A tale of two distros: Ubuntu and Linux Mint

A tale of two distros: Ubuntu and Linux Mint

Summary: Linux Mint's recent climb to the top of the DistroWatch rankings and strong reactions to Ubuntu's Unity shell have led to speculation that Ubuntu's glory days could be over. We examine these two popular distros to see where they came from, where they stand and where they may be headed.


The current rankings on DistroWatch have been taken by some as evidence that Linux Mint has overtaken Ubuntu as the most popular Linux distribution by a healthy margin. The culprit, under this analysis, is Ubuntu's latest desktop user interface — Unity. Let's examine these assertions, and take a considered look the pros and cons of the two popular Linux distributions.

What the numbers really mean
First, let's put things in context. The DistroWatch rankings for December 2011 — 4,100 for Linux Mint and 1,821 for Ubuntu — are based on hits on the DistroWatch web site pages, so they don't indicate the number of actual users. As DistroWatch itself says: "The DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking statistics are a light-hearted way of measuring the popularity of Linux distributions and other free operating systems among the visitors of this website. They correlate neither to usage nor to quality and should not be used to measure the market share of distributions. They simply show the number of times a distribution page on DistroWatch.com was accessed each day, nothing more."

By contrast, the Wikimedia Traffic Analysis Report - Operating Systems shows that in October 2011 there were 16,924,000 hits on Wikimedia pages from computers running Ubuntu and 556,000 hits from those running Linux Mint (Wikimedia notes that due to server outages these numbers are approximately 7 percent too low). By December 2011 these figures had risen to 29,432,000 and 642,000 respectively.

It's arguable that these Wikimedia statistics, based on requests from software agents of operating systems actually in use, reflect the true popularity of the two distributions far more accurately than the DistroWatch rankings. If that's the case, then Ubuntu clearly remains firmly in command of the market share. However, the DistroWatch figures do indicate a substantial recent increase in the level of interest in Mint.

Distribution pedigree
Back in 2004, South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth gathered a group of developers with the idea of releasing a fork of the Debian Linux distribution. Debian is a comprehensive and well-respected core distribution, but it has a relatively slow and irregular release schedule. Shuttleworth wanted to produce a stable release of an easy-to-use Linux desktop on a more regular basis. Ubuntu has now grown into something more than a simple fork: it's backed by Shuttleworth's company Canonical and by the Ubuntu Foundation, which was founded in 2005 to ensure the continuation of Ubuntu in case Canonical's involvement should, for any reason, come to an end.

Some of the original Ubuntu developers were already Debian developers, and the intention was that Ubuntu would maintain a fairly strong relationship with Debian and feed back development into the Debian code base. However, the relationship between the two distributions has at times been strained, with the Ubuntu team receiving criticism for divergence and not referring changes as often as they might.

Ubuntu takes its version number from the year and month of release, the first release in October 2004 being 4.10. Reflecting the original commitment to a six-month release cycle, an x.04 version is released in April and an x.10 version is released in October of every year. The current version is 11.10 with 12.04 LTS (Long Term Support) due out soon. Ubuntu is also notable for its alliterative code-names comprising an adjective and an animal: 11.10 is Oneiric Ocelot, 12.04 is Precise Pangolin, while 12.10 (Qx Qx) has yet to be decided.

Linux Mint, currently at version 12, is in turn based on Ubuntu and is developed by a relatively small team of independent developers, funded by contributions from companies and private individuals. Initial releases were sporadic and quite frequent, but the Mint cycle has now settled into a new version that arrives about a month after each Ubuntu release.

Mint was started two years after the launch of Ubuntu with the focus firmly on usability. The Linux community has always had a concern over the inclusion of proprietary codecs in Linux distributions. However, omitting them can lead to problems with compatibility and with the ability to read files in proprietary formats such as MP3. Mint adopts a relatively relaxed attitude to the use of proprietary codecs in order to provide full multimedia support 'straight out of the box'. That said, a CD-sized, no-codecs Mint install is available for distribution "…in the USA, Japan and countries where the legislation allows patents to apply to software, and distribution of restricted technologies may require the acquisition of 3rd party licenses".

Comparing current releases, usability is perhaps now less of an issue, as Ubuntu has improved in this respect over the years and provides the option to install proprietary drivers and software that's restricted for legal or copyright reasons (see System Settings / Software Sources). Even so it's still necessary to activate the proprietary driver for Nvidia graphics cards after installing either of these distributions.

Although Ubuntu is a relative newcomer compared to Debian, which goes back to 1993, it's now a mature and popular desktop distribution with considerable resources behind it — Canonical provides a range of commercial support services for corporate users, for example.

Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint are available in 64-bit and 32-bit versions that will run on Intel and AMD processors. Ubuntu is also available as Ubuntu Server, while Mint is desktop only. There are six recognised Ubuntu variants, three of which use different desktop environments — Kubuntu (KDE), Lubuntu (LXDE) and Xubuntu (Xfce). Three others focus on usage models: Edubuntu for education; Mythbuntu for MythTV; and Ubuntu Studio for creative media work.

