Review: Linux Mint GNOME 201109

Oh man. I've wanted to do this post for quite a long time now. And now I can! So here it is.
Main Screen + System Monitor
Regular readers of this blog know that Linux Mint has been releasing snapshots of its rolling-release Debian-based distribution alongside its fixed-release Ubuntu-based distribution. A few days ago, the newest snapshots of the GNOME and Xfce editions were released. Furthermore, even before that, the developers changed from simply passing along updates from Debian Testing to thoroughly testing them and then releasing them in bundles called "update packs". While this is not something I can test given the way I do these tests, judging from the comments in the forums and the developer blog posts, the update packs have been quite successful, and they seem to have made Debian-based Linux Mint's stability on par with that of Ubuntu-based Linux Mint. This has caused the developers to make an additional small change to the update process; whereas before the Linux Mint Update Manager, which was originally built for the Ubuntu-based distribution and was initially ported over to the Debian base essentially unchanged, had a system of numbering package updates based on their safety, now those numbers are gone and replaced simply by update pack numbers and the packages in that update pack. That last point has had the additional effect of hiding dependencies that are not themselves directly used, which makes the list look a lot cleaner. All in all, there have been some pretty major changes to the way Debian-based Linux Mint handles updates, and that's due to the fact that a rolling-release distribution is fundamentally different from a fixed-release distribution.

Anyway, the GNOME and Xfce editions were released on the same day, which is in contrast to the past when the Xfce edition would be released many months after the corresponding GNOME edition; because of that, I feel like the GNOME and Xfce editions now have equal standing, so I am testing them together. This also gives further credence to the idea that the Xfce edition could become the main edition if GNOME 3 (because after all, official maintenance of GNOME 2 will end sooner or later) cannot be transformed into something like Linux Mint or if it is too difficult to maintain.
Well, I would have done that, but booting the Xfce edition gave a kernel panic. I was able to reproduce this a few times using a variety of boot options. That's really unfortunate. I don't know if it's due to a bad image, a bad burn, both, or something else, but in any case, I can't speak for the quality of the Xfce edition. I will thus focus just on the GNOME edition now.
I tested this on a live USB made with UnetBootin. I tested the installation process in VirtualBox with 1024 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS on a Pinguy OS 11.04 Mini live USB host also made with UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After rebooting and getting past the boot menu, I was greeted by a scrolling wall of text. Given that this is Debian-based Linux Mint and the release notes also discuss why a boot splash has not been included, I'm not surprised in the least bit. That quickly gave way to the desktop.
There isn't really much to discuss about the desktop, because aside from the fact that the "11" has been replaced by a stylized Debian logo, this desktop looks identical to that of Linux Mint 11 "Katya" GNOME. There is one minor issue, though: in some applications, such as the GNOME Appearance Properties tool and the GNOME Terminal, the GTK+ theme's gray metallic gradients are completely flattened, so said applications doesn't quite match visually with the rest of the desktop. The colors still look relatively close, though, and it's not like the applications look like they're from Microsoft Windows 95 (all the rounded corners and shadows are still present), but it does show that a little more visual polishing could be done to make the Debian- and Ubuntu-based editions truly indistinguishable. Overall, the desktop still looks like a very inviting place to be.

Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice + Linux Mint Menu
Mozilla Firefox is the default browser at version 5; I'm guessing the reason why version 6 wasn't included has to do with prolonged testing to ensure stability, and anyway, users will probably get the latest version simply by installing the latest update packs. Most multimedia codecs appear to be included out-of-the-box, as YouTube and Hulu worked fine; in addition, my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts were recognized out-of-the-box, which is a nice surprise for me, because it didn't work the last time I tried a Debian-based Linux Mint edition.
LibreOffice is the default productivity suite; although it is at version 3.3, I have a feeling that it too can be upgraded to version 3.4 simply by applying the update packs, which would be nice because the Ubuntu PPA for LibreOffice hasn't been updated to include version 3.4.
Other installed applications include Banshee, VLC, Pidgin, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Gthumb, which basically follows the application repertoire of Linux Mint 11 "Katya" GNOME.

