June 19, 2008

Fresh Linux Mint is a mixed bag

Author: Jeremy LaCroix

Linux Mint is a heavily customized community-driven derivative built on top of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS. According to the creators, its purpose is "to produce an elegant, up-to-date, and comfortable GNU/Linux desktop distribution." The latest release, Linux Mint 5.0 "Elyssa", released this month, retains most of Ubuntu's stability and features, but distinguish itself with unique features and tweaks. Although Mint is a great desktop, a few problems keep it from perfection.

Mint is available in two editions: a main edition, which includes proprietary codecs, and a light edition, which doesn't. Since I was unable to find a 64-bit version of Elyssa, I downloaded and installed the 32-bit main edition on my test machine, with an Athlon 64 X2 5200+ processor, 2GB of memory, two Nvidia GeForce 8600GT video cards on a Scalable Link Interface (SLI), and a 160GB SATA hard drive.

If you've installed any version of Ubuntu within the last year or so, you're already familiar with Elyssa's installation routine. It uses the same live installation method as Ubuntu, yet for some reason the Elyssa live CD takes almost twice as long to boot as a standard Ubuntu disc. Once it boots, it takes about the same amount of time to install to a hard drive as any distribution that uses a similar installer.

Upon your first login, the Mint Assistant appears and gives you the option to set up the root account, which will let you log in to the machine as the root user directly (instead of using sudo). It can also set up terminal fortunes, which gives you a comical message whenever you launch the GNOME terminal. While it is nice to have a setup menu included for these features, I'd like to see more useful configurations offered with the Mint Assistant, such as a way to change the theme or set up additional users.

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Elyssa comes with a customized boot splash, GNOME Display Manager, and GTK themes. The default theme looks similar to that of older versions, with some tweaks included, such as using the Clearlooks engine for the sliders, and other much smaller tweaks for consistency. It looks decent, although the default purple colors of the GTK theme don't quite match up with the otherwise green artwork used everywhere else. If you don't like the default theme, Elyssa includes other themes in the default install, and several of them allow you to customize their colors in GNOME's Appearance applet.

Another noteworthy customization in Elyssa is its use of the mintMenu instead of the typical GNOME application launchers. The mintMenu opts to have as many of the submenus on a single pane as possible, which is great for consistency, although the menu is a bit large.

Software updates are handled by the distro's mintUpdate software. With mintUpdate, software updates are broken into different priority levels based on necessity and stability. Level 1 and 2 updates are preferred (they have less chance of breaking your system) while anything higher is recommended to be installed only as needed. Separating updates by priority is a good idea to prevent breakage. Mint maintains its own repositories, and also includes the standard Ubuntu Main, Universe, Multiverse, and Restricted repositories as well. That means package availability is right on par with Ubuntu, with some additional Mint-specific packages thrown in.

While the default GNOME desktop utilizes two horizontal panels, Elyssa defaults to using a single panel. While the panel is a simpler design, it can get cluttered quickly depending on the resolution of your monitor. This is a minor complaint, however, since you can add as many panels as you'd like using GNOME's configuration tools. Performance-wise, Elyssa runs as fast as the distribution it was built on.

One of my favorites of the new features is the ability to uninstall applications you don't need without opening the terminal or a package manager. To uninstall an application in Mint, just right-click the launcher in the Mint Menu and click Uninstall. Enter the administrator password, followed by your approval of any dependencies that might also be removed. This is one of several features I think every distribution should implement.

Another feature I'm fond of is the ability to right-click a folder and choose to open it with root privileges. If you need administrative access to a particular folder, this technique is much faster than using the terminal, although it goes without saying that you should utilize this feature with caution.

Gnome-Do is another keeper. It allows you to bring up a search window (by pressing Super and Space on your keyboard) that can be used to search for applications or tasks to perform. As you type, Gnome-Do narrows down a list of actions, allowing you to select the appropriate one. This tool is useful if you don't know where an application is located in the menu hierarchy, and is similar to KDE's Katapult.

mintBackup, a tool used to back up your home directory, is also refreshing. With it you can save your entire home directory in a single backup file. Restoring the backup is only a matter of a double-click on the archive on any system that has the software installed. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear possible to back up any directory other than home.

Other minor new features include a new configuration dialog for the mintMenu, a new information screen for mintUpdate, the ability to calculate an MD5 sum of an ISO image by right-clicking on the image file, the inclusion of PulseAudio configuration tools, and memory requirements made lower in several utilities.

Naturally, included in Elyssa are upstream improvements in Ubuntu 8.04, such as the use of the PulseAudio sound server as default, improved printing, the inclusion of GNOME 2.22, Firefox 3.0 RC1, OpenOffice.org 2.4, Linux kernel 2.6.24, and Xorg 7.3. Also included is the GIMP 2.4.5, Pidgin 2.4.1, and Rhythmbox 0.11.5.

On the downside

Not everything in the new release is a clear winner, however. For instance, while the mintMenu is a nice addition to the desktop, it's not for everyone. mintMenu offers most of the system configuration menus in one place, yet it takes up quite a bit of desktop real estate when opened. For people who use low screen resolutions, mintMenu can easily take up most of the screen. Thankfully, GNOME's Main Menu and Menu Bar applets are still there for you to add to your panel if you aren't fortunate to have a larger resolution or prefer the older way of opening programs.

Another problem I had with Elyssa was setting up the proprietary driver for my pair of GeForce 8600GT video cards. Elyssa uses Envy to handle the configuration of proprietary ATI and Nvidia drivers. While the tool detected my cards, they were not set up correctly. Upon restarting, I was downgraded into low graphics mode and informed that my configuration wasn't recognized. Even with adjusting the display settings, I was still unable to get 1280x1024 resolution on my monitor. To fix this problem, I had to use the command line to rebuild the Xorg configuration file and remove two unnecessary "BusID" lines. By contrast, Ubuntu itself is able to handle my SLI chain without issues. Still, I don't feel this is a major problem, because SLI configurations aren't as common in the Linux world as they are in Windows.

mintInstall, Mint's answer to Ubuntu's Add/Remove Programs application, could use a bit of work as well. The features it includes are great in theory, but not implemented very well. For example, you can search for packages from GetDeb (a site containing DEB packages not normally included in repositories), the Ubuntu repository, or Mint's own software channel. The search results are displayed in a Firefox window (in the case of GetDeb) or a text document (when searching for DEB or Mint packages) and aren't easily installable from within the search results.

Mint gives you the ability to move windows to other workspaces even though no workspace switcher is added by default, which could confuse some users. The trash bin is located on the menu instead of an easier-to-reach place such as the panel or desktop. The lack of a 64-bit version is also a concern, as more and more PCs are being sold with 4GB of RAM or more.

The latest version of Mint contains new features galore that help push it above and beyond the distribution it's based on, but it's also hampered by some issues that keep it from becoming superior. Regardless, the features it does contain make it worth a look. Just think of Mint as a great distribution with some hurdles to overcome before it can reach perfection.

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