Finds nothing. Thunderbird. Finds nothing. Office? No. Nextcloud? Nada. Chrome? Trick question. So what’s going on here? If you continue to read the error message, you will at least get a message, written in small letters, that you may be able to get the corresponding apps on Flathub. With the appropriate link. Of course you don’t see that if you want to quickly install something for the first time.
elementary goes a bit the Apple way on steroids here. Because at first glance, the AppCenter is almost empty. Personally, I don’t think that’s a good thing, but the developers only want programs that are made and controlled for and by elementary OS. This achieves a consistent design and functional language. But you are also far from reality. Because: What am I supposed to do with a system without appropriate programs?
The solution is a not obvious, Flatpak. Or Flathub. But there is the problem: there is no obvious way to activate Flatpak in the AppCenter. The minimalist AppCenter doesn’t even have any settings. But a BMI calculator.
You just have to go to flathub.com, search for the desired app and first download it in the browser, then the Flatpak process starts and asks if you want to install “this possibly unsafe app”. In addition to the actual philosophy of elementary OS, this is actually a disaster. Which normal user should come up with that? Or would you prefer to use what feels like 7 apps from the AppCenter? You just can’t work seriously like that.
So there is a lot of misunderstanding from my point of view. This was also a thorn in the side in the last version and has not improved. It’s like the couch in the plastic cover to protect it. But it’s no fun sitting on it.
After all, all packages are up-to-date and then also appear in the AppCenter – which hopefully means that they can also be updated in this way. All possible other programs now also appear in the AppCenter, but are marked as “not curated”. So you have to first install something via Flatpak, then other programs will appear. You have to know.
I also have to say that using the AppCenter is a bit too minimalistic. Would it kill you to put a “home” button in the top left corner? If you are looking for something, a “Home” button appears in the top left, which you can use to get back to the beginning. If you now go into an app, it changes to “Search” to get back to the search. If you click it, you get back to the search, but then all the buttons are gone. To get back to the start, you have to delete your search query. This is quite cumbersome in my opinion and annoying when you are looking for several things.
So after you have installed your usual programs via the browser and Flathub, you can finally start with everyday life. Nextcloud for my data, LibreOffice and Thunderbird, as well as GIMP and in the end also Chrome (but via PPA and Terminal for updates). What is immediately noticeable, that the icons of the Flathub installed programs appear blurry in the dock. So it just seems as if the system generally doesn’t like to work with other software and also messes up the stylish image of the whole thing, where otherwise a lot of value is placed on design. Why isn’t that a problem for others?
Then I wanted to see my calendar entries in the system. For this I opened the calendar and then went to “Online Accounts”, which opened the system settings. Here, however, you are very limited to IMAP and CalDAV. So real online accounts, as known from other systems, rather non-existent. After I noticed that Google Calendar does not offer CalDAV but only iCal, the topic was closed. Too bad. The IMAP mails also caused problems, first mails were not displayed, then suddenly the account twice.
Disillusionment came after the restart – because Nextcloud hasn’t synchronized all my data and doesn’t seem to start automatically in the background either. Apparently there are no icons to control in the system, so open Nextcloud manually – but sometimes it worked, sometimes not. A big no-go for me, unfortunately, data synchronization simply has to work. However: After a restart, the client logged in again, but was switched to “Pause”. Then suddenly everything could be synchronized again. After restarting, nothing worked. So you would always have to start it manually – which of course is impractical in the long run.
What is important when working with the system is that you quickly deal with the peculiarities. Because the keyboard shortcuts alone would otherwise drive you crazy if you suddenly had to do everything with the mouse. After all, various touch gestures work and make life easier.
It should be noted that the Windows or Super key is useless. But at least there is a window here that explains what combinations are possible. You need Super and space to open the app launcher. Super and H is also very important – because H like “hide” means minimize the window. With these two you are already well positioned so that you don’t have to move the mouse around all the time. You can still learn more.
My Windows EXE file, which I always use for the test, could not be opend by the system. There was no WINE in the store either, but there were other candidates such as “Protontricks”. However, I did not go any further, since the level of knowledge of a normal user would already stop here. Not to mention Terminal and APT.
Another half-thought is to open files with the space bar. That’s also taken from MacOS, but even if it’s practical that you can open a video as an example with the spacebar, it’s only half as practical if you can’t close it with the spacebar again. Then you have to use the mouse or other keys again.
The behavior during the video test was a bit strange. The small video encoded with H264 actually played without further ado, just before the end it got stuck and the sound repeated itself over and over again. At first the system wanted to close the window, but soon I couldn’t do anything and the laptop had to be restarted. I can’t say what caused it, but the laptop says goodbye every time I play a video, at least only at the end. Other videos also crashed the player and it simply couldn’t be closed, not even forced. Reboot. However, installing VLC “fixed” this problem.
Luckily Steam was in the App Store, could even be found by entering it through the launcher. So the store opened and I was able to install Steam quickly and without any problems, the native games and the games via Proton all ran without any action – apart from the fact that you have to activate Steam Play, of course.
Again and again elementary OS divides my opinion in two directions. On the one hand, the system is good and you like the paths it takes, but on the other hand it’s difficult to recommend because it goes its own way.
Market power. It’s fine to copy the basics of a system like MacOS (as long as their legal department doesn’t get upset), but there’s something different that comes into play here. Because Apple and MacOS have a market power that comes into play in many areas and makes the system special. elementary OS feels like trying something similar here. You have your own style, your own keyboard shortcuts and your own apps. But if you look around the AppCenter, you will currently find around 90 curated apps. In other words: tested and approved by elementary OS.
On the one hand, this contributes to a uniform style and, if you like, also to security, since everything happens in a controlled framework. But that would only work if you really offered everything from a single source. Unfortunately, the Linux world is often tight when it comes to apps and programs (especially in the professional market), so it’s not good if you don’t even offer an Office package in the AppCenter.
So, in addition to the feeling of having an actually good system, there is also the feeling that it doesn’t really want to fit into the real world. Because as much as the system is designed for beginners in terms of appearance, user experience and minimalism, I can hardly recommend the system to a newcomer at the same time.
Why? Because you need additional knowledge to actually be able to work with it. Otherwise you are trapped with a mediocre browser, an e-mail program that is just enough for private use, a calendar that only wants to work indirectly with Google, only locally usable ToDo lists, no space for background app icons and a very sparsely filled AppCenter , which wants to tell you what to use.
In short: A superficially wonderful system that needs a lot of work to really be usable. Because in the real world, you need more than a few mediocre standard programs.
Now that may sound cheeky. “Mediocre” is supposed to indicate less the quality than the range of functions and abundance. Even if you try to do achieve everything – you shouldn’t imagine you have the market power to tell people what to do. Maybe the developers are overwhelmed with all the projects. But here, too, a better focus on the system would do well, because to deliver a complete environment, the workforce is probably simply missing. In addition, you had to reinstall everything for every major update. That shouldn’t be the case.
The shared feeling also comes from the relatively large number of errors that I saw in the course of the test. I had to force a restart again and again, and the system fan kept running at the limit when watching a simple YouTube video. I’ve seen that on a few systems. I hope the next version will be better tested and shipped with fewer serious bugs. Otherwise, a lot of potential is wasted here.
In the meantime elementary OS has been dropped by some of the project’s owners and a founder is now continuing the whole thing. Perhaps this also explains the many errors, since one may have turned away over the last few months. However, the project is secured for the next few years.