Back in August last year I wondered aloud whether it was time for a remix of Ubuntu aimed at media centres and set top boxes. I was not the only one thinking along these lines it seems! In April 2009 “Element” was founded by Kevin L. Thompson with the aim of producing an operating system specially designed for media centres. They have just released version 1.0 of Element OS, a new Linux distributon based on Ubuntu designed around the concept of the ten foot user interface (a user interface you can see and operate on your TV from across the room). It was time to make myself comfortable on the sofa and see what this new remix is all about.
I found out about Element OS thanks to Linux Magazine and its article “Five Brilliant Ubuntu-based Distros You Never Knew Existed”. When you go to their site you can find out a bit of background about the project and purchase an installer CD or download an image of it and burn it to a CD yourself. I put it on a USB stick just to try it out. Booting up went smoothly enough, and then I got a login window. Here their presence on Get Satisfaction was very useful, as they are so new they do not have a full user guide yet, so the questions people ask here provide a really valuable reference. The default user name for the live image is “element” with a blank password.
When you log in and see Element OS' user interface for the first time, probably the first thing that will strike you is just how big everything is! This experience is not quite the same idea as what I was talking about in my earlier post about an “Ubuntu Set Top Box Remix”, but is quite close. It has been designed around the idea of a full computer operating system that you can use on your TV, so you have a lot of what you might find on a normal desktop such a web browser, games, a music player (Decibel) and media player (VLC). This makes it a very different idea from Mythbuntu which aims to make building a media centre much easier, but does not aim to bring the desktop to the TV.
All of the elements of the user interface are big enough to use while you are holding a wireless keyboard and mouse unit while sat on your sofa. A large centre bar across the middle of the screen shows the main programs you might want to use on the system. Unfortunately you cannot operate all aspects of the operating system with a remote control unit under LIRC which would make it feel more like a set top box than a computer, but to be fair that was not the designers' original intention. A lively discussion is taking place about this though, and as the project is open source there is not reason why a third party wouldn't be able to add it.
XBMC is pre-installed so you can use your machine as a media centre without the need to install any extra software if you wish. It is possible to add features such as Adobe Flash and DVD Playback by visiting the helpful Extras page. Also on this page are links to other software packages you might like to use with your system such as Boxee. If you install LIRC manually you can operate XBMC with a remote once it is launched.
Other software installation is done though Synaptic package manager or the integration with AllMyApps which provides a web interface to manage your software installation (I've never used this service though so I do not know what it is like). There is also an icon for Element System Updates which I thought might be the same as Update Manager on Ubuntu, but it wasn't, instead it brought up a message about the next due version of the OS, so it looks like updating packages would have to be done on Synaptic.
It also came with the Envy script which aims to simplify installing drivers for Nvidia and ATI graphics cards. I tried this out and it was pretty straightforward to install drivers for the Nvidia card found on the Acer Aspire Revo. One bit of hardware trouble I had was that I could not work out how to get the sound to output through the HDMI connector on the Revo rather than the headphone socket. Element OS is based on the XFCE desktop environment, and alas I could not find the equivalent options to set up the sound as under Gnome on Ubuntu. If anyone figures this out it would be great if you could add a comment.
I have to admit I liked the design of the Element OS user interface. You can launch programs by clicking on its icon in the centre bar, the icon at the end of this bar (and also the icon in the top left) brings up a menu of everything else installed on the system. When you open a window it is automatically set at full screen so you do not have to worry about resizing it. There is a “show desktop” icon too, and when you click this you can see the default screen again, but also nice big icons for any running programs too making it simple to switch between running applications. There is no small task bar here! There are also icons provided that link to sites such as YouTube XL that are also designed to fit in with the ten foot experience. Unfortunately there is no easy way to alter what programs are shown on the centre bar, but there is a workaround and this can be found at: http://www.getsatisfaction.com/elementos/topics/editing_app_bar.
Sometimes the text is a bit large and this made using VLC very difficult. However generally the idea works really well, you won't get eye strain using this user interface and I can imagine it would work well with older CRT televisions that do not have as sharp a picture as newer LCD screens. Maybe it would be good for a smaller television too. The system is designed to be resource efficient, in a discussion on the Get Satisfaction site it was said that it uses about 104MB of memory, so it might make a good choice if you want to turn an older system into a media centre PC.
Element OS is a really interesting project with a lot of good ideas. It is the first time that I can think of that I have seem someone design a desktop user interface specifically for use with televisions and it is great to see an end result that you can comfortably use without eye strain! At the moment it is not possible to easily convert an existing Ubuntu installation into an Element OS installation, although they have promised this for the future. On my Revo, which is my media centre, I currently run Ubuntu and am likely to stick with that for the time being as it does not seem to struggle with it, but I will definitely be keeping an eye on Element OS anyway. A updated version is due in March so it will be very interesting to see what changes the new version brings.