2012's Best Linux desktop: Linux Mint 13

2012's Best Linux desktop: Linux Mint 13

Summary: The Linux Mint distribution keeps getting better and better with its own take on GNOME, the Cinnamon Linux desktop

TOPICS: Open Source, Linux, PCs
Linux Mint 13 with Cinnamon is the best Linux desktop of the year to date.

Linux Mint 13 with Cinnamon is the best Linux desktop of the year to date.

The very popular Linux distribution, Mint, has a new version Linux Mint 13, Maya, and a new take on the GNOME 3.x desktop interface: Cinnamon 1.4. The result is, in my opinion, the best Linux desktop for experienced users to date.

Not everyone will agree with me. They'll find Mint's other default desktop MATE to be much more their speed. MATE is a fork of that old Linux desktop favorite, GNOME 2.x. While I haven't looked at the MATE edition of GNOME closely, other Linux reviewers, like Jim Lynch, have and Lynch likes what he's seen of Mint 13 paired with MATE.

Setting up Mint 13: 2012's Best Linux desktop

Even with the little work I've done with MATE though I can see what GNOME 2.x fans will like it. It's a very clean desktop and it feels and works like a natural extension of GNOME 2. GNOME fans who abandoned GNOME after the annoying changes in GNOME 3.x for Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE) will want to give Mint with MATE a try. With MATE, GNOME 2.x is back.

That said, I prefer Cinnamon myself. Cinnamon, which is remindful of GNOME 2.x, is built on Clutter and Gnome 3. I find it more attractive and I like its features. For example, the menu includes drag and drop support. With that, besides just being move icons from the menu to the desktop, I can add them to panel launchers, favorites, and reorder my favorites. I can also right-click the menu to use the menu editor to change edit the main menu itself. It's pretty, gives me great control over how my desktop looks and works.

Another great feature is Cinnamon's new Expo mode is. Expo gives you great control over your workspaces. You can choose how many workspaces to use and drag and drop applications to each workspace. It's a powerful tool but as easy to use as Mac OS X Lion's Mission Control and Spaces.

Much as I'd like to recommend Cinnamon for everyone though, I can't. As Mint's own developers admit that while, "Cinnamon is among the sleekest and most modern looking environments [and] features innovative features and emphasis on productivity with traditional desktop metaphors, it also has several problems. These are:


  • Cinnamon requires 3D acceleration and might not work well for you, depending on your graphics card and/or drivers.
  • Cinnamon is brand new and unfortunately not yet as stable as more matures and established desktops such as MATE, KDE or Xfce.
  • Cinnamon relies on Gnome 3 and Clutter, which are also both brand new and going through rapid transformations.

Of course, you can just switch between MATE and Cinnamon. One of Mint's new features is an improved version of the old Gnome Display Manager: MDM. With MDM, you can pick which GUI to boot into, configure them, set up themes for them, and set up remote, automatic, and timed logins. There may be display/login manager with more features out there, but I honestly don't know what it could be though.

For me, however, Cinnamon works just fine. I tested Mint 13 with Cinnamon on two systems. The first was one of my workhorse Dell Inspiron 530S. This system is powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This PC has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set. I also put it to work on my new Lenovo ThinkPad T520 laptop. This, much more up-to-date computer boasts a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 Processor, 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor. On both systems, the old and new, Linux Mint and Cinnamon ran flawlessly.

Installing Mint, as always, is a snap. All you need do is download the Mint ISO, burn it to a CD, DVD, or USB stick and then re-boot your computer with it and follow the instructions. On my PCs, the entire process took less than half-an-hour. Mint will run on pretty much any PC. It requires only 512MBs of RAM, but runs better with at least 1GB of memory.

The only annoying thing about the process is you can't do an in-place update of Mint 13 from Mint 12 or any other Linux distribution. That's by design. Mint's developers feel that you'll avoid out of date software incompatibilities by forcing you to do a fresh install. That's true, but it also means you may need to back up and restore your home directories and files. I did this by backing them up to an attached USB drive.

