System76 have slipped in to their Santa suits to deliver Linux users an early festive treat: Pop!_OS 21.10.

Yes, the latest version of their Ubuntu-based Linux distro is available to download. It includes a new Linux kernel, the bulk of GNOME 40, a new App Library feature (more on that in a mo) and refinements to its (handy) OS restore options.

Notwithstanding a recent red-faced encounter with a tech YouTuber, Pop!_OS has proven a popular choice with Linux gamers since launching in 2017. Part of the reason is that this distro offers a newer Linux kernel and more recent graphics drivers than vanilla Ubuntu.

But soon there’ll be an even greater distinction: System76 plans to build its own desktop environment! Having found that the direction of upstream GNOME is out of kilter with their needs they’re going it (sort of) alone.

Pop!_OS 21.10: What’s New?

a screenshot of pop os 21.10's new app library
The App Library in Pop!_OS 21.10

Pop!_OS 21.10 still features a Cosmic desktop experience built on GNOME 40. And the standout highlight of the latest version? Why that’ll be the brand new Application Library feature you can see above.

This modestly-sized tabbed box replaces the full-screen app launcher used in earlier versions (which was inherited from GNOME Shell). The new approach literally less ‘in-your-face’ and relays the exact same amount of information as before.

App shortcuts are listed alphabetically by default, and divvied up based on their type, e.g. “Office”, “System”, etc. Icons support drag and drop reordering within folders, and can be moved in and out of folders too. Folders can be renamed, and new folders can be created.

A search bar is also included for keyboard users (Cosmic also comes with a text-based app launcher as well). It’ll be interesting to see if users like the launcher querying the Pop Shop (the distro’s default software app) for “matching apps” related to the search term:

a screenshot of pop os 21.10's new app library
App Library shows app suggestions too

It’s a bit reminiscent of Ubuntu’s old Unity Dash. App suggestions back then were barely related and rarely useful — I hope Pop!_Shop is a bit smarter!

Users can open the new App Library by clicking on the app grid icon in the task bar; clicking the ‘Applications’ label in the top bar; pressing the super + a keyboard shortcut; or performing a four-finger swipe to the right on a (supported) trackpad.

The Library supports multi-monitor workflows too. When additional monitors are connect it will appear on the display that has the mouse focus.

pop os 21.10 vertical workspaces
A vertical workspace switcher is still included

Other changes in Pop!_OS 21.10 include

Pop!_OS 21.10 ships with the Linux 5.15 kernel and the latest proprietary NVIDIA drivers. System76 say future kernel updates roll out to users automatically per a new policy but only ‘once they’ve passed extensive quality assurance tests’.

These changes aside, Pop!_OS 21.10 also includes (almost) everything found in earlier releases, including optional auto-tiling, a vertical workspace switcher, multi-touch gestures, bespoke app store, and novel backup and restore options.

Download Pop!_OS 21.10

pop os 21.10 desktop screenshot
Pop!_OS 21.10

Pop!_OS is not exclusive to System76’s computers. Anyone can download the .iso image, flash it to a USB, and install it on their machines.

You can download Pop!_OS 21.10 from the System76 website, where it’s available in two version: one for Intel hardware, the other for NVIDIA.

This distro requires a 64-bit processor, plus minimum of 4GB RAM and 16GB storage.

Summary

Pop!_OS 21.10 remain an appealing, appetising alternative to Ubuntu. In fact, anyone wanting a Linux desktop experience with less ganache — yes, I said ganache — and more filling, will be more than satisfied by switching.

Okay: the cake analogy is little trite, but I find it apt. Why? Because anyone can make a cake, but not everyone can make a good cake. Getting the right balance of ingredients (which in this case includes mouse-driven and keyboard-led workflows and fresher kernels and drives) is no mean feat.

Yet with Cosmic, System76’s engineers have proven themselves to be artisan bakers.

pop os 21.10 auto tiling
Pop!_OS with tiling enabled

Pop!_OS, Zorin OS, and to a lesser degree Linux Mint continue to show that Ubuntu is a solid foundation on which to build a compelling user experience. However, these distros are also doing what Ubuntu ought to: delivering a desktop that works for users.

Will a few out-of-place Flutter apps be enough to differentiate the Ubuntu desktop from spin-offs like Pop!_OS that are innovating and maturing at a much faster clip?

We’ll have to see what 2022 holds…

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