Sibling Rivalry: Linux Mint 11 vs. Ubuntu 11.04

Posted by jun auza On 6/13/2011
Lately, we've been covering a lot about Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal, Fedora 15, and Linux in general. However, we haven't really talked about another popular distribution that has been around for quite a while. The distro is called Linux Mint and it currently holds the second spot on Distrowatch.

Though the popularity of Ubuntu amongst the Linux-curious crowd is immense, Mint has quietly found itself a spot in the hearts of many new users. This gradual rise in the popularity of Mint makes it a distro that simply cannot be ignored anymore. So, let's compare Linux Mint 11 ‘Katya’ with our very own Natty and see how it holds out.


User Interface / Look and Feel:

The user interface is the most important part of a distribution. Most often, it is the first thing a user notices or cares about, if of course, he's trying it on a live CD. Many times the User Interface is the sole deciding factor that can compel a Windows user to switch to a Linux-based distribution. While Ubuntu has recently moved to the controversial Unity interface, Linux Mint, with Katya, has decided to stick with the good old GNOME 2.x. Unity takes advantage of the powerful effects Compiz provides in order to create a beautiful shelled desktop. There are transparencies, different kinds of new effects and functionalities that give a modern look to the desktop. While this may work for new users who have never used Linux before, many seasoned Linux users have disliked this move, and many of them have even moved to Mint.

The elusive launcher on the left, the locked down panels and dash, lack of integration with default applications has brought down Ubuntu's popularity down a notch. For experienced Linuxers, the changes are too many to handle at once. Linux Mint in this case, steps up as a good, easy to use, viable alternative to Ubuntu. Of course, Ubuntu does ship with the GNOME 2.x desktop. However, that is going to change in the next version. Hence, Ubuntu users either have to get used to Unity or simply switch to another desktop. Linux Mint on the other hand, makes this switch possible for many users by keeping things really simple.
For those who don't know this, Linux Mint is Ubuntu-based, so users can enjoy all the goodness of Ubuntu but with a fresh minty flavor. From installation steps, Linux Mint makes sure that new users don't have any trouble installing it on their systems. They've kept the installer similar to the one Ubuntu has except for a few aesthetic changes. At the boot up itself, Mint pleases the user with one of the best GRUB splash screens that we've ever seen. Ubuntu however, sticks with the plain aubergine. When we compare the desktops, Mint has a fresh minty-green feel to it. Ubuntu on the other hand, pleases the user with the perky aubergine desktop that gives it its trademark look. Mint has modified the classic GNOME by combining the top and bottom panels into a single panel at the bottom. The real show stealer though, is the Start Menu (known as Mint Menu). This is what Unity should have incorporated instead of the locked-down dash. The menu includes links to ‘Places’ and ‘System’ on the left, and on the right there is a place for pinning the favorite applications. A search bar at the bottom makes it a complete menu. Dash on the other hand, simply includes shortcuts and a search bar.


Coming to the taskbar, Unity employs a modern-looking launcher that sits at the left of the screen. It comes with various functionalities like Quick lists, Lenses, Shortcuts and more. The launcher also has the ability to dodge windows intelligently. Mint on the other hand, employs the familiar task bar, which will please all the folks who long for the look and feel of a traditional desktop interface.


Also, when it comes to default selection of themes, Mint beats Ubuntu hands down with its collection of minty fresh themes that work perfectly. Ubuntu also comes with a wide variety of themes, but some of them aren't compatible with the buttons on the left. Also, few of them look ugly with the new Unity interface. The wallpaper collection in Mint is kept to bare minimum. It comes with around 9 Linux wallpapers but all of them look wonderful. Ubuntu however, has a much wider collection of wallpapers.

So, after looking at the UI aspect of both the desktops, there is no doubt that Mint Katya beats Ubuntu Natty hands down. Unity tries to do too much leaving the user both perplexed and agitated at times. Mint however, sticks to the minimal basics yet pleases the user aesthetically.

Winner: Linux Mint


Software Management:

Ubuntu has its own software center that was updated in Natty to include ratings and reviews. Mint users on the other hand, were already enjoying those features. What's more, Mint's software manager even has a pretty splash screen. Ubuntu's Software Center (USC) comes with all the features Mint's Software Manager provides including a few more. It includes support for installing paid applications like Family Farm, World of Goo and many others. Other than that, there's not much of a difference between both the Software managers. So, solely on the merit that USC lets users install paid applications, Ubuntu just wins this round.

