For those of you who didn't read that post, in short, Linux Mint Xfce is now Debian-based instead of Ubuntu-based. The developers had a few things to say about this: (1) the desktop will be faster and lighter on resources (114 MB of RAM at idle, 177 MB of RAM with Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice Writer, and LibreOffice Calc open all at the same time), (2) the Xfce edition will now include more mainstream applications like Rhythmbox instead of Exaile, and (3) the Xfce edition, being based on Debian Testing, will be a rolling-release branch. All these things sounded very exciting to me, so I decided to try it out.
Please do note that I have been using Linux Mint for almost 2 years now. I've become quite fond of it, so while I will try to be as critical as possible, don't be surprised if some elements of bias creep into this review.
I tried out the live session on a live USB made with UnetBootin, which is surprising to me because past versions of Linux Mint "Debian" as well as #! (since its switch to a Debian base) haven't worked with UnetBootin. I tried out the installation, just to see if anything has changed since the last version of Linux Mint "Debian" that I've tried, in VirtualBox inside the live USB session with 384 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS. Follow the jump to see what it's like.
After changing the BIOS to boot from USB and getting past the boot menu, there were about 10 seconds of scrolling text, followed by the desktop; there was no boot splash because the Linux Mint developers have not been able to port the Plymouth boot splash program to the Debian base (though the #! developers have).
The desktop looks virtually indistinguishable from Linux Mint 10 "Julia" GNOME, save for two key differences. The first is that the desktop icons are a bit smaller and have shaded labels, in classic Xfce style; to me, that feels a bit dated, so I would prefer that the labels had no shading in order to make it look even more like the standard edition. The second is with the volume panel applet: for one, it uses the regular Xfce icon instead of the Mint-X themed icon, and for another, clicking on it doesn't bring up a handy applet box but brings up the whole PulseAudio configuration window, which I feel is less polished and more unwieldy when doing simple things like changing the volume. This also ties into the fact that the panel notifications, while perfectly functional, don't look quite as slick as in the standard edition. One nice thing about the panel is that the inactive task buttons in the task manager blend seamlessly with the rest of the panel; that doesn't happen in GNOME, so this is a nice touch. Finally, on a side note, Xfce is still at version 4.6; although version 4.8 was released with many improvements to the panel and other components in January, it still isn't present in the Debian Testing repositories which Linux Mint Xfce uses.
|Mozilla Firefox + Gedit|
LibreOffice is included as well, which is very good. F-Spot is the default photo manager, but although I know Linux Mint Xfce "isn’t 'trying' to be lightweight anymore," in the words of the developers, I feel like F-Spot is just too slow and bloated for its own good. It should really be replaced by Shotwell, which has almost identical features yet is much faster. The rest of the software selection is fairly standard, as it was meant to be, according to the developers.
Going back to the panel, the menu present is the standard Xfce menu, but the Mint Menu can be added to the panel. It does, however, consume a little bit more RAM, and it's clear that that it was designed for GNOME. For one, there are some gaps in the "Places" and "System" section that could have been better filled in. For another, there are some menu entries in subsections of the "Applications" section that correspond to programs that don't exist; for example, there's a menu entry for "Keyboard Shortcuts", but that tool isn't included at all in Linux Mint Xfce. Otherwise, the Mint Menu works as it does in the standard edition, but I hope the developers polish (and maybe even optimize) it a bit more for the Xfce edition; I know it isn't the default menu, but it is included and advertised in the release announcement, so I think it deserves more attention.
At this point, I went on to install Skype. I had a feeling that I would eventually need to go to the Skype website to get the Skype DEB for Debian 5 "Lenny" (as they don't have one out for Debian 6 "Squeeze" yet), but just to be sure, I went to the Mint Software Manager to find it there. To my surprise, it was there! To my slightly further surprise, it was the Ubuntu package, and it's not the only Ubuntu package included in the repositories for Debian-based Linux Mint. I was a little apprehensive that using a package built for Ubuntu might not work correctly on Debian. However, considering that the last time I tried Linux Mint "Debian" GNOME on my computer and on someone else's computer Skype failed to recognize the integrated laptop mic and vertically flipped the integrated laptop webcam's image, I figured I should try again now to see if anything has changed. To my even greater surprise, everything worked flawlessly! Yay!
In terms of desktop effects, Compiz is of course not available out-of-the-box, but Xfwm has some nice tricks up its sleeve in terms of compositing. In keeping with the focus on light weight, there's of course no desktop cube or anything like that, but there are very nice transparency effects of all kinds.
One of the things the Linux Mint developers have touted in this new Xfce edition is its low memory consumption. You can read the figures they quote with this link. I tried similar sets of tasks to test RAM consumption, and unfortunately, the results weren't quite as awesome. It used 140 MB of RAM at idle, 212 MB of RAM with Gedit and Mozilla Firefox open to YouTube running, an additional 35 MB of RAM (247 MB total) with LibreOffice Writer running on top of those, an additional 53 MB of RAM (300 MB total) with Skype and Xfwm compositing running on top of all that, and an additional 14 MB of RAM (314 MB total) with the Linux Mint Menu running instead of the Xfce menu. The only bright spot is that the Linux Mint Menu used even less memory than advertised, even with transparency turned on. Unfortunately, while that is certainly lighter on RAM than Linux Mint 10 "Julia" GNOME, it isn't lighter than the last snapshot of Linux Mint "Debian" GNOME that I tried out.
To conclude, I was honestly expecting to write a more positive review. Yes, Linux Mint Xfce is amazing and still has that same great Linux Mint feel to it. Yes, I would highly recommend it for anyone to use. But there were several small issues that combined into two moderately big (though definitely not show-stopping) issues for me. The first is the question of RAM usage; I couldn't get quite as low RAM usage as the developers, and although the RAM usage is pretty good in any case and better than the Ubuntu-based main edition, it isn't better than Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME. The second is the issue of general polish; things like the Mint Menu issues, desktop icon label shading, volume control behavior and keyboard shortcuts, and panel applet notifications could be easily made to better emulate the GNOME edition. Yes, I know this is Xfce, and if the developers hadn't said much else, I would have gone into this with a more open mind, ready to take whatever Xfce had to throw at me. The problem is that in their statements in the release announcement, the developers, intentionally or not, gave me the impression that as the Xfce edition is trying to be more mainstream yet a little better-performing at the same time than the Ubuntu- and Debian-based GNOME editions, the Xfce edition should act almost identically to the GNOME editions, even down to the smallest details. For the most part, the Xfce edition did do that, but this sort of reminds me of the supposed "uncanny valley" in robotics: people are supposedly fine with robots that are almost identical in appearance and behavior to humans and are excited by the opposite, but when robots look and act a lot like humans but have numerous small details that give them away, people's excitement turns to revulsion. In a sense, a similar thing has happened with me here: if the Xfce edition was either clearly Xfce or identical to GNOME, I would have been fine with it, but its numerous small annoyances that aren't present in the GNOME edition sort of put me off. In the end, it's a great distribution in its own right, but its biggest competition comes from the Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME, and I can't justify using this over that.
You can check it out for yourself by following the link from a few paragraphs above that links to the release announcement on the official Linux Mint blog; that post contains links to download mirrors, direct downloads, and torrent downloads.