I remember those days when the name elementary used to refer themes, now we are looking at a review of a distribution developed by the same team. I must note that this is the review of the beta release of elementary OS Luna. Any minor annoyances or rough edges will probably be fixed before the final release. That said, I have no idea when the final release of Luna will be available.
Let's get some out of the facts out of the way before we begin the review. The developers of the elementary OS believe in the approach "release only when ready" so it means there could be a couple of months, or even more, before the final release sees the daylight. As expected there are benefits as well as disadvantages of this approach. The default application selection is listed below,
Midori - Web Browser
Geary - Email Client
Empathy - Chat Client
Maya - Calendar Application
Files - File Manager
Totem Movie Player - Video Player
Noise - Audio Player
Shotwell - Photo management
Ubuntu Software Center
Since its based on Ubuntu, Luna shares some of its infrastructure with the parent distro - stuff like PPA are also available. As a result some of the applications being developed for Ubuntu, such as Steam, will also work in eOS without any effort from the user. So while Ubuntu benefitted from the huge repository of Debian, eOS benefits from Ubuntu.
I am very much impressed with the polish and perfection from the very start till the end. When you turn on your computer, you get a beautiful and elegant boot screen showing the elementary logo. The login screen appears with a nice animation. Overall I never saw any command line text during either reboot or shutdown. Everything was so elegantly pushed back into the background, that you won't notice it. My only wish is that Luna uses grub 2 since it improves the experience of dual booters. Grub 2 comes with small tweaks like showing the name of the operating system such Windows 8, Elementary OS Luna rather than Elementary OS Luna linux kernel 3.2.xx or Windows 8 (on /sda7) etc.
One of the primary focuses of the developers has been on the user experience (not surprising since it's being developed by the designers) to bring a strong a unified experience. They have chosen Midori over other popular internet browsers such as Chromium or Firefox to maintain one toolkit for all their applications. They are using quite a lot of in-house applications instead of using the popular applications such as Scratch (instead of Gedit), Noise and Maya. In addition to the appearance, these applications have great in-built features. For instance, by default Scratch autosaves your document so you don't have to worry about losing unsaved changes (you can however configure that under Gedit). Applications such Noise and Scratch always provide default actions a user could perform. You can notice this from the screenshot below. Here scratch offers to either create a new file or open an existing one. These small things enhances the user experience.
Luna uses a window manager called Gala which is extremely fluid and brings a very pleasant experience to Luna users. Interested readers should definitely look here for more information about Gala. It brings polished animations when performed tasks such switching or closing applications. At this point, Gala offers a more bug free experience compared to compiz. It also introduces some compelling features such as dynamic workspace management, aero-snap features, etc.
Luna uses Slingshot for launching applications. It also offers the familiar, Gnome 2 style categories to find applications. If don't want the 'traditional' style you can use the mouse or the keyboard to quickly search for an application. Although I must point out that the default keyboard shortcuts are not that intuitive. It would be nice if they showed a list of all keyboard shortcuts at the first boot. I had to read about the shortcuts on their website; something not all users would do.
Those of you who are tired of desktop environment monitoring, which applications or files you open, there is no reason to worry it is a basic shell just for launching applications or running commands and nothing more. Luna handles the issue of privacy very well by not doing anything to jeopardise that.
Luna is stable, responsive and gives you that modern OS you wanted for a long time without sacrificing performance. I noticed that Luna uses preload by default. Preload is a background service which monitors which applications you frequently use and preloads them into your RAM for faster performance in the future. This could also be why Luna is very snappy and quick at every task I put it through. The memory footprint is also low compared to other environments such as KDE, Unity and Gnome Shell.
This is the part that I hate to write, but this is what helps developers in finding issues and fix them; it only makes their software better. To help them further, I have reported the bugs on Launchpad.
One of my gripes is the lack of an office suite. In this age an office suite is 'mandatory' I am not sure why the developers decided this because it gives the impression that there is something missing. I strongly believe that the team should include an office suite (as long as they are not secretly working on their own suite).
Second is the issue of "release only when ready" approach. As much as I can applaud this decision, it raises many questions for the users. No one known when it will be ready for the prime time. The drawback of this approach is by the time their release is ready it's base Ubuntu becomes outdated so the current release runs on a very old verion of Ubuntu.
Next is the issue of the default application selection. Can Midori and Geary really challenge the mega projects such as Firefox and Thunderbird? What's the point of duplication when popular open source applications are already available? Can they really afford to have 'replacements' for all pupular applications? Should they not focus on applications which are not yet available for GNU/Linux -- such as fully open source Android clients, commercial grade media servers and much more instead of duplication?
It does not have support for multiple accounts, lacks configuration options, support for automatic configuration of hotmail etc.. So if Luna does not receive updates to Geary (other than bug fixes) it is most likely that users will switch to another email client. This might be easy since the Ubuntu Software Center is included but it still raises the decision of the default application selection in Luna. The same can be said about Midori. Midori does not support Flash, so a user would not be able to use YouTube or any other websites which use Flash.
Applications such as Maya need more time to mature. At present it allows you to create events but the inability to sync with other online sources leaves a lot to be desired.
There are still some crusts left over from Ubuntu such as the Privacy Manager which makes no sense in Elementary OS. But I think these will be resolved before the final release.
My last criticism is the lack of official help documentation. All in-house elementary applications, and I mean all, lack help documentation. This is also one of the reasons why I had a tough time finding those keyboard shortcuts.
I think elementary OS has a solid foundation. Luna offers a strong user experience however it lacks the content (applications) to make use of that base. Applications such as Maya, Midori or Geary are not ready for the prime time. Here I am not talking about a pro user who utilises all the complicated features. The use of Gala over Compiz and well defined HIG for their applications are some of the strong points of the elementary OS. Every thing about elementary screams simplicity, polish and perfection. As Daniel Fore, one of the founders of Elementary OS says, "Cleanliness is next to godliness".