Linux Mint Raises the User-Friendliness Bar

Wednesday Dec 24th 2008 by Paul Ferrill

Linux Mint says its "purpose is to produce an elegant, up to date and comfortable GNU/Linux desktop distribution." With hundreds of Linux distributions vying for our attention, a look at what sets Linux Mint apart.

The latest release of the Linux Mint distribution offers up a clean, user-friendly desktop environment with a good assortment of applications to meet the needs of most any typical user. Linux Mint 6 is based on Ubuntu 8.10 with a number of additional utilities added for extra polish. Setup and configuration is painless and takes less than 15 minutes on most any computer manufactured in the last few years.

There's a well-organized wiki with links to help you get started and a good set of documentation. One really helpful page on the wiki is the HOWTO page with links to things like partitioning a hard drive, dual booting with XP, creating a Live USB and more. While the main distribution is based on the GNOME desktop, they do have a KDE-based download available as well.

User-Friendly Administration

Installing additional software happens through the MintInstall program. This looks a lot like other Linux software managers with a few twists. One neat feature is the thumbnail image of the application along with a detailed description. There's also a list of reviewers and their ratings for the package, an overall average rating along with a list of views from the repository.

MintBackup will make a copy of everything in your home directory and save to an archive file. It gives you the option of excluding files or folders along with explicitly including hidden files such as your "dot" files like .config, .local, .openoffice.org2, etc. MintUpload is another extra tool providing a way to upload files to a public server to share. The latest release makes it possible to define additional FTP servers as a destination for uploading files.

MintMenu lets you configure your program launcher with shortcuts to your favorite applications. All you have to do is right click with the mouse on an application from the main menu and click on "Show in my favorites". You can also drag and drop an application icon on the "Favorites" button in the top right-hand corner of the menu to accomplish the same thing.

MintUpdate uses the same basic mechanism as a standard Ubuntu distribution with software repositories and a daemon process that periodically checks for updates. You'll notice a padlock icon in the system tray that will flash when updates are available. A small green check mark on the bottom of the padlock icon indicates that everything is up to date. MintUpdate uses a rating system with 5 levels to indicate if the packages have been tested and where they originated. Level 1 indicates a package has been tested and is certified by the Linux Mint maintainers while level 5 would be given to a package with known problems and would be dangerous to install.

On the security front there's MintNanny to provide domain blocking. You'll have to enter the domains by hand, so it's cumbersome at best. Although the network firewall is disabled by default you'll find that Gufw comes preinstalled and makes it easy to configure. There's a HOWTO link on the wiki pointing to a document on another site describing how to secure a Debian-based Linux laptop that's worth the read.

One of the things the Mint distribution does really well is deliver a number of applications focused specifically on productivity. GNOME Do is an attempt to bring the wildly popular Mac OS X application Quicksilver to the Linux platform. While it doesn't have near the functionality of Quicksilver, it does provide the core feature of quick keyboard access to applications. If you use a Windows keyboard with the "Windows" key you'll find a good use for it with GNOME Do.

Pressing the "Windows" key and the space bar at the same time brings up a launcher box in the middle of your screen awaiting your input. When you start typing, GNOME Do changes the icon to try and match what you're looking for. Some commands can also be directly interpreted such as "bach <tab> play" which will launch the default music player to play Bach.

GNOME Do also supports the concept of plugins and comes with a number already defined. To activate a plugin you must enable it from the preferences screen. Some of the handy options include a Google Calendar feature allowing you to quickly create, search and browse events. A GMail Contacts plugin will index your GMail contacts list for quick lookup. There's even a Twitter tool.

The Tomboy note taking tool is another productivity installed in the base Linux Mint distribution. It sits in the bottom left corner of the screen and activates with a single click. The popup menu lets you create a new note, search for an existing note or open a specific notebook. Tomboy also integrates with GNOME Do through a plugin to further automate the process of writing and searching for notes.

You'll find the latest versions of Open Office (2.4), GIMP (2.6.1 with a custom splash screen), Mozilla Thunderbird for Mail, Pidgin for instant messaging and Firefox 3.0.5. One way to archive things like emails or web pages is to print them. Linux Mint includes a default PDF printer object allowing you to send anything you can print to a PDF file.

Bottom Line

This is a really pleasant distribution to install and use. It has everything you'd need in a typical desktop configuration plus a few handy productivity applications. Since it's based on Ubuntu you'll get good support for critical security updates and the mainstream applications. Overall, Linux Mint is a good choice if you're looking at upgrading to a new desktop OS. The only thing missing is the chocolate.

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