Updated: June 15, 2011
Linux Mint 11 Katya is the latest Mint release - and the bravest one. Mint is technically based on Ubuntu, and as such subject to the whims and changes and perils of its parent, but there's been more and more of a rift lately. Using Unity as the default desktop would probably have been pointless. And Gnome 3 is nowhere near as usable as it ought to be. Wisely, the Mint developers chose stability and consistency over hype and stayed with Gnome 2 as the desktop environment. Indeed, not doing Gnome 3 or Unity was a very brave decision.
Now, let's ignore pure aesthetics for a moment, as there's more to an operating system than just good looks. Linux Mint Julia was a phenomenal release, the best of 2010. Then, there was Mint Debian, also a stellar edition. Katya needs to be at least as good as either of these, otherwise it's a fluke. And so with drama lurking mightily, I present the Linux Mint 11 review.
Mint comes in two flavors - CD and DVD. The main difference is extra programs and codecs. If you choose the CD edition, you'll have the option to upgrade your install base afterwards. I tested the bigger version, 32-bit on a T60p machine.
The boot menu has a large splash image that is identical to your desktop. The boot progress is marked in a blank black screen, which could be alarming to new users, but has been chosen for consistency, as different cards and resolutions render the output any which way.
The live desktop is airy and elegant, with green, silver-gray and white dominating. It feels airy and polished and it looks smart and consistent. Testing the last two or three Mint editions, you pretty much get the same interface, which is both professional and crucially important, as users expect their stuff to behave as they know and like them.
My first, dagnabbit. Apparently, the Show Desktop applet failed to load, which is why it does not show in the bottom panel. Logging out and in solved the problem, but this ought not to have happened.
So my first login into the live session had no Show Desktop button. Easily fixed, but it's an annoyance. We will talk about it more later on. P.S. The screenshot shortcut was manually added, so it won't be there for you.
Goes without saying, but from moment one in the live session, your system is fully equipped with all the bells and whistles you need. Multimedia wise, you get codecs for everything, Flash and MP3 included.
At this point, I could have continued and tested everything, since Mint offers 100% functionality out of the box. But I decided to leave most of the stuff for until after the installation. So let's install.
You've seen it before, quick and elegant. The one interesting option is that the installer can upgrade Ubuntu 11.04 to Linux Mint 11. The phrasing could be a little better, as it's not readily apparent what 11.04 to 11 means.
Then, you get the standard slideshow. The installation was fairly quick; there were no problems dual-booting with the resident Windows.
Having fun with Mint
The boot menu in the installed system is almost identical to the one used in the live session. There's the black splash again, which might frighten the average users, who might assume something's wrong with the machine.
On first boot, Mint came up with a plain theme. This seems to be a known issue caused by a regression in the mainline kernel or suchlike. Since it was documented, I didn't take grudge, but still, global mistakes are no excuse for private inheritance thereof. There were no problems afterwards. The desktop icon loaded properly.
The extra icons shown in the system area on the installed system is the Update Manager shield, which is blue when there are updates and green when there are none. My test shows a phenomenal speed and responsiveness. Moreover, lots of prompts that normally jump when you're doing installations and updates are hidden so it feels more natural and less annoying. The Update Manager just closes on its own when things are well.
Similarly, if you're looking for new software, there's the Software Manager, more smartly named than the Ubuntu alternative, and ever so slightly more refined and polished. Thinking of average users, I really couldn't think of a simpler or more natural implementation.
In the same manner that speaks of no-nonsense approach to computer usage, Katya features a well balanced application stack, quite similar to what you've got in previous releases. This is a very good thing, especially if you expect your programs not to change overnight.
The core collection includes tons of codecs, Sun Java, Adobe Flash, Firefox 4, Thunderbird, Pidgin, LibreOffice, GIMP, Brasero, Banshee, GIMP, VLC, and a few more, plus several highly practical helper tools and utilities, like backup software and a firewall frontend.
Compiz & Mint theme
It's not all just stern usability. There's fun, too. You want Compiz, you have Compiz. Worked nicely, with good responsiveness, despite ancient hardware.
The Mint theme remains almost identical to Katya's predecessors. If you find the silver-gray dominance a bit boring, you can easily spice things up with some window border decorations.
Here's the final system with a changed desktop:
System stability, resources usage, suspend & resume
Linux Mint 11 is a fast and nimble system. It's extremely nippy and responsive. You get almost instant feedback, even on very old hardware. Applications open and close without delays. Suspend & resume is immediate. Logout and login take a second, no more. Shutting down the system takes just a few seconds.
