This is part of a series exploring some of the most popular Linux distros and desktop environments.
Pop!_OS is something of a unicorn in the Linux world, a distro that a hardware maker develops in an effort to offer a fully integrated experience.
For the rest of this review, I will refer to Pop!_OS as Pop OS or merely Pop. The distro has many positives, but how it is spelled is not one of them. With that out of the way, let’s delve into what makes Pop OS so special.
Pop OS is developed by System76, a company based in Colorado that specializes in Linux-compatible computers. Every component is chosen for maximum compatibility, eliminating the issues some users experience when switching from Windows to Linux.
Pop is based on Ubuntu, which gives it access to the largest repository of software in the Linux world. If a developer is going to target any family of Linux distros, Ubuntu is going to be the first.
This also means that many of the online tutorials and help pages will work with Pop as well.
While Pop uses Ubuntu as its base, it makes a couple of decisions that are quite a departure from Ubuntu’s default setup.
- First and foremost, Pop is a semi-rolling release. System76 updates the Linux kernel, Mesa drivers, and some applications much more rapidly than Ubuntu. It’s not uncommon for the kernel in Pop to be only a version or two behind Arch or openSUSE Tumbleweed.
- Unlike Ubuntu, Pop includes Flatpak instead Ubuntu’s Snap. When combined with Pop’s already semi-rolling nature, using Flatpak can help a user keep their system and applications as up-to-date and fresh as possible.
- Pop includes its own system76-scheduler that automatically diverts resources to the active window. This helps improve responsiveness and performance compared to other environments.
Cosmic Desktop Environment and Tiling Windows
One of the defining characteristics of Pop OS is its Cosmic DE. In its current incarnation, Cosmic is based on the popular Gnome DE. In many users’ eyes, however, Cosmic addresses many of the criticisms of Gnome, adding back many of the everyday features that Gnome developers seem intent on removing.
A hallmark feature of Cosmic is window tiling. Borrowing a page from dedicated window tiling managers, Cosmic’s tiling extension offers the best of both worlds. A user can switch from free-floating windows to neatly tiled ones with a simple keystroke.
Cosmic’s bottom panel can be configured to look like the dock in macOS or the panel in Windows.
As good as Cosmic is in its current form, System76 is currently rewriting it using the Rust programming language and ending its dependence on Gnome. The decision comes after a very public spat between the System76 and Gnome developers. The Gnome Foundation is well known for being very opinionated about how the DE should function, and the System76 developers got tired of having to rebuild their custom extensions after every Gnome update and generally being at the mercy of Gnome’s choices.
System76 has released a series of updates on the progress of the Rust-based Cosmic DE, and the progress is impressive. The company is focusing on making Cosmic customizable, something that has always been a weak point for Gnome.
Rebuilding Cosmic in Rust is also leading to significant performance gains, thanks to the features and benefits Rust brings to the table.
When Pop first appeared on the scene, it followed the same release schedule as Ubuntu, releasing a long-term support (LTS) release every two years and interim releases every six months.
System76’s CEO, Carl Richell, has said that once Cosmic is finished, the company plans to switch to a yearly release cycle. This will keep the underlying base a little fresher than Ubuntu LTS’ two-year cycle but more stable than the six-month interim releases.
While System76 is working on Cosmic, however, the company has kept Pop on the last Ubuntu LTS release, version 22.04. With five years of support, keeping Pop on the LTS base allows the company to focus development time and effort on Cosmic rather than rebasing on the latest Ubuntu.
System76 has said the next version of Pop will be released in 2024, along with the initial release of the Cosmic DE. While the company has not been specific about when in 2024 the next release will be, it would make sense for it to coincide with the release of Ubuntu 24.04 LTS. This will give System76 another solid base for the next version of Pop, giving them the ability to focus on any bug fixes and improvements that may be needed once Cosmic is released to the public.
Additional Standout Features
In addition to everything already discussed, Pop has a couple of additional standout features:
- At the time of writing, Pop is the only distro that has full-disk encryption selected by default in the installer.
- Pop includes a recovery partition that has an up-to-date copy of the OS. This is an amazing feature that I wish other distros copied, as it provides an easy way to boot up and restore an install that has broken for some reason (such as too much tinkering, a flawed update, etc.)
What Pop OS Does Very Well
Pop OS is a distro that has a very specific focus: desktop users. While Canonical’s Ubuntu makes its money in the server market, much like Red Hat and SUSE, Pop is aimed squarely at the desktop market.
As part of that focus, the System76 developers have a good read on what their users want and need and are doing an excellent job delivering it.
Pop also goes a long way toward undoing some of Ubuntu’s unpopular decisions, especially regarding Flatpak and Snap.
Pop also gives users with the latest and greatest hardware the ability to run some of the newest kernels and graphics drivers — thereby eking out the best performance — but without the paper cuts that often come with running a full rolling-release distro like Arch or openSUSE Tumbleweed.
Finally, Pop’s upcoming Rust-based Cosmic looks to be an amazing DE, one that could eventually replace Xfce as the third-most-popular choice and possibly even challenge Gnome and KDE.
What Pop Doesn’t Do Well
There are a couple of things that Pop doesn’t do or doesn’t do well:
- No Secure Boot. There are Linux fanboys that will say Secure Boot is a Microsoft plot to limit what OS you can install on your machine, but that is simply not true. Linus Torvalds, the Debian developers, and many others in the Linux community have acknowledged that Secure Boot can be an important step in securing your machine. It may not be as effective as Microsoft would like, but it is an important step nonetheless. In its current form, Pop does not support Secure Boot out of the box, but Richell says the company is working on it.
- The Pop Shop is horrible. There was a point in time when the Pop Shop, which is a fork of the software center in Elementary OS, was a decent software center. Unfortunately, that cannot be said anymore. The Pop Shop is slow, buggy, and prone to crashes. When starting it up, you have to wait a few seconds for it to finish loading. If you don’t and immediately begin searching, it will almost always crash. Similarly, clicking the “Install” button doesn’t display any kind of progress bar. Instead, you have to go back to the search results page to see a progress bar for the app you’re installing. The developers have said they’ll eventually release a Rust-based one, but the current one is hands down the worst software center of any distro or DE I have tried.
Again, to be clear, both of these issues will likely be addressed once Cosmic is finished.
Pop OS is one of my absolute favorite Linux distros on the market, and it’s hard not to recommend it to new users and experienced veterans alike.
4.5 out of 5 stars