Linux Mint 9: Solid, Simple, Shiny

It's lean, it's very green, and it's one of the better Linux distros for users who just want a good desktop right out of the box. Linux Mint 9, dubbed Isadora, was released on May 18th with plenty of new features and software.

Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, but it does have its own identity and community. Linux Mint trails Ubuntu releases by a few weeks, so there was a bit of a gap between the Ubuntu 10.04 release and Linux Mint 9. The GNOME version of Linux Mint is released first; if you're looking for the KDE, LXDE or Fluxbox releases, it might be a few more weeks before those come out.

Naturally, Mint 9 has lots of new software. It comes with GNOME 2.30, OpenOffice.org 3.2.0 (with the old-fashioned Sun splash-screen), Firefox 3.6.3, and so on. You can see the full package listing on DistroWatch, but it's pretty much the latest and greatest stable packages you'll find currently. Of course, Mint inherits most of its packages from Ubuntu, so if you're familiar with what Ubuntu has to offer, Mint shouldn't throw any surprises.

Installation and Setup

Mint's installer is simple and straightforward, especially if you're installing Mint as the only OS on a computer. The installation has only six steps (oddly, the installer says it has seven, but skips from step five to step seven). Users only need to have a passing familiarity with their computer to run through the installer, which hasn't changed much from Linux Mint 8.

After the install, you'll see a splash screen with "welcome" information.

This includes a user guide, known problems with the release, support resources and further information about Linux Mint and its community. Mint doesn't have the throngs of supporters that Ubuntu has, but it does have a sizable community and tends to be fairly popular. Right now it's the #2 ranked distro on DistroWatch, for example, though those numbers do tend to fluctuate a lot and shouldn't be considered exactly scientific.

Mint's Distinguishing Features

Linux Mint shares quite a bit with its upstream distro. Ubuntu is in turn based on Debian, which I suppose makes Mint sort of a grandchild to Debian.

But it's not an Ubuntu clone. It has its own look and feel and several useful tools that the Mint community has developed on their own. Starting with the look and feel: Mint is very green. It also saves a bit of screen space by featuring only one GNOME panel and uses a menu similar to the "slab" layout that was developed by Novell for SUSE. It combines the system, places and applications menu into one.

Another nifty feature in Mint 9 is the backup tool; you can use this to make backups of your personal files or to back up the software you have installed (or both). If you've spent a few hours getting all the packages on your desktop system just right, why go through all that again on your laptop? Just back up the software selection and then do a fresh install on the laptop, and then restore that to the laptop.

The software manager with Mint is also pretty useful. It now includes more than 30,000 packages to choose from. That could be a bit confusing, but at least they offer a Featured category with software that they recommend. Even better, if you click all the way through to a package's description, you'll see a screenshot, long description and reviews with a score for the software. Seems to take a strong cue from Apple's App Store, but why not? Users should know when there's an app for that. If you get deeper into the package collection it probably won't have a score or reviews, at least not yet, but more popular packages are well-represented.

Mint is also missing a few things that you'll find in Ubuntu, such as links to the Ubuntu One services. But the packages are there, so if you want to install support for Ubuntu One — like the Rhythmbox Music Store, all you need to do is dig a bit.

I will say I'm not crazy about Mint's custom Google search page. I suspect this brings in some revenue for the project, but it's just ugly and crowded. It's easy to change by disabling the "Mint Search Enhancer" add-on in Firefox (go to Tools -> Add-ons -> Extensions), but I really wish they'd declutter it. Unlike some folks in the community, I don't have a problem with a little advertising or commercial services to help fund development — but they shouldn't be overly intrusive.

Media, Media, Media!

One of my favorite features with Linux Mint is the ability to play pretty much all media codecs right out of the box. Flash, QuickTime, MP3s, and so on just work. And work really well.

From a legal perspective, this is a bit dicey. It's not technical considerations that prevent other distros from shipping these codecs, it's legal ones. Mint is in a slightly better position to offer these things because it's not based in the U.S., but it's a good thing to be aware that some jurisdictions would frown on shipping unlicensed codecs for media playback.

That said, most users don't give a dingo's kidney about that, and the odds of end users being prosecuted over said codecs is pretty small. Note that I said, "small," and not "zero." Also, I'm not a lawyer, so decide for yourself whether this is a risk that you'd like to take. If not, Linux Mint does offer a special USA/Japan distribution disk on its download page that comes without the offending codecs and non-free software.

I was impressed by how well Mint worked even on sites like Apple's QuickTime trailers page. There was a slight glitch were the volume was always very low when starting a new trailer, but other than that, Mint works quite well with media out of the box.

Package Selection

Ubuntu's claim to fame, many years ago, was it made a lot of decisions for the user. Instead of asking users to pick this package or that, it offered a default selection of software that covered most of the bases. If you didn't agree, you could always install your favorites after it was set up, but it removed some of the confusion for new users.

Mint, though it's based on Ubuntu, makes some different choices with its default selection. For instance, Mint ships Thunderbird 3.x instead of Evolution for mail, and Pidgin for instant messaging. Mint is also a bit more like upstream GNOME with its panel than Ubuntu, which has been developing its own features out of step with upstream — like the Me Menu. These are all matters of taste, but Mint is probably closer to the biases of experienced Linux users than Ubuntu itself. I still prefer Pidgin over Empathy, for example, and if I use a desktop mailer I choose Thunderbird over Evolution.

I also like that Mint is still shipping The GIMP by default and generally tend to like the look and feel of Mint more than Ubuntu. Again, that's personal taste — your mileage may vary. It's also too soon to say how the Mint 9 KDE and LXDE releases will shake out, so we might do a follow-up on those releases when they come out.

Final Verdict

Overall, I find Linux Mint to be a fine desktop distro. Being based on Ubuntu, the package selection is huge and you can also get decent support for third-party apps like Dropbox. It's a good GNOME-based distribution, though it doesn't stay perfectly in step with upstream GNOME default applications. It's also a pretty solid distro. I haven't run into any major glitches or problems since starting with the Mint RC a few weeks ago.

Linux Mint has quite a lot to offer. If you're new to Linux or want a distro to recommend to someone who's new to Linux, Mint is one of the best to start with. The inclusion of "restricted" codecs and such is likely to rankle some Free Software purists but can help get new users transitioned to Linux a bit more quickly. Since Mint 9 is based on an Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS) release, users have support for the desktop through 2013, which makes it even more ideal for new users. If you haven't settled on a distro yet, or want one to recommend to friends and family, Mint is an excellent choice.

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