Linux Mint 18: Hands on with the Cinnamon and MATE betas

The Beta Releases for Linux Mint 18 Cinnamon and MATE are available now. That means it won't be long until the final release. Here's my experience with them so far.

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Linux Mint 18 - Cinnamon and MATE Desktops

The Linux Mint 18 betas for Cinnamon and MATE desktops were announced on Thursday, so allowing time for release candidates, and with a bit of luck, the final release could be out by the end of the month. I have installed each of the betas on a couple of different computers, and so far everything has looked very good. Here are a few of my experiences, comments and opinions.

First, as with any new release - and especially with a beta release - be sure to read the Release Notes (Cinnamon / MATE) before installing. There is also a "What's New" document for each of them (Cinnamon / MATE).

The Release Announcements include a list of mirrors all over the world where the ISO images can be downloaded. The images are about 1.7GB, so they require at least a 2GB USB stick or a blank DVD.

The 64-bit images are compatible with both BIOS/MBR and UEFI systems, but the 32-bit images are not UEFI compatible. The systems I have tried this on so far are all UEFI firmware - with Secure Boot disabled, of course.

After booting the installed system, one of the first things you should do is check for updates. There are already quite a few to be installed, including a kernel update and a newer version of Firefox, for example.

Speaking of installing updates, I think that is a good place to look at the new release in detail. Clem and the Mint developers have always been very good about listening to their users and responding to their requests and needs. One of the areas of Linux Mint that has come in for some particularly strong criticism is the update process. This is always a difficult/tricky area for any Linux distribution, because you have to try to find a balance between maintaining stability, security and currency.

For some time now Linux Mint has used a system of assigning each possible update an Update Type value between 1 and 5, and the system administrator could choose which Types they wanted to install.

This still drew a lot of criticism from people who said that Mint wasn't being aggressive enough or thorough enough in installing some patches, or that the system administrators still didn't have enough control, or that it still required too much manual intervention and selection to get some kinds of updates installed.

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So, one of the major new features in the Linux Mint 18 release is an Update Policy definition, where the system administrator can choose how aggressive or conservative they want to be with updates.

At one extreme is the 'Don't break my computer' option. I consider this to be the "stick your head in the sand" approach, because not only does it install only known "safe" updates, or those which don't affect critical parts of the system, but it doesn't even show the others. I guess the theory is "What you don't know can't hurt you". Hmmm.

The other extreme is 'Always update everything', which I consider the "Just Do It" approach. Automatically install every available update, and if it happens to break something the administrator is expected to be able to figure out what happened and how to fix it. Hmmm.

The center option is the way updates have been handled until now - only known safe updates or those to non-critical areas are installed automatically, but all other available updates are displayed and can be manually selected for installation.

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There is also a pretty useful Help section for the Update Manager selection, which explains in more detail what the update Types and Categories are, and what the implications of the various choices are.

This change is certainly a step in the right direction, but I'm not convinced that it will satisfy a lot of the critics. The problem is that a lot of the criticism has not been about how/which updates are selected for installation automatically or manually, it has been about which updates are actually offered, or not offered, and who makes the decision about that, and how that decision is made - where is the priority, on security, stability, compatibility or whatever.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what the reaction to this new update policy is.

The other major area that is new in Linux Mint 18 is what they are calling X-apps. This is another example of the Mint developers trying to deliver what their users want and need, even when the "upstream" developers are taking a different path.

To understand X-apps, you have to understand that both the Cinnamon and MATE desktops are actually shells which are built on top of Gnome 3, in the same way that the stock Gnome Shell is done. For the situation we are interested in here, that means although they present a different Graphical User Interface, they actually use the same underlying utilities for routine system administration and user tasks.

There have been some problems brewing for some time now, not only between the Gnome developers and Gnome users, but also between the Gnome developers and other development teams who try to build on the Gnome libraries and interfaces. At the user level, features have been changed or completely removed which a lot of users weren't happy about - for example, the Gnome file manager, previously known as nautilus, lost the split-window display ability (I'm still scratching my head over that one). At the developer level, it seems that a lot of the Gnome utilities were becoming more and more closely tied to specific features and functionality of the Gnome Shell (desktop), making it more and more difficult for other desktops to adapt and use the Gnome utilities.

The Linux Mint developers were in a particularly difficult position, because they have two desktops that they had to adapt the Gnome utilities for (Cinnamon and MATE). This not only made for a lot of work, it created a significant support burden.

The Mint developers finally decided to solve this problem in pretty much the same way that they solved the original Gnome 3 Shell problem - they just gave up on following the Gnome utilities, and they took it upon themselves to develop and maintain an equivalent set of utilities - which are now known as the X-apps. The X-apps are based on older, stable, and well-known versions of the Gnome utilities.

Finally, the Mint developers have said that the X-apps will be developed and maintained in such a way that they will always be compatible with both Cinnamon and MATE. This effectively turns their disadvantage of having to adapt the Gnome utilities twice into an advantage of only having to develop and maintain one set of utilities for the two desktops.

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GNOME Files

Here is a simple example. The Gnome file manager, which now has the wonderfully creative and original name GNOME Files (who needs a silly old name like nautilus?).

This screenshot is taken from the Fedora 24 Beta release, so it is Gnome 3.20... although I couldn't get gnome-session --version to say anything useful. Or anything at all. Sigh.

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Linux Mint Nemo

The Linux Mint file manager nemo (which happens to be the name of the captain of the Nautilus... hmmm...). This shot is taken from Linux Mint 18 Cinnamon, of course.

Without getting into a discussion of which is good or bad, I think the magnitude of the difference between these two file manager utilities is obvious. If your personal priority is on stability and continuity, then you are likely to consider the X-apps to be a very good thing.

The New Features document has a list of the first group of X-apps which are included in this release. It also mentions that the original applications that the X-apps replace (mostly from Gnome, but a few from MATE and Xfce) are all still available in the Mint repositories, so if you don't like any or all of the X-apps it is easy to switch.

The other major update in Linux Mint 18 is the desktop itself - Cinnamon 3.0 and MATE 1.14. There is an excellent Video of Cinnamon 3.0 showing what's new and different in this version. I have looked around for an equivalent video of MATE, but haven't been able to find one.

Linux Mint 18 is a Long Term Support (LTS) release. This means that it will get security updates until 2021. Perhaps more important for stability and continued development in the short term, the Mint 18 package base will be used for development until at least 2018. So the next few releases of Linux Mint will be 18.1, 18.2 and so on, and upgrading to each one when it is released should be quite simple, as it has been for 17, 17.1, 17.2 and 17.3.

I have installed these Beta releases (both Cinnamon and MATE) on several of my laptops, but I am also specifically not installing it in several others, so that I can take them through the upgrade procedure from 17.3 to 18, when it becomes available.

Oh, and speaking of upgrades, the release announcement specifically states that it will be possible to upgrade these Beta versions to the final release, when it is available. So if you just can't wait to get your hands on the latest and greatest version, you can install these now. There is no upgrade from 17.3 to 18 Beta, so you will have to make a new installation, but at least you will know that you won't have to make another complete installation when the final release comes along.

Of course, if stability is your priority, and making a new installation and then transferring your configuration and data is not something you do for fun, just sit tight until the final release of Mint 18 is available, then you will be able to upgrade.

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