Could Linux Mint Replace Ubuntu?

Monday Feb 1st 2016 by Matt Hartley
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Linux Mint has become a contender, though it’s not advisable for a Linux newcomer.

One of the neatest features about using Linux for everyday computing are the endless choices that are available.

For years, Ubuntu was considered the "top distro" for most people. Recently however, I've seen indications that this is no longer the case. Arch Linux is gaining new users faster than ever. And for those who want a more "predefined experience," Linux Mint is catering to an ever-growing audience as well. Mint's not really my distro of choice. However, pretending that it's not a real contender when compared to other distros is nonsense. Linux Mint has become a big time player.

Recently I revisited Linux Mint and dug in deep to offer an in-depth look at whether or not this is genuinely a true Ubuntu alternative. My findings weren't as black and white as I thought they would be.

First impressions

After installing Linux Mint, I immediately recognized the Linux Mint Welcome box that appeared. Mint, like other distros, offers this Welcome box to help folks become more familiar with the distro. Users are provided with multiple areas to seek help and I like that the link to IRC assistance automatically connects to the appropriate IRC channel.

Access to software discovery is also provided, with a link in the Welcome box that opens up the Software Manager. I'll touch more on the Software Manager later, but suffice it to say that its layout is conducive to finding the needed applications easily. When compared to Ubuntu's Software Center, it's pretty much a matter of preference. Ubuntu with Unity doesn't offer any real introduction to software like Mint (or Ubuntu MATE for that matter). So the new user is left to randomly click the icons on the left, until they eventually select the Software icon.

As with earlier releases of Mint, I was pleased to see the MintMenu continues to offer a logical, simple way to locate installed applications, settings and other OS functions. On Ubuntu with Unity, you use the Dash to locate applications. This process takes up your entire screen. You can either browse or search for an application. Some might indicate this is a matter of personal preference. Honestly, I think it's interfering and creates a disruptive workflow. Still, some folks coming from OS X prefer this layout. Yet I find it to be incredibly distracting.

The next step was to see how well wireless connectivity worked out. As expected, the Atheros chipset was detected and allowed me to connect wirelessly without any problems at all. Since I was not interacting with applets, I decided to see about adding the core functionality I use on other desktops. First stop, add a system resources indicator. Oddly, this wasn't available as it wasn't installed.

Thankfully Mint is modern in its design and provides a fantastic means for adding new applets from within the same dialog box. I found this to be highly impressive. Ubuntu with Unity however, requires its users to search out any applets (called indicators) on Unity using the Software Center or by installing them using apt. Many of the installable applets require you to track down a PPA (personal package archive). This adds numerous unnecessary steps to an otherwise simple process. An important plus one for Ubuntu with Unity is that installable indicators worked correctly when installed. It's just too bad there are almost zero installed by default.

Unfortunately my positive impressions with Mint's applets were soon deflated as I found that installing any new applets were met with errors, unlike Ubuntu. Now, it's important to note that this isn't merely a Mint phenomenon. I've seen this countless times with GNOME 3 as well. The difference being, only some GNOME 3 applets offered errors when being installed while Mint's Cinnamon desktop appears to be incompatible with the installable applets available.

In the interest of being thorough, I tried the same approach with Mint's Cinnamon extensions. This time I was presented with a concise error that might be related to my applet errors. The message indicated that the extensions weren't compatible. This is on par with my GNOME 3 experiences, in that as the desktop evolves, sometimes the non-installed applets hosted elsewhere have catching up to do. Back on Ubuntu with Unity, the installed lenses tested all worked out of the box. It's just too bad adding new ones requires either apt, the Software Center or a PPA. Mint wins on flow while Ubuntu wins on function in this area.

After a short break, I returned to the desktop and began exploring the installed applets on Mint. I'm happy to report that the layout and flow of the existing applets is very smooth. I love how they can be opened and used without needing to open up new windows. This is very different from other desktop environments I've used in the past. It's a great feature and adds a lot of polish in terms of user experience. Ubuntu Unity also provided tight integration with its indicators, however some of them opened new windows when clicked into.

