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Pop!_OS might have a complicated name but it makes using Linux so easy

Jack Wallen offers up his opinion on System76's in-house Linux operating system, Pop!_OS.
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Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer on
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Jack Wallen

In the world of operating systems, the strangest name would have to go to System76's in-house version of Linux, called Pop!_OS. This is the OS that ships with their desktop and laptop systems and make for remarkably seamless integration. In fact, I would go so far as to say that with Pop!_OS, System76 has done for Linux what Apple did for its operating system, only with the addition of making everything open-source. With Pop!_OS running on System76 hardware (such as my Thelio desktop machine -- which is, hands down, my favorite desktop PC I've ever owned), it goes well beyond the "everything just works" mantra and into the realm of "everything works to perfection."

It sounds a bit hyperbolic, but it really is true. I've used Linux since 1997. I've experienced just about every distribution available and had various desktops and laptops that were either hand built by me or purchased Windows machines and installed Linux over them. Back in those early days getting everything to work was a real chore. Fast forward to now, and most Linux distributions do a stellar job of recognizing and working with hardware (even the newest of the new). But very few versions of Linux can match the performance and reliability of Pop!_OS running on a System76 machine.

It's just a thing of beauty.

That's not to say you can only run Pop!_OS on a System76 desktop or laptop. Quite the opposite. In fact, you can install Pop!_OS on just about any type of system (so long as it meets the minimum requirements of 64-bit x86 architecture, 2GB of RAM -- 4GB of RAM is recommended -- and 20GB of storage). You can even install Pop!_OS on older (Intel-based) Apple hardware (such as the MacBook Pro and iMac).

What about that name?

I asked Carl Richell (CEO of System76) about the name Pop!_OS, and this is what he had to say:

The name started with "Pop!_Theme a system76 style OS aesthetic we were experimenting with. The underscore was borrowed from the elevating "pill" in the system76 logo. "Pop" came from the energetic colors we employed.

We later experimented with our custom distribution and the "Pop" name evolved into Pop!_OS. Beneath it all, we think computing should be fun and that the Pop name and energy it portrays matches our desire for our users to enjoy their time using the OS we create for them.

It's a GNOME Thing

At the moment, Pop!_OS looks and feels very much like a rebranding and reconfiguration of the GNOME desktop. And that's exactly what it is. System76 calls this the COSMIC desktop, and the changes made to GNOME aren't exactly dramatic, but they are quite the departure from the stock GNOME desktop environment. For example, on a stock GNOME desktop (using Fedora 36), click the Applications button (top left corner), and you'll see the traditional GNOME Applications Overview (Figure 1).

The GNOME Applications Overview.

Figure 1: The GNOME Applications Overview gives you immediate access to your favorites, installed apps, and virtual desktops.

Image: Jack Wallen

Click Applications in Pop!_OS, and something very different happens. Instead of the Overview, you are greeted by a popup window displaying your installed apps and customizable folders that can group apps together (Figure 2).

The Pop!_OS Applications launcher.

Figure 2: The Pop!_OS take on the Applications Overview.

Image: Jack Wallen

Why the change? From my perspective, it's all about perceived efficiency. The truth of the matter is that I can click Applications on either desktop and type the name of an application to see it listed. But if you don't use that feature, it seems like you'd have an added step in traditional GNOME to locate the app you're looking for. 

That workflow goes something like this:

  1. Click Applications
  2. Click the Application Grid in the Favorites bar.
  3. Locate the app you want to run.

In Pop!_OS, you simply click Applications and locate the app you want to run. Both desktops also allow you to create folders within their respective Applications overview. Pop!_OS just makes it more obvious.

Firmware integration

If there's one thing I can really appreciate with Pop!_OS (among the long line of other outstanding features), it's that System76 includes a firmware updater. If you open Settings, you'll find a Firmware entry that displays all firmware (Figure 3). 

The Pop!_OS Firmware updater.

Figure 3: Pop!_OS Firmware updater in Settings.

Image: Jack Wallen

If you've ever tried to update firmware on Linux, you'll understand that this feature is such a breath of fresh air. Similarly, Pop!_OS makes it really easy to keep your OS Recovery partition up to date and even set up automatic updates (Figure 4).

The Pop!_OS OS Recovery updater.

Figure 4: OS Recovery and system updates can be taken care of in the same place.

Image: Jack Wallen

Performance

I'm a bit biased on this because I purchased a Thelio desktop when they were first released. That machine has (and does) perform brilliantly. The combination of Pop!_OS and the Sytem76 hardware is an absolute dream of a desktop and still performs to this day as well as it did when I first purchased it.

I've also installed Pop!_OS on other desktops/laptops (and even virtual machines) and found it performs quite well. Of course, when you're comparing a Ferrari to a Pinto, it's hard to not be biased toward the Ferrari.

Also: How I revived three ancient computers with ChromeOS Flex

Regardless of poor analogies, you get the idea… Pop!_OS is a high-performance desktop operating system that can handle just about anything you throw at it.

Who is Pop!_OS for?

Right on the Pop!_OS website, the following claim is made:

Pop!_OS is an operating system for STEM and creative professionals who use their computers as a tool to discover and create. Unleash your potential on secure, reliable open source software. Based on your exceptional curiosity, we sense you have a lot of it.

I'm going to call System76 out on this because it presents Pop!_OS as an operating system for developers, data scientists, and other high-level users. I would argue, however, that Pop!_OS is well suited for any type of user, regardless if you're creating something, using the OS for business purposes, writing a novel, playing games, or just shopping online. Anyone looking for an operating system that is reliable, secure, easy to use, and performant would do well to give Pop!_OS a try. So ignore the Pop!_OS marketing and know that anyone can use this OS with great success.

However, that doesn't mean the Pop!_OS development team doesn't have a keen eye on those looking to enjoy the most efficient workflow possible. With an optimized interface and even a window tiling option (I'll be addressing this in another article soon), you can create the exact workflow you need with this desktop operating system.

So, although the marketing content might lead you to believe Pop!_OS is for those of the scientific and developer bent, the truth is Pop!_OS is as good a desktop operating system for every user type as you'll find on the market.

The future of Pop!_OS

One thing to note is that System76 plans on eventually shifting away from GNOME as a base for their OS and into something completely built in-house. The name will remain the same, and if I were to guess, there wouldn't be much in the way of dramatic changes for how you interact with the desktop. However, that's all speculation. Pop!_OS could wind up being a completely different beast. But knowing the company as I do, no matter what direction Pop!_OS takes, it'll remain incredibly easy to use and will perform like a champ.

How to get Pop!_OS

Pop!_OS is an open-source operating system, so it's free to download and use on as many computers as you like. Just head over to the official Pop!_OS website, click DOWNLOAD, grab an ISO image, and burn it using your favorite image-burning tool (such as Unetbootin).

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