Peppermint OS 10It has been a few years since I last checked on Peppermint OS, a distribution that is assembled mostly from packages in the Ubuntu repositories along with some key components from Linux Mint. Peppermint offers two claims to fame. The first is its hybrid desktop environment which weds components from LXDE (such as lxsession) and Xfce (including the window manager). This combination of desktop components makes for a surprisingly attractive and responsive environment.
Peppermint's other key component is its site specific browser (SSB). This is a tool which launches web pages or web apps in a web browser with a minimal interface. The streamlined, single-tab browser makes the web interface it is displaying seem more like a locally run desktop application. To compliment the SSB, Peppermint ships with a tool called Ice that helps users set up links to websites to be launched in the SSB.
Version 10 of Peppermint OS is based on Ubuntu 18.04, though it includes some more up to date packages. The distribution is available in both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x86_64) builds. I downloaded the 64-bit build which is about 1.5GB in size. There was talk of publishing a new version of the distribution, Peppermint OS 11, back in June and July. The project's blog includes several posts about an upcoming release. However, these posts appeared to have stopped about three months ago, suggesting version 10 will continue to be the most recent release for a while.
Booting from the live media brings up a menu asking if we would like to try the distribution, run the system installer, or launch an OEM installer. Taking the default Try option loads the hybrid LXDE/Xfce desktop. It has a fairly typical layout with a panel placed across the bottom edge of the screen. The application menu is placed on the left, the task switcher is in the middle, and the system tray is over to the right. A single icon on the desktop can be used to launch the system installer.
The desktop seemed responsive and a quick test showed my hardware was functioning properly so I dived right into the install process.
Peppermint OS 10 -- The application menu and menu settings (full image size: 1.1MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Peppermint uses Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer. The graphical installer begins by asking us to select our preferred language and offers to show us the project's release notes. Clicking the link to see the release notes opens a web browser and displays the release notes for Ubuntu 18.04. The installer also asks if we would like to set up a Minimal installation or a Normal install. Peppermint is always fairly minimal so I felt good about doing a full, Normal setup. We are given the chance to download software updates while the system is installing and we are asked if we would like to download third-party items such as drivers and media codecs.
When it comes to partitioning we can take a guided option. The guided approach defaults to setting up a unified ext4 partition, plus swap space. Alternatively we can check boxes to use LVM volumes and encryption. The manual partitioning approach presents us with a very friendly partition manager which can be used to set up most Linux filesystems. After that we confirm our time zone and make up a username and password for ourselves.
The installer started off working quickly, but seemed to get bogged down toward the end, appearing to come to a halt a few times while setting up kernel packages. The installer did finally finish, but displayed a few error messages. The first was "end of file on stdin at conffile prompt". This was followed by another: "dependency problems - leaving unconfigured". Then the installer reported it had finished successfully and offered to restart the computer. When I accepted the option to restart, the installer reported it had crashed and terminated. This did not inspire confidence.
My new copy of Peppermint booted to a graphical login screen. We can sign into the system using the account we set up through Ubiquity or we can sign into a guest account. The guest account has no password and its contents are wiped after each use. If we decide later we do not want a guest account it can be disabled in the distribution's settings panel.
The Peppermint desktop is pleasantly uncluttered and calm. There were virtually no pop-ups, notices, and there was no welcome window. There was an icon in the system tray which let me know when new software updates were available, but otherwise Peppermint seems to strive for a distraction-free desktop. The environment is also unusually responsive with menus, windows, and applications offering better than average performance.
When I started playing with Peppermint OS in VirtualBox the distribution performed well. The system was responsive and generally performed tasks quickly. The LXDE/Xfce desktop did not dynamically resize with the default settings, but I could change the guest's screen resolution through the settings panel.
When I moved over to running Peppermint on my desktop computer, everything worked well. My hardware, including wireless card, was all recognized and used properly. My keyboard's media keys functioned and desktop performance was excellent.
The distribution is relatively light, using about 295MB of RAM when signed into the desktop. A fresh install of the Normal configuration used 6.5GB of disk space.
The Peppermint application menu features a two-pane layout. Categories of software are displayed to the left while individual launchers in a category are shown to the right. Some utilities in the menu are listed with their name showing while others are listed with a description of their purpose. For instance, the Transmission application is listed as "BitTorrent Client" and Xplayer is listed as "Media Player". On the other hand, examples of named applications include such items as Firefox, Dropbox, and guvcview.
Peppermint OS 10 -- The file manager and Synaptic package manager (full image size: 683kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The menu is not particularly full. There are some basic tools like a text editor, the Gufw firewall configuration tool, and a launcher called Additional Drivers which will show alternative hardware drivers we can enable. Many of the menu entries are web applications. These open in the site specific browser to present more like native applications. Some of these include Gmail, Google Calendar, and Microsoft Office Online. There are also a few games.
