Linux Mint vs. Ubuntu: the Best Option?

Monday Apr 2nd 2012 by Matt Hartley
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One Linux distribution prizes stability and safety, while the other tends to be ahead of the curve.

For the last few years, there has been something of a popularity contest between two well-known Linux distros: Linux Mint and Ubuntu. Both of these distributions share the same code base, as Ubuntu is based on Debian and Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu.

In both instances, the distributions took the foundation that Debian built, then added their own flavor to make it more user friendly. The similarities between the two distributions go even further, in that Ubuntu packages work flawlessly on Linux Mint, just as Ubuntu PPAs work well on Linux Mint.

When Linux Mint was first being developed, the degree of separation from Ubuntu was very minimal. The first few releases of Linux Mint were considered to be a "re-branded" version of Ubuntu using a slightly different desktop theme. Today however, Linux Mint has less in common with Ubuntu than most people realize.

For this article, I’ll tap into my own experiences with both distributions over the years. I'll compare how Linux Mint and Ubuntu differ, and talk about which of the two options are best for the casual Linux enthusiast.

Easy isn't a dirty word

All too often, I hear the word "easy" being tossed around as if it's a bad word when describing Linux distributions. It's unfortunate that in some circles, an easy-to-use Linux distribution is looked down upon. Thankfully with both Linux Mint and Ubuntu, this isn't the case. The communities for both distributions are both very focused on a new user experience. I happen to see this as a positive thing.

Despite the mutual goal of offering an easy to use Linux desktop, I've noticed that Ubuntu and Linux Mint have different approaches as to how they appeal to their users.

In recent years, I've actually found the two distributions shift further apart than ever before. This change isn't a negative thing, rather a positive highlight that allows both distributions to differentiate themselves better. The shift began with different approaches to tools and software. Later, the differences between the distros evolved to include the desktops as well.

Today, Ubuntu firmly embraces Unity while Linux Mint holds tightly to their own re-imagining of the Gnome Shell. In both examples, the goal is to provide the most seamless experience to new users as possible. Interestingly enough, the approach taken with each distribution couldn't be more different when it comes to the desktop environment.

Unity wasn't that unifying at first

Ubuntu has made tremendous strides with Unity. Despite what amounts to a mess with previous releases of Unity, Ubuntu has managed to turn Unity into a solid desktop option for newcomers and veterans alike.

No matter how you slice it, Unity under Ubuntu looks light-years better than Gnome 2 ever did. Even if you don't like it, you must admit that it presents a nice, polished look.

The idea behind Unity was to bring everything that the Linux desktop to the end user with minimal hunting for applications and settings. This translates into less dancing through menus, and more enjoying the installed software or discovering new titles via the software center. It was a bold idea that clearly is beginning to win new users over. Add in the available installable Unity lenses, and suddenly the idea of using Unity isn't so bad.

In the beginning, my own experiences with Unity were far from pleasant. The Early releases of Unity left me frustrated and seeking an alternative desktop environment almost immediately. I found that the lack of system indicator applets that I once enjoyed was nearly impossible for me to overlook. It amounted to a complete redo on how I used my desktop, and I simply wasn't a good match for earlier revision of the Unity desktop.

Flash forward to now, Unity in Ubuntu 12.04 is well thought out and responsive. I'm also thrilled that they're replacing previously missing system indicators and improving dual-monitor control.

Unity has come a long way, despite the fact that I've had to retrain my brain in how to interact with the desktop. Yes, Unity has finally come into its own. But to be clear, it's very different from what we experienced when using the Gnome 2 desktop in earlier Ubuntu releases.

Cinnamon sweetens the Gnome desktop

In contrast, Linux Mint opted early on to not emulate Ubuntu's desktop choices. Today, Linux Mint comes with a number of desktop environments. Unlike Ubuntu, Linux Mint 12 offers its users the Gnome 3 and MATE desktop experiences out of the box. Gnome 3 is basically just the next evolution of Gnome. And MATE is essentially a fork off of Gnome 2, for those who prefer the legacy interface.

The third desktop option for Linux Mint users is known as Cinnamon. While it must be installed manually from your package manager, it's by far the best of the available desktop environments for Linux Mint. Also using the Gnome Shell, Cinnamon offers users a level of control ranging from the desktop applets to overall desktop effects.

