Linux Mint and Cinnamon - Spice for your desktop


Updated: March 14, 2012

Before choosing the title, I checked, cinnamon is technically a spice, so all is well. But more importantly, Cinnamon is the new desktop environment for Linux, based on the Gnome technology, and the last hope for the Linux world.

One day, Linux Mint people decided they had enough with Gnome 3, the bland and moronic interface that killed functionality and turned everything sluggish. So they decided to start developing their own desktop, which would focus on allowing users to actually work without being ugly or compromising the long-term support Ubuntu family relationship. In one sentence, Cinnamon aims to combine the GOOD aspects of Gnome 2 and Gnome 3 and become the one desktop interface that everyone will like and use. I sure want to help them realize this dream, so here's a review.

Teaser

Cinnamon tour

To be frank, Cinnamon is still in development, so bugs and issues are expected. Moreover, what you see now may not be what will feature in Linux Mint 13. Additional changes will probably surface throughout the year, until Cinnamon becomes mature and stable.

That said, let's see what it gives and offers at the moment. You can install the desktop environment right from your repositories. It's a fairly small download, as it does not replace the Gnome Shell core, but adds to it. I tested on my latest laptop, which runs Mint Lisa 64-bit from a multi-boot external disk. You also get a proper Nvidia card, so we will see how that works out.

On first glance, Cinnamon appears indistinguishable from Gnome or MATE. You get a bottom panel with shortcuts and a humble system area to the right. It look simple and non-intrusive.

Desktop with Cinnamon

You also get a stylish system menu that is powered by the Super key. It has everything you need; inline search, categories, additional shortcuts to quick-access functions, even transparency for the fashionable people.

Menu

Adding new shortcuts is as simple as right-clicking on any one category and adding new items to either the desktop or the panel. Shortcuts are nicely spaced out. The one item standing out is the desktop-view icon, but we will discuss possible improvements a little later.

Add to panel

Customizations

In addition to the standard advanced settings editor, which is designed for taming Gnome desktops, you can also change how Cinnamon behaves. You can edit your panel options, desktop effects, windows behavior, font type, and more.

Advanced settings

Cinnamon settings

Themes, applets and extensions

The really interesting part are these three elements. You can significantly enrich your Cinnamon experience by new themes, additional applets and even extensions that change the basic behavior of your system. For example, you might be interested in being able to restart Cinnamon any time, so you do not need to logout and login back in when changes to your session are made. Or maybe, you might fancy a fancy Alt-Tab effect. Lots of these extras are available on the official sites, with more or less friendly ways of installing.

Applets

Alt-Tab effect

Sound applet

However, when you start adding applets, you notice a problem - applets are too closely spaced. I did see some screenshots showing nice, airy distance between applets, but I could find a way to achieve that, so I ended up with Wireless, sound, battery meter and time all touching each other.

Applets

Moreover, the order of these is not constant. For example the system update manager wedged itself there, displacing its neighbors. And the notifications come in the form of Windows XP like yellow popups that are positioned relative to your mouse cursor, so they end up overlapping with the already-transparent panel elements or even hidden behind some of the applets.

Applet notifications

Should be more like this:

Tooltip

What about Responsiveness?

Ah, here's the big one. And the answer is, Cinnamon is so much faster, smoother than the default Gnome 3. Even on a very high-end machine with a powerful graphics card, the differences are noticeable. It's not just little things, it's everything. You gain back the old Gnome 2 instant, snappy feeling of productivity, and you no longer feel an impotent beast fighting an infinite battery matter of smartphone success. Yeah, babe!

How to improve Cinnamon

Now, this is entirely my perception of things. But the system area must be organized more efficiently. Just like shortcuts, it should have some decent spacing between icons. The icons should have absolute positions. New items should always come on the far left end and never displace existing items. In a way, somewhat similar to KDE or Windows 7.

KDE system area

Windows system area

Then, the Cinnamon settings menu should be simpler. There are just too many options available, like window theme, desktop theme, icon theme, and others. And these might actually clash. At the time being, the default Gnome 3 Adwaita seems to work somewhat, but an alternative is needed, more in line with the soft black and transparent effect of the Cinnamon makeover. Likewise, making available the different themes and applets should become a seamless, organic part of the operating systems. User will need to be able to install all these additions from within the repositories and not have to go around the Web, downloading archive files and extracting them any which where. It has to be flawless.

Window theme

Furthermore, there's the color choice for applets. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they should be uniform, like the shortcut icons on the left side of the panel. A color scheme would be nice, probably black and gray or black, white and orange.

Finally, the desktop minimize icon should either be placed near other panel shortcuts or moved to the far right corner, similar to Windows 7. I'm going to try to create a mockup of all these in the coming days, so bear with me.

Desktop icon

Conclusion

Cinnamon looks like a very, promising concept. It blends functionality with beauty and grace, without compromising on stability and responsiveness. It's a modern, sleek desktop designed for large form-factor devices, from netbooks all the way to monster gaming rigs with huge monitors. Just as it should be.

I am pleased. But the devil is in the details. The next few months will be crucial for Cinnamon, not so much as it becoming a radical new revolution, but a slow, gradual improvement, with tiny little things sorted out, from an errant pixel to the wrong choice of shadow or color. Spatial as well as spectral consistency will play an important part. If you ask me, there should be no more than three colors involved, so all those little icons with their own design will have to go, for instance.

But this could be it, the one Linux desktop for normal people. With Ubuntu 12.04 five-year support and proper functionality combined, Linux Mint 13 running Cinnamon should become the de-facto desktop of the Linux world and beyond. At least one can hope. But if this turns out to be yet another passing fad, then we're doomed forever.

Cheers.

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