General usability and power management

Impressed with how the Mint applets work, I decided to dig deeper into how the rest of the layout felt. Logically, I went to the MintMenu and found immediate access to the Settings area. The Mint settings area, like Mint's applets, was impressive. All the settings kept me in a single window pane. When I clicked into a setting for the mouse for example, I was presented with a number of controls for mouse and touchpad settings. They even provided an option to disable the touchpad while typing, which is awesome...if it worked.

By contrast, I found Ubuntu with Unity settings to be well integrated, but lacking overall features. Unlike Mint's mouse settings for example, Ubuntu with Unity lacked any sort of option for disabling the touchpad while typing. And, by default….you guessed it, the cursor jumps when the touchpad is tapped while typing. Perhaps I'm spoiled. This feature is provided and functional by default with Ubuntu MATE.

Applications

The selection of installed applications were as expected. Anything missing can be installed very easily from the Software Manager. I toured the other MintTools, making note of mintUpload, which I thought was pretty cool. Using mintUpload was very straightforward and made short work of uploading files to my sFTP server.

The tool that really stood out to me was mintBackup. It felt the same as Ubuntu's included Deja Dup app, but it went a step further – mintBackup can backup applications. Now I assume it's merely putting a friendly face onto "dpkg get selections." Still, in terms of managing software for friends and family, this would be a tremendous time saver. Restoring my own apps is stupid easy. Figuring out what the heck your "Uncle Bob" used for his music, videos, etc, isn't as simple. Hence, mintBackup blows Ubuntu out of the water in this regard.

Speaking of applications, the ability to run startup applications is pretty lame on most distros. Yes, I can do it and so can most of you, however for newcomers it requires one to know what the heck to add into the boxes. I found Mint's startup tool to be a step in the right direction as it allows one to add software by selecting it directly. Crazy I know, but it's stupid easy to use. Just open the dialog, browse and you're done.

Lastly, there's the update manager and software sources tool. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of the numbering system to rank updates. However, I do love that they include GetDeb as a provided software repository for those who want it for extra software.

Ubuntu vs Linux Mint – The results are in

Overall, Linux Mint feels far more polished than Ubuntu with Unity. Yes, part of this is due to my dislike for Unity and its abundance of head-scratching "huh" moments it provides. But in terms of adding basic indicators, extending functionality in a unified manner (not relying on apt, etc) and a clean flow between the desktop to control center, Mint wins big time.

Now for stuff that would make Mint better than it already is. First off, Linux Mint (and other distros) should be slapped for not offering newbies a toggle switch during the install to use TLP. Without TLP, Linux battery life on any kernel is pretty poor. Another thing that should be provided by default is a working touchpad disable while typing function. Ubuntu MATE does this smooth as butter right out of the box. Yet Linux Mint's feature for this is DOA on my tested Intel based laptop. Ubuntu of course, didn't even offer such a function within the Mouse/Touchpad settings.

And lastly, Firefox using Yahoo as the default search engine. To be fair, I have no problem with this…except that Google wasn't even an option in the secondary search engine box at all. Normally when you use Firefox's change search engine feature, Google is an option. Not with Mint apparently!

Can I recommend Linux Mint to those looking to switch folks over from Windows to Linux? Yes, if they're using a desktop PC. However, to even suggest that this is usable for laptops means you're ignoring some significant bugs that need to be addressed. Someone would need to make sure the touchpad issues are addressed (it's 2016 people, c'mon!) and TLP is installed for laptops. Without those two features addressed by either a "tech helper" or the Mint team, this isn't a laptop ready OS for a Linux newcomer in my opinion.

What are your thoughts? Think that Ubuntu with Unity beats Mint? Perhaps there are other features I missed here you want to share? Hit the Comments, let's talk about it.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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