If you are a little tired of the operating system you currently use or, perhaps, frustrated with the changes made to the Windows 8 desktop environment, you may be looking in to Linux distributions as a new alternative. Good choice! Switching to Linux can definitely breathe some new life in to your computer and deliver a highly satisfying experience.
Currently, the two most popular Linux distributions are Canonical’s Ubuntu, whose latest version is 13.10, and Linux Mint, which is based on Ubuntu and soon to be released in version 16. You might be wondering which of these operating systems is your best bet. And to attempt an answer to that question, this review will look at a few important attributes of the software for comparison and contrast.
If you would like to get a good understanding of Linux operating systems and how to use them effectively, you can take a beginning course in Linux that will get you up and running quickly.
The standard installation process for Linux Mint and Ubuntu are similar. After downloading the operating system’s image file, you will either burn it to a disc or write it to a removable drive (using specialized software such as Unetbootin). Then, you simply boot your computer from the installation media you created, and an installation wizard will walk you through the process.
Alternatively, you can order hard copy CDs for the latest long term support (LTS) version of Ubuntu or several versions of Linux Mint. Ubuntu also offers a convenient Windows-based installer that will run the operating system alongside Windows. This is a great option for those thinking about making the switch and wanting to try out the OS.
Ubuntu is a bit more flexible in its installation approach and edges out Linux Mint in this area.
If you would like some guidance on installing a Ubuntu-based distribution, you can get a tutorial from an online course covering a variety of computing principles and tools.
We rely on our computers for so much these days, so it’s important that they are set up in a way that’s intuitive to us and that helps us get things done. On top of that, most of us have gotten used to the layout and configuration of certain operating systems, like Windows or OSX, so making a change in how you navigate the computer might seem like a potentially frustrating experience.
Thus, the user interface of the Ubuntu and Linux Mint operating systems is one of the most important considerations for comparison. And, increasingly, these systems’ interfaces are radically different. In 2010, Canonical introduced an overhaul to the look and feel of the familiar Gnome environment with a unique configuration for Ubuntu. Originally designed for the limited screen space of a netbook, this interface, called Unity, became the standard for all Ubuntu releases, beginning with 11.04.
This move has not been without its critics, and many longtime Ubuntu users switched over to Linux Mint, which continues to employ a more familiar user interface in its distributions. Of course, there is also a broad base of Ubuntu users, especially those newer to Linux operating systems, who are perfectly happy with the Unity layout and see it as having many advantages over the alternatives.
So where will you be most comfortable? Well, that depends. If you are switching to Linux from Windows, you will likely feel more at home with the Linux Mint desktop. Its default panel at the bottom of the screen and pop-up, categorized applications menu are very similar to the Windows configuration.
On the other hand, if you are migrating from OSX, you might feel more comfortable with Ubuntu’s Unity layout. Contextual menus in the top menu bar, a launcher containing large app icons, and window menus placed on the top left will all feel pretty familiar to you.
All that said, neither Linux Mint nor Ubuntu is a clone of Windows or OSX in terms of its interface. So let’s take a look at some of the specific characteristics that make them what they are:
Ubuntu incorporates some unique features, including its vertical launcher and search-oriented dash for navigating local and online content. While these characteristics may seem less than intuitive initially, they can offer some benefits for users looking for a smooth, integrated OS.
Search-based navigation in particular is a defining feature for Ubuntu’s Unity interface. Within its dash, Unity combines native apps, web apps, local files, cloud files, and content from popular sites, so you can access them all inside of a single tool. You can even add search engine components, called scopes, to search your favorite sources, and you can disable the scopes you don’t care to use.
As a potential downside, since the dash tool packs in so much information, searching is really the only good way to get around in the system, aside from the quicklist of applications on the launcher. And this may not be the preferred method for many to navigate their computers.
You may also encounter a potential drawback if you can’t include content from sources that you use regularly, and you may need to do some fine tuning to weed out sources you don’t want to include. Otherwise, you could easily begin to see all this information as unwanted and distracting.
By combining features of an application menu, file system, and web browser, Unity’s dash stands is in stark contrast to the configuration of most OS application menus, which tend to be organized by category and limited to applications only. To some users, this approach is an attractive and welcome change. To others, it is unnecessary, inflexible, and cluttered.
Another component of the Unity user interface worth noting is the head-up display, which allows a user to search application menus by pressing the alt key. This is a particularly handy feature if you commonly use the mouse to navigate within programs. However, it could easily be seen as a source of frustration if you typically use a lot of keyboard shortcuts within applications, as it acts as an alternative to this in some instances.
Though it may be polarizing, Ubuntu’s Unity interface has a lot to offer users who are looking for a new approach to interacting with the desktop.
As noted previously, Linux Mint has continued to employ a more traditional desktop interface and develop features in a way that is more in keeping with familiar ways of interacting with the computer.
One thing that is unique about Mint, however, is that it allows you to choose which particular flavor of desktop you like best out of several options. The main release offers two choices:
MATE – A classic and reliable desktop that’s built for simple navigation and intuitive accessibility.
