A Week With Pop!_OS

Is 2020 The Year of the Linux Desktop?

I’m not sure what came over me, but I suddenly had an urge to give Linux a try (again). It might have been Jason Evangelho’s Linux for Everyone podcast that got me curious. Or maybe it was to satisfy my tinkering need now that I’ve finished this site’s transition from WordPress to Hugo? No matter the reason, I blew the dust of a seven year old Dell XPS 12 9Q23 and sat down to install Linux on it.

But you don’t just “install Linux”. You have to find a distribution that suits your needs. Linux comes in a wide range of different flavours, and picking the “best” distribution is a total nightmare. The differences between the distributions are often subtle, and they all have their pack of devoted followers who all claim that their particular distribution is the fairest of them all. The large number of Linux distributions have given birth to distro hopping, where people constantly switch between distributions in an impossible hunt to find the holy grail of Linux distributions.

A good place to start when you’re looking for information about Linux distributions is DistroWatch.com. The site maintains updated information about a metric fuckton of distributions, and keeps track of the most popular. Pop!_OS is a Linux distribution that has been popping up in both my Twitter and Mastodon feeds lately, so for no other reason than that, I decided to install Pop!_OS.

Impressed, Not Impressed

Pop!_OS is developed and maintained by System76, and American Linux laptop computer manufacturer. The distribution is primarily built to be bundled with computers built by System76, but can be downloaded and installed on most computers. Pop!_OS comes with out-of-the-box support for both AMD and Nvidia GPUs, which is nice, I guess, but doesn’t matter much to me since my XPS comes with integrated Intel graphics only.

My first impression of Pop!_OS was great. It just worked.

I had everything I needed for it to be my daily (creative) driver up and running within two hours. Git, Visual Studio Code, Nextcloud, Hugo, and Firefox all installed and worked without a glitch. Even Dropbox integrated nicely with Pop!_OS, which came as a huge surprise, to be honest. All the hardware also worked. Everything inside the XPS worked flawlessly, my decade old Apple Cinema display could be used as an external monitor without any troubles, and both the PreSonus AudioBox iOne USB sound card and my Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones spewed out audio.

Pop!_OS screenshot

Everything felt nice and snappy, even on the seven year old laptop.

But when I started to scratch under the surface, I encountered a couple of weird issues: Two characters on my external Apple keyboard had switched places. I had to fiddle with configuration files to get that to work. The Sony headphones sometimes won’t connect to laptop unless they are explicitly paired again. Putting the laptop to sleep didn’t work. I had to write an entire blog post to get that to work. When the computer has been suspended for a while, the WiFi adapter refuses to connect to any network. I haven’t been able to fix that yet. To get the WiFi adapter to connect again, I have to restart the computer, and that sort of defeats the whole purpose of putting it to sleep.

Is 2020 The Year of the Linux Desktop?

If I’d bought a computer from System76 with Pop!_OS preinstalled, most of the issues above probably wouldn’t exist. I suspect that some of them isn’t directly related to Pop!_OS, but rather the Linux kernel. This means that other distributions are likely to have exactly the same problems. I’ve booted up live CDs of Manjaro, MX Linux, Fedora, Ubuntu, and even Debian, which is not a Linux-based operating systems, but share the same UNIX roots as Linux.

All of the distributions I’ve tried had similar hardware issues as Pop!_OS when running on the XPS. Even so, I’m still inclined to not settle with the first Linux distribution I try, but instead do some experimentation. On my way through various distributions, I might be able to fix the issues I’m currently facing.

One thing is for sure, though. The fabled Year of the Linux Desktop will never come when keys on a keyboard swap places for no apparent reason, and basic things like suspending the computer and changing the mouse scroll speed doesn’t work out of the box.


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