Meanwhile, in 2010 Mint released Linux Mint Debian Edition which is based directly on Debian Testing rather than indirectly via Ubuntu.

Topics: Operating Systems, Reviews, Software

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  • This is an excellent summary of Ubuntu and Mint and the interface differences between them. Most such articles take a very partisan position for one distro or the other, so this is a welcome change.
    In addition to commending your article, I'm writing to note two small issues.
    1) You say that different approaches to to the user interface arise in part from "the need for an operating system that provides a more consistent user experience across a wide range of form factors." I don't know of any significant evidence of this "need." I do not know any long-time PC user who now thinks that their phone should be more like their PC or vice versa, or for that matter who now thinks that their iPad should be more like their PC or vice versa. I think it is a gratuitous assumption by marketers and developers, who believe that users will eventually become accustomed to a "one size fits all" approach to user interface design. I think this is misguided. Similarly, I think that the idea of reducing "clutter" that is said to be a goal of GNOME and Unity is simply a gratuitous assumption about user preference and is similarly a mistake.
    2) "Head-Up Display" is an Americanism, but it is not derived from the interjection "heads up!" that is used as an alert in America. It is the name for the system of displaying instrumentation and controls on a transparent screen (originally, the windshield of a military aircraft, and now also used in commercial aircraft and luxury automobiles) so that the operator does not need to look down at the controls. Of course space-traveller Shuttleworth is using it to mean a control system that doesn't require the user to take his eyes off the task on the screen to look at a menu, but his system is audio rather than screen overlay.
  • For Gnome 2 die-hards, it is possible to add icons to the bottom panel (or top top panel, if you prefer) which provide the exact Gnome 2 experience. This is what I do as I find the current Mint Menu System not to my liking.

    As to Unity and Gnome 3, I feel that I could get used to Gnome 3 but not Unity, and HUD definitely does not appeal to me since I prefer to use the mouse as my primary selection tool.

    In particular, I can't see that a desktop full of icons is a great way forward. It's not so long ago that a clean desktop was favoured by *users*. Even if you had Icons on the desktop, they were the ones which you personally chose and found useful.

    As a netbook user, I did like the original Ubuntu UNR desktop, very logical, functional and attractive on a small screen. Currently I'm mainly using Ubuntu 11.04 with the full Gnome 2 experience and dabbling with Mint modified as mentioned above to give me the Gnome 2 drop down menus.

    Time will tell with which distribution I eventually end up. The number of people looking at Mint on Distrowatch is an indication that I'm not the only one not at ease with the direction of Ubuntu.
    The Former Moley
  • Excellent article. One small correction, though--although a fresh installation of Linux Mint 12 will, indeed, provide the user with a version of MATE that is still experimental...that version of MATE is now several months out-of-date!! Enable the repository containing the MATE components (tridex repository--instructions on how to enable it are here: http://tinyurl.com/6tc57qn) and apply all the updates, and you will see that MATE is now mature and exactly like Gnome2 in every way. Just add a top panel, use menubar (Applications, Places, Settings) instead of mintmenu, and it'll be like you never left Gnome2 :) I use Linux Mint 12 64-bit and MATE for all my computing, and I can attest that the current MATE is exactly like Gnome2.

    MATE is only different from Gnome2 in two ways: 1) The code is being maintained by a team who is fiercely committed to the traditional desktop (in other words, relax because you won't have to relearn how to use your computer when the next "upgrade" comes out) and 2) A few applications have been renamed in order not to clash with Gnome3 (e.g., MATE's file manager is called "caja" even though under the hood it is identical to Gnome2's nautilus). You can see a pretty complete list of the renamed applications here: http://wiki.mate-desktop.org/applications

    Not all change is progress.
  • I'be been using Mint 12 since the RC came out, and I am far more happy with the Cinnamon, the Mate, and, yes (with extensions), theGnome 3 interfaces than I am with Unity.
  • Nice review and very informative. One thing I'd like to add (in reply to whs001's 1st question), the main reason to have the same interface from smartphone, to tablet, to netbook, to desktop is not just about having one simple interface for all users, it is also partially about maintainability. A while back, Ubuntu had two main interfaces, Gnome 2 desktop, and a custom netbook interface (actually two netbook interfaces if you count the 2D only version as well). Maintaining both took a lot of resources, even for simple tasks like adding new apps to the default menu. Unity is designed to replace both with a single, easier to maintain interface.

    And Unity isn't the only desktop gui doing this. KDE has 3 now, desktop, netbook, and active (for touch screens). All 3 of theirs share a lot of the same code, so again, easier to maintain.

    Then there's the up and coming Windows 8 (I'm sure they will tout it as "New and Innovative".
  • @GrueMaster. I prefer horses for courses rather than one size fits all. I, and I suspect most other computer users, do not really wish to have our computers turned into a smartphone or a tablet, and certainly wish to have that choice honoured - for our, the customers, convenience.
    The Former Moley
  • whs001 - Thank you, I'm glad you liked the article.

