Image: System76

It should come as no surprise that System76, the company always finding new ground in the intersection of open source software and OEM hardware, has embarked upon refining and retooling the Pop!_OS Linux desktop experience.

COSMIC is System76’s way of taking the GNOME desktop environment and tweaking it to better suit the user experience, as defined by their user base. The company polled Pop!_OS users to find out how they work with the desktop. The results of that survey helped guide the company in developing COSMIC.

What is COSMIC? Simply put, it’s a honed user experience for the GNOME desktop. From what I’ve seen, it looks to be superior in just about every way.

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How System76 tweaked GNOME

Everything about COSMIC is based on GNOME 40, so you’re already getting the horizontal workflow, which is far more efficient than the previous layout. On top of that, System76 has made some major tweaks to the interface.

For example, the Activities Overview has been separated into two separate and distinct views:

  • Workspaces: Allows you to view your open windows and workspaces.

  • Applications: Opens an application picker.

Next, System76 changed the function of the Super key. In standard GNOME, the Super key activates the Activities Overview. With the COSMIC experience, the Super key will activate the launcher which allows you to switch applications, run a command or calculate an equation.

System76 found that over 56% of users added Dash To Dock or Dash To Panel to GNOME (I use Dash To Dock). Because of this, COSMIC will include a dock. This dock will be configured within Settings | Desktop, where you can control where the dock is displayed if it’s automatically hidden, and other elements.

Mouse or keyboard driven

One very important aspect of COSMIC is how you interact with the desktop will determine a number of factors. System76 fully understands there are two types of users:

  1. Those who prefer to work with a mouse and keyboard.
  2. Those who prefer to work primarily with a keyboard.

What type of user you are will dictate a few key aspects of COSMIC. For example, if you’re a mouse user, you’ll enjoy a dock, minimize/maximize buttons, hot corners and the usual features found on a desktop.

If, on the other hand, you primarily work with a keyboard, your desktop will lean toward minimalism and will present a tiling window manager and depend heavily on keyboard shortcuts.

In other words:

  • Mouse = typical desktop workflow

  • Keyboard = tiling workflow

These two types of workflows are vastly different. Those who’ve never used a tiling window manager would probably find a keyboard-driven COSMIC to be a frustrating experience. I’ve attempted to use tiling window managers on several occasions, and I’ve always found them to border on madness. Of course, if I gave myself the time to acclimate to the environment, I’m sure I’d very much love the tiling experience. I’m a combo-user—I try to spend most of my time with the keyboard, but do use a mouse as well. For me, when COSMIC arrives (for the release of Pop!_OS 21.04 in June), I’ll probably start with a mouse-driven experience and every once in a while, test the keyboard-driven waters to see if I can get used to that minimal desktop.

My thoughts on COSMIC

To be fair, I’ve yet to try the COSMIC experience. That’s because System76 has yet to open it up for the likes of me. I can tell you that I’m already quite excited about what they’re doing. System76 rarely makes a misstep these days, so when the company says they’ve listed to their users, know that what they’re about to unleash will make the Pop!_OS experience even better than it already was.

I’ve been using Pop!_OS for a few years now, and it has not once let me down. I get that some people simply don’t like GNOME. To those, I’d say, give the COSMIC experience a chance. The System76 designers and developers are some of the best, so when they pay attention to user needs, you can bet the result will be something special.

Of course, in typical System76 fashion, they’ve opened the COSMIC experience up on GitHub, and even give you the steps for installing on Pop!_OS 21.04.

For those that would prefer to wait for the full release, I’d offer this piece of advice: before the June release, try out the Tiling feature on Pop!_OS. Get used to that, so when COSMIC arrives, you can test out both the keyboard- and mouse-driven experiences. I’m betting one or the other will perfectly suit your workflow.

COSMIC perfectly typifies System76—they’re not afraid to push the limits of what the open source desktop can do, but they never fail to take into consideration user input. Every computer manufacturer on the planet could learn a lesson from System76—one that would vastly improve how the court of public opinion judges them.

I, for one, can’t wait to get the COSMIC experience. Because System76 doesn’t provide alphas or betas of Pop!_OS, we’ll just all have to wait together.

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