Distro Review: Linux Mint 5 Elyssa

Well it’s review time again and today’s candidate is Linux Mint 5. I say today’s candidate but really I should say this months candidate as I ended up spending a lot more time on Mint than I’d planned. I really liked Mint 4 and gave it a rave review last year, so this new version would have to work hard to impress me, after 3 weeks with it on and off how does it stack up? Here goes…


Vital Stats:

Distro base – Ubuntu (itself based on Debian)
Packaging – .deb (Managed by Apt)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.24-16-generic
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.22.2

Installation:
As usual I tested out this distro using my main machine, a Dell XPS m1330 notebook I bought with Ubuntu. Linux Mint is essentially a modification of Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron with added codecs and tools, so I didn’t anticipate any problems. A lot of people dismiss Mint as just “Ubuntu with codecs” or as some kind of gimmick, I was even guilty of this same attitude myself in the past but Mint 4 proved me wrong. There’s a few different versions of Mint available these days with KDE desktop, XFCE and even a Debian based alternative. I downloaded the standard Gnome LiveCD and got to work installing it.

I booted up the LiveCD and chose to run the live desktop, which will feel very familiar to Ubuntu users but I did notice for some reason the Mint LiveCD took a bit longer to boot on this hardware. Upon loading I clicked the install icon on the desktop. The installer seems unmodified from the Ubuntu Hardy version to me but this is what I expected. I’ve become very familiar with it now and of all the many distros I’ve used in the past year I think it’s still one of the easiest installers to use. I chose to wipe my root system partition and then keep the /home partition intact. I did however take care to remove all the hidden settings folders in the home directory before doing the install, this insured a pure install of Mint without inheriting things from the last distro I tried. The install went smoothly and completed in 13mins 6seconds which is non too shabby.

I did find a strange bug at the end of the install though. I was prompted to remove the CD and reboot as you would expect but I found the machine froze and I was left looking at a screen filled with multicoloured vertical lines, like a loading screen from an old Spectrum game for those old enough to remember (see image right). I managed to switch the machine off manually and when I rebooted the install had worked fine but it was a bit worrying. The final step was to answer a couple of quick questions from the MintAssistant before logging in for the first time. Everything went smoothly and I was soon looking at the default desktop.

INSTALLATION SLIDE SHOW

Configuring The System:
Being based on Ubuntu you can make use of tools like the Restricted Driver Manager in Mint. I was prompted to install the driver for my Nvidia graphics card and it was all very painless, a few clicks and a reboot of the X server and you’re done. I had no access to my wi-fi network during the install with the LiveCD but I was able to just click the Network Manager applet in Gnome, enter my WPA2 key and get the Intel Pro Wireless 3945 card working in no time. The driver for this card is now in the Linux kernel and that’s very handy.

One of the first things you notice about Mint is that it uses the SLAB menu by default. The SLAB is a Novell development and it seems to be something you either love or hate, a bit like Marmite, personally I’m not a fan so I usually switch it for a standard Gnome menu ASAP but I decided to gave it a chance this time. The default layout of the Mint desktop is designed to make Windows exiles feel at home I think but it works pretty well, with one large toolbar at the bottom of the screen and a menu located in the bottom left where you’d expect to find the Start menu in XP or Vista. This might not be to the liking of some Gnome fans like me but I suppose from a HCI standpoint it’s pretty important for new users. I do find having all your stuff on one toolbar can be a little squashed though with a lot of applets, especially if you’re used to the usual Gnome setup. There’s no workspace switcher on the panel by default and I find this a bit strange, it’s one of the features I really like about Linux desktops, the ability to have all my applications open in different work spaces, if you were a new Linux user you wouldn’t even know about this from the default layout of Mint. I decided to move the main toolbar to the top of the screen and customise it a little. I then added a workspace switcher and moved things around a bit so they worked better for me. I also installed the Avant Window Navigator which is essentially very like the Mac doc in OS X, don’t sue me please 😉 I set this to run at start up with the new shortcuts in the MintMenu (the SLAB), this is one of the little added features in Mint 5. If you right click with your mouse on any application in the MintMenu you will see options to have it run on system start or even uninstall the app, a good time saver I think.


