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System76 Says Cosmic Desktop’s Alpha Release Is Almost Here

We could be wrong, but the FOSS Force crystal ball tells us we’ll see a production ready version of Cosmic DE released by late April, just in time for this year’s LinuxFest Northwest.

System76 Cosmic Desktop brightness control.
System76 Cosmic Desktop brightness control tool. Source: System76

System76 told the world that they were working on a new version of their Cosmic desktop a little over two years ago, and since then they’ve released tidbits here and there on how that work is going. Now they say it’s just about ready, and in a blog posted on Valentine’s day, the Denver-based computer maker says the countdown for the alpha release is well underway.

If you don’t know, the new Cosmic will be a made-from-scratch desktop environment, written in Rust using System76’s own iced-based libcosmic toolkit, that will eventually become the default DE in Pop!_OS, the Ubuntu-based Linux distribution that’s installed by default on System76 computers. Its arrival has been anticipated by a lot of Linux users, including me, mainly because of the reputation the hardware maker earned from its work on Pop!_OS, but more specifically, the work it’s already done fine tuning the Gnome desktop to make it more than…well, Gnome.

When Pop! was first released, the distribution used a highly modified version of Gnome as its DE, which eventually led to the creation of a new Gnome-based desktop called Cosmic that modified the Gnome user experience with features such as an added custom dock, shortcut controls, and other changes, which premiered in Pop!_OS 21.04, and was well received by both users and the Linux press.

Pop!’s devs continued you work on the Gnome-based version of Cosmic, but in 2021, announced that they had gone about as far as they could go using Gnome as a base and were striking out to build an all new version of Cosmic that would be scratch-built from the bottom up.

“There are things we’d like to do that we can’t simply achieve through extensions in GNOME,” Michael Murphy, a System76 engineer and Pop!_OS maintainer wrote, breaking the news in a thread on Reddit. “Extensions in general feel like a hack. And what we want to do with our desktop differs from GNOME, so it’s not like the option to merge pop-shell and Cosmic into GNOME Shell would be a welcome thing.”

Not long after that System76’s founder and CEO, Carl Richell, confirmed in a private conversation with FOSS Force that a new scratch-made version of Cosmic was definitely in the works.

“It’s early and we’re at the project development/ramping up, hiring, and expertise phase,” he said. “Should it move forward, I’d expect a product around mid 2023.”

He wasn’t far off with that guess, it appears. As a famous spy once said, he only missed it by that much.

Cosmic’s Latest Finished Items

On Valentine’s Day, System76 listed six new Cosmic components that are now ready to fly:

  • Screenshots: The screenshot tool lets you take screenshots of your entire screen, a specific window, or a selected area.
    Cosmic Desktop Screenshots Tool
    Cosmic Desktop Screenshots tool. Source: System76
  • Floating Window Stacks: According to System76, stacking currently allows you to pair tiled windows together across applications like tabs in a web browser. With this new feature you’ll also have the ability to stack floating (non-tiled) windows. This can be done by dragging a window to the stack header, or by dragging it out of the header to remove it from the stack. Meanwhile, launching an application while a stack is selected will add that application to the stack.
    Cosmic Floating Window Stacks
    Floating Window Stacks Source: System76
  • COSMIC Text: System76 says that this new shape-run-cache feature enhances COSMIC Terminal performance. “Text shaping determines the position of a character based on adjacent characters, which enables it to use special glyphs where necessary,” they explain. With the new feature, shaping is cached, which improves performance in rendering repeated shaping operations, and which results in higher framerates for COSMIC Terminal.
  • On-Screen Displays (OSDs): OCDs are the graphical overlays that users see when they do things like adjust the volume or brightness, or activate Airplane Mode. These are now complete, according to System76. (A screenshot of the OCD for adjusting brightness is at the top of this article.)
  • Maximize: Because people can’t get enough eye candy, animations have been added for the top bar and dock that occur when a window either maximizes or exits a maximized state. Personally, I can’t wait to see what they’ve done here — but don’t tell anybody (because I claim not to like eye candy).
  • Display Settings: For adjusting display orientation, scale, resolution , and more. Design and implementation are now complete, but the ability to clone displays is planned for after the alpha release, so stay tuned for that.

Evidently almost ready for prime time is the work that’s being done with hybrid graphics:

“COSMIC works with graphics drivers to provide greater control, predictability, and performance with hybrid graphics. A lot of work was done to maximize performance on systems that use multiple GPUs. Preliminary performance tests look promising, but we’re still exploring more ideas to take this further.

“Thanks to improvements in graphics drivers over the years, hybrid graphics mode now has minimal impact on battery life when the GPU is not in use. Wayland and cosmic-comp, meanwhile, give us more control over what causes the GPU to turn on. When COSMIC users wish to save laptop battery, the Battery applet will tell them when the GPU is being used, and which apps are using it. Closing those apps will turn off the GPU.”

There are still plenty of components under construction at various stages of completion. This includes work being done to ready the terminal, the text editor, and the DE’s tiling applet. The latter, when ready, will have the ability to toggle auto-tiling per workspace. The new DE’s implementation of workspaces is still under construction.

An Estimated Time of Arrival

This is just a guess on my part, but I’m figuring we’re going to see something like a functional alpha release by the end of the month.

Why do I say that? Mainly because LinuxFest Northwest, the annual community-oriented Linux conference that’s been held in Bellingham, Washington since Linus was a little boy (just kidding) opens on Friday April 26 and System76’s CEO is scheduled to be on hand to unveil Cosmic DE.

By then, I imagine, he’d like to at least have a release candidate available, and ideally he’d probably like to have the official release rollout by Saturday April 27, which is when he’s scheduled to give a talk at the event.

That’s just my guess, and even if that is his plan, a lot can happen between now and then. But regardless, I’m expecting to see a production ready version of Cosmic sooner rather than later.

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