Linux Mint 8 Helena - Superb execution


Updated: January 27, 2010

Helena was the first femme fatale in modern culture who showed her destructive work on a national scale, brining the city of Troy to complete doom with her promiscuous charm. A tricky choice for a name, would you not say?

Now, following this pseudo-philosophical intro, let's focus on Linux Mint 8 Helena, the real subject of our topic. Linux Mint is a distribution very closely based on Ubuntu. At first thought, you may think the two would be virtually indistinguishable, save for some small cosmetic changes. Indeed, many forks are just that, a visual polish with little or no changes underneath the hood.

Teaser

Considering my tremendously mixed experience with the latest Ubuntu releases, including a mild disappointment with the Gnome edition, a very decent ride with Kubuntu, and a big flop with Xubuntu, the Helena test is a total gamble, a shot in the dark. I really did not know what I was getting into.

On paper, Linux Mint promises to be all that Ubuntu is, and then some. Better usability, multimedia codecs out of the box, extra polish. But Karmic Koala did not make a revolution this October. Well, the only way to find out is to place the CD into the tray and boot.

Today, we will see what Linux Mint 8 Helena can do. We'll start with live CD experiences on three laptops, followed by an installation on T42 and an odd virtual machine here and there, then use Mint for a while and test the day-to-day stuff on the installed laptop, including multimedia, sharing, Compiz, look & feel, performance, applications, and such like.

Live CD experience - Perfection

Using superlatives can make you look an ADHD fanboy, but sometimes they are necessary to communicate the emotion through a 2D screen. When everything works and the end results supersede your expectations, there's no reason why you should skimp on the flattery.

Linux Mint start the boot with a rather standard GRUB menu:

Boot menu

After a few moments, you get into the live desktop.

The live desktop is well made, stylish and appealing. It follows the color green motif with professional persistence, sprinkled with dashes of bright kelly and black for atmosphere. Oh, I shall babble more about the aesthetics later on, but you definitely start on the right foot.

Desktop live

Wireless & Bluetooth

Worked great, without any problems.

Wireless

Multimedia

This one, too, worked like a charm. No problems whatsoever. I tried everything I could find, my Moron video, recorded with a Canon camera, DVD, MP3 playback, Flash, Java, they were all installed and configured properly, working out of the box. Alongside Mandriva 2010, I believe Linux Mint delivers the most complete live session available.

For those wondering, audio worked fine, unlike Ubuntu. Go figure.

MP3

Flash

Java

Compiz

If you've read my Jaunty and Karmic reviews, you know by now that Ubuntu has dropped support for old graphics cards, like my ATI FireGL on T42. Only five years old, mind. This is very annoying, as it reduces my ability to run games and fancy effects on my elderly yet feisty laptop.

Luckily, the problem can be solved by configured unofficial repositories and using some unsupported drivers, as I've shown in my old hardware tutorial. However, even so, this is rather disappointing, especially since some other distributions, like Mandriva and Fedora ship with the right graphic drivers out of the box.

Linux Mint 8 Helena does not make the same mistake as its parents. The drivers are there, including my old T42, along with the Compiz Settings manager, all ready and configured to use. In just a few seconds, you have the stunning graphics fun on your desktop:

The performance is quite reasonable, too. The effects do not cripple the desktop. The transition is smooth and the responsiveness is quite snappy.

Compiz 1

Compiz 2

Compiz 3

Well done! I'm impressed. Nothing like taking a rusty little coin and spit-shining it to lustrous polish. If this were a marketing gimmick, it would have been a great stunt. But as it is, it just shows that with some care and attention, great things can be done.

Samba sharing and whatnot

All worked fine, no issues.

Along with being able to smile back at the web camera on my RD 510 and print to a Lexmark printer hooked to a Windows machine somewhere on the LAN, this made for a very, very decent live session, with no flaws whatsoever.

I was really impressed. You had everything you wanted - and then some. A complete experience in every aspect of desktop usage. Who would not want to install this distribution?

Installation

The installation is fairly simple, very Ubuntu in every regard.

Partitioning

Custom

You also get a very useful, informative slideshow, which entertains you while you wait for the procedure to complete.

installing 1

Installing 2

Installing 3

Post installation

Linux Mint Helena installed without any problems. Since it also uses GRUB 2 like the Karmic family, it had no problems whatsoever dual-booting with the existing Ubuntu 9.10 installation. What more, Mint probed the hard disk for existing installations and added them to the menu even before the first boot, without any user interaction.

GRUB

Following the first boot, our desktop was up and running:

Desktop

After a breath-taking live session, using the desktop is merely a continuation of great things to be. There are no nasty surprises or new problems to cope with. Everything works. You just need to relax and enjoy yourself.

Here's an overview of several more interesting things you may want to focus on.