(Avant Window Navigator)

AWN is a tool that’s grown on me over time, I didn’t like it at first. You can install it easily using the MintInstall app which we should talk about. MintInstall has been in Mint for a while now but there are some new improvements. The Software Portal is still an option but now you can also search GetDeb.net and the usual Apt-Get repositories for Ubuntu when you need some software. The Software Portal is one of my favourite parts of this distribution, it’s not a ground breaking invention I know as Linspire’s C’N’R and the Novell’s Build Service work the same way but it’s a great implementation. It’s essentially a website which contains software already packaged and built for Linux Mint, you can install with one click of the mouse. Who says installing software on Linux has to be hard? I would even argue this is easier than Windows, though I’m probably biased. The collection of software available is steadily growing and it sure makes installing things like Skype child’s play even for virgin Linux users. I installed CheckGmail, Gpodder, Deluge, Bluefish, AWN, Audacity, EasyTag, Skype and Grsync in one go. When combined with the great collection of tools and packages Mint already contains, this gave me everything I could want to get working right away. It reinforces my view that Mint is one of the best introductions to this platform anyone could wish for. Little things that most people do to a new Ubuntu install are already done here, all the Gstreamer codecs and ready to go, DVD playback and Java. Along with all the plugins you could want for Firefox such as Adobe Flash and Mplayer-Plugin, a favourite of mine. I was able to play back all of my media right out of the box and surf any sites I wanted to without doing anything, now this my friends really IS much easier than Windows. Admit it.

Features:
I’ve mentioned briefly a couple of new things in Mint 5 but I’d like to go through the release notes in some detail. There are many improvements to the MintMenu as I mentioned allowing the removal of packages quickly but there are also speed increases and a reduction in memory usage. The MintUpdate tool has had some minor improvements, it was brought in with Mint 4 and the basic idea is to offer more granular control over system updates. Each update is given a score from 1 to 5 for stability and the user can choose to only automatically install updates below risk level 3 for example. I mentioned the improvements to MintInstall before, there’s also a lot more software in the Software Portal now and this seems to be growing nicely. Another new addition to this release is a tool called MintBackup. As the name suggests it’s designed to make backing up your data and settings as easy as possible, it’s not a groundbreaking idea but it is useful. It also allows you customise the paths you want to include or exclude from the backup along with the hidden settings folders in the home directory. It’s not quite as complete a backup solution as something like SBackup or others but it seems to work well enough and could be an area of growth in future I feel.

A Word Of Caution:
It took me so long to get around to this review that a new revision of Linux Mint 5 has since been released. This was done to correct a serious security error in MintAssistant which set up the system with a blank Root password, obviously this is asking for trouble. A fix has been released and details can be found on the distro’s website. If you have Mint installed already the update should have come in automatically but you need to open up MintAssistant and go through the root password options again, this will fix the problem with a randomised password as it should have done in the first place. If you have the original Mint 5 on a disc and haven’t installed it yet please discard this disc and download the new revision. You can’t take chances with security and it will save you downloading updates anyway.

Conclusions:
Ease Of Installation & Use: 5/5
Stability: 4/5
Community & Documentation: 4/5
Features: 4/5
Overall: 4/5

Overall I would say Mint 5 is more a case of evolution than revolution, there are of course improvements here which are welcome but it feels more a case of fine tuning things than adding big new features. The distro already does so much that it’s hard to see what new features are really needed, though I’m sure the developers have plans. It should also be noted that this is based on Ubuntu 8.04 which is an LTS release and itself could be considered quite conservative on the feature front, it’s about stability and consolidation which makes sense.

