Linux Mint 20Linux Mint is a desktop distribution which is available in two branches, one based on Debian and the other which uses Ubuntu as its base. The project recently published Linux Mint 20 which is based on Ubuntu 20.04 and promises five years of security updates. The distribution is available in three editions: Cinnamon, MATE, and Xfce. These editions are available for 64-bit (x86_64) computers exclusively and the download for each edition is approximately 2GB in size.
There are a few key new features in Linux Mint 20. One is Warpinator, a simple desktop tool which makes it easy to share files in a peer-to-peer fashion with other computers running Mint on the same local network. Warpinator replaces a past Mint utility called Giver and works much the same way, making sharing files across the network a point and click experience.
This release also features the NVIDIA Prime applet that can be used to switch between using one video card and another. This is helpful when running laptops that have an Intel video card and another from NVIDIA.
The Cinnamon desktop now allows each monitor attached to the computer to have different fractional scaling and this should improve the visual experience on HiDPI screens.
Unlike its parent, Mint does not ship with support for Snap packages. In fact, Deb packages which would normally install Snap bundles (the way Ubuntu's Chromium package does) have been replaced with empty packages. Mint instead supplies Flatpak support for people wishing to run portable package formats.
The project's release notes include a few warnings and workarounds. For instance, we are told that encrypted home directories are available, but may not unmount properly when logging out of the system due to a regression between the ecryptfs software and systemd.
Guest sessions are available, though disabled by default, and can be activated through the Login Window settings module. We are also warned that Chromium web browser packages are not available in the default repositories, but can be found in an add-on repository if the browser is needed.
The live session
Booting from the Cinnamon live media brought up a menu asking if I wanted to start the distribution, launch the distribution in compatibility mode, or perform an OEM install. There is also an option for performing a memory check.
Taking the default live session option brings up the Cinnamon desktop. The desktop's background is mostly black with the Mint logo. A panel along the bottom of the screen houses the application menu to the left and the system tray to the right. Icons on the desktop open the Nemo file manager and launch the system installer.
Linux Mint 20 -- The Cinnamon desktop and application menu (full image size: 321kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
The application menu is split into three sections. To the far left we find launchers that have been marked as favourites, along with shutdown and logout options. The middle of the menu is home to category names of software, such as Internet and Preferences. To the right of the menu we can see specific launchers for programs in a selected category. At the top of the menu is a search bar which can be used to locate specific launchers by name.
Mint, like its parent, uses the Ubiquity system installer, a graphical application that makes it very straight forward to install the distribution. We are given the chance to select our preferred language and offered a link to the project's release notes. The installer also guides us through picking our keyboard's layout from a list and the local time zone from a map. One screen asks if we would like to install optional media codecs.
When it comes to disk partitioning Mint's installer offers automated partitioning which can use LVM volumes. ZFS volumes, which are offered by Ubuntu, are not available. Manual partitioning allows us to work with most filesystem types and the manual partitioning tool is quite friendly. The first time I installed Mint I opted to use Btrfs for my operating system's partition in the hopes of using filesystem snapshots. At the end of the install process we are asked to make up a username and password for ourselves and we are given the option of encrypting our user's home directory. Once the installer finishes its work it asks if we would like to return to the live desktop or restart the computer.
When I first started working with Mint I noticed the boot process would display repeated error messages about failing to activate /swapfile. I will come back to this issue later. Mint would successfully boot to a login screen. Signing into my account would bring up a welcome window on the Cinnamon desktop. The welcome screen presents us with five tabs: Welcome, First Steps, Documentation, Help, and Contribute.
Linux Mint 20 -- The welcome window (full image size: 290kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
The Welcome tab offers us a brief greeting while the Documentation tab provides access to release notes and an overview of new features. The Help tab provides links to the distribution's chat room and forums. The Contribute tab links us to a web page which lists ways people can donate to the distribution or work on helping the project in various ways.
