Review: Linux Mint 12 "Lisa" GNOME + MATE

Recently, the latest version of Linux Mint was released. Considering that I almost exclusively use Linux Mint on a daily basis and I'm a huge fan of the distribution, I had to review it.

GNOME 3 Shell: Main Screen
This release could easily be one of the most highly-anticipated new Linux releases in a long time, far surpassing the anticipation of its parent, Ubuntu 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot". Why? Well, although Unity had to be ported to GNOME 3, the interface is still essentially unchanged from version 11.04 "Natty Narwhal", so most of the changes have been back-end and bug fixes and general polishing. Linux Mint, on the other hand, used its classic GNOME 2.X setup through version 11 "Katya". Now, however, the small group of developers has had to port all that over to GNOME 3 with far fewer resources to do so than Canonical. Yet, the Linux Mint developers have essentially rolled 3 desktops into this one release. The main desktop is a heavily customized GNOME 3 Shell. The secondary fallback to that is a slightly customized GNOME 3 Fallback mode. The third (but really, equal to GNOME 3 Shell) desktop is MATE, which is a fork of GNOME 2.X akin to how Trinity is a fork of KDE 3.5; because MATE aims to be able to coexist with GNOME 3, it cannot use the "GNOME" names for files because otherwise there will be conflicts, so the MATE developers have had to completely rebrand GNOME 2.X along with making other small changes here and there. The Linux Mint developers advise using the GNOME 3 desktop, as MATE is still under heavy development and will still be a bit unpolished, but considering how much I really like GNOME 2.X, I think it's worth checking out.

I tested the live session through a live USB made with MultiSystem. I tested the installation using a VM in VirtualBox in the live USB session with 1024 MB of RAM, 64 MB of video memory, and 3D graphics acceleration capabilities allocated to the guest OS. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After getting past the boot menu, I was greeted by a blank screen; as with version 11 "Katya", this is by design. That didn't take long, and after that, I was greeted by the desktop.

The desktop looks worlds different from GNOME 3.X, but compared to Linux Mint's past implementations of the GNOME 2.X desktop it looks...surprisingly normal, which is a great thing. There are two panels: one on top and one on the bottom. The top panel has a button to access GNOME 3 Activities, though the "Activities" label has been replaced by a symbol that is either two connected chain links or an infinity symbol. Next to that is the standard GNOME 3 window title button. To the far right of that are the indicator applets for volume control, network management, date & time, and user session management. The bottom panel, at first glance, looks almost indistinguishable from that of Linux Mint's GNOME 2.X. To the left is the Linux Mint Menu; to the right of that are a "show desktop" icon, a traditional taskbar/window list, a workspace switcher, and a button to access the notification area. The desktop also has the normal icons, and right-click works as usual. Overall, it seems quite usable.
GNOME 3 Shell: Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice Writer
But wait, there's more! The Linux Mint Menu is not the same as before; it should be more appropriately called the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE) Menu. It's a pretty good approximation of the old Linux Mint Menu, but it still lacks a few features and has a few other differences. For example, both favorites and application categories are displayed simultaneously, in contrast to the old Linux Mint Menu but akin to the KDE Lancelot menu. The list of favorite applications only shows icons rather than both icons and text, because it's a copy of the GNOME 3 Activities dock of favorite applications; in fact, applications cannot be made as favorites within the MGSE Menu itself, but they can only be made as favorites through GNOME 3 Activities, which is a little more cumbersome than before.
Searching for present applications in the MGSE Menu works as normal, but the relatively recent feature of being able to install packages not already present straight from the Linux Mint Menu has disappeared, which is a little unfortunate. I don't personally use that feature much, so I won't let its absence affect my opinion of the MGSE Menu much, but it would be really cool if it could be added back for the next release.
Both the "Places" and "System" separate areas of the old Linux Mint Menu have been absorbed into the applications categories of the MGSE Menu, which is a little annoying. Oh well, at least some of those items are listed as favorite applications.
GNOME 3 Fallback: Nautilus
Thankfully, some good things have been retained or improved further as well. For example, closing the MGSE Menu while inside a particular application category and then reopening it takes the menu to the place visited before closing the menu. Also, the tooltips visible when hovering over a menu item are now displayed in the blank space at the bottom of the menu. I'm glad to see these things retained. All in all, there are a few small gripes I have about the MGSE Menu, but I have to commend the developers for doing such a good job porting over the menu in a relatively shorter amount of time.
The aesthetic appearances are mostly the same. The panel is light as before, and the wallpaper is simply updated to reflect the version number increase. The icons are essentially the same as before. The GTK+ theme is called Mint-Z, and it is a combination of the old Mint-X and the popular Zukitwo themes. The Metacity/Mutter window titlebar theme is Adwaita, which is the default for stock GNOME 3; I'm not sure why that was retained in the midst of so many other changes, but that's OK. The only small issue I have is that the desktop icon text labels blend in too much with the light background.
Overall, the Linux Mint developers have done a really good job of porting over as much as possible to GNOME 3, and I salute them for that.

