Endless have recently released the first beta of the 3.8 series for their Linux based operating system. As someone who used to work there in product, and is still friends with a number of Endless-ers I upgraded my personal machine and checked it out. This is a “trip report” of my notes and may be a little bitty but I hope it’s useful feedback for the developers and designers and maybe encourages a few other people to give Endless a go.
Things that are great
Always the first thing to comment on with a new Endless release but the upgrade process driven by ostree is still class leading. A quick download, reboot and you’re in. And the reassurance of a quick and reliable rollback as well, always handy when testing a beta!
The star of the show is the GNOME 3.36 improvements, which have been well covered elsewhere. Many of these features have been on the Endless plan for years, some of them, like the login screen I remember discussing in the London Design Hackfest in 2017. It’s really exciting to see these kinds of long term projects delivering.
The aforementioned new Login is the first change you’ll see, the new design means no animation judders in reveal on HiDPI screens. Revealing inline password peeking answers a big user need. It’s just a much slicker experience end to end.
The new App Grid is just plain marvellous. It keeps the direct access to content of the initial design but the implementation now has a real solidity and materiality. With multiple pages the two finger scroll animation is a joy and it’s equally good on a touchscreen. The new folder position, reveal and hide animation is good as well. Similar to the login screen this animation enhances the visual stack metaphor and is a more predictable and scalable animation which thus performs better and adds to the overall tightness.
The process of manipulating app folders has also improved, although it’s still a little difficult to see when the app has been ‘lifted up’, I recommend an additional animation that makes that clear and ideally warping the app icon to the center of the mouse cursor, as carrying around an icon that’s off center but having the effect of the icon being on the cursor breaks immersion.
Here and on the login screen you can really see the payoff for the literally years of upstream performance work that Endless engineers have put in across all areas of the stack. Not to disparage others but the Endless crew don’t always get the credit they deserve.
I love the new settings app, it has a much clearer layout and addresses some longstanding bugbears like easier linkage into OS updates on the About pane.
Parental controls worked very well. Having experienced them in other operating systems, the effort taken to make this consistent across the whole stack - down to the CLI - is a big differentiator. I love how the age categories react to your locale. The investment in OARS was a good thing. It’s a good idea to have them as a standalone app as well as a control center panel, although the panel looks a little bit sad as a standalone. Some width constraints for the central column would help a lot. Also, the target for the ‘Restrict Applications’ action looks like it should be the whole row, not just the arrow button on the edge.
Metered data seemed to work well. Still sad that there’s a fair bit of work ‘on the shelf’ for that to really flesh out the vision around logging, revealing and prioritisation but what’s there delivers to protect users.
Automatic app updates seem more reliable and there’s much less jank in the App Center. The category filtering and sorting controls work well. Amazing that we now have enough apps that just throwing them all at a screen doesn’t work any more! Flathub, another long term bet, has paid off beautifully there. There are still some issues with state ‘sticking’ (I seem to have a perpetually updating Scribus in my Installed pane which doesn’t show that state on the item page for instance) but this is a substantial improvement.
Moving the system tray from TopIcons to Ubuntu’s AppIndicators was a good move as well. Pragmatically some kind of tray is absolutely required for key customer apps like Dropbox and AppIndicators is the most polished end user execution of the concept. There are changes I’d make, but this isn’t an area that Endless can or should focus on.
I didn’t go through the first run experience, although I can see from the release notes that there are changes there. I can only say that in my experience motivated users aren’t swayed either way by a competent first run experience (check out the iPad first run if you disagree) and it was already competent.
Things to get better
We’re still all in on X11, which is still the pragmatic choice based upon resources and differentiation, however it’s starting to get obvious that the air cover a product like Endless gets from other parties investments in the graphics stack is breaking down. New features like Firefox’s video playback acceleration are starting to come to Wayland only and you’ve got to imagine that 20.04 will be the last Ubuntu release that has an X11 session by default. This isn’t a leap that needs to be made immediately but I’d be looking at resurrecting that testing branch we had a couple of years back to see any quality gaps and starting to include that in new device testing.
The in browser Exploration center is still A Bad Thing and the fact that the in toolbar Feedback path goes via there continues to irritate.
There’s a flash of unexpected content launching the Discovery feed which is a shame as it’s one of my favourite features, although, absent a way of keeping this more dynamic and integrating 3rd party apps I question the ongoing investment.
There’s not enough contrast in the alt-tab overlay at low screen brightnesses, Endless users care deeply about battery life and often run with low brightness, coupled with overall higher ambient light levels in their environments.
Search panels lack contrast in some corners whilst having too much in others. The interaction between the panel and the scroll bar (which will almost always be there on an Endless system as there’s so much more content) is ugly, give that a bit more space to breathe, even if it means being slightly asymmetric it’ll even up perceptually.
I feel incredibly satisfied with this release, even in an early state. Whilst I haven’t worked for Endless in more than a year this beta is pretty much where we wanted to be all along with regards to slickness and material coherence. It’s once you have that solid base that you can appreciate the differentiating features in the Endless experience.
Operating systems are a marathon, not a sprint. Coordinating features and experiences can take marshalling multiple communities, many years and a lot of effort. With 3.8 you can see a lot of the longer term bets Endless made a few years back paying off, I look forward to carrying on using this every day.