Linux Mint 19Linux Mint is a popular desktop distribution which is available in two main editions. The main series of releases is based on Ubuntu and the project maintains a second series based on Debian, appropriately named Linux Mint Debian Edition. This week I am going to talk about the project's latest Ubuntu-based release, Linux Mint 19.
Mint 19 is available in 32-bit and 64-bit x86 builds and comes in three desktop flavours: Cinnamon, MATE and Xfce. Each of these flavours is set up to look and act approximately the same and ships with mostly the same software; the only significant different is the desktop environment.
Mint 19 is based on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS and will receive approximately five years of security updates. The new version also features a number of changes and improvements. For instance, Mint now includes a welcome window that runs when the user logs in and guides the user through steps that should be performed immediately after the operating system has been installed. The Mint update manager now installs all software updates by default. Previously the update manager could be used to filter out risky software upgrades, but that has been phased out in favour of operating system snapshots. Speaking of snapshots, Timeshift, a snapshot manager is included by default and I will talk about it more later. The project's documentation also points out that MATE now includes HiDPI monitor support.
One interesting feature worth mentioning is Mint supports home directory encryption. This may not seem like a big deal since previous versions of the operating system included it in the past. What makes it noteworthy is Ubuntu dropped home directory encryption in favour of whole disk encryption and, following its lead, most Ubuntu-based distributions no longer support encrypting just the home directory. Mint is a rare exception which has kept the feature and it can be enabled at install time.
Linux Mint 19 -- The application menu (full image size: 636kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I decided to try Mint's MATE edition for 64-bit systems. The ISO I downloaded was 1.8GB in size. Booting from the live disc quickly brought up the MATE desktop with a one-panel layout. The panel is placed at the bottom of the screen with the application menu, a few quick-launch icons and the system tray. There are a few icons on the desktop for opening a file manager and launching the system installer. While using the live desktop I encountered no surprises, no pop-ups and no welcome window.
Mint uses the Ubiquity system installer which it inherits from Ubuntu. The graphical installer begins by asking us to select our preferred language from a list. We are then asked to confirm our keyboard's layout. The following screen gives us the option to install third-party software such as non-free firmware, Flash and media codecs. We are then given the chance to have our hard drive partitioned automatically or we can divide up the disk manually using Ubiquity's built in partition manager. I took the manual approach and found the partition manager to be very straight forward with support offered for a range of filesystems, including ext2/3/4, XFS, JFS and Btrfs. I opted to set up my system with a Btrfs volume with the intention of making use of Timeshift snapshots later. The final two screens ask us to select our time zone from a map of the world and pick an account username and password for ourselves. The account creation screen provides the option to encrypt our user's home folder, an option Ubuntu has dropped in its latest release. The installer quickly completed its work and offered to reboot the computer. Mint, like its parent distribution, offers an easy install process that requires very little user interaction or knowledge.
Mint boots to a graphical login screen where we can sign into our account to start a fresh MATE desktop session. When we sign in a welcome window appears and displays a brief greeting. Tabs in the welcome screen give us access to suggested first-run actions (creating a snapshot of the operating system, downloading software updates, installing third-party drivers, adjusting system settings through the control panel, and launching the software centre). Other tabs in the welcome window provide us with links to the project's documentation, release notes, support forum and IRC channel. The welcome window has a nice, clean layout and I like the inclusion of suggested first-run instructions as it takes care of one of the first questions new users are likely to ask upon installing an operating system: "Now what?"
Linux Mint 19 -- The welcome window (full image size: 568kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Mint's desktop defaults to a silver/grey theme with dark wallpaper. It is a fairly clean look that avoids distractions. One of my few concerns with the desktop's appearance is the default (or selected) buttons in dialog windows do not stand out. This makes it hard to see which button in a confirmation dialog is selected. My only other complaint was that, like many other distributions, Mint's desktop session locks itself quickly, locking the user out after just five minutes without input. I find this delay too short and soon changed it in the distribution's settings panel. Otherwise I liked the way Mint sets up MATE. The session was responsive and the desktop uncluttered.
Mint's application menu is divided into three main panes: Favourites, software categories and launcher. There is a search box too for people who want to jump to a specific program. The menu combines classic tree-style navigation with some modern search and bookmark options and I think it's a useful combination.
Updates and Timeshift
In the past, Mint took an approach to software updates where the user could select which new updates to install based on a safety ranking system. Packages that had been tested and were deemed safe got a good ranking, packages that were known to cause problems were assigned a poor ranking with most software landing in the middle. Using this system, Mint's update manager gave the user control over whether they preferred stability (avoiding updates that might break the system) or security (protection from outside attacks). While this approach was very useful, particularly to new users who would not know how to fix a problem with a kernel or video driver update, the ability to hold back risky security updates drew criticism.
Perhaps in part because of the criticism, Mint has stopped ranking updates with the update manager's new default behaviour being to install all new software fixes. The update manager can even be set to automatically download and apply all new updates periodically. To guard against new packages breaking the system, the user is advised to use a tool called Timeshift to take regular snapshots of the operating system. These Timeshift snapshots are not taken by the update manager, but can be set up to be taken automatically once a day or week (or other interval of time) by the user.
Linux Mint 19 -- Adjusting update settings (full image size: 488kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Timeshift can be found in the application menu or launched from the welcome window. The Timeshift application begins by walking us through a setup wizard. We can choose to make file archive backups using the rsync utility or we can create filesystem level snapshots if we have installed the system on a Btrfs volume (which I did). Timeshift lets us decide how often to take snapshots and how many snapshots of the operating system to keep. When using Btrfs we can decide whether to include the /home sub-volume in our snapshots, which makes for a handy recovery option if we delete a document. Timeshift snapshots are stored locally and will be lost if the computer's disk is damaged or corrupted.
I tested creating, using and recovering from Btrfs snapshots. They work, but with a few necessary disclaimers. First, the only easy way to restore a snapshot is by using the Timeshift application. This means that if Timeshift works (and the system boots), restoring files just takes two mouse clicks and is wonderfully easy. However, if the system fails to boot or Timeshift is damaged, we need to have another way to mount and work with the Btrfs volume, such as a live disc. Btrfs snapshots cannot be booted into from the boot menu, as with openSUSE, but older kernels are accessible from the boot menu which should allow us to recover from most update-related problems.
Finally, I think it is worth noting that while browsing for a file and restoring a file from a Btrfs snapshot is point-and-click easy in most situations through Timeshift's interface, we run into a problem if our home directory is encrypted. The links which normally cause an encrypted volume to be mounted do not work inside a Btrfs snapshot, meaning restoring specific files from a snapshot require quite a bit of manual work. Rolling back an entire snapshot is easy, but rescuing specific, encrypted files takes manual, command-line work.
Linux Mint 19 -- Scheduling Timeshift snapshots (full image size: 569kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
All in all, I think Timeshift and the new approach to updates is probably a good thing. And I like how easy it is to create, clean-up and rollback entire snapshots. However, these snapshots are not a cure-all and should be used with another backup method in mind, one that will save user files on a remote (or removable) hard drive. Fortunately there is another backup utility for users, which I will touch on later.
The main utility for installing and removing software on Mint is called mintInstall. It's a software manager with a modern look that begins by showing the user a collection of popular applications or "editor's picks". Underneath the featured items are categories we can browse and, near the top of the window, there is a search box we can use to locate applications by name. Clicking on a program's listing brings up a full page description of the software with screen shots and user-supplied reviews. New software can be installed with the click of a button.
The mintInstall utility will locate and work with Flatpak packages too. Flatpak bundles get their own category and show up in searches. Something mintInstall does well that most other software managers do not is it clearly identifies when a software package is a Flatpak. It does this by putting the name of the Flatpak repository next to the application's name. For example, a search for the VLC media player returns "VLC" for the traditional Deb package and "VLC (Flathub)" for the Flatpak.
Linux Mint 19 -- Browsing available software in mintInstall (full image size: 536kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The software centre worked well for me and my only complaint was the questionable way size information is displayed or estimated for Flatpaks. For instance, the Minitube video player Flatpak claims it will require a 772MB download to get the package, but will only use 335kB of disk space. In reality, Minitube used nearly 2GB of disk space.
Mint does not ship with Snap package support enabled by default, however we can install Snap support by installing the snapd package from the distribution's repositories.
Mint ships with the Synaptic package manager for people who want to work with individual packages instead of applications. Synaptic worked for me and provides a pretty easy way to handle low level packages and manage repositories.
Mint 19 ships with a fairly standard set of popular open source applications. Digging through the application menu we turn up the Firefox web browser, Thunderbird, the HexChat IRC client and the Transmission bittorrent application. LibreOffice is provided alongside the GNU Image Manipulation Program and a couple of image viewers. Rhythmbox is available for playing audio files while Xplayer and VLC play videos. I opted to install third-party packages at install time and was able to play all media files out of the box.