The rest is mostly unchanged from Linux Mint 11 "Katya", so I won't bore you with the details. Things like Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice, Banshee, gThumb, Pidgin, the Linux Mint Software Manager, multimedia codecs, hardware support, drivers, Skype, and Google Talk haven't changed, which is good. The only updates are to core GNOME applications like Nautilus, and now the Sushi file preview is included too.

Although GNOME Classic (GNOME 3 Fallback) and MATE are both included, I couldn't access either by logging out and logging back in; when I tried, I kept getting taken back to the GNOME 3 Shell session. Speaking of which, the login manager is now LightDM; I really like the looks of it, as it looks way more professional than the older GDM 3 (and even the latest GDM 3 as well).
Linux Mint 12 "Lisa" in the GNOME 3 Shell session used 330 MB of RAM at idle, which I guess is now the norm for GNOME 3. I guess that isn't bad, and it's on par with many KDE 4 distributions as well.

It was at this point that I started the installation process in VirtualBox. At first, I didn't increase the allocated video memory or turn on 3D graphics acceleration, so I was taken to a GNOME 3 Fallback session in the VM. It seemed to be fairly lightly customized (the window borders were Mint-X rather than Adwaita) and it reminded me a lot of GNOME 2, but then I realized I could customize that way more easily than GNOME 3. In fact, the only thing it's missing is the Linux Mint Menu/MGSE Menu; really, I could even install and use Compiz instead of Metacity/Mutter. That gives me hope that I could use something even more familiar. Anyway, I went ahead with the installation, which was a breeze. It's standard Ubiquity, so I don't think I need to say much more than that. The whole process took about 10 minutes, after which I shut down the VM, gave it more graphics capabilities, and then restarted it.

When I restarted it, I logged into the MATE session. True to its word, the MATE session really is the old Linux Mint GNOME 2.X experience. Plus, despite all warnings to the contrary, I never experienced any stability issues (though for all I know, stability issues could appear when transitioning from the VM to a real live/installed session). In addition, I could install and use Compiz just fine. Everything else worked great too, including the old Linux Mint Menu. And that's where my time with Linux Mint ended.

MATE: Linux Mint Menu
So what's the verdict? Well, if the only option I had were GNOME 3 Shell with MGSE, I think I could eventually get used to it far quicker than I could warm up to stock GNOME 3 Shell. It's definitely much closer to what I use regularly. But the issue is that there are other options. GNOME 3 Fallback seems to offer everything I'm used to in GNOME 2, minus the Linux Mint Menu/MGSE Menu, so I'd need to use a standard accordion-style GNOME menu. That said, considering that I'm probably going to replace Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora" with Linux Mint 13 LTS "M[...]a" and considering that GNOME plans to phase out GNOME 3 Fallback as it makes GNOME 3 Shell accessible to a far wider range of hardware, I don't know if that's really an option worth keeping in mind. Finally, I had no issues with MATE, and it really is just GNOME 2, and I can do with it what I've done with Linux Mint and GNOME 2 for the last 2.5 years. As MATE gets worked on even more, I have faith that I'll be able to use it without any hitch when the next version of Linux Mint comes out, and I think that's what I'll end up using. What I would like to see though is a live CD that comes only with MATE, so that I could try the live session and check out MATE's true stability and usability without committing it to a hard drive. In any case, given that at least one option (MATE) has given me a great feeling and the other two (GNOME 3 Shell and Fallback) have become pretty amazing environments in their own rights in the hands of the Linux Mint developers, I give version 12 "Lisa" my highest recommendation. Phew! (I was really apprehensive about this release and was afraid that GNOME 3 customization might elude even the Linux Mint developers, but thankfully, that is not at all the case.)
You can get it here.

(Note: Some of you may be wondering why I'm so fixated about Compiz and the old Linux Mint Menu. I feel like I've maximized my desktop computing efficiency with them together in GNOME 2 in Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora". How? Well, I'm able to reach and install programs with as few clicks as possible in the old Linux Mint Menu; in the new MGSE Menu, it still takes one or two more clicks to do many things. And what about Compiz? For one, I'll admit that I like eye candy like the desktop cube, even if it doesn't really bring much added functionality. But far more important than that is the fact that Compiz can place instances of different applications on different workspaces, which makes my desktop far less cluttered and more efficient to use. I don't know of any other WM that can do that. Those are the main reasons why I'd like to experience as little negative change as possible (because things like improvements to Nautilus and the Sushi file previewer are positive changes, at least in my eyes) when trying out and transitioning to the newest version of Linux Mint.)