Usability

The first thing you'll see is a Welcome note. Like openSUSE and Pardus, Mint takes a more proactive approach to making you comfortable with the new operating system at hand. The moment you login into the desktop, you're presented with a Welcome wizard:

Startup

Welcome

For example, within seconds, I had a chat session open, should I need any help, and a rather long, decent manual open, in PDF format, reading about Mint desktop. Very useful for newbies.

New user

Like Mandriva, Linux Mint adopts a centric approach to system management. You have one big, interactive menu and you find and run everything through it.

Menu

Menu, another

Applications

Linux Mint Helena comes with a decent repertoire of programs, with many more available at the tip of your fingers, using the simple, powerful Synaptic package manager.

Out of the box, you have a balanced mix of programs, including Firefox, GIMP, Totem, MPlayer, OpenOffice, and several more high-profile applications. One of the most notable differences from Ubuntu is that Mint still uses the good ole Pidgin rather than Empathy.

Firefox

Apps

Package Management & Updates

Linux Mint package management is very simple, very fast. In addition to Synaptic workhorse, you have the intelligent update tool, which also rates the available packages by the level of testing they've undergone. For example, 1 means very tested, 5 means little to no testing at all, allowing you to make the right choices before committing changes to your system.

Packages

Stability

Helena was very stable, with nary a crash. While Ubuntu Karmic had its issues with GParted in the live session and would suffer from Oops on resume after suspend, there were no such issues with Mint 8. Either they have been solved with subsequent updates or eliminated altogether by a better integration between the desktop and the internals.

Suspend & hibernate worked great, no problems encountered.  

Performance

The performance was also quite good. Even with numerous programs open and Compiz churning, Mint purred fine, without any stutters. Memory usage is lower than Ubuntu, more akin to Fedora, with approx 250MB used.

Memory

A fortune cookie you may not expect is a powerful, useful system information and benchmarking tool, which lets you profile your system, as well as easily obtain any data you need regarding your hardware, without digging into the command line.

System info

Look & Feel

Linux Mint 8 Helena is done with style and grace. The Gnome desktop is done with forethought and attention to details, which add to the professional feel of the distribution.

When used, subtle effects are applied, without going overboard. For example, transparency and shadows are used sparingly and only against inactive windows, and even then against the titlebar section only, akin to Snow Leopard. A far cry from Aero jar-bottom effects and the proposed RGBA chaos for Lucid, as I have moaned and lamented and rationally explained in my Ubuntu direction article.

Effects

Even when you go wild with Compiz and every known plugin, the effects still remain within the reasonable comfort zone.

Compiz effects

Then, if we take a look at older editions, you can see the huge leap in visual quality achieved, in just one short year. I have skipped the Mint 7 release, but I have done a long review of Felicia, so I can compare Helena to that one.

Here's what release 6 looked like when you booted:

Mint 6 Felicia

Compared to what we have now:

Helena looks

The progress is tremendous.

Similarity to openSUSE

If you've read my openSUSE 11.2 Gnome review, you might have noticed the two are very similar. This is a good thing, first because openSUSE looks great. Second, if you fancy a beautiful and well-rounded desktop based on Ubuntu, you now have that choice.

Just for comparison, Helena:

Helena

Menu

And openSUSE 11.2 Emerald:

Desktop

Virtually the same - meaning the same great style and quality. Really nice. What more, compared to Ubuntu Karmic, Mint looks fresher and livelier. While Ubuntu is slowly trying to distance itself from the conventional looks of its soft brown theme, Mint stays loyal to Gnome and does a pretty damn good job of it.

Problems

What would those be?

Conclusion

Linux Mint 8 Helena is a wonderful creation. It works. It simply works. There can be no higher praise than that. You don't need to tweak it. It's a product. As simple as that. Someone is given a machine with Linux Mint Helena and they start using it, without going for the surgery knife. Just as you don't hack your TV, you don't need to hack Helena, because it delivers a complete, beautiful usage package.

Linux Mint 8 Helena is a great distribution. This is the Linux you want to showcase to your skeptical Windows friends and soon would-be converts. This is the distribution that has the look and feel and behavior of something Windows users can easily relate to.

It has the menu where Windows users want it, it has codecs and gadgets, it's fast, stable, robust, beautiful. And best of all, if you're a Linux user already, you can enjoy Helena as much as your fellow Windows friends!

I'm genuinely impressed. What more, I'm also confused that Mint, a Ubuntu derivative, can be so different from its parent. Not only does it up the good parts and adds the missing bits, it also elegantly escapes the problems seen on Ubuntu, including a seemingly unavoidable kernel crash on resume after suspend. Really well done.

Now, very importantly, if you recall my Best Linux distribution comparison, I declared openSUSE as the winner. Linux Mint was in there, too, however represented by the latest release second removed Felicia. If I were to repeat that test today, Mint would fare at the top with openSUSE.

That would be all for today. If you're in a mood for Ubuntu and don't like Karmic, no need to wait for April. There's Linux Mint available and it will do what you expect and then some.

Cheers.

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