Linux Mint 15: Showing Signs of Maturity

Tuesday Jun 11th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Linux Mint is maturing, which means that the question of what's next is starting to loom.

Linux Mint has thrived on giving users what they want. Linux Mint 15, codenamed Olivia, is no exception.

Although billed in the release announcement as "the most ambitious release since the start of the project," it breaks little new ground. Instead, it is more concerned with polishing and minor extensions of functionality.

This orientation is very much in the tradition of past Mint releases. Linux Mint has always opted for convenience over principle, shipping with proprietary software and including both Debian and Ubuntu versions. Maybe a few users can tell Debian from Ubuntu, but what matters is that many have demanded the choice.

Mint's following of this path has proven especially successful in the last eighteen months. By offering two versions of the GNOME 2 experience—Mate, a GNOME 2 fork, and Cinnamon, a GNOME 2-inspired shell atop GNOME 3—Linux Mint has become a refuge for those who reject the changes made to KDE, GNOME and Unity in the last five years.

In the process, Mint has emerged as one of the most popular Linux distributions among the experienced, with an enviable reputation for keeping faith with users. The latest release cements that reputation, offering increased choice and incremental improvements in its efforts to recreate the GNOME 2 experience—and nothing whatsoever to disconcert the most traditional user, regardless of whether they choose Mate or Cinnamon.

Shared Features

Both Mate and Cinnamon editions have a number of features of common. Which edition had which features first requires careful comparisons, but what matters is that neither is being greatly short-changed in the latest release.

The two editions do share a number of new dialogues, some obviously inspired by similar features in Ubuntu. These dialogues include the following:

  • Software Sources: sets the repositories and mirrors used by the package manager. According to the release notes, the package manager will switch to a faster mirror if one is available.
  • Update Manager: tracks the available updates. It now updates automatically.
  • Driver Manager: a euphemism for "Proprietary Driver Manager."

On the whole, after going through most of a year being developed largely independent of each other, Mate and Cinnamon seem to have been developed more in tandem in Mint 15. However, there are still inconsistencies, such as the maintenance of different collections of login themes and desktop wallpapers.

More importantly, Mate and Cinnamon retain differences in emphasis. In places, they each have features that the other does not. These unique differences are not completely slanted towards Cinnamon, as might be expected since it is the newer code base. Once or twice, Mate actually includes a feature that Cinnamon lacks.

New Additions to Mate

Mate's dependency on the increasingly obsolete GTK toolset must make updates hard at times. However, Mint 15 goes to some lengths to match its versions of Mate and Cinnamon. Behind the scenes, it has also converted several key Mate libraries, presumably starting a process of modernization that will continue over the next few releases.

Some features, such as desklets have yet to find their way into Mate, if they ever will. However, Mate is not being neglected, either.

To start with, Mate 1.6, the version in Olivia, includes a new greeter. Supporting CSS, HTML 5, Javascript, and WebGL, the greeter opens up possibilities for animated and interactive themes on the login screen. For now, though, the themes installed with Mate only hint at the new possibilities.

In addition, Caja, the file manager, continues to be overhauled—a priority that, perhaps, suggests the type of experienced user to whom Mate is supposed to appeal. A close examination shows minor rearrangements of the sidebar, while the release notes list improved thumbnails thanks to Cinnamon's Nemo file manager, and a Connect to serve dialog thanks to GNOME's Nautilus file manager.

Probably the most useful change is the Notifications Settings dialog. This window sets the corner in which notifications display and includes the option of setting which monitor to display them in if more than one is present. No context menu on the panel currently lists to the dialog, but at least the functionality is there—which it is not so far in Cinnamon.

New Additions to Cinnamon

Cinnamon has always had two shortcomings: it requires hardware acceleration to work well, and it has a number of configuration dialogues that can be a nuisance to pick through.

Mint 15 doesn't eliminate the hardware acceleration requirement, although users are notified at login when it is absent. The notice suggests that you only use Cinnamon "for troubleshooting purposes," which is possibly unnecessarily cautious. In my experience, Cinnamon without hardware acceleration is merely slow, not unstable.

However, Cinnamon 1.8 does reduce the number of configuration dialogs. Instead of using both the GNOME System Settings and Cinnamon settings, the latest version includes its own System Settings dialog, divided into settings for Appearance, Preferences and Hardware. This is definitely a step in the right direction, although with eighteen icons, the Preferences settings could stand division into two for quicker scanning.

Similarly, applets, desklets, themes and extensions are all grouped into the Applets dialog available from the panel. Together with the new System Settings, this rearrangement helps to make configuring Cinnamon easier and much less a tedious case of trial and error.

Another new feature in Cinnamon 1.8 is desklets—small utilities that sit on the desktop and are the equivalent of KDE's widgets. Only three are installed with Mint—a generic launcher, a clock and a digital photo frame—but the possibilities for additional customization are obvious.

Mint 15 also adds to Cinnamon a screen lock that includes the ability to leave an away message and a screen saver—a feature that earlier versions of Mate already had. Technically, of course, the screen saver is not needed, so I suppose it is another example of giving users what they want, even if it seems like a low priority.

None of these changes are revolutionary, but they do add up to an impression that Cinnamon is reaching early maturity, removing the worst of its rough edges, and becoming less cumbersome to work with—provided, of course, that your video drivers have the necessary hardware acceleration.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Linux Mint 15 is a solid release, but not an end in itself. Rather, it is part of the ongoing process of refining Cinnamon and Mate while minimizing innovation to keep users comfortable. With this release, the process is starting to meet some of its early promise, but remains ongoing.

It is still uncertain whether any distribution with Linux Mint's goal is capable of more than mild innovations. Users, perhaps, might consider this limited scope a good thing—and, after some of the events of the last few years, I can understand this attitude.

At this point, many users must be weary of thinking so much about their desktop environments. Such users have settled on Linux Mint precisely because it allows them to forget about their interfaces and concentrate on their work.

Yet, for all the comfort it offers, the current lack of innovation on the Linux desktop is also a concern. In the last few years, developers seem to have veered from an urge to innovate very sharply. Some might call it timidity or even irresponsibility because it means promising possibilities may have been missed.

Linux Mint has taken advantage of this change for two years now. So far, it has escaped any criticism about missed opportunities because it has been busy bringing its code up to maturity

However, Mint 15 suggests that this stage in the distribution's development is drawing to a close. Another release, maybe two, and it will have reached its initial goals. When that happens, we may finally see if Linux Mint is capable of experimentation and whether it is possible to risk major change while giving users what they want now.

Currently, Linux Mint fills its chosen niche extremely well. But questions remain about what it can do when that niche has been completely filled—or even if it should do anything except maintain what it has developed.

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