It was first released in 2017 but has quickly established itself as a fast, robust and user-friendly Linux distribution, which is consistently ranked in the top five most popular by DistroWatch. It targets developers, makers, and computer science professionals.
I have now been using Pop!_OS for two months on a Dell XPS 17 (9710), supporting my personal and business workloads. This includes eight hour days, covering web (Google Chrome), productivity (LibreOffice, Microsoft Office Web), collaboration (Microsoft Teams, Zoom), development (Docker, GameMaker Studio 2), video/photo editing (OpenShot Video Editor, Krita) and even gaming (Steam, Lutris).
As with any system, there has been the occasional “hiccup”, but I am pleased to report that overall, Pop!_OS has performed admirably, providing a comparable experience to Windows and/or macOS.
With that said, I suspect this experience has been helped by my choice of software, which favours cross-platform and/or free and open-source.
With two months of experience behind me, I thought I would share a few reasons why I believe Pop!_OS is one of the best Linux distributions available today.
System76 started as a computer manufacturer, specialising in the sale of notebooks, desktops, and servers running Linux (initially Ubuntu). This heritage provides them with a unique perspective on what it takes to make Linux a viable operating system for daily use.
As an example, Carl Richell, founder and CEO of System76 recently joined Jonathan Bennett and Shawn Powers on FLOSS Weekly. The hour-long podcast provided a fascinating glimpse into System76, including their philosophy to design, manufacturing, etc.
In short, the System76 story resonates with me and therefore is something I want to use and promote. Similar to the recently announced Framework Laptop, I feel it is important that ethically and environmentally positive companies that prioritise free and open-source software are allowed to complete, hopefully helping to shape the future of computing.
A common barrier with Linux is the initial installation, which can be cumbersome for new users, especially if the required open-source software/drivers are not readily available.
A great example is Arch Linux, which is growing in popularity thanks to the rolling release model and the incredible control it provides over the operating system. Although I love the ArchWiki, and Arch User Repository (AUR), the initial installation is certainly not for beginners (prepare to reserve several hours).
Arch-based Linux distributions such as Manjaro can help significantly, but (in my opinion) still fall short of Pop!_OS for speed and simplicity.
System76 provide a dedicated ISO for Intel/AMD or NVIDIA-based systems. This alone is a huge benefit, as installing and maintaining the proprietory NVIDIA drivers on Linux can be a real pain. Once the correct ISO is selected, the installation wizard is fast and intuitive, with options to enable important security controls such as full-disk encryption, etc.
Finally, once at the desktop, Pop!_OS includes a simple getting started guide to configure common settings. In my opinion, this experience is among the best in the business, even superior to Windows and macOS, which have both become bloated over the years with unnecessary steps.
Pop!_OS ships with a custom version of the GNOME desktop environment called COSMIC. If you do not like GNOME, System76 offer alternatives (e.g. MATE, Cinnamon, KDE Plasma, etc.) However, it should be noted that Pop!_OS was designed with COSMIC in mind.
What I like about Pop!_OS is that COSMIC pre-configures all of the custom settings I would usually have to enable through third-party extensions. For example, I like a very minimal desktop experience, with a vertical layout and a focus on keyboard shortcuts. With Pop!_OS, this can be achieved natively, with almost no effort and zero ongoing maintenance.
Finally, Pop!_OS includes custom power profiles, which are natively integrated into the menu bar. For example, if the system has hybrid graphics (e.g. Intel and NVIDIA), Pop!_OS can be configured in a “single click” to automatically switch depending on the workload.
If you are coming from Windows or macOS, this will sound very trivial, but on Linux, hybrid graphics can be a pain to set up, configure and enable.
Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu, which itself is based on Debian. I left the Ubuntu ecosystem in 2011 due to the direction of the project (Ubuntu Unity).
However, it is hard to argue against the market strength of Ubuntu and the breadth of Debian-based repositories, delivering the most comprehensive software ecosystem that is often the starting point for new releases.
For example, the recent release of GameMaker Studio 2 for Linux is currently only officially supported on Ubuntu. Although it is possible to make the software work on other distributions, having native support is certainly a time saver.
What I like about System76 is that they have selected the “best bits” of Ubuntu for Pop!_OS, ignoring the more controversial decisions. For example, Pop!_OS does not prioritise the use of Snap packages, instead favouring Debian and Flatpak.
Performance and Reliability
In my experience, Pop!_OS is not the fastest or the most reliable Linux distribution. However, it scores highly in both areas, making it a great balance. For example, I find Arch-based Linux distributions such as Manjaro to be faster, but also less stable.
Pop!_OS follows the Ubuntu twice-yearly update cycle (April and October). As Pop!_OS is not a rolling release distribution (like Arch Linux), it means that software is often a little behind the latest version. For example, Pop!_OS 21.04 shipped with GNOME v3.38.4 (not GNOME 40), however, this conservative update schedule helps ensure any “bleeding edge” bugs or security concerns are (hopefully) resolved before user adoption.
In my experience, Pop!_OS is as stable as Fedora (which is very solid), but also more performant, especially in gaming.
In conclusion, Pop!_OS just works!
It allows me to focus on my workloads (e.g. productivity, collaboration, development), instead of the operating system itself. In my opinion, this is the true test of a great operating system, which should really “fade into the background”, acting as the vehicle to “get stuff done”.
I would happily recommend Pop!_OS to any Linux user, either someone starting new or an experienced user simply looking for a robust daily driver. In either scenario, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more well rounded Linux distribution.