Sometimes new Linux distros still in beta-only status can offer pleasant surprises with a key feature not available elsewhere. Check out Enso OS for a prime example.
Enso OS is a relatively new Linux distribution that debuted a couple of years ago. It is a custom build of Xubuntu 18.04 and features the Xfce desktop (hence the Xubuntu base) combined with Gala, a Mutter-based window/compositing manager designed for use in Elementary OS and its Pantheon Shell.
Enso OS features the Panther application launcher and a modified Plank dock. It also comes with a full-feature panel bar.
I have worked with Elementary OS, another newcomer to the ranks of Linux OS land, and watched its development. Elementary OS is a nice alternative to the GNOME way of doing things, but I found that it lacked the configuration options and interface features I wanted for regular use.
Enso OS just might provide that missing link. Combining Xfce with Gala could be the developer’s stroke of genius.
Gala is far from new. It was introduced in 2011 when Elementary OS made its debut. What is new is pairing it with Xfce. Making it part of the classic Xfce/Xubuntu desktop offers a fresh look and simplicity, making traditional Xfce a bit more modern. Much of the smooth animations in this Xfce integration are the result of embedded Gala.
The Enso OS project’s version 0.3.1 is a beta edition released on June 7. Despite its youth, “Dancing Daisy” impressed me with its good performance. The release includes all the latest security and system packages from the main Ubuntu developer branch, which will be supported by Ubuntu for the next three years.
Look and Feel
The Xfce desktop long has been one of my computing staples. Its lightweight nature makes it a great fit for almost any hardware collection. It is fast, very convenient and feature-rich.
Directly out of the box, Xfce is bland when used with most distros. It comes with a gaggle of configuration tools and a slew of system settings options, but it takes some time to dig through all of those settings to get Xfce to look and work your way.
The tweaked integration in Enso OS puts a new spin on that. Out of the box, the desktop looks awesome. Gala’s added contributions almost make fiddling with the controls unnecessary. There is nothing stock about this Xfce installation.
Of course, some Linux users are prone to fiddle. In my case, adjusting the desktop to my own specifications is a labor of Linux love that has a lot less purpose in this distro. Out of the box, Enso OS is almost too pretty in its own right to apply too many changes.
You won’t find the standard Xfce themes within Enso OS. The UK developer, Nick Wilkins, completely re-themed the desktop.
I particularly like the wallpaper collection. Remember, this is an early beta effort, but it is impressive that Wilkins does not resort to stock stuff. The collection in this release has a dozen background images. This release replaced most of the previous views with a set of nine new background images.
It is definitely an attractive selection of artwork you will not see elsewhere. Let your mind wander as you scan over this list of new background titles:
- Calm Water Beside Sand
- Wooden Footbridge on Lake
- Forest in Fog
- Snowy Mountain
- Overhead Shot of Beach
- Blades of Grass
- Rolling Sea Shore
- Daylight Forest
- Scenic Rice Paddies
Granted, this is a minor release. Yes, it is a beta version. However, Enso OS delivers better performance and has more polish than many of the more mature distros that come and go on my hard drives.
The most notable changes are within the application management too, a fork of the Elementary project’s AppCenter. Dubbed “AppHive” in Enso OS, it has native Snap support. The category selector (a list view on the left-hand side) displays nice colors, and there is an added Games category.
The Xfce panel switch tool, introduced in Xubuntu 15.10, makes it quick and simple to manage panel layouts. The default configuration for the top panel bar is devoid of a menu bar.
Instead, the left end shows categories suggestive of a file manager: Files, Documents, Music, Pictures, Video. Click on them to access dropdown menus of those items. The right end has the usual notification icons for date/time, power, Internet and speaker.
Run the switch tool from the main menu, select the panel style you want, and click the apply gear button. Whatever style you choose, a fully functional panel bar sits along the top of the screen. The center section has room for a library of choices for panel applets. Right-click on the bar to access bar properties and other settings.
You can further personalize the desktop appearance with the Appearance setting tool. This lets you click on seven window treatment styles under the Style tab and 10 icon styles under the Icons tab. You can make rendering and other choices under the Fonts tab, and address toolbar style, menu and button choices, event sounds and window scaling under the Settings tab.
The Enso OS improves on both functionality and appearance with the borrowed and tweaked Xfce and Gala components. The desktop sports a clean and modern look as a result.
The Xfce design prevents putting application icons on the desktop screen, but you can pin apps to a favorites list (called “starring”) on the main menu. You also can pin them to the Plank.
Unless you have one or more application windows covering portions of the desktop, all you look at is the background image. Nothing else is visible. Right-click anywhere on the desktop image to get a small popup screen with four choices: Show Desktop, Workspace View, Settings, and Change Desktop Background.
The Plank provides a panel-like fixture that works more like a second specialized panel bar than a quick launcher tool found in other plank-containing distros. The Plank, borrowed from Elementary OS, is retooled in Enso OS to incorporate the forked Elementary OS Slingshot launcher called “Panther” in Enso OS and the Multitasking view button. It stretches to the bottom right edge of the screen rather than being centered and is primarily used as a quick app launcher. You can pin apps and windows to the Dock.
The Plank is a handy vehicle to switch between applications as well. An indicator mark under icons on the dock distinguishes open windows from pinned (but not running) app launchers. Click on the docked icon to switch instantly to the running application without having to Alt-Tab through all running items or go through the multitasking view.
Picture a hybrid desktop interface that combines some of the best features of Elementary OS and Xubuntu. That is was Enso OS provides.
Better Use of Multitasking
I am a bit of a fussbudget when it comes to using virtual desktops or work spaces. Classic Xfce uses a workspace switcher applet on the bottom panel. This tool provides a button for each workspace. Simply click the one you want and go there. I also have keyboard shortcuts programmed so that I can move around the virtual desktops with an Alt+Number combination.
I can use the keyboard shortcut method in Enso OS, but this Xfce plus Gala combination uses the multitasking view approach popular in GNOME 3. Enso OS executes the process a bit better, however.
The standard GNOME approach is to click on an Activities View button or hot spot usually located in the upper corner of the screen. That slides out a mini view of the work spaces as a panel from the right edge of the screen. Click the one you want and the panel slides away.
In Enso OS that activating button sits next to the main menu button on the Dock. Clicking it presents what is essentially an Expo thumbnail view pinched to the center of the screen. A sliver of the next workspace slides out from the left and right screen edge. Click the sliver to have that work space fill the full screen. Each work space also is represented by a square button across the bottom of the screen. Click the square to jump instantly to that work space.
I have used the traditional work spacer switcher for too long to really like the GNOME-based method, but the approach taken in Enso OS is at least more accessible for me. The work spaces phenomenon is probably one of the most controversial features that sets attitudes toward particular multitasking functionalities.
The developer’s website makes absolutely no mention of this distro’s technical specs, so I can not quote specifically the technical aspects of the Enso OS Dancing Daisy release. However, since version 0.3.1 is based on Xubuntu 18.04, the minimum hardware requirements should be fairly similar. In that case, here is a guide to what your computer needs inside to run this distro:
- 512 MiB of system memory (RAM)
- 5 GB of disk space
- Graphics card and monitor capable of 800×600 resolution
- 700 MHz Processor
Something else that is not mentioned — at least, it’s not included in the sparse documentation — is the password to the lock screen.
The lock screen kicks in by default after a brief period of inactivity when running the live session ISO. Before I got to the installation part of my testing procedure, I had set up a variety of setting changes. I swiveled around my semi-circle of machines to take notes for the review and then return to play around some more with this distro.
During one of my longer writing intervals, the lock screen kicked in. I had forgotten to disable that setting in Power Management. I had no choice but to reboot and do an installation before getting overly involved again and turning my back on the test computer.
After all the years I have been reviewing Linux distros, I still can not figure out why developers insist on an active lock screen in live session environments. It is a raging pet peeve of mine, especially when no password is provided somewhere in the documentation.
Plan on spending some time adding software to this beta release. The best-stocked category with included applications is the Accessories section. The new Game category offers only Sudoku and Mines. Graphics include only Ristretto Image Viewer and Simple Scan. The Internet category includes Firefox Quantum Web browser, Thunderbird Mail, Transmission Bit Torrent Client and Web Browser.
The Office category is particularly disappointing. It lacks even the skimpiest of lightweight writing apps such as AbiWord. The included meager list of applications here is nothing more than accessories: Atril document viewer, Calendar, a dictionary and Orange Globaltime. The Sound and Video category has a music app, Parole Media Player, Pulse Audio control and Xburn.
The most impressive aspect of Enso OS is the tweaked desktop that combines a somewhat modified Xfce environment with key elements from Elementary OS. The result could be a better alternative to Xubuntu, depending on your computing preferences.
For an early beta release of a relatively new Linux distribution, Enso OS has much going for it. This distro also has numerous areas where the developer must grow the infrastructure.
Enso OS is clearly a distro that bears watching over the next few releases.
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