Peppermint provides media codecs, assuming we choose to enable them at install time. The distribution includes the GNU Compiler Collection. In the background we find the systemd init software and version 5.0 of the Linux kernel.
I feel the distribution's settings panel is worth a mention. It appears to be a custom portal for finding settings. While the layout is that of a fairly standard, classic settings panel, I like the way configuration modules are grouped into tabs. The panel is quite responsive and I found the supplied settings easy to navigate.
Peppermint OS 10 -- The settings panel and Peppermint Control Centre (full image size: 808kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
A tool I had less success with was the Browser Manager. This tool is designed, I believe, to help us install additional web browsers. However, any time I tried to launch Browser Manager it immediately crashed. This was the only program I tried that did not work smoothly and it stood out in my otherwise pleasant experience with the distribution.
Ice and Site-Specific Browser
Two of Peppermint's main selling points are its Site Specific Browser and the Ice tool used to manage SSB launchers. Ice is a fairly easy tool to use. It provides a simple wizard for providing the name and URL of a website and we can choose which browser will open the URL. Ice then adds a new launcher to the application menu so we can easily access the chosen website like any other program. Ice can also removing existing web app launchers from the menu.
Peppermint OS 10 -- Setting up a new site specific browser in Ice (full image size: 1.2MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Websites opened in the SSB have a minimal browser interface in an attempt to make web apps more streamlined and appear similar to local applications. Sometimes this illusion works pretty well. However, the slower performance, the need to login to some web apps, and ads which show up in others are regular reminders that we are visiting websites in a browser. I tended to avoid web apps in favour of locally run, open source alternatives.
Peppermint ships with two utilities for managing software. The first is mintInstall which is borrowed from the Linux Mint project. mintInstall is a pleasantly modern software manager which presents us with a list of featured/popular applications. We can then browse categories of software, click application entries to see a full page description, and queue up new installs with a button click. mintInstall is pleasantly responsive and easy to navigate.
One aspect of mintInstall I appreciate is it has a separate Flatpak category to help us find portable Flatpak packages. I also like that the software manager clearly states on the description page of an item whether an application we are viewing is a Flatpak or regular Deb package. This is useful when we are browsing popular desktop applications like Firefox or GIMP and want to download one type of package over the other.
Peppermint OS 10 -- The mintInstall software centre (full image size: 990kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The one problem I ran into when dealing with mintInstall came when I was installing Flatpak applications. Newly installed Flatpaks were not added to the application menu; I had to logout and sign back into my account to see the new launchers. Even when the launchers showed up, the icons for Flatpaks were left blank. This is not a functional issue, but looks ugly next to the entries set up by Deb-based packages.
The second software manager is Synaptic, which provides a classic, low level, package-oriented approach. Synaptic works quickly and is useful for downloading and removing software in batches. We can also use Synaptic to manage repository information.
When new software updates become available there is an icon in the system tray which turns blue. Clicking this icon opens the update manager, which is also borrowed from Linux Mint. This tool lists available updates and we can check a box next to the items we want to download. It has been a while since Peppermint had a media refresh and there were 329 updates waiting for me on my first day, totalling 340MB in size. The update manager handled all of these new packages gracefully (if a bit slowly) and brought my system cleanly up to date. After that a few more updates trickled in during the week. I encountered no problems while updating Peppermint, though a few packages did prompt me to either overwrite or keep old configuration files. This is not a bug, but it is likely to confuse newcomers. I think graphical update tools should probably have a reasonable default for this situation rather than prompting the user to ask whether a low level configuration file they have never heard of should be replaced.
Peppermint is one of those delightful distributions which does what it says it will do. It sets out to be lightweight, easy to set up, and offer native-like access to web applications. It does all of these things and does them well. I also happen to really like the well-organized settings panel and the friendly software manager. I especially like how mintInstall makes it clear when it is working with Deb or Flatpak packages.
While I'm not personally a fan of web applications, I do think Peppermint deserves full credit for making them as easy to use as possible and as native-like as it does. I may never like running my applications over the web, but for people who do like this approach, Peppermint's Ice and SSB features are excellent.
Mostly though I'm a big fan of the distribution's combined LXDE/Xfce desktop. It is a mixture of components which works nicely, is fairly easy to configure, and it offers some of the best performance I have had with an open source desktop this year.
There are some rough edges. The system installer threw out some errors towards the end of the setup process. Needing to logout and back in to see Flatpaks in the application menu was a pain, but not a deal breaker. On the whole I think Peppermint does a good job of feeling modern while offering good performance and easy to use tools.
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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: