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Linux Mint 19 Review: A Frankenstein OS

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An open source distro with closed source mindset.

Linux Mint rose to popularity during the Ubuntu Unity and Gnome 3 fiasco. Both Gnome 3 and Unity broke people’s  workloads. There were many frustrated users who hated both projects with passion. Linux Mint’s Cinnamon offered an interface that most users were familiar with. It was the band-aid people were looking for back then. These users found a haven in Linux Mint.

I was an Ubuntu user too and I was also I was also searching for an alternative. Linux Mint, as an Ubuntu derivative, seemed like the perfect candidate. I played with it, but there were too many problems with the distribution. It was way too unstable and unpolished for my professional needs. I found something else. Something much better (more about that later).

But everytime a new version of Linux Mint comes out, I test it to see if things have gotten better.

What’s good about Linux Mint

Linux Mint is built on top of the LTS release of Ubuntu, so all the heavy lifting is already done by Canonical. Linux Mint benefits from the work that Ubuntu has done, whether it’s ease of use, out of the box support for hardware or availability of massive load of applications for its users.

Linux Mint created their own desktop environment called Cinnamon. Bloggers keep talking about how impressed they are with Linux Mint’s WIMP interface as if that’s something magical. Every desktop system features the WIMP interface, which was created by Xerox and popularized by Apple. macOS, Windows 10, KDE Plasma, ChromeOS, Gnome…they are all WIMP interfaces. There is nothing unique about Linux Mint. Unlike what my good friend SJVN suggests, I think macOS offers the best WIMP interface with touch-pad adding more functionality with gesture-based navigation – three finger swipe to switch between virtual desktops. It’s macOS that’s leading the desktop paradigm and not Linux Mint. On desktop Linux side, it’s KDE that’s leading the innovation. Just that they don’t get the visibility they deserve.

Cinnamon is more or less continuum of Gnome 2 interface, with ideas borrowed from both Gnome 3 and KDE Plasma. It has a panel at the bottom and an application launcher. Linux Mint has forked Gnome apps and repackaged them as part of Cinnamon. As someone who used a mix of operating systems – macOS, Linux (Plasma and Gnome), Windows 10 and ChromeOS; I really don’t see any advantage of Nemo over Files of Gnome. I sigh when I see desktop Linux communities wasting resources by duplication projects. I find KDE’s Dolphin to be the most advanced file manager.

What’s not so good

The goodness about Linux Mint ends then and there. I struggle to see who is the target user of Linux Mint. Linux Mint is certainly not aimed at advanced users. As a power user myself, Linux Mint is too opinionated and dumbed down for me. I attend all major open source and tech events and I have never met a Linux Mint user there. Mostly you see macOS or Ubuntu. Power users don’t want a nanny OS; they want an OS they can control and optimize for their workload.

Linux Mint is certainly not for Linux enthusiasts as it’s very conservative. Linux enthusiast, like me, tends to play with fire and want to try and use the best and the latest from the open source world. Unlike mainstream distributions like openSUSE or Fedora, Linux Mint doesn’t bring open source projects to me, it forks projects and brands them as their own. Which often results in a subpar experience. It’s good for Linux Mint’s own user-base that might want that experience, but that’s not ideal for an enthusiast.

It’s also not ideal for upstream developers as due to fork they don’t get the feed or contribution they need to improve the upstream projects.

That leaves not so tech savvy home users. And that I think seems to be the audience of Linux Mint. People who resist change and want to use what they know well. If that’s the target audience, I find Linux Mints defaults to be problematic. There is a terminal on the panel. The last thing you want to show an average PC user is a terminal.

Linux Mint doesn’t come with Chrome web browser, the most popular web browser. It comes with Firefox; which is fine. But if you want to play Netflix on Firefox you have to manually enable support for DRM.

Linux Mint tweaks Firefox and removes Google as the default search engine. They are using Yahoo! (which is powered by Google and in some cases Bing). That would have been OK, but Linux Mint goes an extra proprietary mile and totally erases traces of Google from the available option. The number 1 reason they give for doing so is monetization. If you want to use Google you have to find options buried under pages with tiny icons.

Linux Mint deliberately make it harder for ‘home users’ who are not that tech savvy from changing search engine. It’s probably paying off. Linux Mint knows the power of default and that if you make something a tad harder not many people will take pains to change it. That’s a very proprietary mindset.

