Updated: May 28, 2012
The big moment has come. If this isn't it, then nothing will ever be. One year after discovering the fickle truth of the would-be modern desktop, the Mint team has decided to go back to its roots and offer the users what they want - functionality. And so, a whole new desktop concept was born.
Then again, I praised Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin mightily. And with Cinnamon, it was even better, almost perfect. No, it was perfect. Can you beat that? Is there anything left to contemplate? Maybe. Linux Mint 13 Maya might just be the super-distro we've all been waiting for so many years. And almost every time, we've got a tiny, tiny bit disappointed. So hold your breath and follow me. Here's the most crucial distro review that ever was. Now or never.
A background story for those inclined and interested might be in order. Linux Mint has always forked off Ubuntu, for good or bad. But it seems the good turned mostly to bad with the creation of Unity. Disillusioned, the Mint team decided to search for alternatives that would offer modern looks and productivity combined on the classic computing device. They first tried Gnome 3 and pimped the shell with their extensions, but they weren't satisfied. Then, they created an almost perfect Gnome 2 clone called MATE. And finally, they went for Cinnamon.
So if the desktop shell is all that divides between Ubuntu and Mint, you'd say the battle is already lost. However, it is not so. Back in 2010, I found Linux Mint to be the best distro around. It offered the most complete experience, from looks and feel down to the application stack and all the other little details that make so much difference. A year later, the competition was much more difficult, and even all the extra hard effort by the Mint team could not undo the plentitude of insurmountable Gnome 3 problems, forcing the distribution down a whole four places on the chart.
And there's one more ingredient I haven't mentioned still - it's the dedication to its users. Linux Mint is more than just the sum of its parts. It's actually an operating system designed to serve its audience, which is, as it should be. You can create software in a vacuum and then make business justifications until the end of time, or you can simply go with whatever your users demand. Best way of making money? Maybe. But it sure is the best way to build a core of loyal users, and then, slowly, carefully expand from there, using technology to enhance the experience rather than shape it.
If you need to pump out a fresh presentation for your customers on Monday, you probably couldn't care less if someone ought there loves you and listens to you. And that's a valid argument most of the time, while things work. And when they break? In that situation, what you need is not a quick and dirty solution, what you need is the knowledge that no matter how tricky things might be, you will eventually have the choice. Not necessarily exercise it, but sleep soundly knowing that you could, if you wanted. That's what freedom is really all about. Almost like nuclear weapons. And that must be worth something in the binary lexicon. And that's what Mint stands for.
So, with that in mind, Mint might be 99% Ubuntu, but when it comes to what it can be, the difference gap starts to widen. And you need to ask yourselves, beyond all the technology bits that we will review in a moment, what do you expect your distro should be all about?
So let's see. Can Mint do the impossible and break the perfect 10/10 barrier?
Before I show you a plethora of screenshots, I'd like to emphasize there will be at least two more Mint reviews coming. The thing is, the Mint team chose to release their operating system in two flavors, MATE and Cinnamon. They could not quite decide which one is the best, so they gave us both, which of course, necessitates two reviews.
I deliberated for a while, and then literally, I tossed a coin. I will begin with Cinnamon, since I really loved it so much in my past three tests. We will do a MATE test separately. Last but not the least, I will also test Linux Mint Maya on my higher-end laptops with Nvidia graphics cards. For the time being, it's my mutant T61 machine, 64-bit, 2GB RAM and two SSD, so it should be interesting.
Anyhow, the system boots into a very elegant, very familiar desktop, with the now iconic wallpaper, a single panel at the bottom and a handful of shortcuts and applets to serve your needs. This is the classic layout, as classic as it can be, in fact, it is classique, and in the age of moronity, it's becoming retro-trendy.
Some people have complained about the system menu being too transparent, so this one is resolved with a simple opaque dark gray. The menu is simple and readable. You have inline search and you can right-click your apps to desktop, the panel or the favorites category.
Cinnamon looks lovely. Clean and crispy. You do have a handful of themes at your disposal. The visual differences are tiny overall, and the behavior is quite consistent, still if you like lighter colors or more transparency, you can use Cinnamon instead of Nightlife.
However, I did observe a one tiny glitch with the particular theme used. The menu left and bottom padding is not equidistant, which interferes with my OCD pheromones. This wasn't the case in the previous round of testing, but it can be quickly remedied by switching to a different theme. Maybe there's a functional need I haven't discovered yet. Still, not a big one, but it's one micro-point down.
One of the super-strong points of Mint is that it offers everything out of the box. You need not install any codecs, they are all there. I tried everything, including Apple trailers in QuickTime format, or iTunes if you will or whatever, Microsoft Media Server (MMS) streaming, and more importantly, MP3 and Flash. Everything worked fine.
You also get the player integration with the system menu, adding style and class.
And frankly, I could have tested everything without even installing the system. But then, this would spoil the review. So I braked my urges and went for an installation instead, a quadruple-boot configuration shared with Ubuntu, Kubuntu and currently CentOS, which we will talk about separately. Sort of a teaser of things to come. Anyhow.
