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.


Seeing is believing
Regardless of operating system, the user experience is always mediated through the user interface, or UI. Since Mint is based on Ubuntu, comparisons between the two OSs for desktop use come down almost entirely to the UI.

Ubuntu 11.10's Unity desktop

The Linux Mint 12 desktop

Beginning with version 11.04, Ubuntu switched from a purely GNOME environment to its own Unity shell running on top of GNOME with the long-term goal of replacing GNOME and its reliance on the X Window system with the Wayland display server.

Mint, on the other hand, has chosen to follow the path of GNOME development and has gone with GNOME 3 and the GNOME shell with MGSE — the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions. This is quite significant since it marks the largest divergence between Ubuntu and Mint since the latter's inception.

One of the primary functions of a user interface is to provide a method of navigation. Both Unity and the GNOME shell mark a transition from task-based cascading text menus, augmented with small icons, where the emphasis is on the text, to an application-based UI with arrays of large icons, augmented by small text, where the emphasis is on the icons.

This move has been prompted, at least in part, by the advent of devices such as smartphones and tablets with small touchscreens, and the need for an operating system that provides a more consistent user experience across a wide range of form factors. However, in their current form such interfaces look a little out of place on large desktop displays.

Where next?
Designing a successful new user interface isn't easy, particularly when you're trying to persuade established users to adopt new paradigms. Unity and GNOME 3 both abandon the old text-based cascading menus in favour of a graphical icon-driven system. Both UIs present an array of large icons with a small line of sometimes curtailed text underneath. This may work well on smaller devices with touchscreens, but on a desktop system with a large non-touch monitor even a small number of application icons quickly fill the screen area. As as result, the eye has to travel further to scan and identify the required application from a square grid, and much bigger mouse movements are required to select the intended application than would be necessary with cascading text menus.

Ubuntu's icon-based Unity interface is better suited to small touchscreen tablets than desktop PCs with large non-touch monitors

Text menus occupy a relatively small area, with the text precisely describing each menu choice. Navigating cascading text menus does not require a lot of mouse movement. The disadvantage is that once the menus become extensive and several layers in depth, navigation to the desired menu choice becomes more difficult. Text menus don't work well on small displays.

Both Ubuntu's and Mint's developers are making efforts to improve their navigation and selection process, and are working on extending their user interfaces. Mint 12 has MGSE (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions), which is a desktop layer on top of GNOME 3 that reinstates the experience of cascading text menus. Mint 12 also offers the still-experimental MATE desktop environment, which can be chosen by clicking on the gear-wheel icon at logon. MATE is a fork of the GNOME 2 shell with its own independent group of developers, who disingenuously describe it as "a non-intuitive and unattractive desktop for users, using the traditional computing desktop metaphor".

Linux Mint 12 shell extensions: MGSE (top) and MATE (above): both appear at the bottom-left of the desktop when the Menu button is clicked

The Mint developers are planning to go further than MGSE with a new shell called Cinnamon. This is planned for adoption as the default desktop in Mint 13, which should appear sometime in May following the April release of Ubuntu 12.04 (Precise Pangolin). Version 1.2 of Cinnamon is already available, and can be installed in Mint 12 through the Software Manager. As with any of the alternate shells, it can be selected from a drop-down menu at logon by clicking on the gear wheel icon.

The Cinnamon shell 1.2 running on Linux Mint 12

The Ubuntu developers recently announced the slightly oddly-named Head-Up Display or HUD — a feature it's hoped will make its way into the upcoming 12.04 LTS release. Here, the term 'heads up' is used more in the American idiomatic sense of an advance alert, or in the sense of targeting a required behaviour. HUD uses a fuzzy logic system so that when the user types in a fragment or phrase expressing what they intend to do, HUD produces a response. This could be an application selection, or a command that hopefully matches the user's intent. For example, in the vector graphics program Inkscape, typing 'drop shadow' could result in the system offering a shortlist of commands that manipulate shadows. HUD can be seen as an extension of the predictive text that's already present in the Unity and GNOME shell interfaces.

Here is what Mark Shuttleworth has to say about the HUD in his 24 January blog:

"The desktop remains central to our everyday work and play, despite all the excitement around tablets, TV's and phones. So it's exciting for us to innovate in the desktop too, especially when we find ways to enhance the experience of both heavy "power" users and casual users at the same time. The desktop will be with us for a long time, and for those of us who spend hours every day using a wide diversity of applications, here is some very good news: 12.04 LTS will include the first step in a major new approach to application interfaces...Say hello to the Head-Up Display, or HUD, which will ultimately replace menus in Unity applications."

Shuttleworth also says that the adoption of the HUD fuzzy logic system could be the precursor to the eventual adoption of voice control in Ubuntu. For trial purposes, the HUD repositories for the experimental code can be added to the software sources of Ubuntu 12.04 alpha via the PPA — ppa:unity-team/hud.

Ubuntu's Head-Up Display (HUD) locating the Bookmarks command for the Firefox browser (see this blog post for more details)

Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint have evolved considerably since their beginnings. The future could well see Mint abandon its connection with Ubuntu to grow closer to its roots in Debian and GNOME, while Ubuntu has already decided to move away from GNOME and may continue to diverge from Debian.

Which distro is for you?
Ubuntu and Linux Mint are both stable, mature distributions with a wide range of compatible applications. If you're a business requiring commercial-level support for which you're willing to pay, then Ubuntu is the obvious choice. Home users who want out-of-the-box support for a wide range of media and can put up with the slightly later release dates might well prefer Mint.

Some people take a rather dim view of Ubuntu's default earth-tone colour palette, and Mint certainly provides an appropriately cool green-and-grey alternative. Ubuntu does offer desktop themes in alternative palettes, although the default 'orange'-hued Ambience theme arguably has the most polished appearance.

Then there's the choice between Ubuntu's Unity interface and Linux Mint's modifiable GNOME 3 shell. As we've seen, the UIs for both distros are works in progress, and in practice both offer an easy switch to variations on the earlier GNOME 2 if you don't get on with the default offerings.

Test setup
I have been using and writing about open-source software for about four years and have used Ubuntu as my main operating system since version 9.04. Although aware of Linux Mint, I had not previously tried it, simply because it's based on Ubuntu.

For this comparison I needed a Mint system, and rather than run it as a virtual machine, or on another computer, I decided to install it as a bootable option on my main work PC — an AMD Athlon64 X2 system with 2GB of RAM running on an MSI K9N motherboard.

I had an empty bay in my hot-swap drive cage and a spare 500GB drive, so I plugged the drive in installed Linux Mint to it and then opened a terminal window and ran the command 'sudo update-grub'. This added Linux Mint to my boot menu, so I could then choose between Ubuntu 11.10 64-bit, Windows XP or Linux Mint 12 64-bit at boot time.

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.