KDE is most accomplished and mature of three Mint flavors, but bugs remain
With Ubuntu 12.04 LTS as its underpinnings, Linux Mint 13 (Maya) was recently released in three versions, KDE (new), Xfce, and Gnome-Cinnamon. We tested each version separately and while we still like Mint, we're accumulating a nagging list of bugs -- some of which are the fault of Ubuntu, and some are the twists that Linux Mint takes on its own.
Like other versions of OSs, the initial payload of Linux Mint no longer fits on a single CD, unless fat components (like Libre Office) are removed. As the delivery system is an Internet download or a flash/external storage medium, we didn't find this to be a problem. It did, however, put one more nail in the coffin of the lowly CD.
We easily installed the three Linux Mint versions onto a test notebook (Lenovo T520 ThinkPad with Core i5 Intel chipset, 8GB of memory, and internal 500GB Hitachi conventional drive). Others have complained about driver detection problems with older Dell models, but we had no difficulties. We were heartened to see an enormous variety of supported text languages.
The upgrade conundrum
Upgrading from a prior version to Linux Mint 13 can be problematic. Linux Mint's website suggests that upgrades are likely unnecessary, as the built-in updating functionality keeps most things reasonably up to date.
One argument says that if you're current with updates, which are usually two clicks away (or less), you're using a nice stable operating system. If you're using Linux Mint 9, with updates, you're OK. You probably have the latest Linux Kernel, and the Debian/Ubuntu underpinnings are probably up to date, too. So, the argument goes, the idea of a separate upgrade is unnecessary.
But there are many legitimate reasons for an upgrade. Upgrades might be needed when an end user fiddles around with internal configurations and accidentally messes something up, or when applications are damaged. In the case of a bad hard drive, it's best to get off the drive through various backup processes available.
But changing from one edition to another, we found, is rough. The Linux Mint backup app under Gnome-Cinnamon will stymie many users. It's unclear, and uses selections and terminology which might not lead to a successful backup. We have decades of experience with some highly sophisticated backup and archiving schemes, but we got grey hair from this one. Civilians will hurt themselves, and potentially, their data. Linux Mint uses a different backup methodology than its core, Debian and Ubuntu Cloud. You'll get no help there.
Part of this comes from the philosophy of how Linux is put together, and how updates work. Rolling updates aren't used in the underpinning operating system: Debian. Ubuntu, and therefore Linux Mint use the stable branch of Debian, which is updated in a slow, deliberative fashion. The problem with rolling updates is that they can result in a destabilized platform in cases where there are dependency issues and updates fall out of revision sync with other updates and changes to application settings.
But if you want to upgrade, it's best to use a tried-and-true method, which is to backup key data files, try to remember your customizations (or your .conf files if you know where they are) and then use the siege howitzer of the traditional Unix/Linux/Solaris/BSD/GNU file cannon: the tar -xvf command.
It's then possible to move categorically from Gnome-Cinnamon to Xfce to KDE UIs. It's tougher than it needs to be, and vastly less clean than upgrading empirically from MacOS or Windows to the next version. Oddly, there's an included application APToCD that will take a downloaded or other built/included application repository and burn it to CD/DVD. Real backup should be so easy.
The Xfce version of LinuxMint is based on the "lightweight" version window manager, Xfce. The usable components nonetheless still weigh in at 830+GB at the "normal" download payload. The window manager in Xfce is small; it's the other applications in the payload that bulk up the distribution. Xfce, despite its comparative small size, is visually appealing, if bereft of the quantity of applications based on the resident window manager in the KDE and Gnome-Cinnamon versions.
This is the one we'd use for older notebooks and desktops, as it's simple and has as a common foundation with the Gnome versions, the GTK2+ platform that enables various graphics apps and UI behaviors to work together.
There are two Gnome versions available, Mate 1.2 and Gnome-Cinnamon. On the surface, they both look like Gnome 2.2, a hallowed version of the famous UI. Underneath, we found there are decided differences. Mate 1.2 is based on a fork of Gnome 2.x, although it looks and feels identical to the Gnome 2.2 UI/window manager. This is where long-time Linux users of Gnome will feel happy, comfy, and will not gnash their teeth and wail about the differences in Gnome 3, which for some long-time Gnome users (and Ubuntu users who dislike Canonical's Unity UI) is the very center of hell itself.
Mate 1.2 has a very long list of compatible applications, and is both fast and responsive -- except in file management activities, where Linux Mint seemed to uniformly bog down for us. Long time Linux hacks would be right at home here, unless they enjoyed KDE or just a command-line.
Cinnamon, however, is actually Gnome 3 in Gnome 2 clothing. It's very much like a Gnome 2.2 "skin" for Gnome 3, and can do a few dazzling 3D effects if an application, and most importantly, the machine's graphics chipset and memory support it. We found that Cinnamon is somewhat dicey to use, as it's graphics driver-specific, and may not install without work on some systems.
Our T520s were compatible, and what we noted was that Cinnamon looked beautiful, but was also very sluggish and sometimes unpredictable in practical use. Cinnamon is new, but a failing of Linux distributions is to allow hardware detection to immediately disqualify and offer an alternate, even automatic, substitution of something that works the first time. It gives the experimental feeling that other OS users don't have.
KDE fans will rejoice at its inclusion in the Linux Mint 13 offerings, and although the download is slightly larger, the applications are more mature, with less infighting issues. The KDE install is simple for most, except that during its installation, it gives no indication that something is happening while the payload is being installed. It's calm, almost serene.
In our use, the KDE experience was simple, yet if we wanted to feel like we were using Linux, it behaved that way. The look and feel of this version will ruffle the feathers of no one, and the apps, especially the various media apps, were mature, cohesive, and played nicely together. After frustration and mild exasperation at what Gnome has become (with Ubuntu Unity motivators), we decided that the KDE version was perhaps the single best improvement in Linux Mint 13, overall.
We've accumulated a number of odd behaviors across both Linux Mint 11-13, and tested them on all three versions to verify that the behavior isn't endemic to our hardware test platform, the aforementioned Lenovo T520s. They're nagging, but not showstoppers. The primary difficulty comes, when using a different file system than the host, on USB-attached drives with large subdirectories. Manually -- via a shell -- we can find information perfectly fast. The UI in both Gnome versions, however, takes forever to manage large flat subdirectories into view, sometimes crashing (we gave up waiting overnight). KDE doesn't display this behavior, but Xfce does.
We were happy to find that there were fewer post initial-installation updates needed to bring the system up to date. Our prior experience had us glumly waiting for a long list of packages to be downloaded, installed, filed away, rinsed, repeated. It made us feel in all three editions as though the payloads had been thought through, and the initial mix was up-to-date.
Yet IPSec VPNs can be difficult to make work. We can connect via PPTP to our Apple MacOS 10.6 and Windows 2008 R2 networks, but connections failed to stay up. We've sought configuration change advice, but to no avail. We can reconnect easily enough, and the disconnections usually (but not as a rule) don't affect file transfers.
IPSec VPNs are more troublesome still, and we received intermittent and random disconnections even when connected through pristine, local wires and routing. We are still looking for answers, but the trace tools are difficult to use. We found that Cisco's Linux Debian version worked consistently. At press time, we're still looking for stable PPTP and IPSec connections where both should work immediately and without question from a security standpoint.
The Wi-Fi device drivers found our Lenovo/Intel chipset correctly. If, however, one somehow corrupts a relationship with a default Wi-Fi access point connection, that connection needs a WPA (or WPA2) password each time it subsequently reconnects to the infrastructure access point whose name or password was initially deleted or mistyped. As we change our passwords somewhat frequently, this means that we must enter them at each session after an access point password change cycle.
We're still looking for where the passwords are cached, to reset them to allow us to get closer to a default sign-on. The wireless subsystem will sometimes ditch the default, perfectly good Wi-Fi connection and latch onto a less powerful one -- even when there is no contention for connection. It's not that the connection is invalid, just that it's irksome to have to re-associate with a preferred access point -- then add its complex password to each session.
The application payload still includes Libre Office, and the KDE version contains the best multimedia handling apps. While we've been Gnome fans for a long time, the smoothness of the KDE feel and the overall crispness of the KDE payload makes us want to recommend it first for boring desktop installations in need of low drama.
How We Tested Linux Mint 13
We tested the Linux Mint 13 "Maya" KDE, Mate 1.2, and Cinnamon versions of Linux desktop operating systems on a Lenovo ThinkPad T520 (Intel i5 dual-core 64-bit CPU, 8GB Dram, several identical Hitachi 500GB conventional drives) with a gigabit Ethernet connection, and Dlink (802.11/a/b/g/n in low-band N channel 11) Wi-Fi access point. We both upgraded (and don't recommend this) as well as installed fresh copies of the operating systems versions onto our Hitachi drives, and compared application payloads, look and feel, and to see whether bugs we'd found in LinuxMint 11 and 12 had been fixed; we highlighted the operational bugs we found.
Tom Henderson is principal researcher for ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington Ind. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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