Linux Mint 18.1 Serena - The glass is half full


Updated: February 20, 2017

Mint time. It's been a while since I last reviewed a Linux Mint edition, and probably even longer on the happiness front vis-a-vis this particular distribution. In the past, this was my favorite, but come Xerus, things have gone downhill. The overall quality of the LTS release has deeply affected all its offspring.

Linux Mint 18 Sarah was an average offering, but maybe Serena can fix the situation. We will be the doing the usual review thingie on the Lenovo G50 box, so there will be quite a few interesting bits and pieces, like UEFI, 16 partitions, a whole bunch of installed systems, Realtek networking, and such. Let us commence.

Teaser

Live session - unPnP (un-Plug'n'Play)

Well, booted fine. You get the now well-familiar Mint theme with an extra dose of flatness, which was introduced with Sarah. This in itself lends to a very poor visual contrast, and your eyes will tire quickly using this edition of Linux Mint.

Live desktop

I spent a little bit of time playing with fonts, similar to what I did with Fedora 25 recently, and even though Ubuntu fonts are superior to Noto, they still did not offer me the needed clarity. At the very least, hinting and anti-aliasing does something, unlike on Fedora. Liberation Sans fonts were slightly better, but the gray-on-gray problem persists.

Better fonts

Bad contrast

I will see if this can be improved with other themes once the system is installed. At the very least, using a black font would make things more readable. Then again, I am not surprised, as Xerus was a regression, Sarah was a regression, and it makes for a very tough case building Mint 18.1 on top of a fairly disappointing base. I didn't like the transparent system menu and command line, either. Just not sharp enough. And then, there are some other, weird ergonomic choices, like having the user icon placed on the left side of the system area.

Bad ergonomics

Networking

The Wireless connection was stable, so no beef there. Bluetooth worked, sweet. So did Samba sharing, with the mandatory authentication crap, plus Samba printing and also Wireless printing, a new thing what I've got running in my little crib. Nice.

Bluetooth works

Printing

Multi Media = Multi Fail

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once upon a time in the West, Linux Mint was the king of all codecs and plugins and the frozen lands beyond the sunset, but now, it's yet another distro that is having its own rusty trap sprung on its own ankles. The decision to no longer include media codecs reduces its effective advantage over Ubuntu, as well as other systems.

But that's not the worst part. The really bad piece is that the new functionality is flawed. Utterly flawed. And it takes away from the basic experience. Like going to a restaurant through a cloud of smoke generated by smokers who stand just outside the entrance. That first mouthful is all ash and contained violence.

Well, I wanted to test MP3 playback. A program named Xplayer launched, searched for some codecs, and then only offered the "good" set. But this won't work, because the "good" set of Gstreamer plugins does not have what is needed. Sure, you have the little yellow bubble about proprietary stuff and whatnot, but normal people will neither pay attention nor really be able to distinguish the subtle difference between the good, the bad and the ugly codecs. People just want a professional product that works.

Wrong codec selection

I am sure this little innuendo gives Python-loving nerds worldwide a hardon, but it is a monumental failure in UI design. This is one of the great reasons why Linux largely sucks as a product and why big, radical changes are needed. At the very least, human-readable names for packages would be nice. Then, something that auto-figures out what is needed, without bothering users. Third, UI design by someone who is not a software developer.

Of course this did not work. But it gets better.

At this point, I tried to play the file again, and Serena complained there was no program to open an MP3 file. What. I searched for this thing called Xplayer, and sure it was no longer installed - or at the very least, which can't find it as we might have a lowercase uppercase problem, but that's equally bad. The plugin self-determination installation thingie had deleted the very player supposed to play music. Suicide by stupidity.

MP3, unrecognized type

Media player is gone

Xplayer is gone

Still in memory, but it shall soon we gone forever.

I installed Totem instead - which offers some bad and ugly codecs as a recommendation, and here we have more fail. The program is labeled Videos, but it is actually Totem. The Help menu only has Contents, no About page. Why would you name the program one way, label it another, and then not even let users know what gives. If anything, the one thing Linux does well is inconsistency. And what is this Xplayer thingie then? FAIL.

