Updated: December 5, 2011
I lied. I said I would never again test another Gnome 3 distro, and here I am, testing another Gnome 3 distro. What more, I will do the same thing I did with openSUSE, I will write two separate reviews, performed on two ends of the computing modernity spectrum, with an olden but golden T60p 32-bit machine on the low end and a shiny new HP with an i5 processor and Nvidia 320M GT card on the high end. Today, we will begin with the weak machine.
Before we truly dig into the technical details, i must say the Mint development team took a brave and quite possibly correct decision to halt supporting Gnome 2 and move on to the next generation, no matter how awful it is. This will let them stay in line with Ubuntu, allowing them to port new technologies and fixes and maybe even cosmetic improvements into their operating systems, work on taming Gnome 3 through all sorts of wicked customizations, as well as put effort in developing MATE, the Gnome 2 alternative. And now, for something completely technical.
The Release Candidate Prelude
I started testing Mint the moment the release candidate was made available, and I must say that early results were not very promising. There were a lot of glitches and bugs, and I could not even get to install the 64-bit version onto an external disk. Some media codecs were missing, there were a few crashes here and there. I almost gave up. But I decided to wait for the official release. I was not disappointed when I read about the numerous bugs having been fixed just before the final image respin.
Official image, live session
Visually, Mint 12 is very similar to its predecessors, despite the drastic change in the shell. You get the top and bottom panels, several desktop icons, all the usual. Dominant colors remain silver-gray and soft green. At first glance, you would be hard pressed to believe this is indeed Gnome 3.
Look & feel
Now, let's examine some of those changes more profoundly. The main menu is invoked by clicking on the Mint icon. If you hit the Super key, this will open the overlay view, which shadows the desktop, offering applications, inline search and a sidebar of Favorites. It will also let you switch between your workspaces.
The menu is not positioned well. It sits some 15px away from the left corner, and this creates a somewhat unfriendly feeling, but the worst offender is the bottom border, which ever so gently creeps over the bottom panel by a whole one pixel. Nevertheless, for those keen of eye and OCD, this is a mortal transgression.
What more, the menu has a vertical Favorites section, which is identical to the overlay sidebar, only somewhat easier to use. However, the inherent limitation of having no desktop icons or panel icons remains. You cannot launch your applications with a single mouse click. A minimum of two are needed. The panels cannot be edited.
The desktop is now right-clickable, but the variety of choices is limited to placing files and folders onto the desktop space or opening a terminal window. This is quite annoying, and even the Mint people could not overcome the problem.
The user drop-down menu in the top right corner has the shutdown option rather than the default suspend, so this is more like sanity that people expect from their systems. The time applet has been moved from the center of the top panel into the corner, like every other operating system in this world, and you have the usual sprinkling of icons for your sound, network, Bluetooth, battery, and such. Not bad, but the gray-white contrast could be improved. A different, darker color scheme was used in the RC release. I'm not sure which works better.
There were quite a few problems with the new interface, too. For example, in the Appearance menu, the preview icons on the left side take time loading. It feels like someone wrote a for loop with a big sleep in there. As for the theme, it shows blank in the drop-down menu, when in fact it is selected and in use. There's only one theme available by default.
This one theme suffers from some serious inconsistencies. For example, if you select Advanced settings and try to tweak your desktop manually, you will notice that some of those toggle buttons are cropped to the right, as if an extra 20-30px of window space is missing. Furthermore, some of the drop-down menus are just plain too big. Notice the mouse-click action options. You get a string that takes about 1/5th or less of the overall drop-down menu width, plus it's cropped, too.
You do get the maximize and minimize buttons by default, which is really nice.
Mint Gnome Shell Extensions (MGSE)
This is a lovely edition to the basic Gnome 3 shell, which is what makes the insufferable bearable. By using the shell extensions, you can make the desktop behave more like it is supposed, and not as if it were a four-inch smartphone crap. You can install additional extensions if you want.
Now that we know what Mint Lisa is all about visually, let's focus on some of the functionality. Media wise, you get Flash, MP3 and QuickTime out of the box, but no Microsoft Media Server (MMS). Still, it's a fairly robust and complete set.
There's also Banshee integration, another bonus for YOU:
At 1.00GB size, Mint comes with a fat, varied and useful collection of programs that should satisfy your every need. You get all the basics, including Firefox, LibreOffice, GIMP, Banshee, VLC, Brasero, plus a ton of system utilities. In fact, you get several media players, so this might even be an overkill. Then, there's Sun Java and more. We will talk more about this later on.
Firefox bears more scrutiny as it comes with DuckDuckGo as the default search engine. This is a smart choice, the only problem is you cannot search directly inside your address bar. If you use Google, for instance, your searches are automatically forwarded.
The procedure was uneventful, but extremely slow. I thought it was stuck, as it took almost three hours to complete. The installer seemed to hang at the laptop-detect stage and remained there for almost an hour without moving a pixel. Then, it resumed and finally completed successfully. The final setup on the T60p box is a dual-boot with Windows 8.
Mint road test
Now, with Mint committed to disk, it's time to get familiar with the system and try to get used to Gnome 3. Or at least try to, as all previous attempts were an utter failure.
