Time for another distro review, and this time I thought I’d look at the latest version of a distribution I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past. Linux Mint 7, AKA Gloria. I’m tempted to make references to Van Morrison here, but I’ll restrain myself. The last version I reviewed was actually Linux Mint 5, so I’ve missed a release. At the time I said it was the best Linux distribution I’d seen for new users, better even than the hallowed Ubuntu (upon which it is based). Would I still feel the same?
I downloaded the standard Gnome edition installer CD. I’m pleased to see they’ve cleaned up all the editions on the website and organised things. It used to just list every possible variation in one go, I know that confused some people. “Which version do I download?!” was a query I heard often from poor souls I’d badgered to try Linux. Thankfully it’s much simpler now. Armed with a fresh CD and my trusty Dell m1330n laptop, I set to work. The installer is very much the same as the Ubuntu one, the only real changes I can see are some green paint over the Ubuntu brown. This release is based on Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope, and as I always seem to say when it comes to the Ubuntu installer, it’s very polished. I can’t think of many areas where it could be improved. It does it’s job well. I entered all the usual information: time zone/location, keyboard layout, disk partitioning and user details. Choosing my traditional disk partitioning scheme:
- 12gb / (root partition)
- 4gb swap
- 140gb (approx) /home
This way I could keep my data intact on the large partition and just format the system drive. It saves a lot of time for a distro hopper like me, provided you remove any settings files from your home folder before switching. The install itself was quick and painless, it took about 20mins. Although I had plenty of prior experience to call on, I don’t think new users would have much trouble getting to grips with this. Possibly a little more description of what you’re doing at each stage and animated demos would help complete novices, but I suppose we have to be careful to balance accessibility to all with a complete dumbing down of the system.
Settling In And Configuration:
One of the great strengths of a distribution based on Ubuntu is the amount of software readily available. Fans of other flavours of Linux will be quick to point out that this isn’t unique to Ubuntu. It isn’t. I accept that point, but the sheer volume of software already packaged in “.deb” files for Ubuntu, and the array of information on how to use it, is amazing. Mint benefits from the deep Ubuntu repositories, and I found installing anything I needed was trivial. One of the reasons I’ve often said I prefer Mint to Ubuntu for new users, is the inclusion of codecs and restricted software by default. Not something Free Software advocates will be happy about, but I think you have to take it one step at a time. Let people get onto Linux and use restricted software at first if that helps, then graduate to a 100% Free Software system later if they want. A hard line approach only scares people away. It’s almost ironic in a way that Ubuntu was created as “Debian without the setup work”. I’m paraphrasing there I admit, but that was the sentiment. Now Mint has become “Ubuntu without the setup work” for me. Granted it doesn’t take a long time to set up Ubuntu, but unless you know about things like the Restricted Extras meta package, it’s not as straightforward as it could be. I talked about this issue at length in my Ubuntu 9.04 review, so I won’t go into it all again.
I installed the restricted drivers for my Nvidia graphics card when prompted, then got into installing the extra software I needed. You can use Synaptic the tradition GUI (Graphical User Interface) to Apt (the package manager), or you can use the simplified tools in Mint. MintInstall is one area where I can see a massive improvement from previous releases. You can now browse the software, get descriptions and reviews, all in one interface. They brought in the screenshots and extended MintInstall with Linux Mint 6, but I found it had some teething problems. It took an age trying to download a screenshot for every application in the catalogue at once, and refreshing the list of software could be a laborious process. I’m pleased to say that’s been fixed here, it’s a lot more snappy and responsive. All multimedia formats worked for me out of the box as I expected, and browser plugins like Flash were ready to go. It really is a hell of a lot easier than setting up a new Windows system in my opinion, but maybe I’m biased.
I’ve talked about MintInstall already, but this is only one of the unique tools in Mint. They stripped out the Ubuntu update mechanism long ago and replaced it with MintUpdate, a more secure tool in the developers eyes. It gives risk levels in clear 1 to 5 ratings next to each update. You can even filter updates automatically based on this. So for example you could set it to only install updates under level 3 if you wanted. By adjusting these settings it’s nice and easy to choose how close to the cutting – or should I say bleeding – edge you want to live. Other Mint flavoured (no pun intended) tools include: MintBackup, MintDesktop, MintAssistant and now MintNanny. The first 3 have been around for a while, but MintNanny is a little newer on the block. As the name suggests – someone’s been watching to much Mary Poppins – it aims to protect your kids online, by allowing you to restrict access to unsavoury sites. You just enter the addresses of the sites you want to block. It’s a small and simple feature but some parents may appreciate it. Another tool I’ve neglected to mention so far is MintUpload. You’re given 2gb of free storage space “in the cloud” as the marketing men like to say. That basically means on a web server where you can get at it from anywhere to you and me. Nevertheless this is quite useful and the ability to just right-click a file or folder and send it to the web is very cool. Little features like this are what gives Mint it’s polish.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 5/5
Community & Documentation: 4/5
I found Mint 7 or Gloria as she prefers to be called, a very solid release from the Mint team. I’m not sure why they choose these bizarre code names, the sound like call girls to me, but you can’t argue that they produce a nice Linux distribution. As I mentioned, the little touches like the welcome screen that pops up with help and guidance at login, all add to my feeling that this is THE distribution for newcomers to Linux. Yes it might be standing on the shoulders of Ubuntu, but then doesn’t Ubuntu stand on the shoulders of Debian? That’s how the Linux eco-system works. I think it’s all the richer for the collaboration, and occasional friendly competition between distributions. In many ways it’s the ultimate Free Market, which economists seem to think can cure cancer from the way they talk, but I’ll spare you a lefty rant. I found speed, performance and stability on Mint were on a par with Ubuntu. Some Gentoo and Arch users will scoff at that, but I think on a mid range computer or above it’s not an issue. It certainly wasn’t for me, and if you are on a lower spec you could try the XFCE edition of Mint, or even Fluxbox if you’re hardcore. Installation was quick and easy, almost everything I can think of worked out of the box. It was just a matter of adding a few of my favourite programs such as AWN, Gwibber, Audacity, Deluge and Tasque. All very simple with the Software Portal. The new theme and slight change of look works well I think, and the new wallpaper is very popular with most people I know. I did rearrange the toolbars a little and put AWN (Avant Window Navigator) at the bottom of the screen, you’ll be able to see that from the screenshot. I also like the fact they removed the code name from the menu button. It’s a stupid thing to complain about I know, but I did get a bit sick of people asking me who Felica or Elyssa were. “Is that your login name?!” queue strange looks.
To sum up. Whether you’re new to Linux and looking to experiment, or you’re a hardened kernel hacker who just wants an easier life now and then. I think Mint has a lot to offer. They’ve taken Ubuntu and improved on it, which isn’t as easy as some people would have you believe. The custom tools are excellent, there’s a friendly and vibrant community to help, and of course because it’s 100% compatible with Ubuntu you’ve got all of their resources to draw on too. For any fan of Debian-based distributions (like me) Mint is well worth a spin. It won’t be for everyone, but I guess it’s a case of suck it and see… sorry, that’s awful but I couldn’t resist. Try it for yourself and let me know what you think. I’d happily recommend it to anyone.
I’m off to Germany for Linux Tag in a few days, but before I go I intend to have a quick look at Fedora 11. I’ve been planning that for a while and their delayed release probably did me a favor. It seems they’ve removed Mono and they’re really pushing the 100% freedom angle. How will that affect usablity? We’ll find out together, if you’d care to join me for another adventure…