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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