I have been a long time critic of this practice of Linux Mint and I often hear from a supporter of Linux Mint that you can still change the search engine. Yes, you can. But why? They are ignoring that fact that such shenanigans are against the very idea of open source where users come first. Linux Mint puts its own interests ahead of those of user’s. Companies like Google and Microsoft get sued for the same practices. Let it sink in that its easier to change default search engine in Window and macOS than it is in Linux Mint.

To be honest, it’s not about the search engine. It’s about the mindset. If Linux Mint finds a revenue stream for packaging Opera’s web browsers instead of Firefox, what stops them from making it harder to set Firefox or Chrome as the default web browser? Ironically, Linux Mint uses custom Google Search on their site’s start page, which once again they monetize from.

I would suggest Linux Mint stop these shenanigans and instead ask for a fee or donation, just the way Zorin OS and elementary OS offer.

Inconsistent UI

The second big issue with Linux Mint is its UI. Cinnamon is a nice desktop environment that offers a mix of Plasma and Gnome experience. But the way Linux Mint has implemented it makes it look like a Frankenstein Monster.

The app launcher is a hot mess. There is no such thing as context and discoverability. Finding apps or settings is a painful process. I wanted to open System Settings. I typed ‘System’ but it didn’t show it. It lists everything alphabetically. So the app you want to open is buried somewhere down there.

system

On macOS, if I type ’sys’, ‘pre’, ‘sett’ in Spotlight it will show me System Preferences; the tool I am actually looking for. Spotlight on macOS also indexes all files and apps, so you can find documents based on content.

mac-softare

You can actually preview the file from within Spotlight and use references. It can even index network drives so you can use search feature across your network. All of this indexing is done locally, so you don’t have to worry about privacy. Linux Mint doesn’t have any such feature. So, sorry my friend, Linux Mint is not the best desktop out there. KDE Plasma is the best Linux Desktop and macOS is the best overall desktop.

cinnamon-opensuse

I tested Cinnamon on openSUSE Tumbleweed and I surprised to find it was more polished and usable there. Launch Menu was showing results based on relevancy and not alphabetically. When I searched for ‘text’ it showed me Gedit whereas Linux Mint showed LibreOffice.

Application management is another hot mess on Linux Mint. There is not one or but fives…yes five…tools to manage applications. And when you type ‘Soft’ to open one of these five tools, the first option Linux Mint shows is LibreOffice.

There is Software Manager, which is kind of App Store. Update Manager’s only job is to check for system updates. Software Sources takes care of repositories and PPA, Synaptic Package Manager is for installing packages and then there is a Driver Manager that is responsible for device drivers. Are you sure it’s an OS for not so techy home users? macOS, in comparison, has only one tool App Store to manage everything. That’s what I call user-friendly. Even Microsoft Windows has only two tools to manager software  – Windows Store and Settings. What’s even worse is the GUI of these tools is different too, there is no consistency.

Linux_Mint_Software.jpg

These are some of the major issues with Linux Mint. I have not even started to talk about personal problems that I experienced with it. I still can’t batch rename files. A feature that I need as a photographer. When I go to events like KubeCon and take hundreds of photos, I want to be able to batch-rename images, based on the subject. Batch rename 20 images of booths, batch rename 30 images as sessions and so one. I can do that on Plasma, Windows, and macOS but not on Linux Mint. macOS and Plasma offer the most user-friendly batch rename feature. I love it.

macOS-batch

I am also concerned with  Linux Mint’s careless attitude toward security. When their ISOs were compromised their site was still pointing to the compromised images. Other distros would have taken the entire pages down to protect users. This discussion on LWN.net resonates what I think of Linux Mint.

Final words

I checked Linux Mint a few months ago and my opinion about the distribution has not changed. I know some people use and love it, but the desktop Linux user in me is not satisfied. Its security and update practices are questionable; its business practices are questionable. Linux Mint defies all the reasons why I or someone like me would use desktop Linux.

As much I would want to, I can’t recommend Linux Mint to anyone. I would recommend something that respects its users and takes security very seriously. I will recommend openSUSE, ZorinOS and the brand new Ubuntu that uses Gnome as the default DE and Shell.

Sorry, if I hurt your feelings.

Swapnil Bhartiya
I have more than 12 years of experience covering Enterprise Open Source, Cloud, Containers, IoT, Machine Learning and general tech. My stories cover a very broad spectrum - traditional Linux, data center and Free Software to contemporary emerging technologies like 'serverless'. Widely Read: My stories have appeared in a multitude of leading publications including CIO, InfoWorld, Network World, The New Stack, Linux Pro Magazine, ADMIN Magazine, HPE Insights, Raspberry Pi Geek Magazine, SweetCode, Linux For You, Electronics For You and more.