I’m a bit late with this review I know, but the distro releases have been so thick and fast lately I just couldn’t keep up. Today I’d like to talk to you about Linux Mint 8, AKA Helena. I’ve said this many times before, but the codenames still sound a little tacky to me. The distro itself is anything but tacky though and it’s been one of my firm favourites in the past. How would this release stack up? Well, I’ll tell you…
I began by downloading the standard Linux Mint 8 install CD, foregoing the Universal version. For those interested in the differences between the two, the Universal version is actually a much larger download and contains support for a lot more languages. I suppose the name should have made that obvious really, but I always thought there must be more technical differences. Firing up the LiveCD worked like a treat as expected and I was soon loading into a live session, from which I could install the new system. The look of Mint is always very nice and they seem to take a lot of time over the desktop themes, wallpapers and so on. This release is no exception in that department and it looks beautiful. Clicking the install shortcut located on the desktop I wasted no time in getting into business. If you’re new to Linux or just the whole LiveCD model in general, don’t be fooled by the slowness of a live session. This usually bears no real reflection on how the final install will perform on your hardware. It’s just that constantly loading data from a CD is much slower than a hard drive, so don’t panic.
The Mint installer is inherited from Ubuntu 9.10 and they don’t seem to have modified this much, I guess it didn’t need it. The Ubiquity installer is one of my favourites and one area where Ubuntu has really done a lot for the Linux experience. That’s not to say that other distro installers aren’t good, they are. I just think the work on Ubiquity has been a catalyst for overall installer development, which is a good thing. I proceeded through all the usual stages of set up, time zone & localisation, user details etc. I also chose my normal partitioning scheme of 12gb root (/), 4gb swap and remaining 140gb(ish) as /home. It only took a minute or two to configure the installer and I set it on its way. You are now treated to a slideshow during the Mint install, a feature I noticed in Ubuntu Karmic. It’s a nice touch. The install process itself took about 10 minutes all together, and you really couldn’t complain at that. I was then prompted to reboot and remove the disc to boot into the new system.
All in all the installation was quick and painless. I think the Ubiquity installer has to take most of the credit here, but it’s good that the Mint devs realised not to mess about trying to change it. Concentrating instead on other areas of the distro which actually need attention.
FULL INSTALLATION SLIDE SHOW
Customising The Desktop:
Much as I love Mint, there are a few things about the default desktop layout I’m not crazy about. These may be purely personal preferences but I’ve never understood why there’s no workspace switcher on view by default. I’ve speculated before that perhaps this is meant to make the desktop more recognisable to fresh Windows exiles, but being able to use multiple workspaces is something I’ve loved about the many Linux desktop environments I’ve used over the years. Apple even added this feature to OS X themselves quite recently, about 10 years after us. So one of the first things I do with any new Mint install is to modify the desktop configuration. It only takes a few minutes, but I’ll share this process with you now. Firstly I move the bottom toolbar to the top of the screen, making it more like a traditional Gnome set up. That’s simple. I then add a workspace switcher and dock it next to the notification area on the bar. Next I install the Avant Window Navigator and configure that at the bottom of the screen. I’ve skipped a step here which I should point out. Before you can install AWN you need to have working 3D graphics drivers. In my case this involves installing the restricted and evil Nvidia drivers, which is really simple on Mint. The Restricted driver manager prompts you to do this if you have a freedom hating card. With AWN installed I set it to start automatically on login and add all my shortcuts. You can see an example of my finished desktop layout in the screenshots. Mac fans will be quick to point out this looks much more Mac-like and that’s a fair comment, I do like having a dock at the bottom of me screen. As I said, these changes to the default set up are quick and this is the most work I ever have to do with Mint. Codecs, Flash, Java and all the other things you often need for a home desktop are already installed. Adding software yourself is also a simple process. Let’s look at that in more detail.
Who Made Who?
Mint is based on Ubuntu Linux and because of that some people have dismissed it as nothing more than Ubuntu with added media codecs, proprietary apps and a green paint job. I’ve long countered that assumption and I believe there’s a lot more to it as a distribution in it’s own right. That fact just gets more and more evident with each new release. Mint benefits from a lot of Ubuntu development of course, but Ubuntu in turn benefits from Debian development, Gnome development and Kernel development if you want to analyse it down to that level. The accusation is a bit unfair. Mint has many custom tools such as the Software Manager, MintUpdate, MintAssistant, MintUpload, MintBackup, MintNanny and more. If you haven’t tried it before that’s worth keeping in mind.
