Updated: July 17, 2017
Let us a-go distro-testing! Today, we focus on Linux Mint 18.2 Sonya, freshly released with a nice sprinkling of Cinnamon on the proverbial distro pudding. For years, this was one of the best performing distributions, offering a complete experience to the Linux user. Lately though, the experience has been slightly less amazing. Serena was just ok.
But then, this spring testing season - slowly moving into the summer, cue Vivaldi music - has been pretty good overall. The Ubuntu flock seems to be behaving reasonably, with the Flagship Ubuntu and in particular the KDE-flavored Kubuntu offering a splendid revival of hope and quality. Armed with this foreknowledge, we commence.
Booted fine and without any issues on the Lenovo G50 test bed. The presentation layer is almost identical to Serena. This makes sense, because Linux Mint has adopted a new packaging policy, where all its flavors are based on the most recent LTS rather than interim releases, in order to ensure better quality to its users. Hence, the differences are technically and deliberately small. The downside of this otherwise positive observation is that Mint does not look as sharp and smart as it could in 2017. The color scheme is soothing, but the look-and-feel, well, feels slightly archaic.
This one turned out to be 100% job well done. Now, Mint runs a kernel that is slightly behind the latest and greatest releases that promise to resolve my Realtek card issues, but these did not crop up at any time during the testing. Samba sharing and printing worked without a hitch, check. Wireless printing, check.
Bluetooth also worked - perfectly. This makes Sonya the second distro, after Kubuntu Zesty to truly offer a complete Bluetooth experience. I was able to pair my Lumia 520 and send files and all that. Very nice. The pairing initially proved a bit difficult because the phone remembered the MAC address of the laptop from other distro tests, but once I removed it, it was perfect. The system area icon is ugly, though.
This one worked just fine - and then not. Overall, it is overcomplicated. First, there are three different media players - Xplayer, Rhythmbox and VLC. Of these, the only one that works perfectly is the last. Xplayer did a decent job, but it did not display any cover art. It did handle smartphone music, though. VLC did everything without any complaints.
Why is the volume/playback icon on the far right?
The third of the bunch, Rhythmbox was only mediocre. The worst part is that it wasn't able to play anything from smartphones, at all. It would display a generic media device in its side bar. With the Windows Phone, you could actually see the song list. With the Ubuntu Phone, not even that. Trying to play songs results in a libmtpdevice shared library crash.
rhythmbox: segfault at 30 ip 00007fd974f24dc6 sp 00007ffe7ca18a20 error 4 in libmtpdevice.so[7fd974f18000+13000]
But wait. You actually need to get codecs! Xplayer will ask you to grab the needed plugins, and then you have to restart the program to enjoy music. This is cumbersome, and a far cry from what Mint did once, diminishing the advantage it held over Ubuntu in this regard. Also, the realization of the idea is far from perfect. Ah well. Anyway, HD video played fine, Youtube, HTML5, all that, no worries.
Look & feel
Neat, improving, but still a bit cramped. Plasma is way ahead, as it turns out. Yet, some of those old Gnome woes and issues are being polished, removed and sanded off daily, so there's hope after all.
A few other quick observations
Well, overall, it was a very pleasant initial experience. The font clarity can be better, as always, and the contrast between elements improved, again, but other than that, I did not have any major reservations. On a side note, the Samba copy performance was very good, too.
The distro was quite stable - I interrupted the live session with three suspend & wake pauses, and each time, it resumed without any trouble. The Wireless network worked fine, and there were no errors or disconnects. Sweet.
This was a predictable, fuss-free affair. The partition discovery is still slow, but a little faster than before. The overall install was also a bit faster, with the GRUB install taking less time. The slides are fancy and neat. Spotify is hailed as a featured app again, and this is not a good thing, as we've seen many times before. It just does not work well under Linux, and I don't know why anyone still tries to push a pointless fantasy.
Would Conan use Linux Mint?
That's a good question. So let's answer. The boot sequence is relatively fast, and there are no visual glitches. Pretty much all and every other distro has a flicker or two of its text consoles or some other spurious message, spoiling the boot splash. Mint does this without any noise.
The desktop also retains the Wireless config, and it automatically offered updates, within seconds. Very cool. You can also switch to a local mirror, as well as choose the update level, part of that old safe-unsafe nonsense.
Software Manager & updates
Indeed, let's talk about this critical piece of functionality some more. The Software Manager is decent. Faster than in the past, more robust, fairly informative. Better than most other frontends. I was also able to complete two rounds of updates without any issues.
