Review: Linux Mint 11 "Katya" GNOME

Main Screen
Linux Mint is currently my favorite Linux distribution of all and is the one I use almost exclusively on a regular basis. Since the release of Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora", I have made it a point to review new releases of Linux Mint. Six months ago, I previewed Linux Mint 10 "Julia" GNOME RC. Since then, I have also reviewed two versions of Debian-based Linux Mint. However, due to Ubuntu's fixed 6-month release schedule, I haven't been able to check out the latest version of Ubuntu-based Linux Mint until now.

Regular readers of this blog know Linux Mint needs no further introduction. The only things to consider while reading this are that Linux Mint also has a Debian-based version that is going strong, while Ubuntu's state of transition (what with Unity, Wayland, et cetera) could pose difficulties for Ubuntu-based Linux Mint in the future.

I tested the live session through a live USB made with UnetBootin. Though this is an Ubuntu-based distribution, I tested the installation anyway through VirtualBox with 1024 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS with the live USB session as the host OS. Follow the jump to see if this new version of Linux Mint is just as good as ever.

After changing the BIOS to boot from USB and getting past the UnetBootin boot menu, I saw the boot splash, which consisted of the black screen. I had read the release notes beforehand, which mentioned how the Plymouth boot splash was replaced by a black screen for the sake of consistency and how users wouldn't notice this too much as the boot process would be quick. I do agree that having a black screen throughout helps consistency, and it's a step up from the weird terminal-like Plymouth boot splash of Linux Mint 10 "Julia", but I miss the pretty boot splashes from previous versions, and black screens don't give me much information of any kind about boot times. (At least with the previous boot splashes I could get some qualitative idea about how much boot time I had left.) For the record, the boot time was indeed pretty fast, though not the absolute fastest I've seen; the black screen thus gave way to the desktop.

Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice Writer + Mint Menu
The desktop is essentially unchanged from Linux Mint, except for the wallpaper, which is now the Linux Mint logo, name, and encircled number 11 in 3D font sitting on a light-gray background. There are two problems I have with this. The first is that it looks kind of cheap. Honestly, the text and stuff reminds me of clipart from Microsoft Office 97, though slightly better done. The second is that the wallpaper should be dark if the panel is to be light (or vice versa); I feel like the light panel and wallpaper don't work well together, and the contrast isn't that great. The worst part is that all the other wallpapers are darker and would work far better with the light panel (and in my opinion look far better anyway), yet this is the wallpaper chosen. I know that this is a pretty trivial issue considering how easy it is to change the wallpaper, but I'm harping on this because Linux Mint has a reputation for awesome artwork and design, and I feel like they have somewhat dropped the ball on this one.
One other aesthetic and functional change is of the scrollbars. The scrollbars are essentially recolored versions of those found in Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal", meaning they are very thin, have scrolling buttons overlaid to the side when the cursor hovers over the bars, and hide to the side when not used. I'm a fan of them because they do free up screen space without harming usability, and they work well in Linux Mint.

The default web browser is Mozilla Firefox at version 4, which is no surprise. Multimedia codecs are included, and my computer's sound, volume keyboard shortcuts, and wireless card were all recognized properly, as I have come to expect of Linux Mint. The default productivity suite is LibreOffice, which is good because now almost all updated major distributions have moved away from OpenOffice.org (whose fate, incidentally, appears to be nearing some semblance of stability).
The other applications included are pretty standard fare for Linux Mint, with GIMP, Pidgin, Mozilla Thunderbird, Brasero, and VLC. There are two somewhat big changes in this regard, though. Banshee replaces Rhythmbox; I am somewhat conflicted about this because although Banshee works really well, I have found it to be pretty slow. I thought Linux Mint would continue going against Canonical's decisions, but I guess it had to end here. Oh well. The other change is the replacement of the F-Spot Photo Manager with gThumb. I am conflicted about this as well because although F-Spot was horribly slow and buggy, it seems to have been more like a fully-featured photo manager than gThumb, which seems like a quick, glorified image viewer. Then again, neither of these changes affect me particularly much because I don't use music collection programs or photo managers that much.

Mint Software Manager Splash Screen
The Linux Mint Software Manager is essentially unchanged, except that it now has a splash screen and a start screen. While I welcome these moves as making the applications seem more professional, I feel like these screens could use a bit more work aesthetically. One, what's with the weird serrated gray border on top? It looks like a graphics glitch, not artwork. Two, why does the name "Software Manager" look like cheap Microsoft Office 97 clipart (there it is again)? It could look a lot nicer. Other than that, the Software Manager is the same as before.

Moving on to desktop effects, I was unfortunately unsuccessful in enabling Compiz effects. According to the release notes, this is a known problem. I suspect that this has to do with stuff upstream (Ubuntu/Unity), but in any case, it's a shame that I can't use my pretty desktop cube anymore, and this is certainly a regression in functionality compared to previous versions of Linux Mint.

Partitioning in Installer
After this, I tried out the installation. As I found out, aside from a slightly modified partitioning step, Ubiquity hasn't really changed. The installation was fairly quick except for the downloading of new packages, which I skipped due to my poor wireless Internet reception; that was no fault of Linux Mint.

After installation, I rebooted the virtual machine. There was no boot menu; I was led straight into the boot splash and then into a standard GDM screen. After that came a desktop identical to that of the live session, except for one thing: the Linux Mint Update Manager was present in the installed system, and that's when I realized that it wasn't present in the live system, which makes sense, and I'm glad the developers made that so. That's basically where my time with Linux Mint ended.

In conclusion, there's nothing truly wrong with Linux Mint 11 "Katya" GNOME except for the Compiz issues which, as I said earlier, I suspect linger from Ubuntu. The other beefs I have mostly do with aesthetics/polish, but for a distribution renowned for those things, these issues honestly made the whole experience feel a bit subpar. For new users looking to Linux Mint, I would give a higher recommendation towards the longer-supported Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora", or better yet the rolling-release Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME. Linux Mint 11 "Katya" GNOME has unfortunately left me a little cold, but that may just be because of my ridiculously high expectations of Linux Mint, having used it for a little over 2 years now.