REVIEW: Linux Mint 17.3 delivers better interface plus long-term support

Interface improvements make “Rosa” the best Mint yet

linux mint rosa
Thinkstock/Linux Mint

The latest version of Linux Mint, dubbed “Rosa,” offers long-term support and in our tests we found that it delivers an improved user experience no matter which interface is selected.

Linux Mint is a desktop operating system for non-tablet, Intel/AMD-powered systems, in 32- or 64-bit processor families, based on Ubuntu core components, but without Ubuntu’s Unity UI.

There are four main UI options, and, personal preferences aside, the most complete version for most users is the Cinnamon GUI. The other options are Xfce, KDE, and Mate. There is also an OEM version designed for use by hardware manufacturers, or those desiring to create multiple instances for VDI use. There’s also a version aimed at free-open source software purists that doesn’t include proprietary drivers.

The main changes from previous versions of Mint are in the UI, but several important hardware differences are possible. The first is compatibility with machines that use UEFI boot, a secure boot method that has become more prevalent, due in no small part to Microsoft’s desire for UEFI security in all levels of supported hardware.

The 32-bit version of LinuxMint 17.3 is strictly for computers with BIOS or BIOS-compatible boot methods, while the 64-bit can use BIOS-compatible or UEFI boot. One cannot change from BIOS to UEFI and back without serious work.

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Linux Mint’s various versions are not easily interchangeable, but they do come with four-year support, as mentioned, and can be upgraded from prior editions in a number of ways.

When an end user downloads an update, the site now attempts to find update sites/mirrors that are closer to, or at least have better transit times than ones you may have chosen. As we’ve had pains with Linux Mint mirrors in the past, this comes as a welcome change and worked with each edition from the start of updates.

We wish that the initial ISO operating system download would pick the fastest mirror, too, but perhaps that’ll be in the next release.

Along with updates comes a better driver manager, which will make recommendations based upon hardware discovery, and the listings for drivers also denote open-source vs. proprietary.

This becomes an issue especially on display adapter drivers, and as Mesa3D updates have been included in Linux Mint 17.3. Mating the right graphics driver becomes the crux of both performance and compatibility with machine hardware — especially where a chipset with compatible GPU is present. This made a difference in only one machine we tested Linux Mint on, a Samsung notebook with an Intel chipset. Gamers and CAD artists will like the option, but for most work apps, we saw precious little difference.

The work apps, however, are better. Linux Mint 17.3 in all editions has LibreOffice 5. Among improvements is the ability to drop in images, crop them, anchor them, edit them, all with far fewer motions and entanglements than prior editions. Indeed, this doc was edited in this way. You can now generate professional documents that put a time-stamp in the PDF file as internal metadata according to the IETF RFC 3161.

For additional spit-polish, it’s now also possible to import color palettes (Adobe Swatch Exchange/.ase--- something we use in document generation), so as to keep docs color-cohesive. This sort of matching doesn’t usually become apparent until you print something and find that the color mix is off by just enough to make you want to kick your printer.

In use

Each varietal type, Cinnamon, Mate, Xfce, and KDE, have changes. Perhaps the most visible changes come with Xfce, which is a minimalist edition, and can now switch among a number of Window Managers, which give it new “skin” qualities.

Xfce has the fastest updates, because of its smaller size and footprint, and we found it had the best chance to work on minimalist hardware configurations. It’s lean, mean, and perhaps the best choice for the Linux and FOSS purist.

The perennial choice between Cinnamon and Mate, two branches of Gnome, seem to be less and less relevant. By a voice vote, Cinnamon won the contest for most-survivable by a civilian. There’s more Mac-like behavior for things like renaming files and folders, and function key combinations like alt-tab have more intelligence.

Tabbing through apps with alt-tab, for example, brings up a mini-window of what’s going on in that window, and workspaces can now be more easily switched. Overall, we felt as though Cinnamon is now more simple for Windows and Mac users to switch to, as muscle-memory key selections produce understandable results. Power management has more options, and we found they worked in our testing.

Net results

PRODUCT: Linux Mint 17.3, Cinnamon, Mate, Xfce, and KDE Editions (Free)
PROS: Long-term support, most editions gain UI strengths, LibreOffice 5 Updates
CONS: More difficult UEFI customizing; better updates, although initial mirrors can be slow.

Mate is perhaps as good, but IT people will prefer its look and feel. It imports a few features from Cinnamon, like new window managers, which can be switched without having to log-out and back in. The speed and rapid context change tend to suit the ostensible power-users among us. Mate was a little faster than Cinnamon, especially in context changes, and feels more reactive.

The LinuxMint 17.3 KDE edition uses KDE5, and we found some minor bugs. KDE likes more memory and more graphics memory dedication than any of the other versions, but only the hardware constrained will feel any difference, which amounts to sluggishness.

When well-supplied with hardware (specifically user memory), KDE has some dazzling eye candy. The eye candy turned sour on one of our installations when the <Continue> button was obscured by the fact that KDE can’t operate in a 640x480 mode, and simply leaves off the right and bottom side of the screen, causing us to experiment with the tab key while installing. But KDE is slick, and has a fan club of diehard adherents. It’s not our first choice, but we could get used to it.

All versions use the Linux 3.19.032 generic kernel, not the newest kernel, which is 4.4.

What’s not to like? Linux Mint 17.3 in all editions will swallow weak user passwords, and it’s very difficult to find two-factor authentication schemes to use readily. While you can encrypt the entire disk, other Linux distros allow you to just encrypt the user’s home directory, although arguably the entire disk is perhaps a wiser solution.

Then, UEFI boot comes into question, and UEFI is no walk in the park. There’s nothing in the routine that says, wait a minute, would you like to do a secure boot, or do you just want to ignore the whole concept because Microsoft foisted it upon us? Managing UEFI resources isn’t as easy as it should be, and there are some clever features of UEFI that when used with the TPM chips embedded in many machines, give a chain-of-authority to machine storage and encryption integrity.

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Linux Mint 17.3 comes closer to compatibilities in terms of look and feel — no matter the UI — with Mac OS 10.11 and Windows 10. It’s smarter, and less jolting to switch operating systems between all three operating systems — unlike Ubuntu’s Unity. We found few compatibility issues, and like MacOS and Windows, Linux Mint (especially KDE) seems to need ever-more hardware than before, although support for 32-bit systems and their limitations still exists, and is supported through the four year LTS cycle.


Features 4.5
Performance/Security 3.5
Manageability/administration 4
Usability/Docs 4.5
Overall 4.25

Lifting all four boats cyclically, as Linux Mint attempts to do, must be like herding cats. Underneath, lots of plumbing and apps need to be in revision synch to make it all work, and delightfully the user is probably blithely ignorant of the drill necessary to carry these somewhat diverse UIs into a single edition.

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

*The LinuxMint 17.3 Long Term Edition is said to be updated until 2019 although some versions were released in January 2016.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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