Thursday, July 5, 2018

First impressions of PureOS

My new Librem 13 arrived yesterday, and it was my first opportunity to play around with PureOS. I thought I'd share a few thoughts here.

First, PureOS uses GNOME for the desktop. And not that it matters much to usability, but they picked a beautiful default desktop wallpaper:

Because it's GNOME, the desktop was immediately familiar to me. I've been a GNOME user for a long time, and I work with GNOME in testing usability of new features. So the GNOME desktop was a definite plus for me.

It's not a stock GNOME, however. PureOS uses a custom theme that doesn't use the same colors as a stock GNOME. GNOME doesn't use color very often, but I noticed this right away in the file manager. Clicking on a navigation item highlights it in a sort of rust color, instead of the usual blue.

Overall, I thought PureOS was okay. It doesn't really stand out in any particular way, and I didn't like a few choices they made. So in the end, it's just okay to me.

However, I did run into a few things that would seem odd to a new user.

What's that file icon?

When I clicked on Activities to bring up the overview, I was confused about what looked like a "file" icon in the dock.

I understood the other icons. The speaker icon is Rhythmbox, my favorite music application. The camera icon is clearly a photo application (GNOME Photos). The blue file cabinet is the GNOME file manager. And the life ring is GNOME's Help system (but I would argue the "ring buoy" icon is not a great association for "help" in 2018; better to use an international circle-"?" help symbol, but I digress).

Two icons seemed confusing. The "globe" icon was a little weird to me, but I quickly realized it probably meant the web browser. (It is.)

But the one that really confused me was the "file" icon, between the camera and the file manager icons. What was a "file" icon doing here? Was it a broken image, representing an icon that should exist but wasn't on the system? I didn't need to click on it right away, so I didn't discover until later that the "file" icon is LibreOffice. I hadn't seen that icon before, even though that's actually the LibreOffice icon. I guess I'm used to the LibreOffice Writer or LibreOffice Calc icons, which is what I launch most of the time anyway.

No updates?

I wanted to install some extra applications, so I launched GNOME Software. And from there, I realized that PureOS didn't have any updates.

Really? Linux gets updates all the time. Even if Purism updated the OS right before shipping my laptop to me, there should have been a few updates in the time FedEx took to deliver the laptop. But maybe Purism is slow to release updates, so this could be expected. It seemed odd to me, though.

Where's the extra software?

Once I was in GNOME Software, I realized the "store" was quite empty. There's not much to choose from.

If this were my first experiment with Linux, I'd probably think Linux didn't have very many applications. They don't even have the Chromium or Firefox web browsers available to install.

But really, there are a ton of applications out there for Linux. It's just the packages that PureOS makes available through GNOME Software seems pretty limited.

The terminal is broken?

Finally, I'll mention the terminal emulator. PureOS doesn't use the standard GNOME Terminal package, but rather the Tilix terminal emulator. It's a fine terminal, except for the error message you see immediately upon launching it:

I wondered why a pre-configured operating system, aimed at the Linux community, would ship with a broken configuration. I clicked on the link shown, and basically the fix is to set Tilix as a login shell, or to do some other setup steps.

Presenting an error message the first time the user runs a program is very poor usability. I haven't run it yet, so I assume the program should be using defaults. Everything should be okay the first time I run the program. I assume things will "just work." Instead, I get an error message. If I were a novice user, this would probably turn me off PureOS.


In the end, PureOS is a GNOME desktop that runs well. But with a few confusing issues or problems here and there, it doesn't exactly stand out. To me, PureOS is just "okay." It's not bad, but it's not great.

I think my biggest concern as a longtime Linux user is that the distribution doesn't seem to have updates. I'm curious to hear from any PureOS users how often updates are pushed out. I run Fedora Linux, and I get updates pretty regularly. What should I have expected on PureOS?


  1. Purism will do a favor to every one if they ship Ubuntu and not gnome-shell but budgie or Unity. Why would anyone in the earth want to use this crappy piece of software?

  2. GNOME is fine, and I think the usability is greatly improved since GNOME 3.0. The overall experience here is okay, just a few things got in the way. I think that's how PureOS customized the GNOME experience (GNOME Software options, Tilix, etc)

  3. The inverted colors actually look like that rgb/bgr screenshot bug on Wayland that was fixed not long ago.

    Actually, I'm pretty sure that's it, since it happens on GNOME Software screenshots as well, not just Nautilus.

  4. Hi,

    I am one of the developers of PureOS. Thanks for the nice review!

    PureOS is a slight fork of Debian, with the main difference being that PureOS comply with GNU Free System Distribution Guidelines

    Mainstream web browsers are deliberately avoided due to them supporting the DRM plugin system Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) which is explicitly forbidden by GNU FSDG.

    Lack of software to download from GNOME sources is again due to GNU DFSG requiring us to offer only software that we ourselves can ensure is Free. Please use the APT-based software update mechanisms instead, to install packages distributed by PureOS.

    I agree that PureOS do not currently provide the most ideal user experience compared to other Linux desktop distributions. I do hope, however, that the limitations are acceptable, seen in the light of the strict constraint of GNU FSDG compliance. Also, we welcome reporting bugs and suggestions at our public issue tracker

    1. Hi Jonas

      Thanks for replying! I understand the PureOS is aligned closely with the GNU Free System Distribution Guidelines, but that shouldn't mean the system is confusing to new users. By writing in this blog and doing active work in usability testing in open source software, I want to make all Free/open source software easy to use.

