When Ubuntu decided last year to abruptly replace the familiar Gnome UI with its own Unity interface, many users were upset. And according to the latest numbers from DistroWatch, Linux Mint has been the major beneficiary, so we decided to test Linux Mint 12.
But first, a bit of Linux OS genealogy. Ubuntu is based on Debian. Mint is based on Ubuntu. Debian has a solid reputation as an open, stable and easy to maneuver, yet conservative and occasionally stodgy, version of Linux. LinuxMint would be its crazy, fun, chameleon progeny.
The fun part of Mint is the fact that it has great appeal for client device support, especially for multimedia apps and components. It's constantly updated, which is seen by some as a fulfilled vision of Linux as an online-community supported OS. That same seemingly constant updating is also the potential source for destabilizing, we feel. This is a distro for buffs, experimenters and hackers — much like openSUSE.
What You Get
Linux Mint 12 is Ubuntu with a choice of several user interfaces. Not one of the UIs, importantly, is Ubuntu's Unity UI, a fact that pleases many Linux "traditionalists.'' There are a truckload of extras, and it's based on the Linux 3.0+ kernel. We also found that we could use Ubuntu One resources, if we'd prefer.
Linux Mint comes in several flavors, favoring Gnome. To us, Gnome is getting long in the tooth, but is also stable, and a stalwart of eventual adaptability for differing hardware platforms.
More interesting, and capitalizing on Mint's reputation as a Gnome-favored distribution is the inclusion of MATE. MATE is a fork of the Gnome 2 UI that's compatible with Mint's included Gnome 3.2. Mint acknowledges that MATE isn't complete, and it isn't stable. The horde of Gnome fans will cheer, but civilians, we feel, will not only be confused, but will blow it up with spectacular results.
We were able to get MATE to blow up to a kernel trap, the equivalent of a Windows Blue Screen or Mac OS Panic simply by opening multiple concurrent video instances. It took several minutes for the file system to recover upon reboot.
To the ends of additional UI flexibility, Mint comes in Gnome, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, and Fluxbox desktop versions. This is perhaps one of the keys to flexibility in Mint, as you can migrate to it from about any angle of Linux desktop experience.
Linux Mint tries to keep up with all of the desktops and their changes. If you have a fleet of Linux Mint installed, there are almost daily updates. There are many packages, and if they're all installed, there's plenty of updating to do.
The roster of software is a long list, each with dependencies, and the Mint distributions go a long way towards ensuring dependencies are matched correctly, a partial discipline imposed by the Debian underpinnings.
There's a Software Manager. Mint uses the "apt-get" method of obtaining applications, but we found we could use Ubuntu resources with a tiny amount of work, too.
Linux Mint, along with every other distro based on Linux 2.8.38+, suffers from a bug that prevents CPUs and peripherals from going to power-saving sleep in certain popular chipset families. Linux Mint 12 can suffer from this, although a kernel patch may be available soon that fixes the largely Intel-based i7 systems excessive power consumption.
Mint prefers to be installed freshly, rather than upgraded from a prior distribution. You certainly can upgrade from prior versions, but it's more difficult to do and might create instabilities.
Linux Mint 12 uses a default search engine called DuckDuckGo. It's designed to be a non-privacy wrenching alternative to Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines that leach privacy and build user profiles for ad searching and perceived analytics.
In sample searches compared to Google and Bing, DuckDuckGo delivered impressive, but abbreviated, results. It can be used in any browser and isn't confined in any way or augmented with use of Linux Mint 12.
Tech argument: Browser wars
However, revenue generated from DuckDuckGo is ostensibly shared with Linux Mint. Search engines with shared revenue still make us think immediately of Google. Yet we verified that no cookies are dropped by DuckDuckGo, and IP tracking is apparently not performed in our remedial tests; most referrals must therefore come from the browser's http_referrer when results are clicked by users of the engine. It's a novel revenue-making mechanism that's likely to be repeated in other distros.
There is no special server, virtualization, or cloud emphasis in Linux Mint, although its Ubuntu underpinnings could be used for these roles. The focus of Linux Mint 12 is very highly poised towards UI choice and rapid revision cycles, both of which aren't the crux of server instances. Linux Mint is graphical, multimedia-focused, and for the desktop.
The arguments regarding Ubuntu and Mint boil down to desktop values. Mint offers more choice in UI support. Mint 12 uses an advanced kernel compared to Ubuntu 11.10, and has a different method of updating applications. These are fine hairs, but important fine hairs, to be split in the selection of Linux Mint 12. It's not especially built for server or cloud duty, like Ubuntu is. But its freshness should satisfy those whose oxen were gored by Ubuntu's Unity UI.
Henderson is managing director at ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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