elementary OS 6 beta promises great things in the same beautiful package

Jack Wallen takes a look at the beta release of elementary OS 6 and finds himself breathing a sigh of relief that the developers haven't "fixed" what isn't broken.

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Image: elementary OS

Every so often I'm reminded of the Rush song, "Circumstances." Back in my days of high school, I remember first hearing the line, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," ("the more things change, the more they stay the same"), and being absolutely floored by its paradoxical statement. Since then, I've run into so many instances where the idiom applied. Within the realm of open-source, elementary OS is living proof that the saying can have perfect relevance. 

I've been following this particular Linux distribution since its early days. For a few years, it was my go-to desktop Linux. That came to an end when I purchased my first System76 Thelio desktop and realized that Pop!_OS was a better fit for their hardware. I do miss the elegance brought to life on the desktop by Pantheon and elementary OS. When the first beta of the sixth iteration of the platform arrived, I had to install it and see what the developers and designers had to offer.

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I was not surprised when I fired it up and instantly thought of that Rush song, because elementary 6 looks very, very familiar. If you used elementary OS 5, you might think you've mistakenly installed that release, instead of the beta for 6—that's a good thing.

You see, so often a group of developers and designers get something so right that their best path forward is one of refinement, not change. That's what Cassidy James Blaede and the gang have done. Instead of making change for change's sake, they simply improve on what they already know works. elementary OS has worked to perfection for a while.

It should come as little surprise that the Pantheon desktop, which elementary OS uses as its default, remains (on the surface) the same (Figure A). That doesn't mean the developers haven't brought some serious goodness to bear on what lies beneath the surface.

Figure A

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The default elementary OS 6 beta desktop looks immediately familiar.

Let's see what there is to see (or not see).

The obvious updates

You won't find much in the way of obvious updates for the latest iteration of elementary OS. However, there are a few rather subtle changes that should be mentioned. The first is called Screen Shield and makes it possible for audio playback to continue, even when the display has gone to sleep. Not a huge change, but for certain use-cases (such as listening to podcasts or instructional audio) it could be an important improvement.

Also, the notifications have been completely revamped, even to the point of deploying a completely new notification server. The new desktop notifications are cleaner than previous iterations and easier to use (Figure B).

Figure B

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The new elementary OS desktop notifications are a subtle, but necessary improvement.

elementary OS 6 uses an all-new system stylesheet, which retains a similar look and feel to previous releases, but fine-tunes the use of:

  • Elevation and shadow

  • System-wide accent colors

  • Dark style preferences

  • Typography

Although the difference isn't in-your-face, it's these types of refinements that help make each release of the platform more elegant and professional.

The not-so-obvious updates

For those that prefer to use the default elementary apps, you'll find the Mail app has been completely rewritten. The developers have switched from the Geary backend to the Evolution Data Server, which will make for wider support of different mail servers. This change will also make it possible to sync to-dos with various services. At the moment, however, the work on this end is not complete, so even in the beta release, you won't notice the change.

Another change is that elementary is shifting to include Flatpak out of the box and an entirely Flatpak-based AppCenter ecosystem. That's right, your favorite Linux distribution is joining the rank and file with the universal package format. From elementary 6 and beyond, all AppCenter apps will be built at Flatpaks. 

For some, this might be a deal-breaker. But for the majority of end-users, this will mean one thing—more available apps in the AppCenter. Although you might not be a big fan of either Flatpak or Snaps, having more available applications can only be seen as a good thing. Kudos to the elementary developers for understanding this. 

At the moment, Flatpak integration has yet to find its way into the beta, but by the final release, you can be sure it'll be working. 

The end result

Other than the introduction of Flatpak, elementary OS 6 doesn't bring much in the way of profound and blockbuster changes to the platform. And that, my friends, should be seen as a plus. Since its inception, elementary OS has been viewed as one of the best Linux distributions for new users, and even those with plenty of experience. This desktop distribution knows what it is and doesn't shy away from that fact. The developers are smart to not make sweeping changes to the distribution because they absolutely nailed it two releases ago, so this Linux desktop should stay the same, even while changing.

One thing to remember is that this is very much a beta release, so you should only download and install this release for testing purposes, or to get a glimpse of what's to come. For those interested, the public beta of elementary OS 6 can be downloaded here.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....