I’ve enjoyed being on Mint for the past 3 weeks and it’s certainly a usable friendly desktop. It’s still the distro I would feel happiest giving to a complete novice user to take home. It proves itself to be far more than just an Ubuntu clone with the added tools and custom developments which have made it so interesting. For a small distro and still a pretty new one at that it’s grown fast and I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future. You only have to look at the number of different versions already available to see the ambition of this distro and that’s something I admire. As the saying goes “if you want to hit the ceiling aim for the stars”. In short, this is the distro you should give to your granny in my opinion. Unless of course your granny is a kernel developer and why shouldn’t she be, in that case she probably already knows where to find Gentoo so don’t worry about it. Check out Linux Mint for yourself and see what you think, don’t take my word for it… or your granny’s 🙂

YOU CAN GET LINUX MINT 5 HERE

Up next…
I’m not sure what I’ll move onto next, I’ve downloaded Ubuntu Studio and 64 Studio to test out for my music making purposes and I’m aware that I still need to give OpenSUSE 11 a proper in depth look. I’ve also taken note of the recent Sabayon 3.5 release and will endeavour to look at that soon. Thank you all for reading and thank’s also for your comments, kind words and distro suggestions, I’ll do my best to get round to them ASAP. The destination may be uncharted right now but come with me and we’ll see where we end up, maps are overrated anyway…

Posted in Review
29 comments on “Distro Review: Linux Mint 5 Elyssa
  1. jpblogger says:

    Thanks for the review, Dan. Your Mint 4 review was of great value to me and this is a very good distro follow up.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Actually Mint 5 isn’t directly based on Hardy. It is based on Daryna(Mint 4), and upgraded with Hardy’s package base. Daryna was based on Cassandra(Mint 3) , and was upgraded to Gutsy’s package base, etc.It “was” based on each Ubuntu release until Edgy when it was forked. Most people still think that Mint is a remaster of each new Ubuntu release. Thanks for the review.

  3. Dan says:

    @JP Thanks mate, much appreciated

    @Anonymous – Thanks for the information, I didn’t realise that so it’s good to know. I’ll keep it mind in future 😉

  4. Anonymous says:

    Just one quick note, the MintMenu is not SLAB, nor related to openSUSE or Novell in any way. It is unique to Mint, it is a modification based on Ubuntu system panel(USP).

  5. Bjwebb says:

    Nice review. I think the rebooting after the cd has been removed thing is not a surprising problem. With the cd removed it is easy to see how it might not be able to access the shutdwon program. I have a similar problem with a gparted cd I use.

    As for recommending Linux Mint, I don’t know myself. Yes, it seems nice technically, and perhaps I should have a look at it myself to make a proper opinoin on that, but I think it is far too happy to include the propreitary packeages (even more so than ubuntu) and as I am a free software advocate rather than a “linux” advocate, this is a problem for me. But, on the other hand, if people are going to install those things anyway…. meh, I don’t know.

  6. Dan says:

    @anonymous – Really that’s interesting, how come it looks and works like the SLAB then? Must be a coincidence.

    @bjwebb – I agree with your concerns and I wasn’t saying I would recommend this to all Linux users, just for people coming from Windows or Mac and not knowing anything wanting to get a first taste. I think it’s good for them. It’s definitely more happy to include proprietary software than Ubuntu. In Ubuntu you have to accept the warnings at least when you install codecs. It’s already done here without telling you. I think more advanced users may prefer other distros and free software advocates are not likely to be too comfortable with Mint. I suppose that’s where Debian could come in or perhaps something completely different. No one distro suites everyone, that’s true 🙂

  7. Leon says:

    well maybe im wrong here but does mint have an add/remove tool?

    i found synaptic, and the packages site is great, but is there an add/remove or an equilent.

    i ask because i think that for new user a software like add/remove is the most important, and one of the main reasons of ubuntu’s success.

    a lack of that and the desktp switcher, well next time im installing ubuntu to my friend and just add the codecs.

    dan you have you forgotten about arch?

    anyway a great review as usual 🙂

  8. Dan says:

    @leon – You’re right the Add/Remove tool from Ubuntu is not there, you can remove packages by right-clicking them on the menu and choosing “uninstall”. Whether this is as good as the add/remove tool I don’t know.

