The hardcore Linux geeks won’t read this article. They’ll skip right past it… They don’t like Linux Mint much. There’s a good reason for them not to; it’s not designed for them. Linux Mint is for folks who want a stable, elegant desktop operating system that they don’t want to have to constantly tinker with. Anyone who is into Linux will find Mint rather boring because it can get as close to the bleeding edge of computer technology. That said, most of those same hardcore geeks will privately tell you that they’ve put Linux Mint on their Mom’s computer and she just loves it. Linux Mint is great for Mom. It’s stable, offers everything she needs and its familiar UI is easy for Windows refugees to figure out. If you think of Arch Linux as a finicky, high-performance sports car then Linux Mint is a reliable station wagon. The kind of car your Mom would drive. Well, I have always liked station wagons myself and if you’ve read this far then I guess you do, too. A ride in a nice station wagon, loaded with creature comforts, cold blowing AC, and a good sound system can be very relaxing, indeed.
MINT JUST GOT BETTER… AGAIN
I had no intention of writing this article at all until I upgraded one of my machines from Linux Mint 17.3 to 18.1 the other day. Frankly, I didn’t think there’d be all that much to talk about but I have been more than just a bit surprised at just how smooth and elegant Linux Mint 18.1 “Serena” is. To put it simply, this is the best Mint ever. Linux Mint 18 was released with much fanfare last year and I have tried it on various systems. I found it to be just a bit shaky… A lot of that shakiness can be attributed to the fact that Ubuntu 16.04 LTS landed with numerous bugs and issues and, since Linux Mint 18 is based on Ubuntu 16.04, some of that filtered down from upstream. Ubuntu has addressed most of those bugaboos over the last year and the first “dot release” in the LM 18 series seems to have successfully smoothed over whatever rough edges might be left in Ubuntu. Everything just works. Not a trace of the notorious Ubuntu Network Manger bug can be found in the new Mint. Wi-Fi is rock solid and dependable.
LINUX MINT IS MY DAILY DRIVER
I look at a lot of Linux distros for YouTube videos and to keep up with what’s going on. Some people think I am a notorious distro hopper who can’t make up his mind because of those videos. The truth of the matter is that I have been using Linux Mint almost constantly since the 17 series came along in 2014. I switched to Ubuntu MATE on a couple of my machines for a while and I consider Ubuntu MATE to be my second favorite distro. Mint is not perfect – no Linux distro is –- but it’s proven itself to be super stable. I run the Cinnamon Desktop everywhere and I have become very accustomed to how it works. It offers a nice balance between the oversimplification that GNOME 3 has become and the complexity of KDE Plasma. Mint has some very nice, simple tools included that I end up using more often than I thought I would. There is a USB stick formatter that will format any external drive with just a couple of clicks. There is also a handy USB Image writer tool that will create a bootable USB drive from any ISO Image. It’s just the dd command with a GUI front end, folks. Insidiously simple but very powerful and convenient.
Linux Mint forked a number of applications with the introduction of the 18 series and these are called X-apps. The name comes from Linux Mint’s standard Mint-X theme. So far, the X-apps offer an image viewer called Xviewer, a basic media player called Xplayer, a text editor called Xed and a photo manager/editor called Pix. The introduction of X-apps raised more than a few eyebrows in the Linux world. Some folks didn’t see the need for the duplication of effort but I have come to realize that the Mint folks had some very good reasons. Let’s take Pix as an example. Pix is a fork of the GNOME project’s gThumb application. I like gThumb a lot and I’ve used it for years but GNOME has made some pretty radical changes to gThumb’s UI in the latest versions. The program is still great but the new interface is awkward for many and oversimplified. Pix has taken the nice technical advances of the later gThumb version but kept the more traditional interface. The same can be said for the other X-apps. They are all very familiar and easy to use for anyone who knows their way around a computer. All the buttons and menus are where you expect them to be. I moved directly from 17.3 to 18.1 and didn’t miss a beat. Just today, I used Pix to create some thumbnails for a web project and I breezed through 20 photos in no time. On the other hand, I was using the latest gThumb in Ubuntu GNOME 16.10 a couple of weeks ago and I kept having to click things just to figure out what they did…. It was flat out annoying!
LET THE MINT MUSIC PLAY
Linux Mint has shipped with Banshee as its main media manager for years but the Mint team decided to dump Banshee in favor of Rhythmbox. I have been gravitating towards Rhythmbox lately myself so I’m happy about the change. Rhythmbox is more focused on music than Banshee and doesn’t play videos… It also offers a nice podcast manager and it will rip your CD’s with ease. Banshee did all this and it also featured a video player but Banshee isn’t as configurable. For instance, Banshee didn’t offer quality and file format setting for audio files whereas Rhythmbox makes it easy to set that stuff up just the way you like.