    I absolutely agree with you on your first point. I should perhaps have made it clearer that when I spoke of 'need' I meant a need arising from the developers and not necessarily the users. The trouble with development of any major piece of software is that developers will always tinker with it, trying to 'move forward' or just to incorporate some pet new idea they have. Sometimes this meshes well with what end users want - for example the introduction of support for new hardware, and sometimes it just seems like the developers are fixing something that isn't broken.

    Software is never allowed to be 'finished' or 'perfect'. Although in practice developers have been forced to recognise users need for stability and have introduced LTS versions of operating systems.

    On your second point - I am aware of the origin of the term 'Heads Up Display' as used to describe projected targeting and flight systems monitoring in fighter planes. For me it just does not seem to fit with the function it is being applied to and Iwas trying to arrive at a possible explanation for its use here. Shuttleworth's comments about audio relate to future possibilities, not to the system currently under development.

    bdantas - Thanks for the extra info on MATE - I shall try that. Without the resources available to the Ubuntu developers, the Mint team and associated developers seem to be doing well at pushing out new code, but perhaps are not as good at letting people know about it.

    GrueMaster - A very good point about maintainability. This however does come back to the question of who benefits. Yes design and code commonality makes it easier for the developers, but it doesn't necessarily produce a range of products with the features that end users want. There is a balance between the two that needs to be struck.
  • "Unity and GNOME 3 both abandon the old text-based cascading menus in favour of a graphical icon-driven system."

    Point truly missed. Both use a text box to enter the first few letters of what you are looking for, so the icons present are quickly slimmed down to just the relevant one(s). There is no need to visually scan a page of icons, except where your memory lets you down. I'm sure most can remember Firefox, files, terminal, and the few apps they use regularly.

    The claims of "smartphone interface" are based on looking at pictures like this and not trying it out for themselves. Find me some smartphones or tablets with a text-based app search like I described, and then I'll agree with the claims...

    Not all change is bad
  • Isn't the provision of a text based search an admission by the developers that the mass of icons approach does not work? I don't need to use a search function with menus when I know which application I wish to launch and where to find it. Personally I have tried quite hard to like and use these new intefaces but, at this stage in their development, find them clumsy and slow.
  • Er, no... It is an efficient means of finding the application/file/setting you need in one place. The icons are a simply a fallback for when you cannot remember. You need to take a step back and look at it afresh. You are trying to apply traditional menu style thinking to the new interface, hence why it is not working for you.
  • @kevinmchapman. The discussion here reflects the very significant number of users who really do like the traditional menu system and who wish to keep working in this way and not be forced to change. For convenience, icons of frequently used programs can be placed on the top panel or, indeed, the desktop. Additionally a favourites group can be quite easily placed in the menu. The bottom line is that many (most) of us like the clear, simple, logical, and intuitive nature of the traditional menu; you're not sure, you can still find - intuitively.

    Judging by the fuss about the new interfaces, I'm not alone in this thinking. Furthermore, I think new users coming from Windows will be confused and discouraged. At least in Windows 8 you will still be able to choose between the familiar and the new or, indeed, have both.

    In passing, the Unity side bar is extremely unattractive, one would think that Ubuntu/Canonical could have made a better job of the icons.
    The Former Moley
  • "the very significant number of users" and "many (most) of us" - you have no evidence for these statements. It is a fact that most users are saying nothing, so we have no idea as to their preferences. A tiny minority post comments on blogs/forums for or against the new interface.

    There is, indeed, a "fuss about the new interfaces", because plenty of people dislike change and shout loudly about it. Satisfied people don't generally make a fuss. This is not to imply that everyone who does not post their opinions is happy, but, equally, do not use a few angry blog posts as evidence of widespread hatred of the new interfaces. Sadly, the latter appears to be common.

    Hopefully, though, you have noticed that both Unity and Gnome Shell have bars for just such convenient placement of favourite icons. I cannot argue with your assessment of the looks of the Unity side bar, though...
  • Well it seems there is something a number of us agree on. Why is the Ubuntu Unity launcher so ugly?
    I thought perhaps it was something to do with the colour choices but I don't think it looks much better in monochrome.
  • @kevinmchapman. OK, I acknowledge that 'most' was a gratuitous throwaway comment as an afterthought and too presumptuous. As to proof, as you have acknowledged, there isn't really any definitive proof one way or the other. Nevertheless, I personally do feel that the new interfaces will not easily attract Windows users, although that might change with Windows 8 and its Tiles.

    However change for change's sake is not always good in itself , as we see in the yo-yo changes in policies when the government changes hands. After all, the Microsoft ribbon is still attracting a lot of criticism, which may illustrate a difference between the technophiles and the technophobes. I fall somewhere in between.
    The Former Moley
  • Hi i am newish to all of this. Comming from windows i tried many Linux systems before setteling on Ubuntu 12.04. Working with Windows in the office people use icons and do not type in what to do or go where. To me the future seems to be going touchscreen in the next few years and then will be all icon besed. Ubuntu seems to be on this path and therefore i chose it and find it very easy to use.