For a number of years now Ubuntu Linux has been the poster penguin for easy-to-use Linux. But it's not the only one.
Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, set out to make a 'Linux for human beings' and succeeded -- it is, currently, the most popular Linux desktop distribution and the first port of call for Windows users looking to make the switch.
But that may be about to change. With the move to the new Unity interface, and the radical re-imagining of the desktop this bought, not all Ubuntu fans are as happy as they used to be. And, while there are a number of distributions that use Ubuntu as a base, some have chosen to not follow the Unity path.
Like Linux Mint. While built on Ubuntu, Mint has gained popularity over the years by taking the standard Ubuntu install and tweaking it to make it even more user-friendly -- features like having multimedia codecs already installed; smart utilities such as a firewall manager and domain blocker; and its own take on backup, updating and software installation with Mint-specific alternatives.
On the whole, and to its advantage, Mint has always looked and felt similar to Ubuntu -- though it comes with its own 'Mint' inspired themes. Frequently, of all the mainstream desktop distributions available, Mint is cited as the one that 'just works' out of the box on the widest range of hardware.
When Canonical introduced Unity, the Mint team decided it wouldn't follow. The classic taskbar interface that most Linux users and all Windows users are familiar with would stay, and instead Mint would develop its own implementation of Gnome 3.0 upon which the latest Ubuntu is based.
Mint Gnome Shell Extensions
Linux Mint 12 brings its own extensions to Gnome 3.0 to the table, appropriately called MGSE (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions). MGSE allows you to configure Gnome 3.0 to behave more like a traditional desktop with a bottom panel for running tasks, an application menu similar to the Windows Start menu, window list application switching and finally, the all-too-familiar system tray icons.
The bottom-left Mint Menu now sports some Gnome 3.0 features, such as highlighting core applications like Firefox, or Banshee for music, while adding a browsable menu structure similar in many ways to the one on KDE 4.0. Programs then can still be found and launched mostly the same as you did with Gnome 2.0. The top left gives access to the Gnome 3.0 Activities display, revealing previews of all running programs similar to Mac OS X's Exposé, or the option to browse all programs on the system and search by name (a feature we now see in Windows 8). The top menu bar is all Gnome 3.0 in fact, with the new clock and user menu that gives access to features like System utilities and Shutdown.
Other features that Mint bundles by default includes the Sushi file previewer for Nautilus -- selecting a file and pressing space will show the contents of images, documents, videos and so on -- and the super Mint Update Manager, which breaks updates down via priority and colour-coding. After using it you wonder why Ubuntu doesn't do the same.
Mate, what about Gnome 2?
If visual upgrades and new features of Gnome 3.0 aren't to your liking, you can still run Gnome 2.0 on Mint. But as Gnome programs move with the times, this may become harder and harder and that's where MATE comes in. The MATE Desktop Environment is essentially a Gnome 2.0 fork that continues Gnome 2.0 development while the Gnome team surges ahead with Gnome 3.0, and Mint comes with it pre-installed. Changing to MATE is as simple as selecting 'Gnome Classic' when logging in.
And it works well, if a little rough around the edges. The Mint team has made it clear that MATE is still young and problems will likely be encountered, but a lot of work has gone into integrating Mint features into MATE. If you absolutely can't stand anything Gnome 3.0 related, it provides a familiar interface with Mint's underlying heritage.
And why is it called MATE? No it's not an Australianism, but instead refers to the tea based on yerba mate. Which of course makes it all the more clear.
Supporting the cause
One of the more interesting changes in Mint is the choice of default search engine. Google is replaced by Duck Duck Go. We hadn't heard of it either, but it has an interesting philosophy: your information is yours. Duck Duck Go does not collect information or track you (yes, Google does) nor does it provide 'bubbled' results (that is, results tailored to you based on... being tracked. Effectively choosing for you what you see). Duck Duck Go has an informative page about bubbling at DontBubble.us
While not completely open, it's strongly supportive of open source and has signed an agreement with Linux Mint to share revenue generated by sponsored links. Ergo, it's a method to support the development of Mint while using an alternative search engine.
A refreshing change
In our testing, Linux Mint 12 has all the features you're familiar with from Ubuntu but with an entirely different interface, and one that focuses on the traditional dual-taskbar meme. It's pleasant to use but not without its problems: as MGSE is still new we saw a few loose ends here and there (clicking on the Calendar from the Date/Time dropdown for example reports an error). And there are other subtle differences compared to Ubuntu of course, like the fact the Déjà Dup backup tool doesn't default to Ubuntu One as a backup target, though there's nothing stopping you from adding your Ubuntu One account as a destination. And other Ubuntu features such as overlay scrollbars are not enabled by default, though can be easily toggled with the installation of a package or two.
Linux Mint is definitely a work of art and a worthy alternative if Unity hasn't grabbed your imagination. Mint 12, aka 'Lisa', is based on Ubuntu 11.10 and if you want to give it a spin, grab the DVD edition as this is the 'normal' release. The CD version doesn't include applications like Open Office, but can be upgraded to the DVD edition once installed.