Linux Mint 8 Helena Review
Today I testdrived Linux Mint 8 Helena, an Ubuntu-based distribution led by Clem Lefebvre and his team. This Mint edition is based off Ubuntu 9.10, they usually release a Mint version some months after an Ubuntu release so they can fix bugs and customize the distro as much as they can, usually turning up quite polished and stable.
I must say Linux Mint has a very good reputation in the Linux world, personally I find it astonishing how big this community based distribution has become, coming close to the point of dethroning his own father Ubuntu. Just take a look at the current Distrowatch ranking:
1 Ubuntu 2280
2 Fedora 1730
3 Mint 1552
4 openSUSE 1389
5 Mandriva 1155
6 Debian 998
7 Sabayon 835
8 Arch 835
9 Puppy 816
10 PCLinuxOS 799
The installation is the typical Ubuntu installation and it went just fine as expected. I must say I would like to see the option to switch the introductory messages it displays or at least they should loop until the installation is finished, they stop too early in the installation, I know that is an Ubuntu thing but still.
I like the looks on the boot screen and the login screen. The chosen wallpaper is awesome although the wallpapers included are not that good, plus they insist on putting the mint logo on every one of them, I think the should grab some of the unbranded wallpapers that come with gnome, some of them are quite nice, or get some other nice royalty free images as wallpapers. The theme used overall the system is quite nice, they sure know how to use green properly. The Home folder includes some folders by default, but that’s ok, they’re empty and doesn’t look bloated, plus the icons they chose are nice.
I’ve never been a big fan of Mint’s desktop layout, there are some things that have always bothered me. First I don’t like the tomboy applet between the Menu and the Show Desktop applets, I feel it just doesn’t look right. I would prefer the tomboy applet on the left of the clock to somehow make it look like part of the rest of the “notification area”. Plus why use tomboy when gnote does the same job perfectly and it doesn’t use mono? Also I would prefer to have the Show Desktop applet on the right corner of the panel for easy access. Kudos for not putting the Trash on the panel, I hate that.
I don’t know why distros insist on showing the drives on the desktop, it’s really not necessary and it looks ugly. One of the first things I do when installing a gnome system is disabling that option in gconf-editor, I really think it should come disabled by default as well as the Computer and Home folders. You can access them easily with the menu, it simply ruins the desktop harmony.
This is one of the things I never liked about Mint. The Mint Menu is a customized menu made for Mint and I’ll give them credit for that, not every distro builds their own menu, plus it appears to be popular among users, but I don’t like it, it makes me dizzy. First of all I think it’s huge, it takes almost 1/4 of screen space when opened and since I’m more of a minimalist type of guy it bothers me. I don’t feel the Favorites and All applications sections look different enough to quickly know what you are looking at, especially since it remembers which one you used last, instead of always showing Favorites when opened or always showing All applications, couldn’t find an option for that. I would set it to always show Favorites. Then there are a lot of options on the left side, fortunately they can be disabled on the preferences. Why have Software Manager and Package Manager? They serve practically the same function, it’s confusing, I guess Software Manager does not deal with individual packages. Now Mint Menu has something that’s really amazing, when you search for a program and it’s not installed it shows options like Search Portal, Search Repositories, Show Package, Install Package, so if you look for emesene and it is not installed, you can simply click Install package emesene, put the password, confirm, done. Awesomeness. I think though, that they have too many options, I would leave just the Install package option and ditch the rest. Another nice function is right clicking an icon and having the option to make it show in the Favorites, to launch at login or to uninstall. Btw I found a bug, when right clicking a program and the clicking the menu again, the menu won’t disappear when clicking outside of it, like it should. The menu is very powerful yet I don’t like it, I just don’t feel comfortable with it because of the way it’s arranged.
Another thing I dislike. I don’t like the whole idea of separating the updates in levels, if it’s going to select 1,2 and 3 by default anyway it might as well just hide that level information from the end user and show the updates. The levels should be an internal thing that can be set in the preferences but not the main interface. But that’s not what actually bothers me about Mint Update, what really get on my nerves are icons it uses. It actually uses 4 different icons, icons to show “Busy”, “System up-to-date”, “Updates available”, “Error”. You almost need to take a tutorial to understand this. The error icon is plain stupid, I hate watching that broken lock with the red X every time I use synaptic or I’m disconnected from the network, everytime I see it I think my system is having a seizure. For some reason an open lock means Updates Available, well it makes sense, your system is outdated so it’s open to threats, ok. But then you have a closed lock that means busy, and a closed lock with a green check that means everything is ok. I don’t know why the close lock means it’s busy, a close lock gives me the feeling the system is up to date, the system up to date icon is just unnecessary. Bottom line is, it should use just 2 icons, an open lock and a closed lock, open means outdated, closed means updated. If they want to show the updater is working they can make it blink a bit, or use an animated gear or something.
Apart from the typical applications included in Ubuntu it has some nice additions I
find quite useful, like Xchat (instant win), giver, some Mint applications like MintUploader and 2 front ends of mplayer, I don’t know why they have done this, along with Totem it has 3 media players + rhythmbox. They included Pidgin instead of Empathy, they must have their reasons. As a recommendation, I would say including Cheese would be a good idea, and maybe Audacity too.
It appears to be some kind of synaptic-like package manager but with some nice additions. It shows the score for the applications, reviews, average rating, number of views ….wait a minute, score and average rating, what’s the difference? I don’t know really. One thing I really liked is that it shows a snapshot of the application when it is selected. One thing I didn’t like, in order to select an applications to be installed, it has to be selected first and then click the button Install, there’s no other way, like a simple and intuitive double click for example, instead a double click shows a more detailed description of the applications, which is good but it can be selected from a right click menu or on a tab underneath. It has Featured Applications section with some applications that Mint thinks you might like, including VLC, Virtualbox, Opera, F-Spot, aMule, Amarok, Adobe Acrobat Reader ……. why would they recommend a closed source pdf viewer is beyond me, evince can read pdf’s perfectly. Too bad they don’t recommend Gnome-Do, Banshee or Songbird.
Firefox and bookmarks
I just want to say I don’t like when distros flood web browsers with bookmarks, and Mint
just loves to do that. The default Firefox shows a bookmark toolbar filled with Linux Mint links to different sections of their site, apparently making the linux mint website the home page was not enough.
Suspend + Hibernate
Worked perfectly, although I felt the hibernate process a bit unpleasant, I don’t know why hibernate still exists anyway.
The integrated video card from the laptop I used was successfully detected and compositing
was automatically enabled, providing me with nice compiz effects, just the necessary to make it look good, not the full blown effects, just like I like it. The network, sound and video worked perfectly out of the box.
Linux Mint is indeed a very nice distribution, a very stable one. It really just works out of the box and is perfect for people who don’t want to mess with their computer to make it work or for people who don’t like to customize it a lot. The menu and mint updater can be annoying, at least for me, but it does what it promises and looking sexy while at it. I perceive a very positive response from people about the distro and I feel it may actually become the most popular home Linux distro one day, which would only show that small communities with good ideas and dedication can yield a better product than sponsored or corporative distributions.