Product reviews - open source

For a sweet desktop, try Mint with Cinnamon

Linux Mint 17 offers long-term support; emerges as open source alternative for Windows XP users.

Product reviews - open source

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If Red Hat’s specialization is enterprise application, development and hosting, and Ubuntu’s is anything that moves, then Linux Mint is carving only one niche: desktop dominance.

Linux Mint 17 continues in a line of Linux desktop-focused releases, and in testing we found it’s become more mature. Like the other two Linux distributions we recently tested, Linux Mint is supported for a longer term — five years from April 2014. Linux Mint gives you a choice of user interfaces, including Gnome-branch Cinnamon, its half-brother Mate, or the lightweight Xfce version. 

Other pertinent points: These UIs can be downloaded in either 32- or 64-bit versions. You’ll need a gig+ of user memory for a smooth installation. Mint runs on Intel CPUs only, so no playing around on ARM-based tablets for now.

Mint is based on Ubuntu, but there’s also a version of Linux Mint 17 based on Debian Linux (LMDE). This version uses rolling updates, which, while being a secure way to keep an OS protected, might be disconcerting for some.

And because we found that the LMDE versions don’t have civilian-friendly default installation settings, we recommend the Linux Mint17 Cinnamon version as the pick mostly likely to be successfully deployed and used. 

Cinnamon has become our favorite because of its support for multimedia, its mostly logical user interface interactions, and lots of compatibility. All of the default choices, including installation, are safe and fine. It’s not an objective determination to label a desktop operating system “warm and fuzzy” but it competes well with Canonical’s Unity UI, and with its snappiness and easy connectivity to Windows or all-things-Apple. Installation over our base of Lenovo notebooks was flawless and even boring.

And while we don’t usually sermonize operating systems reviews, we find it plainly hubris and not-invented-here that Microsoft can’t read Apple’s HPFS+ files, and Apple still refuses to natively write NTFS. Linux Mint can read either, write either, and does so without blushing or hemming and hawing. And like it’s Canonical half-brother, Ubuntu, it reads most media formats, comes with an Office app built-in that reads and writes Microsoft Office files fairly well, and generally isn’t bothersome nor does it have walls designed to put a noose around the necks of their competition.

You can also use a 32-bit version, or a 64-bit version to suit your new or antiquarian desktop. No Windows 8 version or Apple’s Maverick OS supports 32-bit.

The Xfce version was missing from the initial launch of Mint 17. We were able to download the Cinnamon, Mate, and LMDE, and run any three easily as bare-hardware desktop machines, or as VMs. Finally, a month later, Xfce became available.

Under The Hood

The one UI you can’t load is Canonical’s Unity user interface. Between Cinnamon, Mate and XFce, there are only minor differences. New in either Cinammon (2.0) or Mate (1.8) versions is support for EFI booting and GUID disk partition tables —which worked well on all of the desktop hardware and VMs we tested. However, using EFI boot is a one-direction move and as with other operating systems, can’t be reversed without a firmware re-flash.

The 32-bit versions are tuned to a 486 CPU, and so multi-core 32-bit CPUs will need a 686 kernel installed to find additional 32-bit cores, although these machines become rarer and rarer. We were able to get the 32-bit version to work with a twin-core 32-bit CPU on an ancient Fujitsu notebook. It wasn’t much fun. But it worked.

Multimedia works more easily across the Cinnamon and Mate versions, and now included are options to burn flash/pen drives as bootable, and we found that Banshee now works when burning both flash drives and DVDs, which caused us pain in prior LinuxMint versions.

There’s more user-customizing, artwork (mostly in the form of skins and theme customizations), and updated versions of Firefox browser and Thunderbird mail—which both allow synchronization across desktops.

Please step back about three years with Linux Mint, as it’s unlikely you’ll be able to use much cloud synch. Mint needs a vendor like Box or Dropbox to save their day as added value in the media/synch-your-stuff race, because this version will frustrate consumers in this regard.

Final Words

There’s something here to please everyone. Civilians won’t hurt themselves deploying Cinnamon over Linux Mint17. Developers will enjoy any of the versions, and the hard core will find lots to love with the LMDE versions.

There’s more compatibility with weird, obscure, or just plain interesting hardware platforms than ever before, as hardware installation identification has become richer and richer, approaching the “gold standard” that Microsoft once achieved with Windows XP.

Indeed, Linux Mint17 probably plays in more places than anything Apple produces, and fills a vacuum left in the wake of the demise of support for Windows XP and the advent of unpopular Windows 8.X moves.

SUSE and Red Hat aren’t paying quite as much attention to the desktop, and Linux Mint, along with its older brother Ubuntu, offers a very reasonable if not entirely progressive replacement for XP users—and much more.

How We Tested Linux Mint 17

We installed Linux Mint17 Cinnamon and Mate on Lenovo notebooks as both bare metal and also as VirtualBox clients on Linux hardware, and Parallels for Mac clients on Macintosh Mavericks, as well as virtual machines on VMware 5.5 and Hyper-V3.

We encountered problems only when we strangled memory in the virtual machines, with spectacular effect—especially with the LMDE versions. We tried the newly updated applications, and found installation easier than ever, although the LMDE versions may confuse civilians.

Tom Henderson runs ExtremeLabs, Inc., in Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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