The Mint counterpart to Ubuntu Software Center is the Software Manager, which also comes with useful information, screenshots and user reviews, allowing you to quickly and safely search for software. You can find proprietary programs, too.
Using Mint + Applications, one more time
Mint really has a lot to offer. You get all the programs you need. You will get your productivity, as much as possible given the unfriendly user interface forced upon you. However, you can minimize applications, and the windows do show on the bottom panel, so there's some consolation in that.
Customizing Linux Mint
I tried making this distro even more presentable than it already is. Frankly, GSME plus some extra touches make a big difference, but the interface still suffers from glitches and the responsiveness is an order of magnitude slower than Gnome 2. Nevertheless, I decided to try to make some additional changes, like wallpaper and new themes. Forgive my nerdy choice of a fappy wallpaper. It's an actual Mint search from Wallbase.
Several new Gnome 3 themes are available around, and they can be installed through various Ubuntu PPAs, if you want. Even so, the usage is not intuitive. Changing themes through the Appearance menu does not work. You must manually copy contents of the theme archives into the /usr/share directory for them to be listed, and even then, only some changes take place instantly; others require logging out of your session. For instance, windows decorations cannot be previewed without the logout/login sequence.
Overall, some themes worked better than the default choice, resolving the cropping issue, but then you have the icons that are too or too small, like the system update icon; see above.
System stability, resource usage
Overall, Mint was stable. Not very fast or responsive, despite a fairly moderate memory usage of about 260MB and low CPU activity. Suspend and resume worked fine.
MATE, what's up mate!
One of the strong points of Linux Mint is the new alternative desktop environment called MATE, a refork of Gnome 2. P.S. The linked site is in Spanish, with links to Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Archlinux forums in English.
While you have the Fallback for Gnome 3, you also get the more traditional desktop if you want. Now, I promise a separate article on this one, but for now, here's a teaser. And may I hint that it seems to work very well and without bugs, despite being an early release.
Mint 12 Lisa is not without fault.
The integrated search is fairly weak. Most of the items you need cannot be found. If you could easily locate your tools and programs even by partial similarity searches, hints and free text in previous versions of Gnome, this one requires that you nail down the first word of the top-most menu category, otherwise you won't find it.
For example, searching for something as trivial as print won't show any results:
We mentioned misaligned menus and cropped windows. Now, there's the system monitor problem, which remains. I really wonder why this tiny detail keeps being omitted.
If you open several applications at once, you will notice that there's a wide range of fonts being used, different from one another. In my apps screenshot above, there are three distinct sets of types and sizes shown. LibreOffice has system fonts that are larger than VideoLAN, while Java panel uses its own fonts. This is really unprofessional, and I don't care who to blame.
This is a huge problem in Gnome 3 on top of Linux Mint Lisa. When you do finally manage to locate the printing menu, it will look ugly and unfriendly. You must unlock the menu first, before you can add printers. Only you can't really do that, as the applet is broken and does not really work.
First, you get the firewall warning, which is useless here. If you don't do anything, it will autostart searching and give up after a minute. After this, you will need to close the applet and open it again, because there's no way to re-search for printers after a failed attempt. In other words, no refresh button.
Now, if you're smart, you'll mark the Search by Address field and input the relevant address before the time expires. In my case, I input the IP address of the LAN host holding the printer. It was not found. The grayed-out Add button never became active. All in all, this was a complete and utter failure, known as coding bollocks deadlock. We will talk again about printing when we test MATE in the future.
If you're interested there's a bunch of Gnome 3 taming tips for Lisa:
The reckoning ... What do I think? I think the Mint guys deserve a Medal of Honor for their effort. They made Gnome 3 somewhat normal and usable through GSME. They offered MATE as the alternative desktop to this disaster. They provided us with a fairly stable and robust system that comes with everything you may want or need, and they have been doing this consistently for some three years. And more. Really a heroic effort.
But even all the magic of the Mint dev team is not enough to defeat the evil overlord of Gnome. I think it will take at least six more months if not a whole year before the Mint team truly manages to tame this desktop into obedience, including all the little aspects that make all the difference. And by then, MATE will have matured, too. At the moment, they have kicked themselves back a handful of years and a bagful of bugs into the past.
Linux Mint is an excellent distribution, but the desktop plastered on top of its latest release is crude, unrefined, buggy, with lots of visual and technical inconsistencies, reduced productivity and responsiveness, weak search, and missing functionality. Mint people tried the best they could, and it really shows, but they still have a lot of work ahead of them before anything wearing the Gnome 3 skin can be titled usable. I love Linux Mint and I honestly believe it's one of the best distro projects out there, but not Lisa, at least not with Gnome 3. We'll see if MATE can make any difference in a few days. And we will retest on the high-end machine to see how things work out there.
To sum it up, effort-wise, 11/10. Love, patience, dedication, community. But a crippled horse Ferrari does not make. The distro itself, Gnomified at version 3, 7/10 only. I think the devs are fully aware of this, and perhaps release 13 or 14 will be great like they used to be. But for now, Sauron and Gnome 3 still hold the upper hand.