Nautilus + GNOME Terminal
The release notes have also said that Jockey-GTK (Ubuntu's driver search and installation tool), Simple-CCSM (Simple CompizConfig Settings Manager), and USB-Creator will soon be ported to Debian-based Linux Mint, and I certainly would like to see those happen, especially the first and the second. Why? Well, Compiz initially didn't work for me. I thought I would have to manually install and enable different video card drivers to get it to work, but thankfully, I only needed to type in a terminal "compiz --replace" to replace Metacity with Compiz; on a related note, this eventually got hung up, so I had to kill the process, and though that didn't affect Compiz itself in the least bit, the fact that the process didn't actually get completed was not confidence-inspiring. And in general, I feel like this is another area in terms of polish and ease of use where Debian-based Linux Mint lags somewhat behind Ubuntu-based Linux Mint.
RAM usage at idle was only 150 MB. Wow! That's quite low for a GNOME 2.X distribution, and this is exactly why I dinged Linux Mint 11 "Katya" LXDE for its high RAM consumption. Even after enabling Compiz, RAM usage was still only about 200 MB at idle, which is a little better than average for GNOME 2.X.

When I checked out Linux Mint "Debian" 201009, on both my computer and a friend's computer which is similar to mine, Skype had some issues recognizing the webcam and mic; in addition, the Skype DEB file had to be downloaded and installed from the Skype website. This time around, I was actually able to use the Linux Mint Software Manager directly to install Skype, and I didn't even have to add any extra repositories or anything like that. Plus, Skype worked perfectly out-of-the-box; I didn't even have to fiddle with the volume control to adjust my mic's volume.
The Google Talk plugin was installable as a DEB file via GDebi. That worked perfectly as well.

Linux Mint Debian Installer
At this point, I checked out the installation. The installer hasn't changed that much since the last time I tried it. It still uses long lists of languages, locales, and keyboard layouts, instead of nicer graphics as in Ubiquity. The partitioner now has a nice graphic showing what exists in each partition, but there is no slider as in Ubiquity to resize partitions. After that came user creation, then the selection if the user wants to install GRUB or not, then the final review, then the installation with one single simple slide showing. The installation took about 10 minutes in all, which was what was advertised anyway.
The installed system was the live system minus components specific to the live session. I didn't see updates for Mozilla Firefox or LibreOffice which was a little disappointing, but otherwise the Linux Mint Update Manager worked as expected. Speaking of Mozilla Firefox, I found out that version 6 is supposed to be rolled out to Debian-based Linux Mint users with Update Pack #3, which hasn't been released yet. I'm guessing that every update pack will feature a new Mozilla Firefox version, but it seems to be perpetually behind the official release schedule, considering that version 7 is supposed to be released in less than a week. That's fine for pure stability in relation to the whole system, but bad for security and possibly application stability as well. I'd like to see the developers fast-track Mozilla Firefox updates because it's such a widely-used application, it's being updated every 6 weeks, and old versions (aside from 3.6, which appears to be the de facto long-term support version) become unsupported immediately when the newest version comes out.

That basically ended my time with Linux Mint GNOME. I really like the concept of update packs and the thorough testing of them, because it brings much-needed stability to what is otherwise a good rolling-release model. My small gripes about Compiz not working initially, inconsistent GTK+ theming, and Mozilla Firefox not getting the latest updates remain, but they're relatively minor. Of course, it's great that this is otherwise functionally and visually identical to the Ubuntu-based Linux Mint GNOME, yet it manages to be so much more lightweight and snappy. (Seriously, this was worlds more responsive than Linux Mint 11 "Katya" GNOME.) The gripes I mentioned might mean that a user considering this should make sure they have a technically-inclined friend to help them out in times of need, but otherwise, I can basically give it my highest recommendation, and I could see myself installing this on my computer and using this regularly. In fact, it is one of the contenders for replacing Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora" once its support runs out. It may partially be due to my fondness for Linux Mint in general, but I really like this a lot.
You can get it here.