Updated: July 2, 2014
If you've tried one edition of Linux Mint, you've tried them all, someone said once. Maybe. Maybe I'm just making things up so I can have a meaningful intro to my review. The thing is, people do treat Mint as a single entity, which is not quite true. Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, they are more like the Ubuntu family, with its different prefix letters.
But a good product does have brand recognition, and there's an expected look and feel. Which makes the MATE edition review today, of the latest Mint release, Qiana 17 AKA Mint LTS, all the more interesting. I will be testing on the T61 laptop, and I do not foresee any problems in that regard. But will the user experience be like the Cinnamon trial? Let's find out.
In techno lingo, this translates to live session & installation. As expected, the hardware piece was simple. Wireless, both major frequency bands, Bluetooth, Samba sharing, peachy and nectarinish.
The system is nice. The excellent Gnome2-era menu that offers a whole of great functionality out of the box in there. Inline search, the ability to add programs to desktop, panel, favorites, user session startup, and even install and remove items, right there, under your mouse button. Very handy.
Then, of course, multimedia works out of the box. Like the Cinnamon version, MP3 files will open in Totem rather than Banshee. Youtube plus Flash also played flawlessly.
As far as the installation goes, this is a venerable quad-boot setup, always changing. After a little of bit cleanup I've done recently with the Cinnamon edition of Mint, I decided to keep it around for more testing, and displace the Trusty install instead. So the two SSD now contain one Salamander, one not very usable Salix Xfce edition, and two flavors of Mint, side by side on the second disk.
The installer is identical to the Cinnamon version. Simple, fast and true. The same applies to the bootloader setup and the slideshow. Soon enough, the system was installed and I could start exploring in earnest.
This is what happens after the pub, i.e. post-install. Anyhow, the desktop looks much like any other typical Mint product, and you need to dig under the hood to find the differences. I started exploring and tweaking by adding a handful of icons to the panel, and then the menu crashed. What?
Works just as well as in the other version. There were no problems pulling updates, installing new software, or anything of that sort. I'm curious as to the inclusion of the Synaptic package manager, though. BTW, this one will be invoked if you try installing software through the mintMenu, rather than the standard Mint Software Manager.
The arsenal is virtually identical to the Cinnamon edition, with the only exception being more tools and utilities, a part of the Gnome tradition. You get a very detailed Control Center, applets for desktop tweaking and such. The standard program set includes a lot of goodies, with Transmission, gThumb, GIMP, the full LibreOffice suite, the Firefox and Thunderbird combo, VLC, and some more.
Looking at the bottom panel, after I've added a bunch of icons, I noticed they were not all identical in size. Notably, some of the icons were less than the default 24px height, and this prompted me to start fiddling. A great mistake, as I shall outline in a moment.
If you resize the default panel to 32px, the Wireless icon will turn dark-gray, which does not match the theme. The vertical displacement will still remain, making your OCD demons itch.
I tried solving this by installing new themes. MATE does work with GTK 2.X and 3.X themes all right. I installed some through the standard Theme window, and some by adding manually to the hidden .themes directory in my home.
The themes did not show in the menu, but when I tried to customize the existing ones, the icons, the window borders and other decorations were all there, available to tweak and play. Changing the window borders rendered windows unresizable. They lost their edge, and I couldn't grab and move the borders any longer. Likewise, the in-window elements lost their nice looks and became ugly, like when you would lose compositing in the olden days.
After installing Faenza through the Software Manager, things got a little better. I did have some consistency back, but now, the Firefox icon was out of place. And the update icon was also not matching the rest of the theme, and the system clock was too small.
Trying to play some more with the original themes, Mint-X and Mint-X Dark also caused more problems. Sometimes, the Wireless icon would turn dark, sometimes it would not, and the contrast would be too low for normal use. All of this with any size above 28px.
Eventually, I got so angry that i considered ditching the whole thing. I went back to the original size and placement, and things were looking more or less OK, but I had failed to tame the distro's looks. It's all dandy, almost, with the default setup, but if you try to change things, there's a whole load of glitches coming at you like fire ants.
I tried installing Compiz. No good reason other than to showcase some bling-bling. Should work fine, right? Well, no it did not. The Compiz framework was installed, but I had a very limited set of plugins, and even after I've loaded a Compiz session, none of them really worked. Desktop wall, Expo, nothing. Broken.
At least on the functional side, Mint MATE delivers a consistent experience. The dev team deserves a credit here, on providing the rest of the distro, apart from the visual pieces, on the same standard as the Qiana Cinnamon edition. Webcam works, too, but you need to install Cheese separately. This one was also missing in the other review, if you recall.
Linux Mint 17 is an interesting consumer of compute resources. It's very fast, with low CPU usage and elevated RAM levels. The memory usage is so much more than Petra, and almost twice the Cinnamon edition of Qiana on this same hardware. Why?
Now, the session is really snappy, but I wonder where all the extras go. You will also notice the same visual glitch as we've seen in the Petra review, in that the elements of the system monitor do not match, with different shades of gray conflicting and clashing and whatnot. One might say, 50 shades of gray. Oh my. Suspend & resume, good.
However, together with the icon problems, this remains an ugly carryover from the Petra release. Nothing has been changed and fixed, and this really annoys me. Why let these simple and ugly problems creep into an LTS version. Why?
I am glad that there are several versions of Linux Mint available, I really am. But they all need to justify merit, on equal terms like all other distributions. If the MATE edition cannot stand the test of quality like its spicy cousin, then changes are in order. I expect good QA and consistent results. Scratch that, consistently positive results. And if you take into account the whole visual thingie ordeal, and the fact it hasn't changed since Petra, well, Houston, we have a problem.
Linux Mint 17 Qiana with the MATE desktop is not a bad distro. Far from it. It's a very decent release. But it pales against the Cinnamon version, and clings to its old problems like favorite scabs. All in all, the small pile of errors and glitches does leave a sour taste, and makes this release an underwhelming performer. I guess 7.7/10 this time around. Shame, really. Because we all know it can do so much better.