Mint ships a number of other useful tools, including an on-screen keyboard, an archive manager, a dictionary and version 7.3 of the GNU Compiler Collection. The Redshift utility is installed for us which adjusts the display's colour temperature based on the time of day. Digging further we find Mint runs the systemd init software and version 4.15 of the Linux kernel.
Earlier I mentioned Mint provides a backup utility designed for archiving a user's files rather than snapshots of the entire operating system. The backup utility is called mintBackup and it is capable of making archives of files in a user's home directory as well as saving a list of installed applications on the system. The latter function makes it straight forward to migrate our installed programs to another computer. I tested mintBackup and found the archives it makes are simple tar files with the day's date included in the filename for easy indexing. I like mintBackup as it makes it possible to save a copy of our files with just a few mouse clicks and virtually no configuration steps.
Linux Mint 19 -- Creating backups and enabling the firewall (full image size: 523kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I started off by trying Mint in a VirtualBox environment. Mint performed well and was stable in the virtual environment, but was not able to make use of my host computer's full screen resolution. To get around this limitation, I went into Mint's driver manager which lists third-party hardware drivers we may find useful. VirtualBox modules were listed in the driver manager and installed successfully. There was a side-effect though: installing VirtualBox modules caused the welcome window package (mintwelcome) to be removed. The welcome window seems to be the only feature that gets removed when VirtualBox add-ons are installed.
When running on a physical computer Mint performed very well. The desktop was responsive, all my hardware was detected and the operating system was stable. The only hiccup I encountered running Mint on my desktop was that, when I booted from the live disc for the first time, the MATE desktop did not finish loading. The MATE panel appeared, but the application menu and desktop icons did not. My keyboard worked, but the mouse did not. Killing the desktop session by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Backspace restarted the MATE session and everything worked well from there on.
Once Mint was installed I found clicking and dragging windows around the desktop would cause windows to drift behind the mouse pointer, sliding a bit as though they were being pulled on a rope. Window movement could be made more snappy by adjusting visual effects settings in the control panel.
Linux Mint 19 -- The settings panel (full image size: 502kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Mint used about 6.6GB of disk space for a fresh installation and logging into the MATE desktop required 360MB of memory.
I was very happy this week running Linux Mint 19. The distribution gave me better than average performance, a relatively low memory footprint and a friendly interface. All my hardware was supported, I liked the default collection of applications and the distribution was very easy to set up. The new welcome window is a good addition. I think it'll make things easier for first-time users looking for tips on getting up and running.
I also must tip my hat to Mint's software centre, it is perhaps the first software manager I have encountered that makes working with traditional Deb packages and portable Flatpak packages seamless while clearly flagging Flatpaks as being different.
At first I was sceptical about the update manager's new approach to applying all updates. The ranked updates approach Mint used in the past made it easy to set up the distribution to be more stable for family and friends. Having all available security updates is nice, but when providing tech support for new Linux users I am more concerned with a kernel update breaking the system than I am the possibility that a remote kernel exploit will get through their firewall. (The former happens semi-regularly with other distributions, the latter has never happened to my knowledge.) It is too soon to tell if the overall effect of this change will be good or bad for the people I support. However, I will say that I like the way Timeshift integrates with Btrfs. With most update problems I will be able to boot an old kernel and rollback to an earlier Timeshift snapshot and that may prove to be a suitable trade-off; balancing improved security with a fairly straight forward recovery process.
Speaking of Timeshift, while it does have a few limitations with regards to transferring snapshots to another computer and it is awkward working with encrypted home directories, otherwise Timeshift is a wonderfully friendly way to safeguard the operating system. I'm happy to see Mint support Timeshift and Btrfs snapshots, more distributions should make these technologies a priority in my opinion.
Mint's default selection of software is nice. I like that the team picks the more capable and user-friendly applications over programs that use a specific toolkit or design. The default look is fairly attractive without being distracting too. Personally, I would like a darker theme, but that is easy enough to change.
Early on there were a few minor things which annoyed me (trigger happy screen saver, window visual effects), but these were easily fixed and a matter of personal preference rather than bugs. I don't think I encountered any serious issues during my trial. There were no performance issues and no hurdles to getting work done. Using Mint was a pleasantly smooth and trouble-free experience for me.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: