Linux Mint 3 Debian Edition (LMDE 3)The Linux Mint project maintains two branches. The main edition is based on Ubuntu LTS releases while the alternative branch is based on Debian Stable and is appropriately named Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE). The Mint team has published version 3 of their Debian-based branch, which uses Debian 9 as a base.
While LMDE features most of the same tools and customisations as the Ubuntu branch, there are a few key differences. Apart from having a different parent distribution, LMDE 3 is available in just one edition featuring the Cinnamon desktop environment. The Ubuntu branch offers three editions: Cinnamon, MATE and Xfce. Both branches offer 32-bit and 64-bit builds.
The ISO for the 64-bit build of LMDE 3 is 1.6GB in size. Booting from the live media loads the Cinnamon desktop. Icons on the desktop will open the distribution's file manager and the system installer. A panel at the bottom of the desktop houses the application menu, a few quick-launch buttons for popular applications, and the system tray. Once I had confirmed the distribution appeared to be working properly with my hardware, I launched the installer.
Mint's Debian Edition uses its own custom system installer. The installer is a graphical application which bears a resemblance to Ubuntu's Ubiquity or the distro-neutral Calamares installer. We are asked to select our preferred language from a list and our time zone from a map. We can then select our keyboard's layout, and create a username and password for ourselves. The partitioning section comes next with the installer automatically suggesting a layout with a swap partition and ext4 root partition. We can customize our disk's layout by clicking a button that launches the GParted partition manager. Once we have divided up our disk and assigned mount points to each partition, we are asked if we would like to install the GRUB boot loader and, if so, where. The installer then copies its packages to our hard drive and offers to restart the computer. I found the installer easy to navigate and ran into no problems while using it.
LMDE boots to a login screen where we can sign into the Cinnamon desktop. Upon signing in, a welcome screen appears. This screen provides us with links to on-line documentation and support resources, such as Mint's user forums and IRC chat room. The welcome screen also includes a page with buttons that will open tools that we will find useful early on. These buttons will open the Timeshift snapshot utility, launch the distribution's update manager, launch the software manager, open the system settings panel and install media codecs. I tested each of these quick-access buttons and found they all worked as expected.
Linux Mint 3 Debian Edition -- The welcome window and application menu (full image size: 471kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I talked about Timeshift back in July when I reviewedLinux Lite and Mint's main edition, but I think it is worth talking about again. Timeshift is a graphical tool which assists us in creating snapshots of the operating system. Snapshots can be created using the rsync utility or file system snapshots, if we have installed the distribution on a Btrfs volume. Snapshots contain a copy of our operating system, allowing us to revert any changes which break the system, such as a bad software update or configuration change. Timeshift has a configuration wizard that assists us in setting up scheduled snapshots with just a few mouse clicks and it does its own automatic house cleaning to avoid using up too much disk space.
Snapshots are stored locally and Timeshift cannot copy snapshots to another computer on its own, but we can access snapshots and copy them to a remote location ourselves. By default our users' files are not included in snapshots, Timeshift concerns itself with the operating system rather than with our data files.
Linux Mint 3 Debian Edition -- Scheduling Timeshift snapshots (full image size: 538kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
To create archives of our users' files there is a separate utility called mintBackup. Using mintBackup we can create tarball archives of our files with just three clicks. Backup archives are also stored locally, but we can copy them to a removable drive or another computer later if we wish.
Mint's update manager changed this year. When updates are available an icon in the system tray lets us know. Clicking the icon opens a window with the available package upgrades listed. In the past the update tool would rank updates using a safety rating and we could choose to automatically select all updates, or just ones with a suitable safety rating. These days all updates are selected by default with the idea that if something goes wrong, we can fix the system using Timeshift. In fact, the update manager will suggest we run Timeshift to set up snapshots if we have not done so prior to running the update utility.
Linux Mint 3 Debian Edition -- The update manager (full image size: 442kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There were just a few updates available during the days I was running LMDE and these all downloaded and installed without any problems.
