Linux Mint 20.2 Uma - A mixed bag of good and weird

Updated: December 15, 2021

Long time ago, Mint was one of my best-liked distributions. Over time, I found my enthusiasm wearing off. One, 'tis a generic thing that goes beyond Mint, I felt my overall passion for Linux slowly drifting away, as the desktop has been mired in apathy for quite some time. Two, Mint used to offer a great deal of extra features over the Ubuntu family, like say media support, which it has drastically scaled down, reducing its value proposition. Three, Plasma really took off and eclipsed all other desktop environments.

Still, now and then, I like testing Linux Mint, to see how well the distro fares. After all, even though I had trouble with it recently, mostly on the aesthetic and ergonomic fronts, you can't ignore its consistency and general approach to computing. Well now, it's time to put the latest Cinnamon release, Mint 20.2 Uma, onto my Lenovo IdeaPad 3, an AMD-powered, AMD-gpued machine. Let us explore.

Teaser

Live session ... maybe

Boot, black screen, no login. Boot again, same results. Boot in the compatibility mode, all good. Hm. Apparently, Mint 20.2 does not like my laptop. Crude guess, something to do with the AMD Vega graphics. After all, with pretty much any and every laptop I've owned, there have been some hardware problems.

Live session, compat mode

Running in the compatibility mode.

In the live session, I only did two things - I dabbled a little with the desktop customization, and then committed the distro to the disk. When it comes to the visuals, it was a curious experiment. As it happens, the laptop's monitor/screen isn't the best. It's too bright, and to have a decent color balance, you need to notch the brightness down. Even so, quite often, the results aren't ideal, Windows and Linux alike, although some systems offer better view quality than others. This also depends on the HD scaling parameters.

I encountered some problems right away. Cinnamon does not offer fractional scaling by default - only Plasma does it really well, mind. You can either use standard resolution or go for double, which is not what I want. On the 14-inch FHD screen, ideal scaling is about 125-137.5%. But this can't be done right away; more on this in a separate article. This meant I had to use font scaling.

HD scaling

On a side note, why is my screen refresh resolution 77 Hz? Too much gray, btw.

Like my testing in Gnome, this works reasonably well. Cinnamon seems to offer decimal increments, but nothing less than that. However, I was able to get solid results at 1.3x increase (predictably). But this leaves you with an incomplete transformation. I also had to manually increase the panel size. Here, I hit another issue. The system tray icons would not resize or change, no matter what. Then, the windows borders are also quite small - and there's no way to resize them. I found the fonts clarity and contrast to be acceptable if not perfect - I did not expect that, I must say. But again, you cannot change the font color unless you go command-line and make edits in CSS files.

Font scaling

Panel edit

Then, there were a few other visual issues. The system menu icon and the digital clock are located too close to their respective left and right borders. The icon spacing is off here and there. Some of the applications do not respect my windows border theming choice (dark Mint theme), and show with a completely different design. This is very similar to problems I saw in various Gnome and MATE desktops, and I guess it stems from the underlying sharing of code among these different environments, bugs included.

All in all, the desktop customization was quite clunky in 20.2. It doesn't feel elegant or modern, and we have the same kind of problems that existed in Gtk-based environments for at least a decade. The fact one needs to manually tweak a dozen things to have a decent HD experience, and then not really have it fully, is quite telling.

I installed the distro at this point. This was a fairly standard affair, without any big surprises. The procedure took about 10 minutes. Not long, but having seen a number of systems finish in as little as 1-4 minutes, I guess there's room for optimization.

Installation

The horizontal install bar runs out of view on the right side ... Old, old problems.

And then ... reboot, black screen, no login.

Trying to use Linux Mint

Time to quit, right? Well, rightfully so. But I decided to persist just a bit longer. After some rigorous scouring of forums, I did find a whole bunch of references to similar problems, whereby the (Mint) boot sequence would stop just before getting to the login screen. In my case, no information is shown on the screen, and even the virtual consoles aren't available. How very 2021. Anyway, as it turns out, through some witchcraft, luck and reasonable guessing, I figured that I could "fix" the problem by plugging in the power, and then, the boot sequence completes fine. I had GPU-related problems with MX-21 just recently, and now this. Seems like a start of a troubling trend. New kernels, new regressions. Sad.

Running on wall power

The desktop finally showed once the box was plugged into the wall ... One might say, another brick?

Once I was running my laptop on wall socket power, the machine reached the desktop, in about 9 seconds. Decent speed. The Wireless credentials were preserved. Nice. My language was regionalized, even though I set my keyboard to En(US). I absolutely hate this. Pointless since forever. I ran a full system update, but the boot issue did not go away. This makes the laptop technically unusable as a battery-operated device, because you can't really start the system on its own. Ridiculous, wherever in the stack the issue lies.

Applications, usability

Mint 20.2 ships with a lot of software, but a big chunk of the arsenal are programs you probably never heard of. I like the idea of a distro-made software stack, because it should help achieve commonality and consistency. Plasma does the same thing, too. However, the applications need to be high-quality enough to warrant inclusion and usage. I can't say that's the case for some of the Mint programs. Celluloid does not seem to offer any advantage over VLC (plus it's one of the programs that ignores my customization). The system area integration also felt incomplete, with a missing cover image and tiny playback controls. I added VLC and Steam, and there were no issues with that.

Desktop

Window borders, music playback

At least the default wallpapers are very cool ...

I then went back to customization once more - the results were identical to what I accomplished in the live session. I did add a few spacers to make things prettier, but I wasn't able to edit the menu or the system area. The mixed standard-scale increased-scale UI annoys me, as it doesn't feel right.

Panel edit, spacers

There were some rather interesting, redeeming features in Uma. For instance, you can control the thickness of scrollbars, and this is an important ergonomic bonus. The system ships with a dozen useful tools and utilities, which can help you govern the machine efficiently. You get system notifications on various options and improvements you can implement, like adding language packs or setting up backups. Mint comes with Timeshift, allowing you to create snapshots of your machine for if and when things go bad. However, it's a thoroughly nerdy program.

Scrollbars

System reports

You can see the attack of the regional lingo right there. Just choose one of non-US locales with English.

Performance, responsiveness

The system was quite snappy. Applications and menus rendered instantly. Samba speed was okayish, about 9 MB/s. Not the best result I've seen on this laptop. The overall inconsistency across distros is just appalling. I run the same test a hundred times over, and each distro has its share of random nonsense. Also, Uma did not remember my Samba credentials, even though I had explicitly tried to do so, and I had to input them over and over again.

After reboot, on idle, the system consumed a hefty 1.1 GB. The CPU usage was reasonably low if not the best, about 2% without anything else happening, and the fans did whir frequently. In this regard, nothing beats the purity of Plasma.

Resources

And I'm not going to include battery life figures, 'cause, what would be the point, right?

Conclusion

Linux Mint 20.2 Uma is a so-so distro. Decent looks spoiled by difficult and incomplete customization. It's like 2011 and 2021 clashing together. The black screen boot issue is a big problem. The software selection is decent. Performance is good enough, but resource utilization is somewhat high. You have access to lots of useful tools, but they are geared toward skilled users rather than newbies. The default programs are obscure, and they might confuse people new to the Linux scene.

I would like this review to be happier and more positive. But as you recall, in late 2020, way before Uma, I decided to trim down on my Linux testing, as I felt all too disappointed with the lack of quality and consistency in the distro world. Mint 20.2 fits into this picture quite well. Brilliance and nonsense blended together. Overall, Uma needs rework, it needs polish. Hardware and visuals are the big ones. If you feel like exploring and you want a simple Linux experience, Mint can offer some of that, but we're still far, far from the ideal that ordinary folks expect. 5/10. Neither good, nor bad, just average. And we're done.

Cheers.

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