Bored with brown? Looking for more oomph in your Ubuntu installation? We test the latest release of Linux Mint, the shiny green distro that stands on the shoulders of giants and offers its own unique tools. Read on to find out whether Mint is actually a better Ubuntu than Ubuntu...
Linux Mint has quite a following. It has a community that has pushed the distribution into third place on the influential DistroWatch site. That's one place higher than OpenSUSE, which isn't bad for a distribution based on Ubuntu. And we were seriously impressed with the previous version. Its budding green theming and condensation soaked wallpaper was like annual rainfall on the brown desert palette of a standard Ubuntu installation. Clever additions like a new menu system and the inclusion of a few custom applications made the whole distribution feel more cared for than the average respin. But there's no escaping the fact that Mint is built on the world's most popular distribution, and as a result, needs to be judged on what it does differently and why.
As you might expect, the new version is built on top of Ubuntu's 9.10 release from October last year, and as a result, Mint contains almost exactly the same group of packages. You get the same version of Gnome, the same version of OpenOffice.org and the same installation mechanism, albeit painted green and a 1GB pool of on-disc packages. You also get the same unfettered access to proprietary drivers and encumbered codecs. But things start to look different after the painless installation and when you get to your desktop.
We find the new colours in the backdrop to be a little too washed out for our taste. But beauty is only skin deep.
The default theme for Mint is green and gun metal grey. This new release changes the background, but the subtle transparency of the window borders and panels remains the same. Visuals are subjective and easily changed, but we preferred the default wallpaper in the previous release, as well as the cross-hatchet theme that runs through the login manager and some of the other panels. It's a pity that when a distribution differentiates itself with visuals, there's seems to be a need to update these with each release, regardless of how successful the previous set-up might have been.
If you're used to Ubuntu, then the Mint desktop is going to be a bit of a shock. Gone is the top bar and its various menus and applets. Instead, the lower panel carries the burden of being both the launch tool, applet host and application manager, much more like KDE or Windows 7. It's also much smaller, defaulting to 24 pixels high. Mint uses its own launch menu, a tool called 'mintMenu', which we prefer to the plain point and click of the standard Gnome menu. It allows you to search for applications and quickly navigate to the sub-sections. This new version adds the ability for you to select which places are listed, as well as add your own, making it a complete replacement for the original Places menu on the Ubuntu desktop.
Everything's gone green
Another custom built application is the Update Manager. This includes the option to display a priority level for each package, and version 8 adds the ability to customise this view. There's also a brand new upload manager but we didn't feel this added much to what Gnome does already. But the Mint application showing the most promise, at least in the face of Ubuntu's Software Store, is the Software Manager.
This is a package manager that includes screenshots and community reviews for packages. It's a little sparse on the community spirit, but we can see a lot of potential in a system like this for all Linux desktops, and Mint's version works well. A small point is that both the 'Software Manager' and the Synaptic Package Manager have prominent positions next to each other in the launch menu. We feel this is likely to confuse newcomers who are still struggling with the idea that they can't simply download and run an executable.
The bottom line is that Mint is willing to take more risks than Ubuntu. Ctrl+Alt+backspace still works for killing X, for example, and it doesn't shy away from improving what it sees as deficiencies. Mint should perhaps be more ambitious, running Gnome Do by default and replacing the desktop panel with Docky, for instance. But there isn't anything here that makes Mint worse than Ubuntu, which in the end, makes it better.
Our verdict: One of the best examples of what can be done standing on the shoulders of giants. 9/10
Features at a glance
Update Manager Rather than bland list of packages, Mint lists updates by severity which is much more exciting.
Software Manager Another packages manager with screenshots and community reviews. Only this one works.
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