    I haven’t forgotten about Arch no, I’m working my way back to it but time is short at the moment with LugRadio Live next week. Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the article anyway 🙂

  9. joseph_the_composer says:

    Dan – I have read your reviews for the last year or so, and honestly just wanted to say thanks. I always appreciate your candor, and I respect you for always responding to your comments – a sign of true integrity.
    Thanks for your review of the new Mint. I am sure I will try it soon. I am curious as to what your take on the new Sabayon will be.
    Joseph
    P.s. – I dig your music! I also compose music, although on either a Mac or PC. Perhaps a chat sometime on the finer points of open-source audio engineering?

  10. yehdev_cc says:

    Good review, Mint is my favourite Desktop linux along side with Pardus…
    I suggest you review pardus, really it’s worth it.. I think it’s the best KDE distro for desktop out there.. it replaced PCLinuxOS for me..
    regards.

  11. Dan says:

    @Joseph Thanks for the kinds words I’m really glad you enjoy the articles and also the music, I’ve been slacking a lot in terms of music the last couple of months and I need to get back into it. I’d be happy to chat about open source music with you if you like. You can find me in lots of places but perhaps the easiest is the Linux Outlaws podcast, send us an email to feedback AT linuxoutlwas DOT com look forward to hearing from you 🙂

    @yehdev_cc Thanks, I love Pardus and the complete custom development of it from the ground up is really amazing I think. It’s great to see the Turkish government investing positively in open source, they put the UK to shame. I reviewed 2007.3 for Linux Planet and really enjoyed it. Here’s a link. I know 2008 was released recently so I’ll aim to look at it soon 🙂

  12. geneven says:

    This is the first time I’ve been to your site, nice review, as they say. I’m not running Mint now because it doesn’t work for me and I’m not sure what the cause is. Mint was my main distribution until this version. I got something similar to what you got after installation, except for me installation never completed and I was crashed.

    So, I’m running Sidux now and have stopped being a distro-hopper for the time being…

  13. Dan says:

    Thanks for the comment, it’s a shame Mint didn’t work for you. I’ve been meaning to try Sidux for ages but haven’t gotten around to it, I hear good things 🙂

  14. Anonymous says:

    I appreciate your review and I like Mint’s way of interpreting a pc user needs, but I’m also a real fan of this distros: Mepis, Mandriva and PClinuxOS. But recently I tried Sidux (a purely debian distro) and now I really found what I want like the previous poster.
    No more reinstalling completely, and a perfect, fast, rock solid and rolling-release. I gently ask you to review it. You’ll not be disappointed.

  15. Dan says:

    Thanks I will look at it. I really liked Mandriva 2008 when I reviewed it late last year, wasn’t as struck on PCLinuxOS or SimplyMEPIS but I know a lot of people like them. Sidux is definitely on my list 🙂

  16. Dan says:

    I’ve removed that comment, I take it that it’s some kind of joke but that site is clearly complete crap. Linux is not illegal, MS is just trying to scare people away with bullshit and I’m not linking to that from my site.

    Sorry but I feel strongly about this. Thanks 🙂

  17. davemc says:

    Dan, appreciate the review. Its been a while since the last one, eh?.. I am not a fan of Mint (too much of a Ubuntu base IMO), but it was a good review nonetheless.

    Sabayon sounds interesting what with that new package manager (Entropy) giving it both a source based (Gentoo) and binary based spin. Very different, and much more accomodating to all users tastes/needs than all other distro’s. Should be an interesting review, that.

    Anyway, thanks again Dan.

  18. Dan says:

    @davemc – Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed it. Yes Sabayon looks very interesting, I’ve had my ups and downs with it in the past but it’s developing really quickly 🙂

  19. Anonymous says:

    Hi Dan, I know this sounds stupid but I am completley new to Linux: is Linux illegal? Thanks

  20. Anonymous says:

    To the anonymous guy who ask if Linux is illegal..NO. Linux Is legal in (I think) all countries. Some programs or drivers you can install require licences (like Java) but are still free for personal use.

