I spent the weekend looking at the release candidates for four — or two, depending on how you count them — upcoming Linux distributions. Perhaps it is a good commentary on the state of Linux distributions that the most important thing to say about all four is that they just work.
From installation to hardware detection and driver support, and the full range of packages and applications included, everything just works with no huge drama.
After a few significant rough patches, this distribution is starting to look good. I have been following it since the early Milestones and I've seen various images that wouldn't boot from LiveUSB media, wouldn't install properly, wouldn't boot after installing, and had various critical programs crashing.
This RC installed smoothly on everything I have tried so far and seems to work just fine. Wired and wireless networking, graphics and even the cursed Synaptics ClickPad on my HP dm1-3105 works properly.
This might be the most anxiously awaited of the group. In addition to those who are already dedicated Mint KDE users, there seems to be a lot of loyal Mint Gnome users who are now looking for an alternative to the Gnome 3, Cinnamon and MATE desktop choices.
As with the other members of the Mint 13 family, this one is based on Ubuntu 12.04, has a lot of additional and optional packages such as multimedia players and codes, and includes an array of very useful Mint utilities for system administration and management.
This RC also installed without problems on all my systems. When the final release comes out, it will get some serious consideration as a replacement for my current preferred distribution of Fedora 17 KDE.
Although it doesn't get the Synaptics ClickPad exactly right, as the openSUSE distributions do, with the latest X.Org updates installed at least it works reasonably well. As with other Mint and Ubuntu distributions, right-click is produced with two-finger tapping — not my favourite solution but better than no right-click at all — and two-finger scrolling works well.
Sometimes I feel like this is the overlooked distribution on both sides of its family tree — openSUSE seems to get a lot more attention for its KDE version, and Gnome seems to get a lot more attention on various other distributions, such as Fedora, Linux Mint and Ubuntu. That might just be my own prejudiced viewpoint, but in any case the openSUSE Gnome distribution is a very good example of the Gnome 3 shell.
Last on this list, but certainly not least important or least interesting, this one was a bit of a surprise to me. For the Mint 12 cycle we only got an LXDE distribution and then an Xfce version of the Mint Debian branch. This time we get an Xfce of the Ubuntu-based branch, and I'm sure there will be a lot of people who will be pleased about that.
Judging from the amount of disk space it requires and the list of included applications — such as LibreOffice, GIMP, VLC media player, Banshee and MPlayer — I would say that this is not a traditional lightweight, small-footprint Xfce distribution, but it is more of an, "I'm really tired of all the fuss and bother with Gnome and KDE, I just want a Linux desktop that works, doesn't radically change with every new release, and lets me get on with my work".
Final releases of all four of these are expected between now — I was afraid Mint Xfce would be released before I even got this written — and mid-September. If you can't wait, and want to test the latest and greatest right now, all of them are working just fine on all my systems, so pick one or more and give them a whirl.