I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing releases of Ubuntu, Fedora, Bodhi, Mandriva, openSUSE, and other more obscure distributions. In the process of seeking out the perfect Linux desktop (among the hail-storm of changes that has hit the Linux community of late) there is one distribution that has been, mostly, overlooked by me.
That comes to an end now. Why? Because the developers of Linux Mint have done something no one else has done — they’ve made GNOME 3 flexible. That’s right, with the help of a new technology they call Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE), they have made it possible to add or remove extensions to the GNOME 3 desktop that layer on different features and functionalities. With these extensions, it’s actually possible to make GNOME 3 look and behave like Classic GNOME. The main extensions for MGSE are:
- The bottom panel
- The application menu
- The window list
- A task-centric desktop (i.e. you switch between windows, not applications)
- Visible system tray icons
That short list pretty much returns the primary functionality from GNOME 2.x removed in 3. But that’s not all. MGSE offers other enhancements to GNOME 3, such as a media player indicator and much more.
But why is this important? Simple: The Linux Mint 12 take on GNOME 3 allows users to enjoy the modern enhancements GNOME 3 brings to the table, while giving them the familiarity that is GNOME 2.x. In fact, by taking advantage of all of the MGSE extensions, you could have a full blown GNOME 2.x desktop!
Now, here’s the real question: In theory this sounds like a great idea. But does it play out in real-time? I installed it on one of my main desktops to find out.
As with any Ubuntu-based desktop, avoid trying to install this with an on-board Nvidia chipset. After attempting an installation with three different approaches, I realized I was just going to have to slap in a PCI-e video card (a low-end Radeon 4350 worked fine) and have at it. After that was complete, the installation went off without a hitch and I had Linux Mint goodness ready to rock.
The whole GNOME 3/2 compatibility happens, thanks to a system called MATE. It is important to note that MATE only comes on the DVD version. If you’ve downloaded and installed from the CD version, you will have to install MATE from the mint-meta-mate package. How does it work?
Not only does the GNOME 3 desktop work like a charm on Mint 12, the ability to add/remove features is simple. To get to the Advanced Settings tool (See Figure A, left) move the mouse to the upper left corner of the desktop and then click on the Advanced Settings when the Dash opens.
From within this tool you can enable/disable the various extensions available for the GNOME 3 desktop. As you enable or disable a feature, it takes effect immediately. In the end, the exact combination of a GNOME 3 and GNOME 2 desktop is at your fingertips.
This, alone, is worth the price of admission.
Outside of the desktop, the distribution is fairly straight-forward, and well done. There is one other feature that should be noted. When you fire up Firefox you will notice a different default search engine. Linux Mint has partnered with the Duck Duck Go search engine (which is built entirely on open source software – although currently the source for Duck Duck Go is closed). Now this might not be a big deal to some, but it should be known that Duck Duck Go does contribute to the open source community. What is also of note is that Duck Duck Go does not track search results and does not personalize searches based on your history. So if you’re looking for a more pure search engine, the new Linux Mint default might suit you.
Lately I have installed and used a number of desktop Linux distributions…in search of the perfect desktop. I have gone through Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Bodhi, Mandriva, openSUSE, and Fedora. By taking the best of both worlds, Linux Mint might well have surpassed all other distributions as one of the most user-friendly, stable, and enjoyable Linux desktops. If you’re looking for a Linux distribution that can either transition you to GNOME 3 or offer you the best of 2 and 3, Linux Mint is the perfect choice.
Linux Mint comes at a time when the Linux desktop is suffering from some serious chaos. No one knows where the Linux desktop is heading, but if what Linux Mint has achieved has any say in the matter, MATE and MGSE will have a lot to do with the future of Linux on the desktop.