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.
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.
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.
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.