The Software Manager:
One of the big changes made to Ubuntu with 9.10 was the addition of the Ubuntu Software Centre. I commented at the time that this was oddly reminiscent of the tool developed for Mint a long time ago. Despite some initial hesitation I actually liked the Ubuntu Software Centre very much, so I wondered if Mint would abandon their own Software Manager tool and adopt this new offering. They haven’t, instead they’ve made improvements to their own Software Manager and strengthened it. A big change is the ability to mark and install multiple programs in one action. This was sorely needed and it speeds greatly things up. I also noticed the “featured applications” button and I think this could really help newcomers to the platform. It offers a list of the most commonly installed packages and even some things you might not expect to find in the repositories, such as Skype and Google Earth. I like that it gives you user reviews and a whole wealth of of other information on each application right in the installer. I did find it a little odd that you can’t right-click on items in the list to get up a contextual menu though, perhaps this is just a bug. The Software Manager has come a long way since it first appeared in Mint a couple of years ago and it’s one area where perhaps the pupil has taught the master a lesson, in respect to the Ubuntu/Mint relationship at least. I like both the new Ubuntu tool and the Software Manager in Mint and I’d really like to see them work more collaboratively to produce one really stellar tool, but I won’t hold my breath. People have often asked me why these Mint innovations don’t make their way back upstream into Ubuntu and I can’t explain that. The same question could be asked about the lack of Ubuntu tools making their way back into Debian I suppose. I know they’re working hard but it would be nice to see more collaboration from all parties. One slight downside to the Mint Software Manager is that it doesn’t list all the available packages you could get with Apt-Get or Synaptic. I’ll illustrate this point in the screen shots. Here’s the result when I search for Gwibber in the Software Manager…
…but if I open up Synaptic and do the same there it is. This could confuse some new users and it would be good to consolidate. I’m not sure of the exact solution but it wouldn’t seem that hard to me to make Software Manager display all the results of an “apt-cache search” command somewhere. Perhaps they could be colour coded to differentiate, or even put into another panel if that’s easier. It would make a lot more sense to unify the process and could give Mint a real edge. Just a suggestion.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 5/5
Community & Documentation: 4/5
I went into Linux Mint 8 with high expectations from previous releases and I wasn’t let down. I like the custom tools they’ve added on top of a solid Ubuntu base, and I’ve said many times this is the best distribution for anyone new to Linux. I see no reason to alter that assertion. This release has added a few little features like the OEM install options and many improvements to the Mint Menu, but it seems to be mostly a consolidation of previous work. There’s nothing wrong with that. For me it gives by far the most complete home desktop experience of any distro out of the box. Everything you could need is here, and if you do want to add something else the Software Manager makes it easy. For more advanced users the benefit of Ubuntu compatibility means you can still add PPAs and get involved in the Ubuntu community if you like. It not a distribution for freedom crusaders though, and if your primary concern is Free Software values I’d advise you to look elsewhere. Perhaps Fedora or something off the FSF approved list would suit those people better.
There seems to be a fairly strong community around Mint and this will only be improved by the development of a new website. It’s in the early stages but the idea is to provide a kind of social networking platform for Mint users, where they can post ideas and rate the suggestions of others. I’ll be very interested to see how that develops. The size of the Mint following isn’t close to Ubuntu in sheer numbers at least, but once again the Ubuntu compatibility means that most guides and tutorials will work the same here. I’m a big fan of Mint and I make no secret of that fact, but as always I’ve done my best to assess it fairly and objectively. Some people will disagree with the 5 star rating I’ve given it I’m sure, but it’s as close as I’ve ever seen to distro perfection. For my own taste at least, I find it very comfortable and easy to settle into each time I stop by. It will continue to be the CD I give to people when they come to me and say “what’s this Linux business about then?”. I think that says it all. Truly advanced users and kernel hackers may find something else suits them better, but for the rest of us this is a great option.
Don’t take my word for it, try out Mint for yourself and let me know what you think in the comments. You might think I’m completely wrong and you’re welcome to say so. All I ask is that you do it in a reasonably civilised manner.
Just before Christmas I was fortunate enough to be sent an N900 Linux-based phone from Nokia. It’s my first real smartphone (a fact that shocked many people) and while I can’t compare it to the iPhone or an Android device directly, I would like to give you my assessment of it. The Debian-based Maemo operating system is very interesting, coupled with the fact that you get easy root access and it even runs my own shoddy Python code. Join me for that in the New Year. If you have any suggestions for other things I should look at please feel free to send them to me or leave comment. I’ll see you all back here in 2010 for more adventures…