sudo apt-get install totem
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree      
Reading state information... Done
The following additional packages will be installed:
grilo-plugins-0.2-base gstreamer1.0-clutter-3.0 gstreamer1.0-plugins-base
gstreamer1.0-plugins-good libgom-1.0-0 libgom-1.0-common
libgstreamer-plugins-good1.0-0 libmediaart-2.0-0 libtotem0
libtracker-sparql-1.0-0 totem-common
Suggested packages:
grilo-plugins-0.2-extra gstreamer1.0-libav gstreamer1.0-plugins-ugly
gstreamer1.0-plugins-bad
Recommended packages:
totem-plugins
The following NEW packages will be installed:
grilo-plugins-0.2-base gstreamer1.0-clutter-3.0 gstreamer1.0-plugins-base
gstreamer1.0-plugins-good libgom-1.0-0 libgom-1.0-common
libgstreamer-plugins-good1.0-0 libmediaart-2.0-0 libtotem0
libtracker-sparql-1.0-0 totem totem-common
0 upgraded, 12 newly installed, 0 to remove and 1 not upgraded.
Need to get 3,290 kB of archives.
After this operation, 13.6 MB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue? [Y/n]

But it gets better and better still.

Totem was now offering a few other plugins, all badly named. Except, it was not able to install any one of them. It kept on spinning and offering the same set over and over. There was no way to satisfy the missing dependencies through the UI. The only way to listen to music was to actually install the plugins from the command line, and this finally gave me some sweet 90s aurals. But this is so bad, I almost stopped testing.

Codecs, installation stuck in a loop

On top of this, you don't get anything in the system area, no fancy art or notifications or anything. It's like people developing Mint no longer care and just run through the motions, and perhaps this is the reality. After all, the focus is on the mobile, the Linux has been stagnated since about 2012-2013, which coincides with systemd coming our way, which is yet another pointless framework designed by developers to make their own lives easier.

MP3 playing, no system area context menu

At the very least, HD video played fine.

HD video

Smartphone support

Ubuntu Phone, no problems. I was even able to play music off of it. Nice. Windows Phone will have to wait until after the installation, because, in the heat of the moment, I forgot to plug it into the laptop.

Ubuntu Phone

Installation

This was a largely uneventful thingie. The wizard did take an eternity discovering partitions, but after that, the procedure went smoothly, without bugs and errors. The slide is almost unchanged, except the promise of Spotify, which is something I will sure have to test again.

Partitions, selected

Installation slide

Do you know why I'm so annoyed? Because I feel like a parent who realizes their child will never be good for anything else but flipping burgers. You want a hi-tech engineer but all you get is a fast food assistant. That in its own isn't bad. Except when your expectations are sky high. And that's what I always hoped for Linux. Only no.

Linux Mint has been my shepherd, and now it's also losing momentum, quality, drive, vision, and uniqueness. It does not have what it requires to be a special, fun system that delights its users. It's something that has a little bit of Ubuntu plus some customizations, but you can feel the apathy. And then, things objectively don't work as well as they should.

Using Serena

All right. So the whole bootloader configuration completed without any errors. Mint loads cleanly, with no artifacts that filthy up the splash screen. Relatively fast, too, compared to many other distributions recently. The whole customization game was gone, because the changes in the live session are not persistent, save for the Wireless configuration. The whole low-contrast, thin-font problem remains, and there's just not enough color or sharpness. Even the splash screen is elusively tricky to enjoy, or maybe the system is designed for ultra-young people with laz0r eyes.

Installed system, splash

Do you find the above simple, clear, readable?

Package management & updates

Because of the whole secure-not-secure nonsense with Ubuntu and Mint and the package classification fiasco, since Sarah, the package manager now offers several levels of risk. Which is nonsense, because you can safely install all the packages or not. It makes no difference.

New update manager

What happened was, my Realtek card crashed every single time I tried to switch to a local mirror, and I guess it was the large number of connections what dunnit. I lost the network connectivity three times in two minutes. Only after applying a modprobe.conf tweak did the system start behaving. But then I had orphaned apt processes, which I had to kill manually from the command line. No new kernel here yet what fixes it.

Update manager complains about orphaned processes

The Software Manager is decent, and looks like it's behaving better than the Ubuntu default one, and I was able to find some interesting catch in the new, including Steam, Skype and Spotify. We will see how it all works out later. But good.

Software Manager

Software Manager working nicely

Customization

Also known as the Hunt for the Fine Font, with Sean Fontery. I started fiddling with themes, icons, applets, extensions. In this regard, Mint is quite friendly, and you can use the system interface to grab new stuff. Worked fine, and I also applied the Void theme, which significantly improved the contrast and readability.

Applets

New themes

Customization in progress 1

Customization in progress 2

I also used the Moka icons, which made Fedora look so much better, and we have the same situation here, too. For a while, I also toyed with the hi-contract set of icons, which are quite neat, but they don't cover all the installed applications, so it can look tricky.