      I'd be happy to work with PureOS to improve usability. Feel free to email me.

      I wasn't familiar with the GUI tool you mentioned to update the software, and since I have already reinstalled my laptop, I googled how to do software updates in PureOS. I found this page:

      So it seems GNOME Software *should* do updates for you. Maybe Purism had already applied updates before shipping my laptop, and there were no new updates in the week or so it took for FedEx to deliver the laptop?

      I didn't see another GUI tool in PureOS to do updates or install other software. I found the recommendation to apply updates from the command line, though:

      I hope that's not the solution you were recommending, to bring up the command line to install new software or to apply updates. Users who are new to Linux will not feel very comfortable in using the command line. There should be an easy way to do it via the graphical user interface.

      Lack of available software or popular programs (like Firefox) in GNOME Software is understandable, now that I know that these limitations are imposed by GNU when you align with their Free System Distribution Guidelines. But I didn't know that when I tried to install the software. And it wasn't discoverable. So I was left with the impression that PureOS just didn't have any software for it. If this were my first experience with Linux or PureOS, I would be very disappointed. This would not "win" a new user to switch to Linux.

      There are some ways around this, mainly by educating the user. One way would be to display a "welcome" page when the user first logs in to the desktop. Maybe that's a web browser showing a page on PureOS's website, or maybe that's a custom app. But the "welcome" should provide some information about PureOS, including where to get help, and something about why some software may not be available.

      Writing this "welcome" so it doesn't "put off" the user will be a balancing act. I recommend whoever crafts this have a good understanding of usability *and* user experience (they are not the same) and have thoroughly read and understand 'Letting Go of the Words' by Redish.

    2. I just wanted to add a few thoughts on your response. IMO I wouldn't expect many new Linux users to be buying a librem. Most normal users would balk at the pricetag. I see the cost being exactly where it should be considering what the Librem accomplishes. As a Linux users I can't recall the last time I used anything other than the cmd line to install and update my system.

      The last thing I would like point out is tilix is actually a decent terminal emulator. I have used it for more than a year now without any problems.

      I understand the desire to help new users by making Linux more user friendly, but at the same time I would recommend encouraging even new users to use apt,dnf, Pacman etc. Eventually when being a Linux user, you're going to have to use the command line.

    3. I disagree here. While it's good to have a command line for power users (and I'm one of them) it's also important that users should be able to use a desktop operating system without dropping to a command line. That includes installing new software.

      I said in the original review that there are a ton of applications out there for Linux. It's just the packages that PureOS makes available through the Software app seems pretty limited.

      Paraphrasing my comment above: Software not including some popular programs (like Firefox) is understandable, if you know about PureOS's strict alignment to the GNU Free System Distribution Guidelines. But I didn't know that when I tried to install the software. And it wasn't discoverable. So I was left with the impression that PureOS just didn't have any software for it. If this were my first experience with Linux or PureOS, I would be very disappointed. This would not "win" a new user to switch to Linux.

      There are some ways around this, the most obvious by educating the user through some sort of "welcome" screen. Might be a "welcome" screen the first time you use GNOME, or the first time you use Software, or both. I would be happy to help Purism with that.

  5. I received my Librem 13 around February 2017, and at that time it came with an empty apt sources.list! Some sort of transition in hosting and to "Pure OS 2.0" was underway, and it was more than a month before the Pure OS package mirror was working again, and anyway there was no way for an update to fix it. (The obvious thing to do was just switch to the sources.list to debian stretch.)

    In mid 2016 the indiegogo status updates said that they were working on the touchpad driver which would be licensed GPLv3. I emailed to say they have a typo they should probably fix, the linux kernel is GPLv2 only of course, and Todd responded something like "hmm I'll have to check with the FSF legal team". How did they not know this?! Maybe a random person on the street doesn't know, but a random linux geek would, so why not professionals producing a linux laptop with an emphasis on free-software licensing?!

    It's all a very strange amateur effort software-wise. Maybe it's driven by this desire to showcase Pure OS in their "user friendly mass market" marketing effort? They should have just shipped an explicitly debian or ubuntu based distro with an additional PPA or something. There's a bunch of unpaid amateurs who do this 10x better.

    On the other hand, I guess everyone who actually understands software doesn't have the contacts/experience for getting modern laptop hardware produced.

    (The original BYD touchpad hardware was another amazing screw-up. It's apparently physically impossible to write a good driver for such a thing. Most laptops made with no concern for linux have much better touchpad drivers than the original Librem 13/15.)

    1. Hi. I don't know about the first-gen Librem laptops, but the trackpad on my Librem 13 v2 works well enough. I used it when I first unpacked the Librem (didn't have it connected to my keyboard/mouse yet) and have used it a few times here and there just to try it out. The default tracking speed isn't as fast as I'd like, but GNOME lets me change that so now I have it about where I like it.

    2. Yeah, the updated models have an Elantech touchpad, which I expect does work pretty well. After the efforts on the first version, I suppose the best they could do was make sure the next batch had a good touchpad, so they deserve some credit for doing that.