Moving on to the operating system itself, Mint 13 is based on Ubuntu 12.04. I like this version of Ubuntu with its Unity interface as well. In particular I think Ubuntu 12.04 is great for users who aren't computer savvy. But, I'm a Linux pro. I like operating systems that enable me do decide exactly what I want it to do and how it's going to do it. If you're a power user too, then you'll like the taste of Mint.

Beneath the desktop, you'll find a Linux 3.2 kernel. Mint, like most Linux distributions, is still using ext4 for its file system.

Above that foundation, in applications, you'll find the usual Linux distribution goodness: LibreOffice 3.5.2 for office work, Firefox 12 for the Web browser; GIMP 2.6.12 for graphics; Thunderbird 12.01 for e-mail; and Pidgin 2.10.3 for IM. I'm not crazy about the choices of Thunderbird, I much prefer Evolution for e-mail or Firefox over Chrome.

The default software choice is no big deal though since Mint's Software Manager makes adding new programs a snap. The one quirk here is that after you install the program from the Software Manager the screen doesn't show it as being installed. You need to leave the program installation screen and come back to it before you'll see that your software was indeed installed. It's not a big bug, but it's a bit of a nuisance and I can see someone thinking they really hadn't installed a program when they've actually done so.

As has long been the case with Mint, and it's first claim to fame, this is one Linux distribution that comes ready to deal with proprietary video and audio codexes such as Flash, MP3 and DVDs. Ironically, thanks to including VLC Media Player 2.01, Linux Mint plays DVDs better than Windows 8 will. You see, Mint comes ready to play DVDs. In Windows 8, DVD playback is an extra-cost item.

It's not any of these components by themselves that really impress me. I mean they're all really good. But, what really makes Mint special is how all of them are brought together into one, complete whole. As far as I'm concerned, Mint 13 really is the best Linux distribution so far of 2012. Give it a try yourself. I think you may agree.

Related Stories:

Fedora 17 & GNOME 3.4: Return to a useful Linux desktop (Review)

Ubuntu 12.04 vs. Windows 8: Five points of comparison

Linus Torvalds likes the Google Chrome OS Linux desktop

Mint's Cinnamon: The Future of the Linux Desktop? (Review)

Linux Mint 12 Debian Edition Slideshow

Topics: Open Source, Linux, PCs

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Separate home partition!

    I wish automatic partitioning would give the user a separate /home. Then, it should be smart enough to recommend keeping it if it (a separate /home partition) exists on the old system.

    Is this an LTR edition?
    • partitions

      Yes, it'd be ideal to use separate partitions for /home and /var.

      Even cleverer would be noticing whether a computer were dual booting and Windows was one of the OS options. Then it might be possible to link ~user to a directory in the the Windows profile directory.
    • Thank you!

      People who trumpet Mint as the greatest Linux distro completely ignore facts like the home option but also - the installer doesn't allow for LVM partitioning or full-disk encryption, either. That, combined with the inability to do an in-place upgrade, makes Mint rather a non-starter for me.
      • There is no [u]best[/u] desktop Linux distro

        The [u]best[/u] desktop Linux distro is a function of a user's requirements and features available in a specific distro. Requirements important to one person may not be important to another (as you and thebaldguy have shown). And close inspection of features available from various Linux distros shows that significant diversity exists.

        I prefer distros that offer one the option to do a net install so that I can custom-build my desktop from a terminal with the CLI.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
  • Mint 13

    Regarding Mint 13:

    I just recently installed Mint 12 on my 4 year-old laptop replacing Xubuntu and liked what I saw. I tried Cinnamon, but as Steven points out it requires 3D acceleration which is a no-go for me (too many glitches and heavy on system resources). Therefore I chose MATE and really liked it since it didn't have bugs that Xfce currently has. I will definitely try Mint 13 and hope that in the future Cinnamon doesn't rely as heavily on 3D acceleration as it does now.

    Regarding Windows 8:

    Does VLC media player come by default on the CD version of Mint 13 (I know 12 doesn't)? If it doesn't then it is really not fair to compare DVD playback between Mint and Windows 8 because you still have to install restricted extras first (or use DVD version of Mint). My point is you have to install extra stuff for both OSs in order to play DVDs. Furthermore, DVD playback is not an "extra cost" item in Windows 8 because I can install VLC or K-Lite for free and play ANY video format.
    • 3D acceleration is here to stay...