The First Steps page is probably the most interesting as it links to common ways we may wish to customize or set up the operating system. For instance, we can pick a preferred desktop colour scheme and select a light or dark theme. We can also pick a traditional or modern desktop panel. The traditional option displays small icons and window titles in the task switcher while the modern version shows just a large icon for each open window.
The First Steps screen also offers links to create snapshots (through Timeshift), open the driver manager, open the update manager, launch the software manager, open the Cinnamon settings panel, and open the Gufw firewall tool. I tested out these tools and found they each seemed to function well. For instance, the Timeshift tool did make it easy to schedule Btrfs snapshots and it worked well. I like being able to access past versions of the filesystem easily. Timeshift also offers an alternative option where we can copy files using rsync instead of Btrfs, but this approach is much more time consuming and uses a lot more disk space.
The driver manager will search for third-party drivers which may work with our hardware. In my case the driver manager did not find any components on my system that would benefit from alternative drivers.
Linux Mint 20 -- The update manager (full image size: 268kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)updates
The update manager and software manager I will touch upon later, but for now I can say they worked. The update utility showed me 55 available updates, about 90MB in size. I could optionally select which items to download and all new packages downloaded and were installed without any problems.
The system settings panel is very nicely laid out and easy to navigate. I like that it features a search option to help us find specific configuration toggles. I had no problems when exploring and changing settings, with one exception. The project's release notes mention we can enable a guest account through the settings panel. The login screen options were easy enough to find and turning on the guest account is a simple toggle switch. When I signed out of my account there was no guest sign in option on the login screen. I rebooted and the guest login option appeared. However, trying to sign into the guest account brought up an error message saying the ICEauthority file could not be updated and the session immediately kicked me back to the login screen. This happened repeatedly so it seems that, for all practical purposes, the guest account option does not work.
I started my trial with Mint by installing the distribution in a VirtualBox environment. This worked fairly well. Cinnamon can be a little sluggish in a virtual machine, but I think its performance has improved slightly in recent years. Cinnamon these days is not snappy in VirtualBox, but ran well enough to be practical and fairly smooth. One of my few concerns with running Mint in the virtual machine was that the desktop would not dynamically resize with the VirtualBox window. We can, instead, manually adjust Cinnamon's dimensions through the settings panel.
Linux Mint 20 -- The Cinnamon settings panel (full image size: 273kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)settings
When I switched to running Mint on my laptop the performance was better. The distribution was faster to boot and Cinnamon was more responsive. I would say, on physical hardware, Cinnamon gives average performance, about on par with MATE or KDE Plasma. All of my laptop's hardware was detected and worked properly. I found Mint uses "natural scrolling" (or reversed scrolling) by default on my laptop and this can be changed in the settings panel.
One issue I ran into occasionally was Cinnamon used more of my CPU than expected. When running directly on my laptop, Cinnamon's CPU usage often spiked to 20% when moving or resizing windows. When run in a virtual machine Cinnamon tended to use around 10% CPU when idle and would run consistently between 50%-80% when performing minor tasks like drawing a progress bar or displaying a notification. While the desktop remained responsive during these spikes, it slowed down background tasks, like installing software or browsing the web, whenever animations were displayed on the screen. In summary, I'd recommend Cinnamon for use on physical hardware, but suggest using one of the other editions (MATE or Xfce) when running Mint in a virtual machine.
Mint, when logged into Cinnamon, used about 580MB of memory and 8.5GB of disk space. I found the latter statistic higher than expected and did some looking into it. I found that 1GB of that space was set aside for a swap file, located at /swapfile. However, the swap file was not in use, meaning I had no available swap space. When I tried to activate the swap file the swapon tool reported it was given an invalid argument. Even with the swap file manually formatted for use a swap space, it was not recognized as a valid swap device.
Since I was running Mint on a Btrfs partition and swap files need to be created in a particular way on Btrfs, I later set up a fresh install of Mint on an ext4 filesystem. This time the swap file was created and automatically activated, giving me a gigabyte of swap space out of the box. It seems the swap file only fails to work when combined with Btrfs. In other words, if you plan to use Btrfs as Mint's filesystem, make sure you set up a separate partition for swap.
