LinuxMint 15 delivers smooth alternative to Ubuntu

Mint offers three versions, including a rolling update option targeted at developers

The crafters of the LinuxMint distro are in a ticklish position. Mint is based on Ubuntu, which in turn, is based on Debian, which in turn, has the moveable feast of the Linux kernel as its underpinning. All three have changed underneath LinuxMint, but LinuxMint 15 pulls off a new cut without missing a step (save a missing KDE version).

We found LinuxMint 15 to be smoother than the previous version, a bit heftier, yet more adept. What really intrigued us is a Debian version that's a rolling version, and although it's called LinuxMint 15, it's more like LinuxMintForever. It's also not a good choice for civilians for a number of reasons. There's also a skinny version, LinuxMint Xfce.

[ALSO: 5 things we love/hate about Linux Mint 13

Gone in the primary edition are a few clunky apps, and we found waning support for older hardware, although few are likely to complain. We still need to download replacement apps, because some of the ones that are included continue to do weird tricks.

One example is the media app, brasero, which can't seem to burn standard CDs from ISOs the second time around on our test machines (Lenovo T520s and T530s), and sometimes can't burn the first ISO correctly. We replaced it with K3B, which is vastly better in our experience. But now we can burn USB flash drives without error or drama right from the initial startup as a “pendrive” USB device burner is included.

The sheer number of post-installation updates dropped dramatically, also to our liking, as a result of an update-sources change, as they now pull from the correct repositories consistently and the system of getting updates has been nicely revamped.

Linux Mint

As the downloadable LinuxMint 15 ISO files were more complete than before, update times went down.

LinuxMint 15 (Olivia)

There are three base versions, a primary download, Xfce, and LMDE.

 The primary default download contains Cinnamon 1.8 and Mate 1.6. We currently favor this version over the LMDE release for civilian use.

 LinuxMint 15 LMDE, based on comparatively raw Debian sources and older versions of Cinnamon and Mate, is a DebianForever version - a rolling update version. You can also choose the KDE version, which sits at LinuxMint (release level) 14, and not Olivia. There is no LinuxMint 15 server, smartphone, or tablet ports to ARM that we could find. Ubuntu and Debian both cover these alternate turfs.

 Xfce runs in under 500Mb of RAM and less than 5Gb of space, a lean-and-mean version. We have nothing that small anymore, but it's a cute VM.

The basic LinuxMint 15 download installed flawlessly in both our limited notebook test beds, but also as virtual machines under both Oracle VirtualBox, as well as VMware ESXi and Citrix XenServer.

It worked on EFI boot, handily replacing or sitting as a dualboot with a Windows 8 installation. It could also squeeze Windows 7 or 8 into a smaller size, and make then use its own partition, meaning dualboot through the famous Grub2 bootloader.

We were offered five partitions in this way, primary boots for LinuxMint 15 and Windows, recovery partitions for each, and also the Lenovo supplied wipe-it-all-back-to-factory partition, as well as two boot-time memtests. If you ignore it, it simply boots the first OS, in this case, LinuxMint.

We warn here that our Lenovo notebooks did all of the partitioning and installation using BIOS, rather than UEFI, as the Lenovo notebooks were supplied this way. If Windows 7 or 8 is supplied under UEFI settings, these must be turned off, currently. Hacks are available for some machines that have Windows UEFI boots that can allow altered system boots, but these seem to be on a machine-specific, BIOS-by-BIOS alteration.

While we applaud UEFI's master boot record/MBR isolation, we decry its implementation and difficulty for non-Windows systems integration.

LinuxMint still follows Ubuntu's underpinnings, which logs users as non-root sessions, with the initial user's password as the root password. We could envision an exploit coming one day that will pop through user-space this way; root and user need different passwords.

Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE)

The Debian community has traditionally not been poised towards civilian support, but LinuxMint 15 LMDE puts both adequate “clothing” and shoes onto Debian in a way that bridges the easy GUI, apps, and components of LinuxMint with Debian's more teutonic underpinnings.

This edition gets new code once a week, or more frequently, but is also of the testing rather than stable branch of code. It might be more stable more quickly, or perhaps not, but a Debian strength is (traditionally) very good QA.

What won't happen currently for LMDE users is support for EFI, or some modern BIOS. This means that installing LMDE might require older hardware, disabled BIOS settings, and might cause certain SSD schemes and combinations to not work -- but not be damaged in the attempt. GPT partitioned drives can be used -- if wiped first.

Unlike the mainstream version of Olivia, LMDE has older versions of Cinnamon and Mint. Although LinuxMint is underpinned by Ubuntu apps, libraries, and configurations, LMDE is not, and so app sources aren't as easily obtainable. It looks like LinuxMint. It quacks like LinuxMint. It is Debian like Olivia, but it lacks the Ubuntu guts.

Why would one use such a thing? Because it's clean and bereft of the add-ons Ubuntu uses as manifested by Olivia and other prior LinuxMint editions. It's in a way, like Xfde -- a distro that now wears LinuxMint apparel. Developers have a new baseline. Debian distribution fans have a distribution with unified pre-built apparel.  

As the LinuxMint blog puts it, “The live installer is developed from scratch with Debian in mind. It’s configurable and it can be re-used by other Debian-based distributions. We noticed a lack in live technologies and in live Debian installers, so we’re happy to take the lead on this.” To these ends, developers and Debian fans will enjoy the changes.

We also acknowledge that this might allow LinuxMint to hedge its bet against the rapidly evolving changes that Canonical has made in Ubuntu's flavoring.

In Use

The mainstream Olivia version worked well, and allowed us to choose from optional drivers in a pick list that was easier than before, although none of the optional drivers (mostly poised towards graphic chipsets) were germane to our Lenovo notebooks and VM instances.

While installation was faster, we also had the benefit of easier GUI customization, as most components are now pre-loaded, such as themes, etc. Applets are available that can also be manifested as desktop “desklets”, the equivalent of widgets and the active squares found in the Windows 8 GUI.  

Desktop backgrounds can now be active and display things like moving clouds, or the view from an airplane as desired, but for some, this amounts to CPU-chewing eye candy. Those with low eye candy sugar levels will enjoy the variety, however, and many of the themes arrive pre-packaged. Overall window management control has increased in small ways, as well.

Our HP printers worked the first time and without the need for further drama or configuration. The packaged drivers didn't give us an indication of the semi-permanent ink-low state of our printers, and did not out/bother us for using “counterfeit” cartridges, which pleased us. The Windows 7 drivers will complain about both.

Overall

This edition marks more polish for LinuxMint, as well as the edition of a likely developer favorite, LMDE. We found it more complete, and ready to do work than ever before, if with a few apps that we seem to habitually replace. The updates are smoothed, and it keeps up with competitive features like active desktop GUI elements.

It's Ubuntu underneath, but the resemblance on the surface is all but gone. The nice part: most of the apps that don't depend specifically on Ubuntu Unity will work, and the list of these apps seems to grow almost exponentially.

This is the Linux version we can hand to civilian friends/family with the fewest potential phone calls -- subject to the mysteries of UEFI boots and the lunacy of diffuse BIOS variations that make installation of non-Windows operating systems on modern notebooks a travesty.

Henderson is principal researcher for ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

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