      "I will definitely try Mint 13 and hope that in the future Cinnamon doesn't rely as heavily on 3D acceleration as it does now."

      Well, I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you - if it requires 3D acceleration now, I don't see why they would remove that requirement (or the functionality that goes with it). It's not like there are *THAT* many video cards left in the world that don't support 3D acceleration.
      • Yes

        Sadly you are correct. However, currently both MATE and Unity don't require 3D acceleration so I'm hoping Cinnamon follows in their footsteps.
      • AMD drivers don't support it just yet

        I have an AMD 5850 which is a pretty decent card but it has 3D acceleration problem with Cinnamon and Gnome shell, they both crash!
        I now use mate with DockBarX and also KDE both are great but i like to have an option for Cinnamon too!
        AMD seems don't give a crap about its Linux users i will probably never buy another AMD graphic card again
      • AMD loves Linux users

        AMD has made a lot of their graphic information open source, which was a major win for those working on the open source drivers.

        Are you having a problem with the open source or closed source drivers? Have you tried the other to see if your problem persists?
      • @jgm I have problems with closed source and i think open source has it too

        and it is not just me a lot of users have this problem even Clem (mint founder) in the IRC chat was saying that he has the same problem for one of his PCs with AMD card ^^
        Who cares if they opened their source or not?! I want as a customer when i download their official driver it would do basic things, we are not talking about playing games just basic things i waited a lot for their new releases so maybe they would fix it but hey it is catalyst 12.4 but this problem still is there!
    • Linux Terminal Server

      Not in distant land you will see that integraded home systems will only use dumb terminals and have a central server running linux terminal server.
      Raymond Moncada
  • Linux Mint 13

    Kudos to Clem and the Linux Mint Teams.
    • Kudos for reaching XP

      Another icon based desktop with applications that are copies of old proprietary software. Any graphic designer using Gimp is defintely a masochist ;-)

      As for DVDs, a format that is dying fast. Perhaps you haven't noticed the lack of optical drives in tablets and ultrabooks and I really can't remember when I last used an optical drive in my desktop or went to a video library. 3D acceleration is now also standard.

      The irony is I could pick up a used XP computer for virtually nothing and run the same applications SJVN mentioned.

      It's great that we have an open source OS for tinkerers and hobbyists and it may even give rise to interesting applications in the future, but trying to continually pretend that it's an option for the 90% of the world using Windows does Linux a disservice.
      • Windows XP?

        I made all of these videos. They span a couple years. Look at the desktop, with Compiz mainly, it is definitely more functional than "Windows XP."




        The latest version of GNOME doesn't support Compiz effects but I am no longer using that. I'm using Xfce 4.10 which is a lighter desktop environment - almost identical to the first two videos - and that is compatible with Compiz which is in-use for myself right now.

        A large chunk of computer users are also only there for the web. My parents use Facebook and that is about it. They don't know the first thing about computers so I set their's up - and maintain them - for them. What are they running? What I run: Arch Linux. They don't even realize that they're "not supposed to like it." It just works and they know how to start Chromium's icon. I do the maintenance: just like I'm sure many tech people also do for their parents. For them it doesn't matter a whit that "they're using Linux." All they care is that Facebook loads.

        I don't know if the proverbial "Mom and Pop" are 90%, probably less, but once Linux is set up just installing Chrome/Chromium covers quite a few user classes.

        DVDs dying? I don't know the last time I used the optical drive in my machine. I installed from a USB thumbdrive and [i]all[/i] my software - mainly from my distribution's repository - comes over the wire. Optical media is dying, no disagreement there.

        90% of desktop users use Windows. Dig around for some statistics: that is not the future for emerging form-factors. Or servers.
        • speaking of maintenance...

          ...I maintain several machines in this household that the users insist need to run XP. And despite AV and anti-malware running still find themselves sheepishly coming to me for help. The long road involves trying to rid the machine of the infection manually: the shortcut is just to re-install everything.

          And yet they still insist on XP.