  21. Dan says:

    As the previous poster said Linux is definitely NOT illegal in ANY country. Is this a serious question or are you paid to spread FUD? If you are serious and asking a serious question then let me put your mind at rest, Microsoft has no base for these claims, non whatsoever, they are trying to spread uncertainty with this. It’s just a slander campaign and nothing more. Hope this helps 🙂

  22. Andrew says:

    One thing I have noticed about Mint is that it’s hardware detection is lacking compared to Ubuntu. It could not detect the atheros wireless card of my sister’s laptop and yet Ubuntu detected it.

    Seemed a good distro though… I’m going to through my vote in for a Sabayon review as well, cause I’m thinking of looking at that (current running vanilla Debian Sid on my m1330)

    Also, any particular reason you don’t run 64-bit distros? These days there’s almost no difference in setup from 32-bit.

  23. Dan says:

    Thanks for the comment, I think Sabayon will be my next hop since folks are interested. I don’t have anything against 64bit distros really but the last time I used one was about a year ago and it was still a pain to get things like Flash working. I saw no speed improvement over 32bit, didn’t seem worth it for me and the stuff I generally do. I’m not sure the chip in this m1330 is 64bit, doesn’t seem to be marked anywhere. I’ll have to see if I can find out maybe things are better on 64bit than the last time I looked.

  24. Andrew says:

    Core 2 duo’s are indeed 64-bit.

  25. Dan says:

    Oh cool thanks well I might try a 64bit distro soon then 🙂

  26. Milli says:

    Hi Dan, i really appreciate your reviews because good reviews, that keep in mind that not everybody is a linux guru, are hard to find.
    I know you have little time but did you ever try Myah OS?
    Myah OS 3.0 was released recently. This is a slick distro made by one man. It has it's own custom-built installer and package manager and promises users a full multimedia experience out of the box. I would like to know what your opinion is about this distro.
    http://myah.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=27

  27. Dan says:

    Thanks for the comment Milli I appreciate it, glad you enjoy the reviews. I haven’t looked at Myah yet no but I will do my best to have a look for you 🙂

  28. Anonymous says:

    You seem to be a clever guy compared to what is usual in the linux community of competitive nerds.

    I am a guy who tries to use and learn Linux but made the mistake of buying a laptop with 3 cards which don’t support linux. Graphic card (sis672), Ethernet card (sis191) and Wifi card (atheros ar5007eg).

    I have spent literally months searching the drivers and the way to install them. So far I only got to work the graphic card.

    I want to use Mint because, as you say, it’s better for a beginner. Do you think you can help me somehow? There are many guys telling how to install the wifi drivers but they explain it for people with internet connection and some knowledge in Linux, which is chinese to me.

    These guys do whatever to get new linux users and impress us on how good it is compared to WIndows. But every time I have written in a forum that I needed help, they have either called me silly or made fun or simply ignored me or given me more impossible instructions full of mistakes in the steps.

    Anyway, I ask you just in case because I liked your review of Mint. I don’t like it either, honestly. I think the same as you. If that is elegant I am the Queen of England. Looks cheap in every sense, and that huge menu…

    But I have to learn Linux. Thanks anyways.

  29. Dan says:

    Hi, thanks for reading. I’m afraid I’ve never used those components you mentioned but there seems to be a lot of information on the Ubuntu forums about it. This thread looks quite handy and is still very active with new replies. If you want to use Mint 5 then a fix compatible with Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron should work fine or you could try out the new Ubuntu release 8.10 and there’s a link to a wiki guide for this issue there in the howto. It’s a shame if you had a negative reaction in forums and other places from Linux users, it really annoys me when I see this, we need to help new users to settle in not act like elitists. Sadly some people don’t understand that.

    Although I don’t know much of this issue myself there might be some people who can help in the Linux Outlaws forums we have a support section and the crowd is very friendly. It’s for a podcast I co-host but the forum is pretty active and there are some smart people around who could help.

    Sorry I can’t be of more use myself, if there’s anything else you need feel free to give me a shout and I’ll do what I can 🙂

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