When I tried running LMDE in a VirtualBox virtual machine I found the operating system did not integrate with the host environment. There is a paragraph on fixing this in the project's release notes. I followed the instructions and was then able to make full use of my host computer's screen resolution. The Cinnamon desktop remained sluggish in VirtualBox as Cinnamon wants to make use of the video hardware to boost performance. I was able to improve the situation somewhat by disabling visual effects and this made Cinnamon usable, but still a little slow to respond.
When running LMDE on a desktop computer, all of my system's hardware was properly detected and used. The Cinnamon desktop performed well and was responsive when running directly on physical hardware.
In either test environment the distribution was stable and I encountered no crashes. A fresh install of LMDE used 4.8GB of disk space, though this tended to balloon when I enabled Timeshift snapshots on the ext4 file system. (Using Timeshift with Btrfs snapshots uses much less disk space.) The distribution used 525MB of memory when I first started using it, 30MB of that was consumed by the welcome window and could be reclaimed when the welcome screen was dismissed.
The distribution ships with two graphical software managers, which pull most of their software from Debian repositories, but also grab software from custom Mint repositories. Most people will probably make use of mintInstall, a modern-looking software manager that begins by showing a collection of popular applications (called editor's picks) and a list of categories. We can then browse for items by running searches or by looking through the provided categories. Each available application is listed along with its icon, name and a short description. Clicking an item brings up a full page description with screen shots. Programs can be installed or removed with the click of a button.
Linux Mint 3 Debian Edition -- The software manager (full image size: 516kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
mintInstall has one category specifically for Flatpak packages - portable bundles that are often provided by upstream publishers. These bundles often provide access to proprietary software or newer versions of open source applications not available in the distribution's repositories. Having access to Flatpaks is especially useful on LMDE because Debian's applications are around two years old now, and we may want newer versions. The versions of the QupZilla browser and LibreOffice, for example, are quite a bit out of date compared to most other desktop distributions and being able to use Flatpaks gives us up to date versions without risking problems through backported packages.
While mintInstall worked well for me, if we want to access lower level packages and libraries we will want to use Synaptic, the older, more traditional package manager that is included with Mint. Synaptic worked well and was able to install, remove and upgrade packages without any problems.
The distribution ships with a collection of popular applications, including the Firefox web browser, LibreOffice, Thunderbird, the HexChat IRC client and the Transmission bittorrent client. Pix and the GNU Image Manipulation Program are included for viewing and editing images. Rhythmbox, VLC and Xplayer are featured, along with media codecs we can optionally install from the welcome window. There are several system utilities for performing backups, setting up printers and managing user accounts. Java is included and the GNU Compiler Collection is installed for us. LMDE 3 uses the systemd init software (LMDE 2 used Sys V init) and the distribution runs version 4.9 of the Linux kernel.
Linux Mint 3 Debian Edition -- Running LibreOffice, Firefox and the calendar application (full image size: 196kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Mint ships with a fairly standard settings panel which presents icons for configuration modules in a grid. Using these modules we can change the appearance of the desktop, adjust visual effects, manage widgets and configure the screensaver. Tools for managing the underlying operating system are also included. These tools help us manage user accounts, configure the firewall, set up printers and manage which programs run when we login.
Each of the configuration modules worked for me and I encountered no problems. There were a few items I felt worthy of mention. For example, I like that start-up programs can be assigned a delay. For example, the update manager does not load and check for new packages until we have been signed in for 20 seconds. This is a great way to have some components load later, making the desktop responsive sooner, even when lots of components are being run.
Linux Mint 3 Debian Edition -- The settings panel (full image size: 571kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I also liked that Cinnamon is set up to not remember recently accessed files by default in the privacy module. Having the screensaver not start until we have been inactive for 15 minutes is also a default I appreciate; in my opinion too many distributions set the delay for too short a span. Notifications can be turned off, which is a feature I rarely use, but appreciate having for those days when I really don't want distractions.
