Until the release of Ubuntu 11.04, Gnome 2.x seemed to have become the standard desktop interface for Linux. It was the default for Ubuntu, Fedora and Linux Mint, three of the biggest distributions, and many others relied on it too. Of course, lots of people use KDE, but since they released version 4, things seemed to have swung in Gnome’s favour.
Then came 2011. With the release of Ubuntu 11.04, Ubuntu switched to Unity; shortly after that, Gnome 3 was released with the Shell interface, and this was quickly put to work in Fedora.
Many users hated both interfaces. They broke their traditional work patterns, made strange decisions, such as removing shutdown buttons, and all kinds of other $terror. The result was that many users flocked to Linux Mint – the only one of the big three not to pursue a new desktop for much of 2011.
Everyone was left asking what Linux Mint would do when their next big release came out. Would they take the path of least resistance and follow Ubuntu, their parent distribution, by accepting Unity? Or would they stick with upstream and make Gnome Shell their default? Maybe they might give Gnome 2.x a new lease of life and keep that as the default – it would certainly win them a lot of fans! Linux Mint 12 is now out, and we know the answer to this question: none of the above.
Gnome Shell Extensions
The team behind Linux Mint have gone in a completely unexpected and original direction. They’ve picked up Gnome Shell but, rather than using it as is, they’ve taken advantage of the integrated support for extensions to substantially customize it. Almost all of the problems that people have had with Gnome Shell are fixed by Mint’s Gnome Shell Extensions. They have:
- Re-introduced the bottom panel, complete with an Application menu and window list.
- Put a shutdown option back in the session menu.
- Turned on desktop icons by default.
- Re-introduced window minimization.
- Re-enabled the system tray.
- Made Alt+Tab work like it used to, switching between windows rather than applications.
We can’t sing the praises of this approach enough. Since all the usual Gnome Shell features are still in place, and each extension can be turned on or off individually, users can gradually acclimatize to Gnome Shell – or not if they don’t want to. Users can create the desktop they want. We also think this is a huge testament to the developers of Gnome. They set out to build a new platform with the explicit intention of allowing this kind of customization.
While they probably imagined this customization would be put into practice using Gnome on tablets and other alternative form factors, its come up trumps in this situation as well.
The real question is, how well do the extensions work, and what kind of an experience do they deliver? The first thing to say is that most of the extensions work well. This is great, since we love having a shutdown button in the session menu, and being able to use Alt+Tab as we have done for the last decade. It’s also clever the way the Mint team has made sure extensions don’t explicitly clash with built-in functionality.
For example, the addition of a bottom panel would have made the Shell notification area impossible to access, but they got around this by making it appear above the panel, and accessible by clicking a button similar to ‘show desktop’.
The only coding bugs we found during testing were with the application menu: often, the rendering was slow and wouldn’t keep up with our mouse. Sometimes, only a small part of it would be displayed when it was launched, and wouldn’t reappear until we moved our mouse to where we imagined the rest of the menu should be.
There were a few other problems, too. Most notably, there’s now lots of duplicated functionality, which takes away from the cohesion that defines Gnome Shell in its pure form.
Some of the time, this kind of duplicated functionality is hardly noticeable. Sure, there are two different ways to launch applications, and two different Favourites panels, but choice is good, right? At other times, it actually impacts on the desktop visually, and in a way that degrades the experience.
Continuing to have the active application displayed in the top panel, for instance, seems redundant when there is now a window list at the bottom. What’s more, we’re unsure why the bottom panel has been styled differently to the top: it makes it look tacked on, when to use it you’d think it was well integrated.
This is a real shame when the Shell theme that the Mint team has created otherwise looks really good – probably the best alternative Shell theme we’ve seen to date. Overall, we think the new extensions are a great way to bridge the gap between Gnome Shell and the 2.x desktop, but we think there’s plenty of room for the implementation to be refined in future releases.
More than a Shell
Of course, there’s more to this release than just a new approach to the Shell, even if the other major piece of news is desktop-related: as well as including the MGSE package, there’s Mate, a fork of Gnome 2.x that can be installed alongside Gnome 3. This is a recreation of Linux Mint 11’s Gnome desktop, and in our testing it worked well. It felt a bit slow at times, but it was stable and all the pieces were in place, including the Mint menu. Network Manager applet and Gnome 2’s excellent clock applet. While we didn’t uncover any bugs, the release notes make it clear that Mate is a work in progress.
In particular, they note that for some users, the panel may not appear, in which case you’ll need to switch to a different theme. We can’t help but feel the team would have been better off focusing their efforts on the extensions package. Gnome Shell is flexible enough to create an experience similar to Gnome 2.x, and the team wouldn’t be left with Mate taking up space on the desktop, or diverting development resources from other areas of the distribution.
Outside of new desktops, the rest of the distribution stays true to the formula that has seen Mint, often occupying top spot in the Distrowatch rankings. The default selection of applications really shows off the best of Linux. While regulars such as the Gimp, LibreOffice, Banshee and Firefox are present, we were pleased to see some lesser-known but very useful applications included by default. This includes Gnome MPIayer, VLC and Gnome Tweak Tool.
Of course, Mint 12 has continued the tradition of including multimedia codecs and useful web plugins by default. Flash, DVD support, mp* and all manner of other codecs are present. This saves some time after performing a fresh install, but more importantly it saves new users from having to figure out why they can’t play back their music collection when it’s first installed. Installation was simple and quick, although this is largely due to the great work that Ubuntu has done improving the Ubiquity installer.
The other neat aspect of this Mint release is that boot animations have been eschewed. The reasoning for this is that it’s the only way to guarantee a consistent experience across systems, and the distribution now boots quickly enough for it to be no longer worth the effort of creating an animation.
Is Mint 12 a winner?
Since, in terms of application selection, polish and general ease of use, Mint 12 is just as good as any version that’s come before, the answer to this question really depends on what you think of the new desktops. And, while we did find a few annoyances in the implementation of the MGSE, on the whole we’d have to recommend it.
If you tried out the Shell before but weren’t too keen on it, it’s likely you’ll find most of your complaints addressed by what Mint has done and the few annoyances that have been created are minor. For new users, too, Linux Mint 12 is the best implementation of Gnome Shell to use, since it stays true to traditional paradigms. And if you still want to have Gnome 2.x back, there’s Mate to cater for your needs, too.
Linux Mint 12
|Developer||Linux Mint Team|
|Ease of use||9/10|
|Despite opting to use Gnome Shell, Mint has still managed to set itself apart as the easiest distro to use.
Source: LXF 154