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Pop!_OS: a multi-use linux distribution

Par Antoine VETILLARD Publié le 09/01/2020 à 20:25:35 Noter cet article:
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System76 and Pop!_OS

System76 is an American company founded in 2005. Headquartered in the State of Colorado, it sells customized computer hardware to both private individuals and corporations. It distinguishes itself from its competitors by integrating GNU/Linux in all its products.

From its early beginnings, System76 focused on Ubuntu distribution, which is very popular for its accessibility to newcomers, its intuitiveness and the variety of its targeted audience. This pioneering distribution comes in several editions. As a result, System76 has been able to guarantee consistency across all of its devices with the Desktop edition, dedicated to daily use from a personal computer, and the Server edition, optimized for rack machines.

In early May 2017, Ubuntu developers, Canonical, announced to the world a major new feature for their distribution: the switch from the Unity desktop environment to Gnome. System76 therefore took the opportunity to launch the development of a graphic theme named Pop. This was based on Adapta, a theme with a semi-flat design very close to the material design developed by Google. Obviously, this theme was created using the company's colors, taking up the orange tones that characterize Pop!_OS today. It could be installed through their first package repository and is still available on their GitHub account.

Two months later, System76 wrote a post on its blog announcing the development of a distribution called Pop!_OS. According to Carl Richell, System76's founder and CEO, the original idea was not to create a standalone distribution, but to deeply customize an edition of Ubuntu with the company's favorite desktop environment: Gnome Shell. This customization work became so important that creating a distribution was the best choice. The first version of Pop!_OS was born. Today, this GNU/Linux distribution is available for all the brand's laptop and desktop series.

Following the free and open-source philosophy that drives the GNU/Linux communities, System76 has innovated by placing the components made for its "Thelio" line of desktop computers under an open-source license. Their plans are therefore available, just like Pop!_OS, on the company's github account.

Technical specifications

As shortly introduced above, Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu and, therefore, follows its versioning, in both numbering and frequency of publication. System76 thus releases a major version of its distribution every six months, after adding its custom settings to Canonical's operating system.

Subsequently, both OSes require a very similar hardware configuration. Indeed, Pop!_OS will require only 2 gigabytes of RAM, 10 gigabytes of disk space and a 64-bit x86 architecture. However, these minimum requirements will only ensure basic system operability and a limited number of tasks. For ease of use, System76 recommends 4 gigabytes of RAM and 20 gigabytes of storage.

A very interesting technical feature allowing Pop!_OS to stand out from Ubuntu, and more generally from distributions intended for novice users, is the graphical drivers installation support. Indeed, when the topic of graphics card drivers is brought up with experienced linuxians, it is not uncommon for it to have as much effect as bringing up a political topic during a family dinner. The unwillingness of companies such as Nvidia to support GNU/linux for their products has led to a lot of controversy and even Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, got off the rails during a conference. But this topic would require a whole article to give it some background. So the Pop!_OS feature allows to install automatically the driver of its graphic card, regardless of the model or brand. This utility, as simple as it may seem, allows inexperienced users to save precious time in reading documentation and tweaking settings, which are often a source of discouragement. Once the drivers are installed, a small extension of Gnome allows to switch from one of the graphic cards to the other, if several models are present in the machine. Deactivating the main graphic card allows a significant energy saving; a non-negligible element on a laptop whose battery charge is rarely up to the owner's expectations. Above this extension, another menu called Power Profiles lets you manage the computer's performances. The first profile switches the processor tuning to High Performance mode, the second, called Balanced, reconfigures the processor to default mode, and the last, Battery Life, reduces screen brightness, turns off keyboard backlighting and suggests the user to close power-consuming programs.

Regarding the system's security, three important points should be highlighted.

First of all, during setup, the full encryption of the storage is presented as the default choice. This ensures, from a physical point of view, a total protection of the data by an additional password besides the session one.

Then, in its guide of differences between Ubuntu and Pop!_OS, System76 specifies that "communications with a third party are not by default, and will only be done with the user's consent". This aspect will satisfy privacy activists who have long boycotted Ubuntu for its integration of the Dash tool, which allowed the terms entered in the distribution search bar to be sent to third parties such as Amazon, Facebook, Twitter or the BBC. Finally, if a system failure were to occur exceptionally, a recovery partition is created during installation. This is a live image that lets you boot on a clean version of Pop!_OS and thereby repair or reinstall the faulty system.

Upgrading to a new version of the distribution is also accessible for newcomers. A simple Download button is displayed on the About page of the Settings, as soon as the update list is refreshed. Once pressed, a small panel indicates that the download of the new version has started, and then proceeds to the installation.

Firmware installation is similar in simplicity to upgrading. This concerns all types of devices such as headphones, mouses, keyboards, etc.

Finally, unlike other distributions, Pop!_OS only has one desktop environment: Gnome Shell. This strategic choice, which may be restrictive in the eyes of some users, is, in this case, a guarantee of quality provided by System76 because their development is fully dedicated to enhancing the user experience. Therefore, the company does not deprive itself of highlighting this work on the page of their site dedicated to the distribution, by showing the ergonomic functionalities of the desktop environment.

Targeted audience

As soon as it began its project of developing an operating system based on Ubuntu, System76 announced that it was targeting computer-dependent creators. Developers, researchers, computer graphics designers and students in computer science schools are part of the public that Pop!_OS should satisfy. The majority of the firm's computers go in this direction with descriptions using the terms professional, performance or portability.

However, among the many features dedicated to productivity, the automated installation of the graphics drivers has attracted the attention of many gamers. The fact that the distribution is based on Ubuntu also implicitly attracts novice users with the complexity of GNU/Linux, sometimes not obvious for someone whose intuitiveness was developed on non-unix-like systems. The "privacy" aspect presented above is also a point that may attract users who are tired of having their personal data at best insecure and at worst exploited.

This large user potential could not be exploited without communication. Beyond the news published on social networks by its company, Pop!_OS has attracted the attention of many "geeks" thanks to the communities of various creators. The presenters of the YouTube channel Linus Tech Tips, now with nearly 10 million subscribers, have posted two videos praising System76. The first one presents in a non-technical way how to use Pop!_OS as an alternative to Windows 10, while the second, released two months later, introduces the System76 site and the Thelios line of desktops. Even if this second video is very much oriented on the hardware presentation, the distribution is not left behind. During its analysis, the youtuber criticizes the noise pollution of the fans, which he considers too loud in the case of energy-saving use of his demonstration. Four months later, System76's CEO announced on his Twitter account the creation of a soundproofing room for acoustic and thermal tests. Once the tests were completed, an update was published, reducing the noise nuisance of the Thelios by at least 7 decibels. Coincidence or direct reply from the company to its community?

Linus Tech Tips aside, many Linux news websites, mainly English-speaking, keep their readers informed of every move made by System76 and its distribution. Distrowatch, the reference website for Unix system distributions, ranks Pop!_OS 16th in its popularity ranking, at the time I am writing this article. It is now two places ahead from Arch Linux.

Which future for the distribution?

With the unprecedented arrival of computers, video games quickly made their way into homes. Despite the arrival of consoles, the computer has remained the device of choice for many gamers.

Nowadays, Windows 10 is the most widely used operating system on personal computers. However, the evolution of the WINE portability software and the release of Steam OS, the GNU/Linux distribution developed by the Valve corporation, have greatly contributed to the portability of games on Linux OSes. This boost brought to Linus Torvalds' work, combined with the automatic installation feature of Pop!_OS graphic drivers, are two factors that will guarantee the popularity of this distribution among newcomers or simple gamers in the future.

Moreover, this public could not be unsatisfied with a distribution whose developers have made usability their main purpose and whose abundant tutorials for Ubuntu are perfectly suitable.

Finally, it is important to note that the GNOME Shell desktop environment is widely used in the Free Software world. System76 should then not suffer from any dropout of this project by its developers. The GNU/Linux kernel, itself, also has a secure future because its worldwide use does not seem to be decreasing, especially since companies such as Microsoft, which have long remained reluctant, are investing in its adoption and portability.

We can then conclude that Pop!_OS has a secure future that developers will undoubtedly take full advantage of.

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