Can Linux Mint 12, Cinnamon Spice Up the Open Source Mix?
I’ve been an Ubuntu user for a pretty long time — so long that I no longer remember exactly when I started (all I recall is that it was sometime around version 6.06.) But last week I finally replaced Ubuntu on my production computer with Linux Mint 12. Read on for why, and how it’s been working out.
For starters, here’s the why: Although you might be expecting a diatribe here against Ubuntu and Canonical, and all of their collective flaws that drove me to try Mint, I can’t really pin any major blame on them. It’s true I’d become a little tired of trying to make Ubuntu 11.10’s version of Unity work in a way I liked. (I’m hopeful Ubuntu 12.04 will bring a more user-friendly iteration of the desktop environment.) And the hibernation problems I’d been having in Ubuntu 11.10 sometimes got my day off to a bad start when I turned on my computer and it rebooted instead of resuming.
But more than any major frustration with Ubuntu, I decided to give Mint a try — and to put in on my production machine, since that’s the only way I’ll really get to know its ins and outs — because of simple curiosity. I wanted to explore a different default. I was eager to see what Mint’s new homegrown interface, Cinnamon, was like. And I was intrigued by Mint’s endorsement of MATE, another desktop environment designed to revive GNOME 2.
Mint, Cinnamon and Me
By and large, I’ve been enjoying Mint so far. From a technical standpoint, it’s not actually very different from Ubuntu at all. Mint is based very closely on Ubuntu, uses Ubuntu’s repositories, practically is Ubuntu — in many respects there’s about as much difference between the two distributions as one finds between fraternal twins.
Yet Mint’s major distinction is its emphasis on user-friendliness, which it does well. Even more than Ubuntu, Mint offers a truly complete system out of the box, with proprietary codecs, the Adobe Flash plugin and everything else one needs to be productive preinstalled. These things are all easy enough to acquire in modern versions of Ubuntu as well, but having them already integrated into the software stack in Mint just made my life that much easier. (On the other hand, this software makes the Mint installation image several hundred megabytes larger than Ubuntu’s, although a condensed one is available.)
Upon booting Mint for the first time, I realized that a major component of its strategy for being user-friendly in the current state of the Linux ecosystem — where nearly half a dozen desktop environments are competing for users’ attention, all of them with their various pros and cons — is to offer lots of options. Out of the box, Mint 12 ships with GNOME Shell, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE and “GNOME Classic,” an attempt to make GNOME Shell look like GNOME 2. Users simply select which one they want to use when they log in.
This struck me as a brilliant idea: By dumping myriad choices on users, Mint can mitigate the wrath of those who inevitably will loathe one or another of its desktop interfaces. Hopefully these people will have enough different options to explore that they’ll exhaust themselves before they decide to hate on the distribution itself and blame it for the inadequacies of the desktop interface they’re using.
As for Cinnamon, the desktop environment that most intrigued me because it was released only in January and was created as Mint’s answer to the interfaces being developed elsewhere, it’s not bad. In the end, however, I concluded that — much like Unity and GNOME Shell, which both still have some growing to do — it’s a bit immature and currently lacks the customizability to be truly usable. Unlike Unity and GNOME Shell in some other distributions, however, Cinnamon has not been pressed on users as the only available choice, making its flaws eminently more forgivable. It has real promise, and I’m excited to see where it will go as it becomes more complete.
Sadly, while there are lot of things I like in Mint 12, it hasn’t proven to be the bug-free paradise I dream about. Like Ubuntu, and despite all its emphasis on usability and user-friendliness, Mint has issues. The Archive Mounter tool doesn’t totally work, for example, and Wine gives me problems. Hibernating is also still an issue, though that was predictable given that Mint is so similar to Ubuntu under the hood.
And the realization that Mint has issues is probably the most important point I’ll take away from this experience. Whenever I install a new operating system, there are a few moments — sometimes they even last for days — of hope, exhilaration and anticipation. Then the inevitable bugs and other flaws manifest themselves, and reality hits. The world is imperfect, even if you run Linux, and no matter how polished or user-friendly or technically sophisticated distributions such as Ubuntu and Mint become, there always will be room for improvement.