It's not that much of a contest. Even though I run many different desktops, Linux Mint has been my favorite for years now. This latest long-term-support release, which will be supported until 2019, is the best yet.
I'm not the only one who feels that way. A friend of mine who works for a Linux rival to Mint, said, "Mint makes every other distro look like amateur hour." I wouldn't go that far, but I know what he means.
So, why do I, and so many others, think Mint, and in particular the version with the Cinnamon desktop is so darn good? Well, I'll tell you.
First, while my first "desktops" were all about the shell command, OS/360 and Version 7 Unix, I was an early convert to the Windows, Icons, Menu, and Pointer (WIMP) desktop.
For decades, WIMP was the default desktop style regardless of the operating system. In the last few years, though, user interface (UI) designers starting to go astray.
The GNOME developers simplified GNOME to the point that it was painful for power users. Microsoft and Canonical tried to merge the desktop with the tablet UI with mixed results. Windows 8.x's Metro/Modern was a failure and Microsoft has replaced it with a more WIMP friendly mix of Windows 7's Aero and Modern. Ubuntu's Unity is better, especially for new users, but it's never been popular with power users.
What Mint Cinnamon gives me is the power and familiarity of an old-style WIMP interface with the flexibility of a first-rate Linux distribution.
With this new version of Mint, the Cinnamon 2.6 desktop also has several improvements. First, and this is very welcome, the desktop is much more responsive. This has been accomplished by tuning how Cinnamon uses the CPU.
In addition, in earlier versions of Cinnamon, there was no drive read-cache. The net result of this was Cinnamon could take its own sweet time in loading. Now, Cinnamon loads like a shot. On my main desktop, a Dell XPS 8300 with a 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8GBs of RAM, and an AMD/ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphic card, loading takes less than a second.
Mint 17.2 is more than just a pretty interface. Under it, you'll find a foundation of the Ubuntu 14.04 Linux distribution. Why Ubuntu 14.04? Because it's a good, solid distribution with all the bugs worked out. That's not to say Mint hasn't added it own improvements. For instance, Mint uses the 3.16 Linux kernel.
While my Dell XPS is four years old, you can run Mint on far older and weaker systems. All Mint needs to run is an x86 processor; 512 MBs of RAM (you'll be happier though with 1GB); 5 GBs of disk space; a graphics card that can handle 800×600 resolution; and a DVD drive or USB port. For example, I happily run Mint on my eight years old Lenovo ThinkPad R61 with its 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500 and 2GBs of RAM.
Mint is easy to install. If you can read this article and make sense of it, you can install Mint. Not sure you want to? No problem. Mint lets you run it from a DVD or USB-stick before installing it.
The only problem you might have with installing Mint is that while the operating system supports UEFI, it doesn't support Microsoft's SecureBoot. To run it on these systems you'll need to disable Secureboot.
Unlike some Linux distributions, Mint doesn't object to some proprietary software. It comes with some proprietary software, such as Adobe Flash and programs that enable you to play MP3 music and DVDs. Free software purists may object, but when I want to watch a DVD on my laptop I don't want to have to jump through hoops to do it.
Otherwise, Mint comes with the usual favorite desktop programs. These include Firefox for web browsing, LibreOffice for an office suite; and GIMP for photo-editing. If you'd rather use other programs, such as Evolution, instead of Thunderbird, for e-mail, Mint's Software Manager makes it as easy as pie to find and load new applications.
Every time that Mint, a community supported Linux without any commercial parent, comes out with a new distribution, I'm impressed. They've done it again. Led by French developer, Clement Lefebvre, Mint is proof that an open-source community can create great software.