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Linux Mint 14 with Cinnamon: The New Gnormal

© 2013 SF Kinney, released under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 License

Linux Mint 14 Cinnamon
I tend to customize things a little

With the upcoming expiration of Ubuntu 10.04 in April 2013, it is operating system upgrade time for a whole lot of folks. A couple of weeks ago I decided to get it over with and picked out a new OS for my primary desktop machine: Mint 14 with the Cinnamon desktop. One way to describe Mint is to call it an improved version of Ubuntu: It is built on the Ubuntu code base and Mint users can install programs from the Mint, Ubuntu and Debian software repositories with over 40,000 packages to choose from. Why didn't I just upgrade from Ubuntu 10 to Ubuntu 12?

  • Ubuntu 12 officially supports only one desktop, Unity, which is designed for touchscreen devices. Unity is inefficient and lacks important features when used with a mouse and keyboard. Other desktops can be installed by the user, but that's not the "it just works" approach that made Ubuntu "Linux for human beings."
  • When you search for a file on your own hard drive, Ubuntu 12 sends your search terms to Amazon.com and displays Amazon advertising along with your real search results. This junk can be removed - but immunity from that kind of abuse is one of the main reasons for using Linux in the first place.
  • Canonical Ltd., the company that packages Ubuntu, has stopped listening to its users. Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's owner, announced that he was not making enough money off Ubuntu. Soon after, the Unity desktop was introduced. At the same time, Canonical's staff developers started dismissing user comments on the Ubuntu forums with open contempt. That's not the way the Linux community rolls.

I could customize Ubuntu 12 to suit myself - but then, I would have to do the same for every desktop system I build or repair using Linux, and it's not worth the time and effort. I make a point of using the same operating system I foist off on other people, so I will be intimately familiar with it on the rare occasions when I have to answer detailed questions or do a house call. Mint provides a fast, easy installation that includes most of the things a typical user wants right out of the box, with excellent built in support for a wide variety of hardware. The Cinnamon desktop that comes pre-installed is efficient and user friendly. After installing the operating system, I can add my own preferred set of extra programs in a few minutes with one command, and configure the Cinnamon desktop to be user-ready while that software is installing itself.

Mint's Cinnamon desktop is similar to the Gnome 2 and Windows XP desktops: In other words, it is familiar from the start for most users, providing efficient no-nonsense access to files and programs. Cinnamon makes using several programs at once easy in two ways: Stacking and switching between program windows on one desktop is fast, simple and familiar. If you have to put one task on hold to do another, you can switch to an empty desktop and work normally there, then switch back when you're done. (Multiple desktop spaces are normal in Linux.)

The Cinnamon desktop includes a taskbar with the expected things: Main menu, application launchers, an area for listing open programs, a system tray area, a volume control, clock and calendar. The taskbar can be customized: You can move it to the top or bottom of the screen, add a second one if desired and tell it to autohide or not. I have added weather forecast and system monitor thingies to mine.

Mint 14 is substantially faster and more responsive than Ubuntu 10.04 on my old desktop machine, and it appears to be very stable in most ways. I say "most ways" because the Cinnamon desktop, a customized version of Gnome 3, is only a few months old and it is still a little rough around the edges: Every so often it will not come back completely after I close a game that runs in full screen mode. Typing Alt+F2, r, and Enter wakes it back up in a few seconds, so this is at worst a minor annoyance. The underlying Debian/Ubuntu based operating system appears to be rock solid: I have not had to reboot the machine for any reason other than to tinker with the hardware.

Mint 14 runs demanding applications like media editors, virtual machines and 3D games "at speed" on an old machine with a dual core Pentium 4 processor and 1.5 GB of memory. The installer configured my monitor and sound system correctly without asking questions. Mint has recognized and mounted every device I have plugged in, including USB sticks, external hard drives, a USB CD/DVD burner and my camera. On other systems I have seen Mint 14 automatically find network printers and configure itself to use them. I am using Ethernet, but on other systems I have seen Mint 14 find and connect to WiFi networks with no problems, and there is a utility in the main menu for loading Microsoft wireless network drivers if needed.

So far I have found only one real deficiency in Mint 14: To use your GPG crypto key you type in a pass phrase to "unlock" it. This keeps anyone but you from using your keys. But once it has been entered, Mint 14 stores the user's pass phrase for automatic re-use until the system is shut down. Anyone who might walk up to the computer can read confidential mail or decrypt secured files "on demand," which is a Bad Thing. Instructions for the solution I am using are here: gnupg-agent work around.

So far I am very happy with Mint 14 and the Cinnamon desktop: It's not glorious and spectacular, but it certainly does help me get on with my actual work. Mint is a keeper, and it looks like a lot of people agree: Mint's popularity is growing fast. The Mint user base should get a big bump in April of this year when Ubuntu 10.04, the current Long Term Support version of Ubuntu, reaches its end of life. Posts in user forums and geek hangouts like Slashdot indicate that most Ubuntu 10 users who look at Ubuntu 12, immediately start looking for alternatives to Ubuntu. Mint is always mentioned as a top contender.

Since Mint is actually a rebuilt version of Ubuntu, what will happen to it if Canonical Ltd. stops making Ubuntu? Mint has already released a version based on Debian Linux, the actual "canonical" GNU/Linux distribution, and Debian is not going away. By the time Mark Shuttleworth pulls the plug on Ubuntu, the Debian based version of Mint should already be the new "Linux for human beings." For me Mint is already the new gnormal.