Browsing through the application menu I noticed some entries were listed with their name and some with their purpose. For example, HexChat, Rhythmbox, and Transmission show just their names. However, mintBackup is listed as Backup Tool and mintInstall is listed as Software Manager.
Apart from the applications mentioned above, Mint ships with the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird e-mail client, and LibreOffice. There is a calendar application, the Celluloid media player, and a document scanner. The Pix image viewer is included along with an archive manager, system monitor, and the Redshift desktop lighting software.
In the background we find the GNU Compiler Collection, Java, and systemd provides init functionality. The distribution runs on version 5.4 of the Linux kernel.
There are some other interesting programs that add to the Mint experience. For instance, there is a System Reports tool in the system tray. Clicking its icon opens a window that lists potential problems and offers to launch tools to fix them. This can be helpful if you have not yet created a snapshot of your filesystem or are missing out on drivers which would improve performance.
Linux Mint 20 -- The System Reports tool (full image size: 187kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)reports
The Warpinator tool I've mentioned before and it will automatically try to detect other users who have Warpinator on the network, making it possible to quickly send them files. This is nice as it means we do not need to set up OpenSSH, Samba shares, or cloud storage in order to share files with people in the same house or office.
There are a few tools included with Mint to help us manage software. In the system tray we find an icon that lets us know when software updates are available. Clicking the icon opens the update manager. The update manager has been streamlined a bit in recent years. It no longer ranks updates based on safety or testing results. Instead all available updates are listed and sorted by whether they are a security update or generic package update. We can select which items we want to upgrade and the manager works smoothly and quickly to download and install the new packages.
Linux Mint 20 -- The software centre (full image size: 258kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
There are two software managers. The first, mintInstall, is a modern software manager that focuses on desktop software. We can browse categories of software or perform searches for specific items. Each entry is displayed with its name, short description, icon, and a rating. Clicking an entry brings up a full page of information and a screenshot. We can install new software with a click.
The software manager works with both traditional packages and portable Flatpaks, which it pulls from Flathub. Some Flatpak bundles indicate in their name that they are Flatpaks while others only display this information in their full page description. This means if we see multiple entries for items, such as VLC or GIMP, we may want to click the entry to check its repository if we care which type of package we are going to install.
I liked the software manager and found it worked for everything I wanted to do. For people who like working with lower level packages there is Synaptic, a classic package manager. The Synaptic utility lists all available Deb packages and performs both installs and removals quickly.
Both graphical tools worked well for me. Should we want to work from the command line, the APT package manager and Flatpak command line tool are both present.
Linux Mint 20 -- Installing a Flatpak from the command line (full image size: 323kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Linux Mint has, in my opinion, a well deserved reputation for providing a friendly, capable, practical desktop operating system. The project takes the best parts of Ubuntu (hardware support, user friendliness, a huge collection of software) and works around some of its issues. Cinnamon requires about half as much memory as GNOME and looks more familiar to people migrating from Windows. Flatpaks are more portable and widely used than Snaps, and Mint wisely avoids installing Snap packages people wish to avoid.
Meanwhile Mint also provides a lot of useful tools like Warpinator, System Reports, and a simple backup utility. I also really like the Timeshift integration with Btrfs for people who want to snapshot their filesystem.
This release had a few rough edges. The swap file does not work with Btrfs and given that Btrfs is needed to take full advantage of the Timeshift tool this seems like an unfortunate oversight. Also the release notes mention how to enable the guest account, but the guest account did not work for me.
All in all, Linux Mint 20 is a solid operating system. It has lots of features, a good look, lots of polished tools, and a very useful welcome window. There are a few rough patches, but these probably won't affect a lot of people and will likely be fixed in version 20.1 In general, I'd recommend Mint, especially to people coming to Windows and trying out Linux for the first time.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast