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A close look at Linux Mint 14: Windows 8 without the bad bits

Software & AppsFeatures
by Tim Verry, 23 Nov 2012Features
A close look at Linux Mint 14: Windows 8 without the bad bits

This week, the developers behind the Ubuntu-based Linux Mint distribution announced the availability of Mint 14 (Nadia), and we installed it for a look at the goodies the OS offers. The new release boasts a number of incremental under-the-hood improvements and tweaks. It combines the Linux 3.5 kernel, Ubuntu 12.10 base, and the latest versions of the MATE 1.4 and Cinnamon 1.6 desktop environments. The edition of Linux Mint 14 with the Cinnamon desktop is particularly interesting as it has created a hybrid between Ubuntu’s HUD interface and the traditional Gnome UI that is as usable and fluid as ever.

As a result of Mint being based upon the Ubuntu distribution, many of the back-end features present in Ubuntu 12.10 Quantal Quetzal are carried over to the new Mint release. That includes the Linux 3.5.0-17 kernel, which in turn is based on the upstream 3.5.5 kernel. You will not find Unity or Gnome 3 in this Mint distribution, however. Instead, Mint offers MATE 1.4 – the continuation of Gnome 2 – and Cinnamon 1.6 along with Gnome Classic that are all selectable from the log-in screen.

The distro also includes the codecs necessary to play MP3 files and DVDs out of the box. GIMP 2.6, LibreOffice 2.6.2.2, Firefox 17, and VLC 2.0.4 also come pre-installed among other traditional Linux programs like the Banshee music application, Pidgin IM client, and Transmission BitTorrent client.

The Software Manager has been tweaked so that it runs as root, and does not require entering your password every time you choose to install each individual application. Furthermore, according to the Linux Mint developers, the OS uses its own apt-get daemon that is fully supported by debconf, meaning you will no longer have to use Synaptic to get certain packages (like Wine). You can stick with Mint’s own Software Manager.

Cinnamon 1.6 UI improvements

The big changes to Mint 14 lie in the front-end GUIs that power the OS, and specifically the latest iteration of Cinnamon. The Cinnamon 1.6 desktop environment has been overhauled with more than 800 changes, according to the changelog.

One of the main changes in the 1.6 release is the inclusion of a new GUI file browser called Nemo which has been built specifically for Cinnamon. It is similar in layout to Microsoft’s Explorer (minus the ribbon) with shortcuts on the left panel and folder contents on the right. Out of the box, shortcuts include links to documents, music, downloads, videos, trash, individual (mounted) hard drives, and networked devices. Windows users will likely miss the inclusion of a My Computer equivalent shortcut on the left-hand side, but that can be added by navigating to Computer using the button (to the right of the refresh and home buttons) on the toolbar and then in the top menu bar clicking on Bookmarks > Add Bookmark.

Overall, it works well and has similar functionality to Windows Explorer or Nautilus in Ubuntu, and it’s roughly comparable speed-wise in navigating through heavily populated directories. Curiously, it does not support thumbnail images for JPEG photos by default but handles PNG files without issue (and if you take the file extension off altogether it will generate a thumbnail).

Additionally, Mint has added an overlay called the Workspace On-Screen Display (OSD) that allows switching among different workspaces (think of them as virtual desktops). You can add as many workspaces as you want while giving each one a unique name (see the image below). Best of all, you can drag windows between workspaces, and have your settings persist across reboots. Unfortunately, like Windows 8, Mint uses a hot corner to activate the Workspace OSD, and it is not made obvious to the user that the feature is available. By default, mousing over to the top left corner of your main display will bring up the OSD where you can manage your different desktops/workspaces. Once you figure out how to access it, however, it works really well.

Unlike Modern UI/Metro, you can use Mint without ever seeing the OSD unless you want to use it, which is nice, but I would have liked to see it at least presented as an available option during installation – and to have been told how to access it. (I had to go to an online forum to figure out how to open it, which does not speak highly for the feature’s intuitiveness).

The panel (Windows taskbar equivalent) along the bottom of the screen holds (from left to right) the Menu button, open windows in the current workspace, applets, the clock, and a Window Quick-List button to view all your open application windows (sorted by workspaces).

The Menu button brings up a Windows Start menu equivalent that lets you search for applications, access important folders, and change system settings. Favourite shortcuts can be pinned to the left of the menu while the Lock, Logout, and Shutdown buttons occupy the bottom left corner. If you have used the Start menu in Windows Vista or 7, you will be right at home using the Mint Menu. On the right of the panel are applets, which are small programs similar to Windows Gadgets except that they generally stay docked in the bar and open upon a mouse hover or click.

One of the updated applets that Mint is promoting is the Music applet, which allows you to control the Banshee music player. It shows album art, track data, and playback controls. The Notifications applet and alt-tab application switcher have also been updated.

With Mint 14 and Cinnamon 1.6 you have a graphical interface that keeps the traditional taskbar with a Start (Mint Menu) Button while introducing new UI features like the Workspace OSD. You get the best of both worlds, and if you are still not pleased, Mint makes it extremely easy to switch to MATE (Gnome 2 successor) or Gnome Classic. You are free to use either UI and customise to your heart’s content, and that freedom of choice is a welcome feature of the Mint distribution.

Responsive and fluid

One of the reasons I switched from Ubuntu to Mint is the increased fluidity of the interface. Using the operating system for daily tasks with multiple windows open in multiple workspaces demands a lot from the UI, but Mint has always done an excellent job of providing a snappy interface that simply feels wickedly fast.

Windows 8 has done a good job of building on Windows 7′s Desktop Windows Manager (DWM) and harnessing GPU acceleration, but Mint 14 still feels more responsive when opening windows, switching applications, and just using the OS in general. For example, the minimise and restore animations are slick and add to the feeling of speed – rather than a simple fade, windows appear to shrink (and expand) to (or from) nothing smoothly.

Although I currently use Windows 8 as my daily driver due to better game and CableCard support, I have followed Mint releases since version 11 Katya, and have continually been impressed by how fast each new Mint release runs on my system. In that respect, version 14 does not disappoint at all. There are a couple of minor quirks with Mint 14, but overall I’ve been highly impressed with what I've seen of the new release.

And with Steam and Netflix – two of the three major barriers to me switching to Linux Mint full-time – now working on Linux, the future is looking bright for the open source operating system. I dual-booted the new Linux Mint distribution to try it out, and after using it all day (and to write this article) I will be keeping it installed alongside Windows 8, and I heartily recommend you try it out for yourself.

If you want to test drive Mint 14 Nadia, you can grab an ISO image from the Linux Mint website or upgrade an existing installation.

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