It may be based on Ubuntu, but Linux Mint is a drastic departure for the OS. Ashton Mills explains.
Ubuntu's reign on Linux desktop dominance may soon be under threat with two new releases from Mint, but far from simply being a different take on a user-friendly desktop, the new Mint 13 is important because it diverges dramatically from Ubuntu, upon which it’s based. And it does so because it's challenging the very direction Ubuntu is taking.
It all started with Unity
Ubuntu's Unity interface has had a number of Ubuntu releases to mature and mature it has become -- in our opinion at least -- providing a slick interface that doubles well as both a tablet and desktop design. With the release of Ubuntu 12.04, Unity is now quite polished and honestly, a pleasure to use once you get used to it.
And that's the kicker -- ever since Unity appeared, there have been a large number of users who don't want to get used to it and instead prefer the more traditional Windows-esque desktop design that fairly the whole world has been weaned on for over a decade now. A design that Ubuntu, and in turn Mint, followed as well with its GNOME 2 interface up until Unity hit the scene.
The developers of Mint, with the release of Mint 13, have decided to take a different tack and keep alive the ‘Start’ button/taskbar design that has become so familiar to everyone. This isn't an easy choice to make, though. GNOME 2 is slowly being replaced by GNOME 3, which in its own way has also left behind decades of user interface design to branch out on a new limb. This means if you're a fan of GNOME or Ubuntu, but you prefer the more traditional desktop design, you're kind of out of luck. And as more distributions move to GNOME 3 and Canonical charges ahead with Unity, if you prefer to stick with the traditional GNOME 2 desktop, your choices are running thin.
Hence with the release of Mint 13, the developers have taken an entirely new path and forgone not just Unity, but the default GNOME 3 interface as well. So, what is it using?
Spice up your MATEs
Mint is actually offering two versions of Mint 13 -- same base Linux distribution, two different interfaces. The first is called MATE, a name derived from a South American beverage called 'mate' and no real bearing on the interface itself; it's a name primarily to differentiate it from GNOME 3. MATE is a fork of GNOME 2, or said another way, it's GNOME 2 continued, but by a set of different developers. The goal of MATE is to maintain and update GNOME 2 to move with the times, but keeping within the classic look and feel. This is the closest to the traditional Ubuntu plus GNOME 2 desktop now available, if that's your preference.
The other version is called Cinnamon and this too is a fork, this time of the new GNOME 3. Cinnamon has a different goal to MATE: it aims to bring all the benefits of GNOME 3, while sticking as close as possible to traditional GNOME 2 desktop style. In other words, it's GNOME 3 for the traditonalists!
Mint's MATE menu is familiar to previous Mint users who grew up with Mint's modified GNOME 2 desktop.
Sporting the feel of GNOME 3, Cinnamon pulls it back into line with the familiar launch menu paradigm and it looks great.
Mint is the only distribution offering these two alternatives to GNOME 3 on the same base platform at the moment, and this dedication to the classic user interface style everyone is familiar with is rapidly rising Mint's star in the world of Linux distributions. But what do they both look like and how do they compare?
Comparing the contenders
A lot of the differences are easier to see through actual usage, but there are still highlights that demonstrate the different paths each is taking, especially considering Cinnamon is built on GNOME 3 and could provide new features we haven't seen yet. For now, though, this is how the two interfaces compare.
You can't see it in the screenshots, but Cinnamon has other advantages: namely, being based on GNOME 3, it inherits a range of snazzy 3D effects that make the desktop feel 'slick'. To MATE's advantage, however, is the fact that it's based on GNOME 2 and thus inherits a very stable and polished legacy. Cinnamon, by comparison, still feels like it's missing the odd feature here and there and feels, just like GNOME 3, that it's still in development -- because, of course, it is.
However, the look and feel of apps is mostly the same across both versions -- they’re both still GNOME after all. But it's a testament to the Cinnamon development team that it looks and feels so similar to GNOME 2, which is the goal.
Ultimately, though, the success of either depends on how many users are happy to go with Ubuntu's Unity flow and how many prefer to stick with what they know best.