Updated: June 30, 2010
Linux Mint is a very popular, Ubuntu-based Linux distribution. It's Ubuntu with extra polish and more features for new and less experienced people, making it friendly and usable out of the box. For me, the general sentiment has always run true. Mint has shown good behavior and never fell short of the expectations. Funny though, for an unknown, cosmic reason, I have always tested the even-numbered Mint releases, Daryna, Felicia, Helena. Today, I'll break the rule and have a go at Mint 9, codename Isadora.
Linux Mint 9 is a very important, very critical release. Why, you ask? Well, first, it is based on Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx, a Long Term Support (LTS) release, which will offer updates and patches till mid 2013; this is a good thing for people who do not fancy upgrading every six months. Second, Isadora has a daring task of being better than its parent. That's the rule; Linux Mint comes out a month after Ubuntu, pimped up with all the little details and features that are not included in Ubuntu by default. Now, if Ubuntu 10.04 were a bad release, this would be an easy task. However, as it turns out, Lucid Lynx is the best Ubuntu release yet.
Let's take a look.
Two laptops: T60p, with ATI card, 32-bit dual core, 2GB RAM, RD510, with Nvidia 9600GS, 64-bit dual core, 4GB RAM. On the menu: live CD session, Wireless, Bluetooth, Samba sharing, web camera, multimedia, installation, applications, package manager, Compiz, performance, memory usage, suspend & hibernate, problems, and more.
Booting into the live session was a fairly uneventful affair. You're greeted by the traditional Mint desktop, all fresh, minty and green.
The desktop theme in Isadora is very similar to the one used in the last release, Helena. You get the same layout, the same set of icons, plus the omnipotent, highly useful and practical Menu, which is very similar to the one in openSUSE.
Wireless and Bluetooth worked without any problems. Samba sharing worked, too. On RD510, the web camera worked well and the Nvidia drivers were there, too.
Unfortunately, a few problems cropped in that soured the deal, mostly on T60p, which I believe mostly have to do with the unholy pair of ATI graphic card and the new open-source drivers built-in into the kernel. But not only.
For a weird reason, on T60p, the touchpad mouse did not work while the tracker mouser worked fine. The USB mouse also had no problems. After logging out and logging back in, things were back to normal. On RD510, there were no such issues.
True for both laptops: When you connect to Wireless, you get the standard Ubuntu notification, high up and to the right. This does not work well in Ubuntu, either, as it leaves too much of a gap between the top panel and the notification itself. In Mint, this is completely out of place, since the system menu is at the bottom of the screen. Not really important, but could be polished a little.
The notification just does not sit well - the offset is just wrong.
There's also the Restricted Drivers notification. This is strictly related to Ubuntu, but it remains in Mint. Normal people do not equate restricted with proprietary; the word restricted has a negative connotation, as in lacking features. Since Linux Mint improves the Ubuntu baseline, this notification could go away.
Another bit I noticed was the arrangement of icons in the system area, including the spacing of elements. When the system boots, you get icons with a fairly decent spacing between them, although the Wireless button could go left a little more.
But when you launch a few applications that place icons in the system area, the harmony is disturbed. The Wireless icon goes further left and is displaced by a media player icon. To make things worse, another icon encroaches from the left and introduces a non-even spacing, creating a small nightmare for OCD-blessed people.
And another example, with the package manager icon; simply too close together for comfort. This is the Feng Shui of desktops. If you measure the space between sound, battery, Bluetooth, Wireless, and package manager icons, you have 25px, 25px, 16px, 2px.
Comparing to Ubuntu Lucid, I must admit that Ubuntu does a much better job. First, the order of icons, then, even when new icons are added, the harmony is maintained.
The bottom panel lacks applets
Again, only T60p; RD510 behaved well. This was the one big problem I encountered. The bottom panel lacked several important applets, including the workspace switcher and the window list. This meant that any minimized application simply vanished from the view. Furthermore, Alt + Tab did not work either.
Here's an example; there's no Firefox windows button anywhere:
I had to manually add the applets to be able to work normally.
I tested five times, rebooting into live session. The problem has occurred only once and has not haunted me since, but it did leave its nasty, stinging first impression on my proverbial cheek.
We could blame the laptop, but it works fine, had no issues with other distros tested and passes the memtest with flying colors. We could blame the user, me. With no clear indication what went wrong, it's quite possible you will never see this occur, but you should be aware that it might.
Loving Mint, I decided to keep going and see how well things fared elsewhere. Multimedia out of the box, that's one of the promises. Indeed, things worked as expected, no issues.
Well, it did not really work in the live session. On T60p, with the somewhat inferior card, activating Compiz brought things to a crawl. How much? Well, trying to rotate the cube took more than 30 seconds to get the first frame to display, after which I gave up.
We'll examine this later on, after the installation. However, considering that Compiz blazed even on T42, with an even older and more inferior card, in PCLinuxOS and Mandriva, this makes for a very bad first impression.
Worse yet, there were no proprietary (restricted) drivers available. ATI drivers started being an issue in Jaunty, where legacy support for very old cards was removed from the repository, bringing about a slowdown in performance using the alternative open-source drivers. There's a way around this, but it's not the most elegant solution. Then, with Ubuntu Lucid, things took a new spin, with Nouveau, kernel mode settings and whatnot.
