pop goes the computer

To those outside of the Linux world, “Linux” is taken to be like “Windows” or “Mac OS”. To those of us who use it regularly, it’s actually “GNU/Linux” as it’s the combination of the GNU userland with the Linux kernel, and variations on this actually form a whole galaxy of operating systems that share a lot in common, but often differ in emphasis of use cases, or some components.

It leads many to “distro hop”, moving from version to version to try and find one that suits your tastes. Again, anyone familiar with the world of Linux will know what I’m talking about… and recently I decided to hop distros by moving away from my previous daily driver, Ubuntu MATE, to System76’s POP!_OS… and I’ve decided to put down my thoughts on it. I installed it on my gaming PC (which had a fucked up Windows 10 install), and it’s been an interesting experience.

POP!_OS uses a tweaked GNOME desktop

In some ways, it wasn’t that big a leap: POP!_OS is based on Ubuntu, but to turn around and say “It’s just Ubuntu” would do it a disservice. POP!_OS is System76’s in-house Linux operating system that they bundle with their computers, however they’ve also released for anyone to download and install on their machine. It is Ubuntu, but System76 have added a few twists in the tail to make it more user friendly.

The main Ubuntu spin runs GNOME itself, but to be honest I’ve found it a little bit janky in places with some of the menus not being so polished, and compared with Ubuntu MATE it’s night and day. Because, let’s face it, while it’s nice to hark back to the past you start to realize that the UI experience has moved on since the heyday of GNOME 2, which MATE is forked from.

MATE was quite functional, but after a while the “click the start button” style followed by scrolling through a big list of apps started to get to me. And as well, it was prone to interruptions such as the Software Updater barging in to tell me that I had a billion updates to install. POP, on the other hand, is designed seemingly to get out of your way. If there’s an update, it shows up at the top of the screen for a few seconds, and then goes away. You’ve been informed of the update, and can then go deal with it via the terminal (which tends to be where I spend most of my time anyway), or the POP! Shop, a fork of elementaryOS’s own package manager interface.

The POP! Shop installed tab is clean and simple, and easy to update things from.

It also has integration with GMail, Facebook and friends so messages and email pop up as updates, and if you want to get rid of the notifications temporarily, they’re easy to switch off. I know a lot of this is stock GNOME, but System76 have gone and polished it a bit to make it more palatable. While I do tend to run my system from the terminal, I do still appreciate the smooth UI. Coming from the 2000s-era world of MATE, it’s a joy.

What is the best part of it for me is under the hood, however. When I wanted to install a Linux distro on my gaming PC, I didn’t like the task of grappling with the open source Noveau drivers and the proprietary nVidia driver PPAs. It’s just an extra bit of faff to use my machine, and it’s annoying. Luckily, System76 include the nVidia drivers in their own repos (which I noticed Ubuntu itself has started doing), and you just need to download the nVidia ISO and load it up. I did actually have a little freeze with the installer, but it seemed to correct itself and the installation was pain-free.

My venerable nVidia Geforce 980 Ti salutes the System76 engineers’ sacrifice, as after installation it loaded without a hitch. It seems that it’s Vulkan-ready out of the box as well, because I didn’t need to go and do any more configuration of the drivers before I went to install the LunarG Vulkan SDK for my evening graphics programming hacking sessions. The ability to just install and then get down to what I want to do in less time was nice, and it took a few lines off of my Ansible set-up script.

The kernel in POP!_OS 18.04 is also more up to date as well – when I ran uname -r I was surprised to find that it was kernel 5.0 rather than 4.14 as with stock Ubuntu. In retrospect, looking at System76’s line of laptops and desktops I shouldn’t be surprised – as they want to use the latest components in their builds, they would of course roll out newer kernel versions in order to support new components quicker than mainline Ubuntu might.

It was a nice surprise to see this, and if you want to run an updated kernel with an LTS, POP!_OS comes recommended – many other distros still use the older 4.14, which is fine but I like the idea that I can have the stability of 18.04, but with the underlying OS being kept a bit more up to date. There is, of course, Manjaro which is a rolling release, but I’ve always liked to stick to the LTS releases of Ubuntu for my daily driver… so it’s nice to see that the System76 guys offer the chance to mix future and past to get a better experience for POP!_OS.

I have to confess I haven’t installed anything with the POP! Shop – I tend to prefer using apt to manage my packages, but overall I’ve enjoyed my experience with POP!_OS. I see a lot of waffle about “the year of the Linux desktop”, which is mostly nonsense, but it’s nice to see that someone out there has created a Linux distro which puts a bit more thought into the end-user experience than others, as well as keeping it up to date with the latest hardware releases where they can.

Also nice to note: Steam is present in the repos without having to go and specifically download it from the site (a simple apt install steam will do), and so I was able to get gaming out of the box pretty quickly. Having the nVidia drivers pre-installed was a blessing as I was able to turn on Steam Play and play some Windows games pretty quickly… however one thing I might like them to do is package Feral’s GameMode (a daemon for smoothing out Linux’s crappy CPU governors when playing Vulkan games) in the repos as well. But that’s minor, and again, having Steam just one command away is a nice little tweak on top of stock Ubuntu. System76 also stated they’d carry on packaging the libraries Ubuntu threatened to stop supporting during their mid July flip-flop, which is good.

So if you’re looking for a version of Ubuntu that’s been polished and tweaked to make the overall experience, I’d recommend POP!_OS. I might update with my impressions from using it on my laptop (as this is my experience on my desktop PC), as from looking at the OS updates there seems to be a few power management things that POP!_OS has included that would obviously have no bearing on a desktop’s operation. I think I’ve found my new favourite Linux distro (for now, anyway…)!

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