Review of Linux Mint

I was going to write this as a general ‘is Linux ready for the desktop’ article, but decided to stick with the specific distribution (version) I used.  Many of the comments will equally apply to any version of Linux, however.

I had been thinking of giving Linux another try (I go back to Red Hat 5.2) to see whether it was yet suitable for people like me who have multiple home-built machines (so don’t get a copy of Windows with the machine) and for the average computer user who could save some money by buying a computer that didn’t come with Windows.  The first challenge was to pick a distro (distribution, i.e. version) of Linux.

Unlike Windows and OS X, which offer very few options, there are lots of variants of Linux.  The first call is the type of Linux; for example, Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, Slackware, SUSE.  Some of these are variants of the others and there are derivatives of these as well.  Even when you pick one there are different versions if you want to put it on a server, desktop or netbook.  The one that typically garners the most press is Ubuntu and it’s supposed to be the most user-friendly.

I’ve tried Ubuntu on several occasions so I thought I would give something else a try and I kept hearing about Linux Mint, which is actually based on Ubuntu.  Essentially it’s a customised release that is designed to have a look more analogous of Windows, some default software installed (web browser, email client, office suite) and codecs to playback common media formats (like Flash) so you can start using it right away.

So I downloaded the ISO and created an installable USB stick using UNetbootin.  I loaded it onto my Acer Revo as a second OS and it installed quickly, without issue and with everything working fine out of the box.  It even let me rotate one of my monitors (I have one portrait) without issue.  Took me a while to figure out how to put the taskbar on the second monitor (right-click and select move) and create quick launch shortcuts.  Then I got on with setting it up for my basic needs.  It already had the latest copy of Firefox, which is still my preferred browser (too many add-ins Chrome doesn’t have), so I just installed the relevant add-ins I wanted as I would on Windows.  I use Thunderbird as my email client, tasks and calendar (linked to my Google Calendar) manager and that was installed too.  I did a bit of research for apps to fill some time-saving functions I use: application launching using key combinations and text replacement.

Again, Mint already had a keyboard shortcut app built-in, but for text replacement I needed to download Autokey.  This is where you encounter what is, for me, still a major drawback of Linux.  Installing applications is still a pain.  Linux deals in packages, which can be bits of functionality or entire applications.  Technically you can download a package and double-click to execute, but there are different versions for different distros.  RPM, for example, works on Fedora, DEB is used for Debian-based versions (which Ubuntu and Linux Mint are) and there are others.  Sometimes you can’t get a package and need to use some commands in the terminal to build them first.  On top of this there are different window managers in Linux, the two biggest being Gnome and KDE, and software doesn’t always work in both.

Most distros get around this by having a package manager installed.  Essentially this is an app that will search a list of pre-compiled packages, download and install them for you (think of it like Windows Update).  Even if something is in this list it doesn’t guarantee it’ll work though.  Plus package managers are usually a pain to search and they don’t always have the latest version.  I want to be able to download from a website and install by double-clicking like I can with Windows and OS X.  I don’t mind if I have to click through various screens with options as I do with Windows, though simply dragging it into an apps folder as with OS X would be better.

On a side note, love Apple or hate them, but they get the user interface (UI) right:

"Then Steve comes in," Evangelist recalls. "He doesn’t look at any of our work. He picks up a marker and goes over to the whiteboard. He draws a rectangle. ‘Here’s the new application,’ he says. ‘It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says burn. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make.’ "

Programmers are great, the Linux community is largely made up of them, I have a lot of respect for them, but most of them don’t have a clue about UI.

Autokey was fine and did what I was after, but Celtx, which I use for various writing tasks, didn’t install from the package manager (despite being listed).  I found a downloadable DEB package which installed, but I couldn’t see anyway to add it to the Start Menu-like list of apps (and it didn’t add itself).  In fact, finding it was a challenge as none of the Linux folders make a huge amount of sense.  No Applications folder as with OS X or Program Files as with Windows.  It was tucked in /usr/etc/bin – how hard would it be to alias that to something more usable?  It becomes an issue when you’re trying to find an app to open a file with.  Another example of programmer vs user.

I have found writing articles in Windows Live Writer is better than using the browser, so I looked for something similar on Linux.  I found some suggestions and they were in the software library so I installed BloGTK and Drivel.  The former installed, but for some reason when I try to launch it nothing happens.  The latter is basic to the extreme but seems to work (aside from not posting to the category I pick).

There are some software omissions, no iTunes for example, which is not a real issue (there are other apps that will work with an iPod) unless you download from the iTunes store, which I do.  Likewise, no Spotify, which I don’t use much, but I have found a reasonable replacement for when iTunes’ heavy resource requirements make the machine struggle, especially when using the Atom-powered Revo (it was Apple saying Adobe’s Flash was bloated wasn’t it?  What about iTunes!).  The pre-installed Rhythmbox software plays music OK.

As for Linux in use, well, the main criticism has been the performance, strangely.  While it boots much faster than Windows and shuts down or hibernates in seconds, it struggles on the Revo when playing back Flash (even with the latest version of Flash) and Quicktime, even with lots of tabs open the fans on the Revo strain much more than under Windows.  It doesn’t seem quite as snappy either.  That’s not to say it’s not usable.

The big questions are whether it is something I could use day-to-day and whether it’s suitable for an average user to use as their main operating system.  The answer is, maybe.  Once I got all the apps installed it worked fine and, as things like an email client and web browser are pre-installed if all you want to do is surf, most people will be OK.  In that instance it works well.  The problem, one of the few remaining, is installing applications.  Now it’s setup I’d happily use it (if I could shut the fan noise up, which is bad under Windows too to be fair).

Regarding the install issue, the entire Linux community needs to decide on one package standard.  I don’t care if it’s DEB, RPM or whatever.  Pick one and everyone move to it.  Next, the window managers need to be taken out of the equation.  Either applications need to work with them all, always, or there needs to be a move to one, whichever it may be.  Lastly, the installation process needs to work like it does on other operating systems; I download the app, double-click and install and it gets added to my applications folder and applications menu.

There’s some areas of usability that could be looked at; making it obvious how to add quick launch apps or put something on the Start Menu, for example.  It’s still up against the issues of familiarity with Windows and the availability of applications on Windows (due to it being the dominant platform) and OS X (due to it being favoured by a certain segment).  Linux has certainly come on a great deal in recent years and if all you do is surf and check email it’s actually a perfectly serviceable OS.  It’ll run on much older hardware than Windows or OS X, it’s much less susceptible to malware than either (apparently) and it’s free.  I’m not sure it ticks every box if you only have one computer and have to pick one OS though, Windows is still too ubiquitous.  If you want to save some money on a second computer though, a netbook or nettop, or repurpose an old machine, then it’s definitely worth a try, just be prepared for a bit of a learning curve.