Updated: July 9, 2018
The pursuit of happiness continues. Will I find the next Linux distro to bless my production machines? For that matter, will you? Our latest candidates comes with promising credentials. Mint Tara is an LTS edition, should work well till 2023, and it's meant to bring all the friendly goodies to the table, out of the box. Hopefully.
Once upon a time, this was the perfect distro in Dedoimedo's book. But then, recently, it's hit a hard patch, often caused, directly and indirectly by the wild swings in the quality of Ubuntu releases. Mint 19 is indeed based on Beaver, which isn't exactly the most stellar of distros, although its Unity form is quite reasonable. Anyway, let's see what gives here. After me.
I tested Tara on my eight-boot UEFI/GPT Lenovo G50 machine, currently running a mix of Windows 10 and numerous distros. The boot sequence was relatively fast and clean, save for a single firmware error message rearing up its ugly head. I still wonder why it's supposedly so hard not to print errors to stdev on the virtual console during the boot. This is hardly a Mint problem, but then, it's always tried to be better than the default system.
The desktop is reasonably pretty - black, gray and greens, the signature color of Linux Mint, with some new icons based on Moka, methinks, and a flattish Mint-Y Cinnamon theme. Not bad, but it still feels a little archaic. There's definitely room for improvement on the aesthetics front, but hey, if that turns out to be our biggest problem, I'll be pleased!
There's quite a bit of pressure here. Sylvia was a very reasonable distro. The Mint team realized that creating interim releases based on short-term semi-beta biannual editions was a pointless exercise, so starting with the S family (based on Xerus), they kept the baseline LTS, culminating in a pretty reasonable and polished 18.3 version. Tara follows the same concept, so this will be the first of four T editions, with three dot releases, simplifying upgrades and ideally making everything more stable and robust and consistent.
Worked reasonably well. Wireless, yes. Bluetooth, yes - I paired with Android phone, and although the smartphone was faster in detecting the laptop's antenna, the connection worked just fine. There's room for visual improvement, but again, that's a separate topic. Printing also worked fine - Samba is supported. Now, Samba ... Like Ubuntu, Mint fails here, because it does not allow the NT1 client protocol. This means 50% of all Windows install base (at least), including the still perfectly legitimate and supported Windows 7, are thrown out of the equation for the sake of nonsense security hysteria around Samba. Like Ubuntu, we need a tweak, and then you can connect to Windows machines without any problem. But then, the whole point of Mint was to be friendly to users. If it offers the exact same limitations as its parent, what's the point then? Slightly different looks?
Awful. The default font color/contrast is appalling. It's a weak gray on white background. The AA settings are reasonable, but the clarity just isn't good enough. Ubuntu wins here big time. The issue of fonts remains one of the great embarrassments of the Linux space. Only very few distros nail this well, but most just go with the dark theme approach or weird color schemes that must appeal to the dev mind, I guess.
The bigger problem is - you can't really change this easily. I will show you how to edit Cinnamon themes, similar to what we did with Gnome, in a separate article, but the fact you actually need to play with CSS classes and their attributes in some nefarious file somewhere, just so your eyes don't melt, is an interstellar failure. And the biggest problem? This is worse than Sylvia!
Reasonable. HD content, smooth playback, and MP3, okay.
Then I tried to play an MP4 file and got this:
Again, what's the point of not having the right codecs - or worse, not being able to install them? Recall the glorious days of Linux before the dot agile bullshit. You would get a similar prompt, but then the package manager would actually install the needed plugins, and you could enjoy music. Hell, even Sylvia does it!
Now, the system just tells you it has no codecs, and that's it. Suck it. This further erodes the advantage of Mint over Ubuntu. It also further erodes my thin patience, as year over year, release over release, we get more and more nonsense and complications, less user friendliness and more instability, and this affects EVERY distro out there. Failure has become the kewl modus operandi.
The three major brands worked fine - Android, iPhone (iOS 11) and Windows Phone. But there were some small problems. Tara threw an error on first Lumia 950 and Aquaris mount (no, the devices were not locked), and then the file manager duly froze after I copied about a gigabyte worth of pics from the Microsoft phone onto a Samba share. Music playback from the phones also worked, with no cover art or meta data in Xplayer.
BTW, should I also remind you that this is another regression? Two-fold: the Android error was there in Sylvia too, so it hasn't been fixed; now it also affects the Windows Phone too, which wasn't the case last time.
This worked without any great problems. The partition discovery is long, and the partition menu comes with a windows frame that is a few pixels wider than an even number of entries, so this is quite annoying visually, and you really need to jiggle it. The system initially offered en-us keyboard, but then changed this based on regional language setting. The slides are pretty (even though Spotify keeps getting promoted, but it does not work well in Linux), and the overall procedure was moderately fast. About 35 minutes into the process, it was complete. Successfully.
The installed desktop did preserve my Wireless settings, and the update manager started pretty much right away, which is quite commendable. You also get a nice, simple welcome screen, so you can use that to get familiarized with the distro.
Package management & updates
Some old, good, familiar tricks are there - the system will recommend switching to a local mirror, you have the option to customize your updates, and for the first time ever, it also prompts you to create a system snapshot using Timeshift, so if anything goes wrong, you can easily roll back.
Software Manager worked fine. It's been polished some, with nicer overall layout, extra screenshots and reviews and whatnot. You get a separate utility for proprietary drivers. Flatpak applications are also supported and available. Some third-party programs in the repo are older than what you get if you go for a direct download, like Skype for instance. Not bad, and improving, so this is a right step in the right direction. Wicked.
Linux Mint 19 Tara comes with a colorful and practical assortment of programs. It squeezes a lot of good juice from its 1.8GB image, with Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, GIMP, Transmission, tons of utilities and tools, and then some. Balanced and fair.
While under the hood there's a lot of Gnome in Mint/Cinnamon, this desktop environment seems faster, more responsive than the original item. I was horribly disappointed with how laggy and cumbersome Gnome is, both in the Ubuntu Beaver and especially in the Fedora 28 reviews. Not so here. Applications respond fairly quickly. Moderate to high loads do not induce additional penalty, and you can still use the system without any problems.
On idle, memory consumptions was about 950 MB, less than most Gnomes, and the CPU ticked at about 5%, which is significant, but this did not immediately and adversely affect the system behavior. Plasma is leagues ahead, but at least Cinnamon is trying to distance itself from the broth that's Gnome 3. The disk was quite hot throughout the entire session, though.
No complaints. Everything worked fine - Fn buttons, suspend & resume and all that. Sweet.
With brightness set to 50%, the system reports 2 hours and 40 minutes. This is with 90% juice left on a battery that has a total capacity of about 80% its original state, so approx. two thirds, which means the battery life for a fresh cell would be pushing toward 3.5-4 hours. That's quite respectable. Very solid. But not the best.
Mint 19 + Mint-Y comes with some nice tricks - but also issues associated with flat themes, like no differentiation between fore and back windows and low overall visibility and discoverability. Switching to older themes messes up the icons and makes the desktop look kind of outdated. I was also not pleased with the order of items in the system area, or the transparent console profile. On the other hand, I did like the copy notification.
I installed various new themes and applets - at least in this regard, Mint does not disappoint, the management utility for the decorations is pretty tight - but there was no simple and easy solution to the font problem other than a manual CSS hack. This annoyed me so. You also MUST log out for font color changes to take effect. Switching among different themes or restarting Cinnamon did not help.
And again for comparison, the default fonts color/contrast:
I also installed the Icing Task Manager, and it worked well - but did seize up at some point, complaining about a corrupt JSON configuration. I had to remove it and then add it fresh, and then it did behave. It needs to be more refined, overall.
I started making things really pretty, and Voila!
A few other, small things. Touchpad worked just fine, no issues. Xed, the text editor, does not remember recently opened files. However, there were no cardinal problems, crashes or bugs of that nature. Overall, Tara was pretty stable. I was also impressed by the foreign language compatibility - that thing called Input Method. Despite this rather non-intuitive name, the implementation in Tara is so much better than most other distros. Moreover, online accounts integration works well, even though it's still a Gnome program and not a native Mint/Cinnamon one.
If one judges Linux Mint 19 Tara on its own, it's a pretty decent release. But one must also gaze wider, and cast their eyes on Mints That Came Before, and realize that the status quo is actually a regression. It's not enough to keep the same errors or be consistent in comparison to the sea of mediocre releases out there. Errors that might have been acceptable in 2008 are not acceptable in 2018. Normalizing toward the lowest common denominator is sad. And this is exactly what's been happening across the distroscape, and Mint has also fallen victim to this disease. The 'all-you-need-to-do' disease.
So yes, in many aspects, Tara works better than the competition. But the competition is awful. Network, font and codec problems, to name a few of the big issues. Unnecessary, pointless. Even more so because we didn't have them in the past. These are regressions. Horrible, life- and will-sapping regressions.
While your mind processes that, let's recap what we saw. In overall terms, Mint 19 is a good choice for people looking for a stable everyday distro. Mostly covers most of the basics, and can be tamed without too much fuss. The package manager is really good, performance and stability are decent. If only I had no memory. But I do, and so Tara warrants only about 7/10 by default, about 8.5 after all my post-pimping. Sylvia is a better overall choice sans any user changes, and there are some other distros with a higher overall grade, ergo friendlier defaults and functionality for the ordinary user. In this regard, Tara is consistent with the 18.X family, which started low and improved. Perhaps 19.1 will be a blast. Take care.