Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/12/11/mint_16_review/

Hey Linux newbie: If you've never had a taste, try perfect Petra ... mmm, smells like Mint 16

Ubuntu for oldskoolers

By Scott Gilbertson

Posted in Operating Systems, 11th December 2013 17:02 GMT

Review The recently released Mint 16, nicknamed Petra, might be the perfect Linux desktop for newcomers.

At its core is Ubuntu 13.10, but on top of this are desktops Mate and Cinnamon, the latter being the Mint project's homegrown user interface.

Ubuntu gives a stable foundations on which to build, allowing the project to focus more on its desktops and less on the underpinnings. The result is a pair of desktops both worthy of consideration but with Cinnamon far more interesting as its hits version 2.0

Cinnamon 2.0 was released a few weeks ago and now works much better with other distros, but it's on Mint, particularly Mint 16, that it really shines.

Like Ubuntu's Unity desktop, Cinnamon began life as an alternative interface for GNOME 3. Because GNOME 3 changes considerably with each six-month release, Cinnamon 1.x releases had to be built against specific versions of GNOME.

That meant that, for example, Cinnamon 1.8 that shipped with Mint 15 was designed specifically to run atop GNOME 3.6. That tight coupling made Cinnamon brittle for Mint users and even more so for anyone trying to use Cinnamon on other distros.

With the 2.0 release, Cinnamon is largely free of GNOME. Cinnamon is still built on top of familiar GNOME technologies like GTK, but it no longer requires GNOME itself to be installed. Instead, Cinnamon 2.0 uses its own daemons and libraries to do the heavy lifting.

While that's great news for anyone who wants to run Cinnamon 2.0 on, say, Fedora, it doesn't actually mean much for Mint users. Yet.

The move away from GNOME lays the groundwork for Mint to start focusing on Cinnamon as a desktop rather than spending development time making sure Cinnamon works with the latest release of GNOME. Now that Cinnamon is relying on more of its own technology it has more time for innovation and will have to waste less time catching up with GNOME changes or fixing regressions.

In other words, while there may not be a whole lot about Mint 16's Cinnamon 2.0 that's really revolutionary, the foundation is there for Mint 17 and Cinnamon 2.1 (which will coincide with Ubuntu 14.01, a stable LTS release).

The future of Cinnamon is looking very bright.

Mint 16 Cinnamon Nemo preview

The Nemo Preview extension adds quick file previews to the file manager (click to enlarge)

That said, there are some nice hints of what might be in store in this release, particularly some nice polishing touches to areas of the Cinnamon experience which are already strong. Two standouts include the new Users and Groups tool and the improved Nemo file manager (which works fine with other desktops as well, including Unity).

As part of the move away from GNOME, the GNOME "User Accounts" tool has been replaced with Cinnamon's "Users and Groups". Here you'll find what amounts to a very simple, elegant way to manage users, passwords and groups. It's one of the few graphical tools I've used that trumps its command line equivalent for speed and ease of use.

The Users and Groups tool isn't the first time Mint has sweated the details to create a really great user experience. A similarly impressive GUI-trumps-command-line tool in Mint is the Personal Package Archive manager, which is part of the Mint Software Sources tool.

Mint's Software Sources tool makes Ubuntu's version of the same look clunky and ancient, especially when it comes to adding new PPAs. PPAs (which, let's face it, are part of the Ubuntu, and therefore Mint, life) get top-level billing in Mint.

There's no hunting around in tabs as with the Ubuntu software centre, just a big button that says "PPAs". Click it, paste the PPA URL and Mint takes care of the rest. The PPA feature arrived with Mint 15, but it deserves mention here because it showcases some the polish that's been finding its way into Mint with new release.

There is of course still plenty of room for improvement in Mint 16. While the PPA feature is really nice, the Mint Software Center itself leaves much to be desired, especially when compared to the Ubuntu Software Center. Mint 16's Software Center is functional, but nowhere near as full-featured as what you'll find in Ubuntu.

Power users beware

It lacks useful descriptions for most packages and, while its much faster in this release, it still doesn't feel as snappy as the rest of the Mint 16 interface. In short, Mint's Software Center is getting better, but it still needs work. Hopefully this will be among the things the Mint/Cinnamon team will focus on in future releases.

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement in Mint 16 is the revamped Nemo file manager. The overall performance of Nemo is much improved with none of the noticeable lags and spinning wheels that plagued earlier versions. The UI also has some nice new extras like progress bars that show disk usage at a glance. It's not installed by default, but there's also a new Nemo Preview extension, a port of GNOME's Sushi previewer, which adds quick file previews to Nemo.

While there is much to love in the Cinnamon-Mint-16 combo, there are some things that might put off power users. Notable in this regard is the apparent lack of support for the btrfs file system, which hints at Mint's focus on appealing to new and less demanding users. Cinnamon is also not exactly a svelte desktop, nor is it intended to be. If you're looking for lightweight you'll want to look elsewhere, like, for example, the Mate version of Mint 16.

Cinnamon is clearly Mint's flagship, but there are plenty of other versions out there, including the Mate desktop, which is designed for those who still pine for the days of GNOME 2.x. There are, however, several features found in Mate that would be nice to see in Cinnamon and elsewhere.

A good example of these features is the Mate's Menu search that trumps what you'll find in Cinnamon, searching not just your desktop, but the web as well - if you ask it to. Mate manages to pull off the "search everywhere" tools found in Ubuntu, without the privacy invasion. In Mate you can search various websites right from the toolbar menu. You just type your search, then click the "Search Wikipedia" or "Search Google" buttons. Same searching shortcuts you get in Ubuntu, none of the Canonical data-logging.

Mint 16 search

Mint 16 search: Same searching shortcuts as Ubuntu, none of the data-logging (click to enlarge)

Mate is, by design, less resource intensive and lacks some of the flash found in Cinnamon. For example, the file browser in Mate is nowhere near as full featured as Nemo. That makes Mate a better choice for older hardware since Cinnamon - like Unity - needs newer, more powerful hardware to really come into its own.

In contrast, the Mate version of Mint is quite snappy on my decidedly under powered EeePC. Cinnamon on the same machine lags enough that it's almost unusable at times (the best experience I've had on the EeePC is actually Mint with XFCE).

Mint 16 is a worthwhile upgrade for current Mint users, especially those who use the Cinnamon desktop. With Ubuntu 13.10 under the hood, Mint 16 has a stable base upon which to build and build it has - this is by far the most polished and solid version of Mint I've used.

Without disparaging Ubuntu, which is currently hard at work on bringing Linux to places that Mint will likely never go (mobile, tablets, touch screen), Mint 16 with Cinnamon 2.0 is what Ubuntu used to be: a solid, well-designed, easy-to-use Linux desktop.

The underlying Ubuntu compatibility makes Mint great for new users - both the Cinnamon and Mate desktops are closer to the Windows/OS X desktop paradigm than Unity, all the Debian/Ubuntu packages are there, PPAs just work and the Mint community has built up some great help and documentation.

It's the desktop Canonical used to make.

Perhaps that's a good thing - it takes some of the pressure off of Canonical. Mint is there for those who want the old, familiar desktop Linux experience while Ubuntu’s available for those who'd like to play with the brave new world of mobile, touch and HUD interfaces. ®