Oh yes, Wireless, Bluetooth, Samba, all working splendidly.
It went just fine. I didn't notice any outstanding problems, save the keyboard detection set to local language rather than English, in order to match the language selection at the beginning of the installation wizard. But this plagues all Ubuntu family members.
I liked the revamped preparation stage, which does not mention updates or extra plugins, as you get this already. The slideshow is also quite lovely and consistent, showing the same roll of images you saw in the past. Elegance and practicality are the leading motifs.
It is important to mention I did import my Lisa settings. They were all carried over into the installed desktop without any issues. Jolly good.
Mint comes as a DVD edition, so you have some extra stuff packaged that Ubuntu does not offer on its CD version, therefore a direct comparison is a little unfair. So we will avoid that and instead focus on Mint's colorful repertoire.
You get a lot. Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, GIMP at an older version 2.6, VLC, Pidgin, Transmission, and many others. But more than just that, you also get a big handful of utilities, intended to enhance your experience. Now, there's a fine balance between practical tools and clutter, as sometimes can happen in most KDE distributions, but here, the said equilibrium is maintained with grace. You can configure your data backups, privacy settings, the firewall, and more. For nostalgia-blessed, there's even the good ole Synaptic package manager, if you feel like using it.
One small thing that bothered me was that there's no dedicated webcam utility, although the camera works just fine. I had the option of mugshotting myself for the user login picture, and there's the Pidgin integration. Cheese would be fine, though.
Mint uses the Software Manager as a replacement for the Ubuntu Software Center. The two programs offer the same functionality, including fancy screenshots, reviews and extras. As I've mentioned earlier, Synaptic is there, too.
Even though I grabbed and installed Maya within less than a week of its official release, the repositories were lightning-fast. This was also true during the installation, as the necessary language packs and updates were pulled quickly from the repos.
Mint Maya with Cinnamon offers subtle, elegant Compiz-like effects, including hot corners, app maximize and division across the screen center, and suchlike. They worked just fine, both in the live session and afterwards. You can also install additional extensions if you want.
All is peachy, it turns out. Not a single crash, nothing. The system is very quick, the transition effects are smooth. Suspend & resume work just fine. Mint tolls about 280MB of RAM when cold, which is a fairly low figure for a typical 64-bit system, almost half that of its parent. The CPU is also rather quiet most of the time. Now, there's one extra glitch here, the background behind some of the icons. They are the wrong kind of gray, naughty, naughty Mint.
One last thing that you may find of interest is the boot time. Now, I've given you a very intriguing boot time comparison between the previous edition of this distro versus two Ubuntu flavors a few weeks ago. We will also do another Ubuntu round soon, and check a few other distributions, as well, so stay tuned.
Mint uses a slightly different algorithm to calculate its boot speed, so I had to manually clip the progress bar at the point where the desktop loaded. The total time was a little under 13 seconds, an impressive number overall, but less so when comparing with Lisa, which managed a whole of four second less. At a first glance, you might find this annoying, but it is not so. Now, I will not tell you why yet, but in a few days you will learn why this is not a problem.
All right. So there are a few things I did not like about Linux Mint 13 Maya. One, the menu position in regard to the left bottom corner; two, the language keyboard selection during the installation; no webcam utility; the background of the system monitor icons, an old problem being dragged on unnecessarily; lastly, the boot time. I can tell you right now that two of the mentioned woes are pure Ubuntu legacy. The rest are small niggles that plague this distro. But that's about it all that is bad about Linux Mint Maya.
Now, the good things. Well, pretty much everything. Mint looks great. It is consistent, super-stable, fast, responsive, elegant, loaded with a rich arsenal of programs and tools, fully usable out of the box. It offers a complete experience to the user from the first second on. It comes with the classic desktop look that is superior by three orders of magnitude to any pseudo-tablety alternative. Yes, some small things could perhaps be polished or improved. Three dots, trailing off. Suspense.
You know what, I could argue minuscule details all day long. Screw it. These tiny glitches pale against the total goodness offered to the user. And if I start counting, Ubuntu has a longer list of papercuts, even when blessed with Cinnamon. Yes, Pangolin is near perfect after some moderately hard work adding programs, changing its basic looks and using a different desktop. But Mint gives you all that by default. And it's a free system with five years of support. Kudos to Ubuntu for making this possible. But one mega bravo for Mint for pulling off a fork that shines spotless.
Finally, after almost two years of unnecessary foreplays with Gnome 3 and other experimentations, Linux Mint is whole again. It is perfect as it should have been. True, there will always be dust and scratches to mar the excellence, but if all I can think of as being bad at the end of the review is some gray shading on an icon, seven displaced pixels and four seconds of your time, then things are looking much better than they ever had. Now, the question of adding Maya to my production setup, it's not the matter of if, but when. You can bet your ass on that. This is the perfect desktop, 10/10, so you'd better bloody download it and start using right now.