Despite the newness of this desktop environment, Cinnamon has proven to be a fan-favorite not only on Linux Mint, but with other distributions as well. Best of all, it's laid out in such a way that anyone coming from Gnome 2 will feel right at home.

Package management

One area that frustrates me with Ubuntu is that they don't clearly mark how dangerous some package updates can be. This isn't to say that some updates that could create problems aren't important, rather that Ubuntu needs to provide a better way to customize how software packages are being updated. Because this could potentially eliminate problems new users face.

Linux Mint, on the other hand, uses a level-based numbering system. Level 5 is the most "dangerous" and Level 1 is totally trusted, so you're in complete control as to what's updated and how. Linux Mint also allows its users to choose the update level automatically or manually, so nothing is broken by surprise by an update.

As great as the Linux Mint software update approach is, there's still a problem that may have been overlooked. Because Kernel updates are important, if a kernel update is always labeled at level 5 (dangerous), there's a likelihood it's not going to be installed. On Ubuntu, this is a moot point as updates are all or nothing by default.

So from a security perspective, it's a valid argument that Ubuntu's policy may be more secure. However, I prefer the Linux Mint approach to package management. It keeps me in control, without having to skim through what packages are selected and which ones aren't.

Software backup considerations

Another major difference is how software is handled from a backup perspective. Since neither Linux Mint or Ubuntu offer you a fool-proof, pre-installation method of doing simple dedicated partitions for home directories, data and software backups become quite critical as a result.

Now, Ubuntu offers directory backups using an application called Déjà Dup. While Linux Mint, on the other hand, offers its own variation of this application called mintBackup.

Both applications allow you to back up local directories to Dropbox/UbuntuOne based-folders if you wish. Where Ubuntu completely drops the ball, however, is not providing application specific backups. Linux Mint's mintBackup however, does offer this type of backup option.

One area mintBackup lacks in is with the ability to do incremental backups like Déjà Dup. Since incremental backups take less time to do than a complete backup, some users may find that mintBackup isn't the best way to handle directory backups on a regular basis.

So here's my advice on the matter: use mintBackup (Ubuntu PPA here) to handle your software needs, while relying on Déjà Dup for a good incremental option. Remember, the wonderful thing about these two distributions is that you can use the same software on both installations.

Upgrading to a new release

The final area where Linux Mint and Ubuntu differ is how users are supposed to upgrade. Since neither of these two operating systems are "rolling release"-based distributions (excluding LMDE, most users are tempted to simply install upgrades in place instead of doing a clean installation. Ubuntu goes so far as to offer a distribution upgrade option.

Usually, this works without too many problems, but it's by far the most dangerous way, meaning you could hose your system. Because if the upgrade goes poorly, you're going to have to upgrade with a clean installation of the latest version of Ubuntu.

Linux Mint, by contrast, doesn't offer the fancy option of a distribution upgrade. Instead, they suggest you use mintBackup, then do a clean installation of the new release. As one might expect, most people tend to lean toward the Ubuntu method since it takes less work. Some might even argue that it's easier, too.

I would suggest that distribution upgrades that don't provide a default installed GUI software backup tool are really rotten.

Personally, I think it's a crime that both distributions don't default to dedicated home directories. It's so simple, I honestly fail to grasp why this isn't offered to newer users.

Having a dedicated home directory is fantastic. Should I hose my system somehow, I simply reinstall the Linux distribution and all of my personal data remains on the system.

The best distribution is...

By no means, am I going to claim that either of these distributions is the best option for all users. First of all, some users are happy with Arch Linux, Slackware, or another Linux distribution entirely. For those of you looking to better understand what really makes Linux Mint different from Ubuntu, however, this article hopefully is be food for thought.

Contrary to what casual technology pundits out there will claim, there are stark differences between Linux Mint and Ubuntu. So before anyone makes the claim that they're basically the same, I'd suggest re-reading everything I just shared above.

For Linux users seeking stability and safety with their desktop, Linux Mint wins the day. If however, you're someone who waits anxiously for the next release of their favorite operating system to be released, then Ubuntu is going to be a better match for you since it's released ahead of Linux Mint.

Speaking for myself, I prefer to dual-boot both distributions. Since I'm able to dual-boot using the same home directory, there's no need to choose one Linux distribution over another.

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