Linux Mint managed to evade the graphics problems quite elegantly, offering very decent results until Isadora. In fact, Helena outperformed Karmic. Now, though, the competitive edge has been lost.
On RD510, enabling Compiz required the install of hardware drivers, so I could not test until after the installation.
Time to install and see what gives.
The installation went fairly smoothly overall.
But there were a few, small visual glitches to spoil the perfection. The user menu was too small and the home folder setup options were cropped. The inset frame is also a bit out of place, with two shades of gray and not enough padding for the elements, creating a cheap, non-professional effect.
During the installation, you have a slideshow telling you about Mint features. Truth to be told, one of the slides tells you that you need no special system maintenance tools, like a registry cleaner. Indeed, Janitor, which is included in Ubuntu, is not available in Mint. I find this a very smart move.
The download of language packs was very slow and it took almost 40 minutes to complete. Skipping it seemed like the best idea, but I did not want to do this.
Mint sits nicely with other operating systems, including combos with GRUB legacy and GRUB 2 bootloaders. On RD510, I had Mint installed on an external USB disk, the same one already hosting two flavors of Ubuntu and soon a home to Fedora 13. With Isadora in place, this makes for the seventh boot entry, alongside the four resident ones on the local disk. We'll have the ten-boot system fairly soon.
Now, into the desktop.
The second boot into the desktop on T60p got stuck, with a flickering screen. After rebooting, things were fine. Still, a hint of doubt did creep into my heart. I have not encountered any signs of instability or code bugs with Lucid. RD510, no issues.
I like the welcome screen. It's the closest thing to an interactive tour. The screen explains briefly the highlights of the distribution and points the user to documentation, help, as well as additional, useful bits of information.
No problem with the panel applets. The desktop behaved normally and displayed the minimized windows as expected. Alt + Tab worked.
After the installation, Compiz behaved on T60p. Even when loading the system with a handful of applications and triggering several effects at once, there was no slowdown or jitter. Effects transition was smooth and clean. In fact, Mint was back to its familiar good graphic performance. This makes the ordeal all the more weird.
On RD510, there were no issues, but then, there never were with proper Nvidia drivers.
Mint has an exceptionally good performance on older hardware. On T60p, the memory footprint was extremely low, at around 180-190MB, less than most distributions. On RD510, the usage was similar to most other Linux flavors, with around 400MB of RAM taken.
Isadora is a very green release, both color-wise and when it comes to power consumption and utilization, which translates into extended battery life. While most contemporary distros offer slightly less than three hours on the T60p 6-cell battery, Isadora offers close to four hours.
Worked great, including when installed to an external USB disk.
I used bootchart to time the machine startup with Mint installed over Lucid. Compared to its parent, Mint is about 5 seconds slower on T60p, if you recall my article on boot times from just a few days ago. Twenty seconds is still quite impressive, but this makes for a 25% decrease. Must be the extra drivers that Mint loads.
I did not time the performance on the external disk, as it cannot be directly compared with installations on a local disk.
Linux Mint 9 has a very soft, very smart theme. But if you don't like it, you can switch to a number of other themes, including stuff used in previous versions, which makes for a breeze of nostalgia. Lightning and Wild Mint look quite lovely.
Isadora packs a very decent and varied arsenal that tops that of Lucid, with GIMP included and Pidgin as the default instant messenger. There's Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, Rhythmbox, Gnome player, Gwibber, Brasero, and more. You also get a handful of useful system tools, like Giver, upload manager, backup software, remastering software, USB writer, firewall GUI, and the wrapper for Windows Wireless drivers. Last but not the least, you have the smart, level-oriented Update Manager.
And that would be all, I guess.
Isadora is unto Helena what Karmic was unto Jaunty. Karmic was not a revolution. Unfortunately, neither is Isadora. Overall, the operating system is all good and well, but the extra edge of wow that was always there is gone.
Comparing Lucid and Isadora head to head, Isadora does bring a handful of improvements, which should not be sneezed at. You get multimedia out of the box. Compiz is there, too, and it works fairly well on older hardware with inferior cards, although not perfectly. You have GIMP and Pidgin.
On the other hand, Isadora introduces a few glitches and problems that even out the advantages. While the live session is a one-time affair, you cannot neglect the first impression. Failing to boot once or twice can also ruin a man's day. Slight visual inconsistencies do make a difference, a bad one. Compiz could have worked better, especially considering what Mandriva and PCLinuxOS manage on the same hardware.
Isadora gave a spotless performance on the newer hardware, save for the generic problems, which mainly revolve around the visual glitches. On the older machine, there were troubles and I guess I should blame the built-in open-source graphics drivers as they did cause issues with Lucid here and there. It is entirely likely that I'm befouling Isadora because of something completely unrelated, but I cannot ignore the facts or the weird symptoms. It could all be the evil manifestation of things called DMS and KMS or whatever, modules sitting atop the 25-year old implementation of X Windows, but it did spoil things a bit.
Overall, at the end of the day, Isadora is a very good distribution. But it lacks the extra edge that always made Mint super-shine. Given the choice between Ubuntu and Mint, this time, it's a tie, which means Linux Mint lost. It also speaks highly of what Ubuntu managed to achieve with their LTS.
If you like Mint, Isadora is a good choice. If you are looking for a breathtaking experience, this time, I'm afraid it's not going to happen. Which reminds me - stick with Mint autumn releases.