One feature which I felt was missing was a driver manager for third-party drivers. I think gamers in particular would appreciate being able to quickly access alternative video drivers.
Differences between Linux Mint and Linux Mint Debian Edition
Earlier this year I reviewed Linux Mint 19 and I was curious to see what differences I could find between the Ubuntu-based flavour and the Debian-based one. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the Ubuntu-based branch offers three editions (Cinnamon, MATE and Xfce) while the Debian edition offers Cinnamon only. We can install an alternative desktop later, but by default we run Cinnamon. Memory usage was quite a bit higher for me when running the Debian branch with Cinnamon, compared to my time with the Ubuntu branch running MATE.
In Linux Mint, the Synaptic package manager has the button for marking all available upgrades patched out, encouraging people to use the separate update manager. On the Debian edition Synaptic has the “mark all upgrades” button.
The Debian edition has its own system installer. This has little practical effect, but it does look slightly different, particularly in the disk partitioning section.
The Debian branch has slightly older software, compared with the Ubuntu branch. LibreOffice, for example, is a few versions behind. The Debian edition has an older kernel too. In general, though LMDE 3 is a new release, its software is likely to be nearly a year older than what we find in the Ubuntu branch. We can work around this in some cases by using backports or Flatpak packages. However, unlike the Ubuntu-branch, we cannot use Ubuntu PPAs in the Debian branch to get up to date packages as the two editions are not binary compatible.
These differences aside, the two branches of Mint are surprisingly similar. The same look and feel are there. Both branches include mostly the same applications and the same system tools. For most practical purposes people are unlikely to notice which edition of Mint they are running, unless they need a specific version of an application.
On the whole, I liked running LMDE 3 a lot. The distribution was easy to set up, I liked the quick access to common tools in the welcome window. The change from ranked upgrades to having the system safeguarded by Timeshift snapshots may make things a little harder for newcomers (it's harder to recover a system than to not have it break in the first place), but the new approach probably offers better security in the long run.
One thing I appreciated about LMDE 3 is that it looks beautiful. I usually don't focus much on a theme, or icon style, but Mint looks incredible to me. Everything is high contrast and attractive. The fonts are a little thin for my taste, but this can be easily changed with a few clicks in the settings panel.
I was a little disappointed the system installer defaults to using ext4 instead of Btrfs. Since Mint recommends and relies on Timeshift for system recovery, and Btrfs snapshots are much more efficient than rsync snapshots, it makes sense to me to use Btrfs by default. On a related note, when Timeshift is set up to use rsync snapshots, the rsync command will drag down system performance for about 20 minutes at a time. Having the snapshots run as a lower priority in the background would have avoided slowing down the desktop once a day.
I would have preferred if LMDE had shipped with MATE instead of Cinnamon. I realize Cinnamon is an in-house desktop project and it makes sense for the Mint developers to focus on using and promoting Cinnamon. However, since I suspect many of the people who want to use the Debian branch over the Ubuntu branch will be doing so for performance reasons, I think MATE would make the sensible default. MATE is lighter than Cinnamon, does not require special video driver/hardware support and will run better in virtual environments. Cinnamon is a solid desktop and I think it looks and performs wonderfully on physical hardware, it just doesn't feel like the optimal choice for people who want to run the lighter, more conservative Debian branch of Mint.
Finally, I want to give credit to the Mint team for integrating Flatpak support into the software manager. It is easy to find Flatpaks without having them blend in with other packages, potentially confusing users. I think Flatpak support was handled well by the Mint team.
On the whole, the above points are minor style preferences for a distribution that I was impressed by. Mint's Debian edition performed smoothly, offered a lot of great software out of the box and was easy to use. I think the Debian branch might be slightly less appealing to beginners than the main, Ubuntu-based edition, but there are few practical differences and most people will probably find either branch works for them. I think LMDE will be a good fit for most people, whether beginners or more experienced users.
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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: