Endless OS is an unusual Linux distro in that its user interface is more like an Android smartphone or tablet than a Linux desktop computer platform.
Version 3.5.4, released on Jan. 17, brings parental controls and other refinements that make this distro a cool alternative to the Chromebook for home, educational and community use. Endless OS goes a long way to eliminating the learning curve attached to using more traditional Linux OSes.
This ease-of-use performance makes it a good selling point as a computing platform for kids and for groups of users within a school — as well as in other agencies that control what users can access and configure.
That is precisely the target user base envisioned in the marketing plan of U.S.-headquartered Endless Solutions, the company behind the operating system.
The Endless OS community’s goal is to build a global platform for digital literacy. It has outlined two strategies to pursue that mission.
One marketing strategy is the company’s simplified EOS desktop. It eliminates the technology barrier that often inhibits newcomers to computing in general, and Linux in particular.
The second strategy is the sale of a new breed of affordable desktop computers shipped with the Endless OS. You buy the box and plug in your own monitors, mouse and keyboard.
Choices include various sized oval, elliptical, square and rectangular boxes. Colors vary too. So do the memory and storage options.
The resource needs of Endless computers, much like Chromebooks, are far from heavy. The OS runs well on 1-GB, 2-GB and 4-GB configurations. eMMC cards and hard drive storage offer a range of options from 32 GB to 128 GB.
For this review, my focus is strictly the free-to-download-and-use operating system. Endless OS is fast — especially on computers with extra RAM. Plus, it is easy to install and easier to use.
Endless gives new users a familiar computer system with a large bundled collection of more than100 personal, business and educational applications to meet nearly any need. This distro is ready to use out of the box, and it offers some helpful tools to make computing easier for young and old.
Under the Hood
Endless OS is based on Debian Linux and a heavily modified GNOME desktop environment. EOS has no traditional Debian package manager. Instead, An upgrade tool automatically checks for updates and handles them in the background. Another feature is a locked-down OS that limits a user’s ability to change settings. This makes Endless OS unlike most other Linux distros.
The developers caution that even though Endless OS has a Debian base, using it is not the same as running Debian Linux. Pure Debian systems use .deb packages for the system files and applications. Instead of a true package manager tool, Endless OS is fitted with OSTree.
It is not a package manager per se. Rather, it is an upgrade system that performs atomic upgrades of complete file system trees.
This is a non-destructive atomic technique to deploy operating system updates without affecting the running state of the system. OSTree makes the updating process safer and more hardened against breaking the system when applying automatic updates.
New Linux users can download the Endless OS from their Windows or macOS computers. They also can burn the ISO files to run the installation media with disc-burning software on either platform.
However, the Endless OS website makes it seem as though you must burn the ISO files to a USB drive to test and install the operating system. Nowhere does it mention the DVD option.
Especially for new users, creating a bootable USB drive to run a live session of Endless OS can be frustratingly hit-or-miss. Endless OS runs fine from a DVD disc, which is a reliable process.
Another potential stumbling block might appear when trying to download the ISO file. The Endless OS website uses only torrent connections rather than direct downloads from its own servers.
Torrent file exchanges let you download the desired file from an unknown computer connected to a torrent network. At the same time, the torrent software grabs whatever installation files it finds in your computer’s downloads folder.
The potential problem for new users is knowing about the need to use a torrent application.The download link on the Endless OS website requires torrent software, but that process is not mentioned.
I could not locate any direct download links on the Endless OS website. I also could not find any other software repositories that offered a non-torrent option for direct downloads of Endless OS.
The Endless OS website has a section titled, “Where can I download the Endless OS ISO image files directly?” The answer is apparently you can’t. You can download an image file directly and use it to create your own Endless USB stick or test Endless OS in a virtual machine. However, there is no direct download link, so you are stuck using the torrent method.
The virtual machine option is one you should consider to test Endless OS. The virtual machine method bypasses having to burn the files onto a DVD or a USB drive once you download the ISO file.
I had no trouble running Endless OS in a virtual machine, but I still had to burn a DVD or USB configuration in order to install Endless to a hard drive for permanent use.
Matching Your Needs
You can download two versions of Endless OS. The Basic version is about 2 GB. It comes with only a few preloaded applications. Your computer needs at least 32 GB of free space on the hard drive to handle installation of the full version.
The Basic version is fine to check out the user interface and confirm that it is compatible with your hardware. If you install the basic version, you can open the App Center to browse, download and install more than a hundred free applications.
To get real usefulness from this distro, though, you should get the full version, especially if you have limited Internet access. It does not make much sense to play whack-a-mole , downloading useful applications that you will need regularly one at a time.
