The Ubuntu-based desktop distribution Pop-OS has been attracting attention for months with a top ranking.
What makes Pop OS special compared to other Ubuntu derivatives?
Depending on which evaluation period you set, you will find Pop-OS in the top ten up to second place in the Distrowatch table. There are enough Ubuntu derivatives – what makes this newcomer so special? This post lists the most interesting features to help you decide whether the distribution is right for you.
So much as a preliminary conclusion: Installer, system update and desktop are strikingly simple, simple, user-friendly. Mixed package sources, mixed language and idiosyncratic (but optional) window management are possible negative points.
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Pop-OS and the manufacturer System76
Pop-OS is a desktop system that focuses on use on PCs and notebooks. The US hardware distributor System76 uses the distribution as a standard system for its computers (2.2 GB). Pop-OS runs on any hardware for which a standard Ubuntu is suitable.
A special service from Pop-OS is the native driver equipment plus desktop integration for Nvidia graphics chips. Nvidia support is not provided by the installer, the user must know about his hardware in advance: There are two live systems to choose from when downloading – a standard system and one labeled “NVIDIA”. On notebooks with Intel-Nvidia hybrid graphics, two additional options appear later in the Gnome system menu to switch from the Nvidia chip to the energy-saving Intel GPU – or vice versa. However, this requires a system restart.
System76 has come up with further specialties for power management on notebooks: With the system76-power tool, you can choose between three energy schemes. The tool can also be accessed via the Gnome extension of the same name in the battery indicator in the system bar. System76 is only a small, medium-sized company, but you can still expect professionalism and sustainability here – tending to be more than with some community distributors.
There is no “Long Term Support” comparable to Ubuntu LTS with Pop-OS, however the current 20.04 will be provided with updates until version 22.04 is released. The Gnome Control Center has been expanded to include the “OS Upgrade” item for upgrades that are due, which is the easiest way to download and then install the new version. Attention: Pop-OS has included every intermediate version of Ubuntu since Ubuntu 17.10. If you want an LTS version, you should skip intermediate versions (currently 20.10).
The installer is a successful self-construction
Built-in repair installation: If the system is already present, the Pop-OS installer also shows the option “Refresh Install”.
The live system copied to the USB stick starts by default on the Gnome desktop. The installer (“Install Pop! _OS”) can be found in the Gnome favorites. It is a homemade installer, which remains in mixed languages after selecting “German” and which is a bit less functional than Ubuntu’s Ubiquity. The uncomplicated “Clean Install” option puts the Ubuntu derivative on the hard drive as the only system. The option of partition encryption, which is important for notebooks, appears automatically at a later point in time.
The “Custom (Advanced)” option helps with more complex partition ratios. It offers a nice graphical scheme of the data carriers and allows you to decide on the file system and mount point after right-clicking on a partition. Changes to the size of partitions are not provided, for such cases the external Gparted can be started via “Modify Partitions”. Please note that partition encryption is only offered with a simple “Clean Install”.
If the installer of the live system finds an existing Pop-OS, it shows the third option “Refresh Install” in addition to “Clean” and “Custom”. This means resetting the system to the delivery state – while retaining all user files. Such repair installation can also be achieved with other distributions with a new installation without formatting the system partition, but requires more system knowledge from the user than simply clicking on “Refresh”.
Setup, desktop and software
Specialized for notebooks: In addition to these power schemes, Pop-OS offers support for hybrid graphics and for partition encryption.
The system starts first without Gnome in a welcome dialog with final setup steps for keyboard, time zone, WLAN registration, online accounts. In particular, the setup of the first user is only due now. After completion, there is an automatic logout and new login and then the desktop is available.
The Gnome desktop and its typical components are largely taken from the original and are slightly slimmer than under Ubuntu. A good GB of RAM should be taken into account for the system plus desktop. All Gnome components such as the Gnome Control Center (“Settings”) are in German after installation, but distribution-specific components remain in English. We have already referred to the upgrade option (“Upgrade OS”) in the “Settings”, as well as the energy schemes that appear here as “Battery Life”, “Balanced” and “High Performance”.
The context menu on the desktop is also presented in English, as is the Gnome extension “Tile Windows” – an in-house development that System76 sees as a highlight of the distribution. There are also in-house developments such as the Pop-Shop graphic package manager, the Popsicle tool for writing images on USB, Pop-Shell shortcuts (display of special key combinations) or the “Customize” dialog in the “Keyboard” section of the “Settings”, all of which are english. All in all, this leads to a mixed-language system, which can be quite annoying for some users.
The Gnome extension “Tile Windows” appears by default in the system tray. It only receives its full functionality when the top switch is activated. The window management inspired by the window manager i3 aims to create order, especially on large screens. The most important hotkeys are Super-Y and Super-O in order to distribute all active windows appropriately on the monitor. Such window management is attractive for programmers and admins with editors and terminals, but not for private and office users. The fact that Pop-OS still relies on the use of the extension is shown by the waiver of the window controls for minimizing and maximizing. If necessary, the user has to activate these via the Gnome tweaks (“optimizations”), which are usually indispensable anyway.
In addition to the usual mini-starter (Alt-F2), Pop-OS also has its own starter (super- /), which responds to entered partial strings (such as “office”) with suitable and clickable results and can also calculate. The look is tidy, simple and contrasting. The change from the preset dark theme to the light theme is possible via the Gnome Control Center (“Display”), but for more detailed settings it is necessary to install Gnome tweaks.
Software and package sources:
Pop-OS uses the Ubuntu sources via Apt and Pop-Shop and also uses two of its own package sources (see the “gear” symbol in the Pop-Shop). As with all similar Ubuntu derivatives, there is a risk here that package conflicts can occur in individual cases. If you want to avoid this, you will also find distribution-independent Flatpak software in the Pop Shop. In contrast to the Ubuntu base, snaps are not standard.
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