Cinnamon – A sleek, forward-thinking interface focusing on modern aesthetics and features. Its more recent, ongoing development makes it a bit less stable, but it is elegant and provides a great overall user experience.
In addition to these options, Mint offers two secondary releases based on the Xfce and Kde desktops for users who prefer those environments. Xfce is designed with lightweight and speedy operation in mind. Kde offers a configuration that is arguably the most Windows-like of any Linux desktop and is also popular for its visual aesthetics.
For this review, let’s take a look at some of the features the Cinnamon interface offers. Since this desktop environment brings a combination of easy functionality and elegant aesthetics, it is perhaps the best version for comparison.
Settings editor: The Cinnamon desktop allows users to easily configure the look and feel of every element within it.
Animations and effects: Several components of the Cinnamon desktop environment include sleek animations. One of the most notable examples is the workspace switching tool. Accessed by hovering the mouse over a hot corner on the display, this tool is very nicely integrated in to the interface. However, particularly if you don’t use multiple work spaces, it could cause some frustration. In which case, it can be disabled.
Applets: Cinnamon features a wide range of mini-applications that can be integrated directly in to its panel.
Verdict: With a variety of interface options for new users, each offering an intuitive and user-friendly experience, Linux Mint edges out Ubuntu here as a recommendation. But there are caveats. Ubuntu’s Unity interface is nothing if not innovative, and it may be just the thing you want from a computer. It just might not appeal as widely as the look and feel you will get with Linux Mint. Certainly, it is worthwhile to try out the OS and see what you think, if you have the opportunity.
The user interface is important to an operating system’s ease-of-use. But it is not the only consideration. You’ll also want to look at how you go about navigating files, performing administrative tasks, installing new software and completing maintenance, among other things. Overall, Linux Mint and Ubuntu represent different philosophies regarding an accessible, positive user experience.
Canonical is committed to the user experience within Ubuntu. The company wants their software to be accessible and attractive to any user approaching it. This is indicated by their Ayatana project, which comprises multiple related initiatives to improve the way the software interacts with the user.
In general, the direction of Ubuntu’s improvements have tended toward creating a system that doesn’t need a lot of tweaking and has everything covered for the user.
Whereas, in the past, Linux users have gotten very familiar with terminal commands and performing advanced maintenance tasks, it seems to be Canonical’s aim to make this kind of action less essential.
This is great for users who want a system that works well and don’t have much interest in fiddling with things. However, since it isn’t really designed to simplify modifications and administrative tasks, some users, particularly tech-savvy ones, might look toward other distributions.
In contrast, Linux Mint’s design supports and even encourages users to make modifications and tweaks and to take on advanced tasks. It’s default file manager allows for easy options to gain root access from a graphical interface. It includes a separate installer to load in packages outside of its software center. It comes equipped with network tools that simplify setting up file shares. And it allows users to easily gain root access through the su terminal command.
Aside from advanced operations, Mint provides a file system and a set of tools that are easy to use and on par with Ubuntu.
Tie. Really, the operating system you favor in terms of its ease of use will depend on how you intend to use it. If you want tools for easily tweaking applications and the OS, Linux Mint may be the choice for you. If, however, you want something that works well out of the box, with less emphasis on customizing, you might prefer Ubuntu.
If you want to really learn Linux and how to master administration within the system, you might benefit from a course that will teach you all about the Linux command line.
The programs that come installed with an operating system, and how well they are integrated, are important to your choice of operating system. Also important, particularly with Linux operating systems, is the method for obtaining and installing new software.
Ubuntu and Linux Mint both come with essential applications pre-installed, and many of the default applications are the same for both system. For example, both come with LibreOffice as the default productivity suite, Firefox as the default browser, and (recently, for Ubuntu) Thunderbird as the default mail application.
You will see some differences as well. For example, Mint uses Banshee as its default music player, while Ubuntu uses Rhythmbox. The Shotwell photo application is the default for managing and editing photos, while Mint uses gthumb for simple photo management and the GIMP application – Linux’s best equivalent to Photoshop – for more in-depth editing.
Both systems use their own software center for installation of new applications. While they use many of the same repositories, there are some differences. Linux Mint’s program is comparatively simple and straightforward, while Ubuntu’s includes more shopping features, such as a recommendation engine and paid, for profit apps.
Overall, Ubuntu has an advantage here. Its default applications have a deeper level of integration in to the operating system and desktop environment. Its software center makes it easy to find and install new apps, and the available options are more robust.
Switching to the open-source applications available through Linux distributions is one of the biggest changes for users migrating to Linux. If you would like to get more familiar with these applications, there are a range of online courses to help out. For instance, you can take a course that teaches spreadsheet skills with the LibreOffice Calc program.
And the Winner is…
Linux Mint. For its flexibility, familiarity, and hands-on approach that will help you get to understand Linux, Mint is likely a better option for many users transitioning from one of the major operating systems. That said, Ubuntu is also an excellent operating system with a unique approach that you might find you really enjoy. A beauty of both systems, and many Linux distributions in general, is that they are free to install. That being the case, you might be best served by taking both of them for a spin to learn which one really suits you.