The Full version provides about 100 software titles already installed. Because of the additional software inventory, the download size of this ISO file is much larger than the Basic version’s ISO download. It is about 16 GB.
Why bundle so many applications? Some computing veterans might view this as unnecessary crapware. That is not the case with Endless OS. The developers provide a large variety of software titles to make Endless computing functional and self-sufficient for users with little or no Internet access. You will not find many of the software titles in Endless OS common offerings in other Linux distros. That can be a big advantage to trying the Endless OS.
Endless OS comes with special categories of applications, including Astronomy, Cooking, Maternity, Health, Celebrities, Special Needs and more. The software titles include games and productivity software, as well as travel and educational materials. A Wikipedia section provides access to more than 50,000 articles.
Having a reliable collection of reference tools and educational software installed lets you get schoolwork and personal learning done without being online. Of course, you can not update email or research the latest trending topics without an Internet connection.
If you are an Android device user, be sure to check out the Android companion app. It lets you sync your Android-powered mobile phones and tablets with Endless OS. The Android app is available from the Google Play Store for free.
Your installed apps are often a goldmine of information you have yet to peruse. Click the tab at the top to open “Recommended Stories.” This action provides highlights and links to content from your installed apps.
A textbook showcase of sorts is bundled for offline reading. You get a textbook app with FlexBooks from the C-12 Foundation. You also get content from Khan Academy, and videos about a variety of subjects.
Apps to Go
I like the concept of having a computer that does not always require an Internet connection — especially for controlled environments likes schools and library computer rooms, or “study centers” in remote locations.
Even for home and business settings, a “partially air-gapped” computer can be beneficial. Sometimes it is a benefit to be isolated from watching live content on Youtube or getting lost in social media posts.
If you need to add more applications, the Endless OS app store mixes traditional apps with Endless-specific apps. The More Apps option on the home screen opens the app store.
This is an Endless version of the GNOME Software app. A symbol distinguishes between apps you already have and those that require a download.
Some Surprises Included
Endless OS is not like your typical Linux distro in several ways. One of the more unusual things is having to sign an end user license agreement.
A second more-than-trivial thing about Endless OS is the way it handles system files. They are read-only. This approach comes with some security benefits.
Mainly, it makes it much more unlikely that malware or hacking can mess with the system’s integrity. Only app updates can tinker with system files. This is similar to the way Chrome OS operates on Chromebooks.
Yet another design element that differs from other Linux distros is how the modified GNOME interface works. For instance, when Endless OS starts, the screen displays an app drawer to launch apps.
The user interface offers a few surprises also. The EOS desktop lacks a main menu button anywhere on the panel or taskbar. The button to the far left of the panel does not pop up a menu. Instead, it shows the desktop.
The panel has a few launcher buttons to display documents, the app center, and the Web browser on the left. On the right end of the panel bar are the usual icons in the system tray.
Instead of a pop-up menu, launch icons fill the screen. The layout and functionality closely resemble an Android device or the GNOME application display, except for the taskbar at the bottom of the screen.
Click on the app to launch the activity. Right-click on an open application’s icon in the taskbar to pin it there.
A search window sits at the top center of the screen above the application icons. Start typing an application name to see a list of matching installed apps and a list of possible matches available in the app center. Tap on an icon to launch the application or load the URL in the Web browser.
Endless OS lacks virtual workspaces and applets to run on the panel bar. A virtual workspace is an essential feature in most Linux desktops.
Sometimes the goal of simplifying the user interface ends up crippling the functionality. That is the case with Endless OS. New users probably will not miss these two features, but experienced Linux users no doubt will find EOS too limiting.
Further, the desktop environment is so locked down that the settings panel hardly has any usefulness. The EOS desktop is mostly a one-size-fits-all configuration. It only lets you fiddle with some basic settings.
All the settings appear in a single panel. There is not much to configure other than options for background, power, mouse/touchpad and such.
One silver lining exists in the mostly featureless settings panel. This latest release brings parental controls. It lets you control which apps users can install or launch, at least to a degree.
For instance, you can not restrict access to built-in apps, including the Web browser, file manager, text editor and video player. The app center displays apps based on their content rating. You can set the display to show only age-appropriate content, for instance.
You also can restrict access to certain apps already installed on the system, or you can prohibit certain users from installing new apps entirely.
The endless OS offers many computing options. It is easy to use. It is not a Linux solution for sophisticated users, however.
The developers designed this distro to fulfill the demands of underserved users in the developing world. Most of the users live in places where access to information is restricted and computers are expensive.
However, this unique Linux distro with its EOS desktop can have endless uses for schools, church groups and business settings. Endless OS also can be a frustration-free computing platform for students and non tech-savvy users.
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