          All the while my machine - running Mint - never has any issues with viri or other such rubbish. Ever. And I do ever so much more than any of them do on their systems.

          Sorry, comparing XP and *any* flavour of Linux is just *so* unfair to XP. No matter how much I try to 'harden' it, the bugs still manage to get into XP. Oh well, at least the machines get a regular dusting-off that way. :-/
          • Taming XP

            How do you get XP past the critical updates any more? You can use Microsoft's Drop My Rights programs and I provide it with many of the link files to start Internet facing apps under its control:


            I also provide a script that checks what they have and provides the necessary "APP Safer" links in the appropriate places.

            One more thing you can do is insist that they use the Firefox browser with NoScript. Reducing the scripting to only the hosts you go to all the time and trust (well, sort of) goes a long way to keeping XP machines clean. Can I understand why these people like to use XP? Yes, I can. But the versions of Linux that look almost the same may work for them as well.
      • trying to continually pretend that it's an option for the 90% of the world

        And you happen to know what 90% of the world wants?
        What makes you think they want windows?
        When buying their computer did they have a choice between windows and Linux?

        The truth is microsoft doesn't want people to have a choice, because... well just look at windows phone.
        • Macintosh?

          I am recommending a relative that has an infected XP machine replace it with a Macintosh. I am still using OpenSuse Linux on the one machine. Right now the other machine is running nothing. Instead of rebooting I took out both Ubuntu 10.04 and Windows XP on the other system. What did it in? Not the fdisk that converted an unused OpenBSD partition to a Linux partition. It was the partprobe command that killed it. I never had a problem using partprobe with Fedora or OpenSuse. If you want 90% of the world using Linux you don't create Unity (which was why I kept running 10.04 Ubuntu). You listen to ordinary people and provide them with a GUI they find usable. Linux is too difficult for most people to use. OpenSuse is the first version of Linux I have successfuly upgraded. Sun (now Oracle) Solaris upgraded for years with no old cruft left other than the users GUI config files. You just remove them and have the users login again. Windows also upgrades with no or very few problems. If Solaris and IBM AIX can do upgrades, why can't Linux? Why doesn't Mint create a /home partition? If you are going to install fresh (Mint does not do upgrades), making copies of all your configuration changes in a special folder in /home which does not have the file system recreated is the only way to fly. I did it for years with RHEL and then Fedora. With Apple handling most everything for my relatives I don't have to worry about them swearing at me. They have something they can use and far less malware. It costs more up front but probably less in hassles. I have never owned a Macintosh (did own a NeXT for 1-2 years) and have used Unix and Linux for most of my professional career. I know what MVS, VM/CSE, and OS/400 are. At least two are still used. Most Linux distros are doing at least 2-3 things wrong that kills their chance to replace Windows. Linux' Qt and GTK libs alone have changed at least three times with no concessions to backwards compatibility. What sane person wants to replace their old OS with a new OS from shiny media almost every year? For Fedora it is more like every six months. Two is my minimum for OS replacement with three to five years preferred. Kernel updates can extend it for a long time. Get the idea?
      • Guzz - And yet -

        90 percent of the world does use Windows (maybe 80%, not sure), even though Linux has been free for 20+ years now.

        As for the Windows phone, I've seen it in adds, not in person. While it's not even close to a success, (how many phones offer Windows interface? 2 or 3 maybe?) I still prefer to hold an opinion until I have one in my hands to play with. Jumping to conclusions about the interface without actually using it indicates an OS bigot. Yes, there are bigots on both sides.

        Still, the most popular OS in China isn't Linux as many would have us believe, but it's cracked versions of Windows. These people have a choice and have exercised that choice, choosing Windows.
        • Yes, I can corraborate this:

          ...people *want* Windows. I live with that fact, because I have to clean up the mess all the time. These are the people that, if you try to explain why Windows is really a bad idea, give you a piteous look with a "my brain hurts" refrain and run off and load Facebook.

          People don't *want* choice... it makes them feel insecure and unhappy. They *like* being told what to use, and how to use it. Ultimately, if these people end up fed up with Microsoft products, they turn to Mac. For that exact reason: they like being told how to do things.