Winner: Ubuntu Natty


Default Applications:

Lately, Ubuntu has been playing around with its default application set. However, no matter how hard it tries, it can never match up to what Mint brings to the platter. Don't believe me? Here, take a look at what Mint offers:

Graphics: GIMP, Simple Scan, gThumb, LibreOffice Draw
Internet: Firefox, Pidgin IM, Giver, Sun Java 6, Thunderbird, Transmission, XChat IRC
Multimedia: Banshee, Brasero, GNOME Mplayer, Movie Player, Sound Recorder, VLC Media Player
Office: Dictionary, LibreOffice

Now, with applications like those, a user doesn't have to install anything extra to get started. The very fact that Mint includes applications like VLC and Mplayer puts it miles ahead of Ubuntu in this round. Ubuntu does have a decent set of applications but it simply isn't as impressive as the one Mint provides. Hence the winner here is Mint.

Winner: Linux Mint


Performance:

Again, Linux Mint being Ubuntu-based, performs almost the same way as Ubuntu does. However, if we consider the performance while using the actual desktop, Linux Mint takes the lead. This is because, even if you have a powerful graphics card, the quality of proprietary drivers that are out there for Linux aren't up to the mark. So, Unity having features that take advantage of the graphics card, many users may feel a significant drop in performance. Moreover, with Unity, the time to load the desktop from the GDM login screen has visibly increased. Linux Mint, as it stays on the safer side, works as snappy as ever. So, based purely on how the desktop performs, Mint wins this round.

Winner: Linux Mint


Ease of use:

Reiterating the point we made before, Ubuntu tries to do too much with Unity. It's not something that a new user will get used to straight away. Mint on the other hand, retains all the principles of the standard desktop. Hence, a new user will get accustomed to the interface within no time. Also, users who are switching from Windows will love the non-fussy minimalist look of Mint. The winner here of course, is Mint again.

Winner: Linux Mint


Reliability, branding and support:

Reliability here is not to be confused with stability. If you're a frequent distro-hopper and are using Ubuntu, moving to Mint after reading this review, would be a child's play for you. However, if you use the computer for doing actual work and your productivity depends on its stability, you'll be a bit reluctant to switch right away. About a couple of years ago, switching distributions wasn't a big deal as most of them offered similar features. However now, with the whole GNOME 3 and Unity bifurcation, switching distros is like moving to another operating system. Hence, no matter how good Mint is, there will be people who'll be a bit hesitant to switch.

The very fact that Ubuntu is backed by a big company like Canonical makes Ubuntu more reliable as a 'product'. Moreover, Ubuntu has a strong community, a good fan following (P.S: Bandwagon effect), and a branding that is the best a Linux distribution can have. Also, some users are willing to stick with Ubuntu simply because it dared to make some brave moves. They believe that, with some added effort, Ubuntu has the potential to become the best operating system around. As far as support is concerned, Ubuntu offers top-quality professional Linux support (paid support) and sites like askubuntu.com and ubuntuforums.org have large amount of active users helping each other. So, considering its popularity and the prospects it has for the future, this round goes to Ubuntu.

Winner: Ubuntu Natty


Software Compatibility:

Linux Mint being Ubuntu-based, almost 99% of the applications that are available for Ubuntu will work for Mint. However, inexperienced users who have just switched to Mint may find it difficult to find applications that are outside the software center. For example, if a new user goes to the Dropbox website to download the official application, he or she might get confused by not seeing an option to install the same software on Mint. That person might not be aware of the fact that any software that works on Ubuntu will also work for Mint. This has been a problem for Mint despite being so popular. Also, with new Ubuntu-only features like indicator applets, quicklists and lenses, the list of applications that make use of those features just keep on growing. In fact, popular applications like Dropbox online backup have even added support for Indicator applets. So, this round goes to Natty again.

Winner: Ubuntu Natty


Extra Features:

Since Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, there is not much of a difference between both the distros. One key feature that Mint offers is that it comes with all the codecs installed. But now that Ubuntu also allows users to install the codecs beforehand, there's not much of a difference between the two distributions. Hence, there's a tie here.


The Results:

[Drumroll please] Ladies and Gentlemen, the results of the most epic desktop battle are out. The reigning champion Ubuntu Natty has scored 4 points. [Wait for Applause]. Linux Mint however, wins by scoring 5 points and becoming the new World Desktop Champion. [Some cheers amidst booing from Ubuntu fanboys]

But wait, we will be giving sort of a "People's Choice Award", so you may now cast your votes below:




Conclusion:

Although Ubuntu 11.04 comes with tons of new features, it simply fails to impress as much as Linux Mint 11 does. Mint is fast, easy to use and just fresh. Ubuntu Natty though, has a lot to work upon. Earlier, Mint was always a step behind Ubuntu, but by sticking with GNOME classic, it has proven itself as a superior distribution. Only time will tell whether it can retain the top spot as Ubuntu is readying itself for bigger challenges.


Written by: Abhishek, a regular TechSource contributor and a long-time FOSS advocate.

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