Like any Linux you can, of course, switch it to your own choice of desktop. Many, indeed, offer users a choice of desktops. Mint, for example, while primarily a GNOME-based distribution, also offers its users a version that uses the LXDE desktop for its interface.
By and large, though, Mint is best known GNOME-based desktop Linux. In particular, its most recent claim to fame that while Ubuntu has moved on to its controversial Unity interface, Mint stuck with the older and well-liked GNOME 2.32 interface... until now.
Clement Lefebvre, Linux Mint founder and project leader, explained in a blog posting that while "in Linux Mint 11 we made the decision to keep Gnome 2.32. The traditional Gnome desktop, although it's not actively developed by the Gnome development team anymore, is still by far the most popular desktop within the Linux community. As other distributions adopted new desktops such as Unity and Gnome 3, many users felt alienated and consequently migrated to Linux Mint. We recorded a 40% increase in a single month and we're now quickly catching up with Ubuntu for the number #1 spot within the Linux desktop market."
But, "as much as we'd like to keep Gnome 2.32 a little while longer we need to look forward and embrace new technologies. This doesn't mean we need to change the way people use their desktops, not at all, it means we need to try and do our best for people to feel at home again, but on top of a brand new base, a new layer of technology, one that is actively supported upstream and that can be maintained properly going forward."
All well and good but many people, including myself, really dislike GNOME 3.x, so Lefebvre and his crew elected to not just force users to switch to GNOME 3.2 but to develop "'MGSE'" (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions), which is a desktop layer on top of Gnome 3.2, that that makes it possible for users "to use Gnome 3 in a traditional way. You can disable all components within MGSE to get a pure Gnome 3 experience, or you can enable all of them to get a Gnome 3 desktop that is similar to what you've been using before. Of course you can also pick and only enable the components you like to design your own desktop."
In addition, for those who really can't stand GNOME 3.2 even with a MSGE wrapping, the Mint team elected to support MATE. This is a GNOME 2.32 fork. But, while you "could have both MATE and Gnome 3 installed on your computer and be able to switch between desktops from the login screen. In practice, MATE is a brand new project and it does conflict with Gnome 3 in many areas. We're currently working hard in collaboration with the MATE developers to identify and fix these conflicts so that we can have both Gnome 3 and MATE installed by default on the DVD edition of Linux Mint 12."
Today, November 21st, Mint 12 is close to shipping. The Mint 12 release candidate, Lisa, is now available.
Users, however, still aren't sure they want GNOME 3.2 with MSGE or MATE for that matter. In a more recent blog note, Lefebvre wrote, "As expected, the introduction of Gnome 3 is dividing the Mint community. We were delighted to see that MGSE was well received and that it helped people migrating to Gnome 3. MGSE received a lot of noticeable improvements since and the final release of Linux Mint 12 will come with a Gnome 3 experience that is significantly better than in the RC release."
Still, "I personally understand the fact that some Gnome 2 users are extremely concerned. Whether it's Gnome 3 or MATE, these technologies are recent and they're not as mature as Gnome 2. It's important to understand that they represent our future though, and that sticking to Gnome 2 would make the situation in terms of packages and runtime conflicts with both Gnome 3 and Ubuntu completely unmanageable. In other words, if we were to stick to Gnome 2.32, Linux Mint would no longer be compatible with Ubuntu and you would not be able to run Gnome 3 in Linux Mint. We were one of the last distributions to support Gnome 2, we're amongst the very few to support MATE and we're innovating on Gnome 3 to ease this transition and make people feel at home on this new desktop. With Linux Mint 12 we're giving Mint users the option to try MATE and to migrate to Gnome 3/MGSE. Though it might be considered a step backwards, these two desktops will improve rapidly and this is a process which needs to be done at some stage. Previous releases of Linux Mint are still available to users who prefer Gnome 2 of course, and by the time they become obsolete, both MATE and Gnome 3/MGSE will have matured, MATE into an ever-closer incarnation of Gnome 2, and Gnome3/MGSE into a brand new implementation of the vision we have for the Linux Mint desktop."
So, how do both actually work? I've been using Mint with GNOME3/MGSE and also with MATE for several days now.
I've found that GNOME 3 with MGSE actually works quite well. While it's not quite as smooth as Mint with GNOME 2.32 was, I had no trouble doing my daily work with it. I had no trouble using my usual assortment of programs-the Firefox and Chrome Web browsers; LibreOffice, for my office suite; Evolution for e-mail and scheduling, Pidgin for e-mail; Banshee for music; and Bluefish for HTML editing. For the most part, I didn't have to interact with the GNOME 3.2 shell and that was just fine by me.
I wish I could say the same for MATE, but I can't. While, on the surface, MATE looks even more like GNOME 2.32 than MGSE does, once I started using GNOME applications on it I kept running into one problem after another. None of them were show-stoppers. I could usually find a way out of them. But, taken as a whole, it's clear that MATE is still early beta software.
So, while I'll do a full review of Mint 12 later, I can tell you today that most dyed-in-the-wool GNOME 2.32 users will be happy with Mint and MGSE. MATE, that's another story. In the end it may be what GNOME 2.x fans really want to use, but it's not there yet. At this time, I can only recommend it for people interested in developing it and helping to debug it.