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…
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
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.
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.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 5/5
Community & Documentation: 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
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…