I find the way Rhythmbox does playlists to be easier to work with too. Banshee won’t let you drag files from music folders into new playlists. You can only choose songs from the imported library. If you have a large music collection like I do, you probably have your music folder laid out in such a way that music is grouped by genre and era. Rhythmbox does let you drag files from folders right into the new playlist whether they are currently in the main library or not. I created some playlists that had everything in my collection from my favorite artists. All I had to do was use the search function in the Nemo file manager to list all the songs I had from each artist and then drag them into a fresh new playlist for each one. Cool, huh? Now if I just gotta hear a bunch of Billy Joel, I can click on the Billy Joel playlist and it’s all there. I can also just have the computer serenade me with a divine shuffle of whatever it chooses next.
Long-time Banshee users might not be too keen on setting everything up again in Rhythmbox but if they upgraded to 18.1 in place then all that is need is to install Banshee and everything will be just as it was.
Those who don’t like Rhythmbox or Banshee can install whatever they like, of course. Linux is all about choice.
ALL LINUX MINT, ALL THE TIME
I was looking back on the last year and I realized that just about every new client who came to me through ezeelinux.com had asked for help with Linux Mint. Also, many of the clients I had put on Ubuntu in the past came back to me during 2016 and asked me to help them move to Mint. Considering that and the fact that Linux Mint 18.1 was proving itself to be just plain awesome, I made the decision to change my focus from offering support any Debian/Ubuntu based distro to Linux Mint exclusively. Now, this does not mean I won’t help someone with Ubuntu if they ask for it specifically but they are gonna have to come up with a really good reason why they want Ubuntu for me to not try to talk them into using Mint. Mint just offers a more polished and cohesive user experience and it is very well documented. New users who start with Mint tend to have fewer questions for me than those who are on anything else. This is good for me because I am busier than a one-armed paper hanger and it’s also good for them because it builds confidence as they learn more about Linux. I’m sure that some will want to move on to more advanced-user-focused forms of Linux and that’s fine with me. If they should decide that Arch or Fedora is where they want to be then I can assume that they are ready to deal with the challenges they will face with those more cutting-edge distributions. My job will be done then and a new Linux Geek will be born!
Linux Mint does have its quirks… One of them is when it comes to installing applications. You get full access to the Ubuntu repositories and the Ubuntu PPA system. This is a good thing but that also can cause some issues when you try to install some apps that are not quite compatible with Mint or cause conflicts with Mint’s native apps. It’s rare but it can happen. Also, Mint does something that bugs me. They ship with the APT package management system set to ignore recommended packages when installing software. Linux developers often use existing programs to add features or functionality to their own application. While these programs aren’t absolutely necessary for the main app to run properly, not having them installed can make for unexpected behavior and limited usability. Ubuntu ships with APT set to consider the recommended packages as dependencies, thus avoiding these vexing issues. I always advise clients to change this setting in Synaptic Package Manager before they start adding software to a fresh install of Linux Mint.
One very cool new feature of Linux Mint 18.1 is that it introduces Ubuntu’s Snappy package system. Programs distributed through Snappy are called Snaps and can be installed with just a few simple commands. Snap packages are different from APT’s .deb packages in that they include everything in the snap that it needs to run. Snaps run in containers that are isolated from the main system, which makes them more secure. Removing a snap won’t leave any extra packages behind or remove something that another program might need to keep working. Snappy is growing fast and many major distros are offering snap support. I’m hopeful that it will help eliminate some of the software pitfalls that Linux Mint users have had to deal with.
MINT MOVING FORWARD
Linux Mint has definitely become the distro that geeks give their Moms and it’s the Noob’s best choice for their introduction to the world of Linux. It’s also great for lazy folks like me who have a house full of computers that they just want to keep up and running with a minimum of fuss.
I personally applaud the Mint team’s efforts to keep things consistent and familiar. I do not agree with those who think that a desktop computer’s UI should look and act like a tablet or smartphone’s. Those are different devices with very different use cases. Also, the trend where menus are being replaced by buttons and settings and features once considered necessary are hidden or removed is disturbing to me. Developers get so excited about making it all look slick and clean that they miss things that users need. As an example, I found that the printer configuration application in GNOME 3 dropped all mention of sharing a printer on the network. Those who want to setup CUPS either have to log into the CUPS server through a browser or they can open a terminal and pull up the old family’s CUPS printer manager app and set it there. I’m happy to report that Linux Mint still uses the little CUPS app and it has all the sharing features, just like it always has.
For more about Linux Mint: www.linuxmint.com.