Moreover, Mint is not a giant resource guzzler. It runs at about 280MB, which is a decent figure for a beefed up Gnome, comparable to competition.
Mint comes with a few extra gems. For example, you have PDF printing enabled, and you can tweak the desktop look & feel, like hiding mounted volumes from the desktop, changing the location of window buttons from right to left and more, all without opening the geeky gconf-editor; instead, you use a simple desktop settings manager.
Linux Mint 11 is a jolly good distro. There are some small problems, nothing major, nothing cardinal, nothing soul wrecking. A single live session error can be forgiven, but it's never a good thing. Then, a few more things that should be fixed in the next release.
Fat touch-screen optimized overlay scroll bar
These have debuted in Unity on Natty and have been introduced in Katya, too. Not the best choice. Luckily, they can be easily switched off, and should be, as they harm an otherwise very tranquil and polished desktop. Moreover, not all programs use these bars.
Panel applet error & no Show Desktop
Why? I mean I know why. There was a one time error, which was easily fixed, but let's try to address the problem from the perspective of a happy new user. The Show Panel button always used to be there. Such a simple and innocent little addition. Now, you can restore it in seconds by right-clicking on the panel, Add, Show Desktop. No such problem on subsequent logins or in the installed system, but still.
And so, things that can be improved
Of course, zero errors and glitches, but that goes without saying. The two items that stood out was the initial error in the Live session, which also probably murdered the Show desktop icon, and the first boot coming without a theme. Although the latter is a known issue, it needs to be addressed. Not a biggie, even so, OCD idiot savants like me notice these things and take slight.
The font color contrast also needs some work. It's less noticeable on the desktop, but it's a bit annoying in the file manager. This probably depends on the selected theme.
There's some visual inconsistency with applications that do not respect the overlay scrolls, like Firefox or LibreOffice, so this creates a disjointed feel. Other programs do not use the system theme, so they look ugly and out of place, like Sun Java panel. This is also notable in the System Monitor tool, which has the gray-white color problem.
Those are my major gripes. Not big by any means, but if we're dabbling in perfect, it's the small things that needs fine touches. It's called the Conservation of Problems, and it's a physical constant. When there are no large ones, you look for the tiny ones.
Boot splash can also be improved; not sure how to achieve perfect looks with every conceivable card and resolution, but the plain black might alarm newbies.
Contemplating the future, once again
A few months ago, I was worried about choice. I thought the fun world of digital adventure was going to end. Ubuntu with Unity on one hand, everyone else with Gnome 3 on the other. Then, openSUSE came and saved the day. Next, Kubuntu came, which is even better. And there's Katya, now.
The next time I upgrade my multi-boot systems, I'm going to start deploying Kubuntu and Mint systems, probably half this half that, just so I have a bit of Ubuntu and and a bit of proper Gnome. openSUSE will stay, too.
The future has never been brighter. I have more choices now that I had half a year ago. And there's another revolution coming by. In the past five years, I haven't changed my desktop setups. It's been steady Ubuntu, openSUSE. For the first time now, there's going to be a new generation of distros on my boxen. Kubuntu, the unlucky bastard and Mint, the rebellious cousin. Who would have believed?
Linux Mint 11 Katya is an excellent release. It has a few issues, but overall, it's very good. Why, you may ask? What makes it special? Functionality wise, it's about the same as Julia and comparable to most other popular distributions, more or less, with emphasis on more. It's a bunch of small things, the attention to details, which make all the difference.
True, there were a few problems, which offset the good things. So you may say we're kind of back to square one. But no. There's still one more advantage that Mint has. It's the predictability. You get what you expect. Migrating from Julia to Katya is not a nightmare rollercoaster. You enjoy stability and consistency. Your system remains familiar and usable, just the way you know it and like it. You need not shudder in dread whether the next desktop environment is going to break everything or some new beta experiment is going to force you to stare at the screen upside down, just for the kicks.
Katya slowly, gently increments the goodies introduced in Julia. Rough edges need to be polished, but they are not serious. 99% of everything remains the same, a fully featured, fully functional desktop with a perfect balance of programs. You install it and you use it, no fuss, no worries.
To sum it up, Mint is still the best Linux distro all around - and there's still room for improvement. Closely tailing by, Kubuntu and openSUSE. If you worried about Unity and Gnome 3, stop worrying right now. Final grade: 9.95/10. Jolly good.