Hint: the program uses the active system icon theme!
Sonya packs a good bunch - Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, GIMP, VLC, Rhythmbox, Transmission, and much more besides. It's a highly functional, well balanced arsenal of programs. Skype isn't in the repos, and 'tis the new modern one now. However, you can get it without any problems.
It was okay. Some apps benefit from whatever Sonya does under the hood, while the overall system isn't as crisp and sharp as it can be. For instance, Firefox works quite well, whereas it is noticeably laggier than Chrome in Kubuntu. It also does not come with Ubuntu modifications, so multi-processing is enabled by default. I played with the browser for a while, trying to figure out if the brave and new future world of WebExtensions that lies ahead of us can somehow offer a reasonable user experience. That's not pure Sonya, but it was a good platform to test the promised improvements in speed.
In general, the CPU is slightly noisy, about 2-3%, and memory utilization on idle is about 850 MB, so it's definitely hungrier, and you can't miss it, than say Kubuntu. Gnome is less optimized than Plasma, for sure, and it affects Cinnamon, too.
Power management and battery life
Well, okay. Average. First, while the system applet does feature some neat options, it is still not as developed and capable as the Plasma component of the same nature. The on-battery behavior isn't aggressive enough, and the auto-brightness control does not quite work. I mean, it does, but nowhere as fluidly as it should. The somewhat hungry system also tolls the battery. Even at 50% brightness, the battery gives less than 2 hours of juice. Even with 20% degradation, this is still way, way off distros like MX-16 and friends.
Stability, hardware compatibility, suspend & resume
Yes, yes, yes. Apart from the Rhythmbox issues, no other woes came by. The distro is very stable, very mature. All the laptop Fn buttons worked fine. I also had no issues with the lock screen. In fact, it's very cool, as it can display notifications, including your music. Wireless remained strong and true, without any hacks or gimmicks.
The one niggle I can think of - Intel's microcode firmware isn't enabled by default. Ubuntu does this, so there's no reason why Mint shouldn't. You can quickly facilitate this using the Driver Manager, but the utility does not jump and prompt, though.
I invested a fair share of energy to try to make Linux Mint 18.2 look the part, based on my superior sense of aesthetics. The defaults just don't have the clout needed to wow the user, but you can make some decent progress quickly.
Compared to Serena and predecessors, it is easier now to tame Mint and make it look the part, with some rather nice themes in the system repos. Overall, the whole process of how you can tweak and polish Cinnamon has improved, with fewer ghosts and zombies among the available collection of decorations, themes, extensions, and such.
If you're wondering, the top two rated themes, Railway and New-Minty are both excellent choices, and they blend well with the system on all levels. Quite neat. I just wish that all programs followed the same design principles and had actual window borders.
The wallpaper collection is stunning - you can choose from any of the 18.X generation, with some high-quality work there. Indeed, I had no reason to wander about the Web, except for the obvious choice that shall soon be revealed, searching for wallpapers. Sweet.
Final result, behold and weep:
AND OF COURSE:
Well, some negative observations. We have the usual font thingie. Then, Spotify predictably wasn't able to play local files. The text manager, Xed, does not seem to have a recently opened list, probably because Mint does not track recently viewed documents by default, as a nod to some odd privacy deity.
Linux Mint 18.2 Sonya teaches us two main things. One, it is a very good distro. Second, it usually takes about two releases after a major edition to reach the necessary level of maturity and stability with most distros, which shows that on average Linux teams are about two thirds overstretched. It's not just the pace of software releases, but that definitely comes to bear as a result. Sonya finally has the quality that Sarah should have had, the same way Zesty redeems the rather lackluster Xerus. Indeed indeed.
Back to Red Sonya, it is a rounded, stable distro, with lots of goodies out of the box, somewhat outdated looks that can be easily changed, excellent hardware support overall, a colorful and useful app collection, media and smartphone fun aplenty, and a calm feel of casual joy. It's not perfect, but it's getting into the territory of old, familiar suave.
Among the many distributions to have come out to market in the past few months, this is one of the more complete and refreshing editions. Performance isn't optimal, the look & feel and associated ergonomics need polish, and there are some niggles here and there, but if I had to choose, this and Kubuntu Zesty are probably the top picks of the season. Sonya gets 9.5/10, and so you should download some bytes and begin testing. Testing completed. Peace.