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A tale of two distros: Ubuntu and Linux Mint

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.

Editions
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.

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.

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