Hi contract icons

Missing icons

Next, I installed Droid Sans fonts, which again, made even more difference compared to the stock set of Noto fonts, or Ubuntu fonts, for that matter. Hinting and anti-aliasing, notable differences - unlike Fedora, but I did spot artifacts on the command line, and it was only after using the DejaVu fonts that things improved enough for continuous use. All this points to chaos in the Linux space, because these little things are what separates professional products from amateur games.

Typecatcher

Bad fonts, terminal

Command line, what.

Good fonts, terminal

After tweaks; screenshot rescaled, but you get the idea.

Final fonts setup

After a while, I found that I was enjoying myself, and that I was able to liven up the dull Mint defaults, with better clarity and contrast, more color, nicer icons, a superior theme, and a few other tweaks. All of which should have been carefully considered really during the system build. So we may argue taste, but I'm looking at this from an ergonomics perspective. Low visibility = low productivity.

Customization in progress 3

New theme & icons

Customization in progress 4

File manager

Smartphone support, continued

As promised, Lumia 520 worked nicely, and I was even able to play music directly from the phone, but you do not get any metadata updates, which is typical of pretty much all and any distro.

Windows Phone

Multimedia

After the installation, Serena redeemed itself. Xplayer works, but it is not as handy as VLC. For example, it does not load music art, so I'm wondering, what's the purpose of this new player, except being new. More pointless self-innovation for the sake of amusement?

Xplayer

VLC

Applications

The default collection is powerful - simple, practical and useful, plus you get tons of nice utilities and tools, and the software repos are rich in easily accessible material, including some extras you don't normally find in other distros. Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, VLC, Transmission, Rhythmbox, and many other goodies.

Apps

I did install Spotify, and as I expected, it did not work well. First, it was crashing when trying to play local files, then after an update, it was not playing them, only without crashing. Pointless. Why even mention this program and give people false hopes?

Spotify, local files crash

20:09:23.707 I [audio_driver_linux.cpp:20       ] Using PulseAudio
20:09:23.707 I [audio_player_queue_impl.cpp:410 ] Pause driver: 0x00003f3498b8e780
Segmentation fault

Problems

Not everything was rosy, though. While I did warm up to how Mint 18.1 was behaving, it was also misbehaving. For example, after waking from suspend, there was no lock screen prompt, and the menu was all scrambled with missing icons. Cinnamon also crashed once, which is a bad thing.

Cinnamon crashed

Buggy desktop after wake

Hardware compatibility

Well, seems like all right. PulseAudio still sucks, as the internal microphone volume is horribly low, and you cannot really use it with Skype, and you must go with a headset. This is a problem that affects ALL distros - but not Windows! Webcam worked fine. Apart from an odd, isolated incident, suspend & resume functionality was ok.

Performance, responsiveness, resource usage

Serena is not the fastest distro in the universe, but it is nimble enough, with low latency overall. Apps respond quickly enough, and the desktop feels fresh. It definitely appears to be lighter than either Ubuntu or Fedora, for that matter. Processor and memory wise, the numbers stand at 750 MB RAM and about 1-2% CPU. Okay, I guess.

Resource usage

Battery life

Well, middle of the road results really. Nothing too special. 2 hours 45 minutes on a fully charged battery that has seen about 10% degradation in the past two years and about 50% brightness level. Quite a few other distros offer 30-40% more.

Battery life

Le desktop finale

What I'm using and cruising:

Final desktop

Conclusion

Linux Mint 18.1 Serena is an okay distro. It has more merit than Sarah, but then, it's also had almost a year to work on polishing some of the issues, and while a few have been ironed out, big quality issues that were never the domain of Mint before still persist. The live session experience is underwhelming, the default theme is not vibrant enough and can lead to ocular exhaustion quickly, there were problems with stability, multimedia playback, and the promise of Spotify never came to be.

On the other hand, most of the stuff works out of the box, the repos are rich, the distro can be tamed relatively easily, and at the end of the day, you have a supported, popular system full of goodies and shiny colors with only a slight aftertaste of betrayal in your proverbial mouth. Good, but only if you've just started playing around with Linux. This distro has no flair. It doesn't have the magic and fire of yore. No fire, no nothing. It's not super green. And it must pop pop pop. So I guess, grade wise, 6.5/10 or some such. All in all, 'tis Linux Mint all right, but not the best offering by a long shot.

Cheers.

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