Review: Linux Mint MATE 201303

For those of you who have been waiting for a review, I think I may have said before that my writing would shift more to science-y stuff and away from distribution reviews. However, that does not mean that reviews will stop entirely. I'm on spring break now and have a little more time to do these reviews, so today I am reviewing Linux Mint MATE 201303, which came out earlier this week.

Main Screen + Linux Mint Menu
This is the version of Linux Mint based on Debian rather than Ubuntu. It uses a variant of a rolling-release model, in that while existing users can get the latest and greatest software simply by applying updates as usual, the updates come in large bundles (I almost want to say they are like the Microsoft Windows Service Packs, except that they work) rather than individual package files. This means that the most common packages used on a Debian-based Linux Mint system are tested so that they can be guaranteed to work not only individually but also together, so that the problem of an individual update breaking other dependencies becomes moot. Around the time of releasing a new update pack, a new ISO file snapshot of the distribution is released, as was the case this time around.

I reviewed the [32-bit] MATE edition using a live USB made with MultiSystem; I wanted to review the Cinnamon edition too, but it refused to boot, so I will leave my assessment of it at that. I also did an installation of this (which regular readers know is rare), so you will have to follow the jump to see what this is like.

After booting, I was surprisingly greeted by the Linux Mint boot splash rather than by either a blank screen or a scrolling wall of text. After that came the desktop, which is essentially unchanged from previous releases, so I won't dwell on that; I will just say that the new notifications in MATE look a lot better than in the past, and they almost look like the NotifyOSD-style notifications from Ubuntu.

Mozilla Firefox is included, and as is standard for Linux Mint, it has proprietary codecs included, as YouTube and Hulu worked fine. My laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts also worked well.
LibreOffice is also included. For some reason the developers of Debian-based Linux Mint choose to enable the other really chintzy, ugly icon theme instead of the one that fits in more with GNOME. It looked atrocious then, and it still does now, so I hope this changes at some point.
Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice Writer
The other installed programs are mostly the same, though there appear to be fewer of them. For instance, the only multimedia applications included now are Brasero, Banshee (why?), and Totem. Also, there is the addition of the ImageMagick program, which appears to be a GUI front-end to the normally CLI ImageMagick program, though its interface is quite unintuitive.
Caja is of course the default file manager. It now has the ability to work with plugins, which is cool, though I'm still waiting on something akin to Nautilus Elementary along with integration with Gloobus-Preview or GNOME Sushi.

Skype was not in the repositories, but I was able to install the package for Debian 7.0 "Wheezy" using GDebi just fine. It recognized my webcam and mic well. Google Talk was installed similarly. It worked well too.
I installed Redshift and its GTK panel applet from the repositories. They worked fine, which is great. I also installed the dependencies for Mupen64Plus 1.5 from the repositories, and then installed the script for Mupen64Plus itself. The GUI worked as expected, and I was able to use it like I usually do.

Compiz is not included at all, which I guess makes sense for the live system. More unusual though is its total absence from the repositories. I had to find a forum tutorial on enabling the Debian Unstable "Sid" repository just to install Compiz (which thankfully has been essentially permanently frozen at version 0.8.4, which is basically the last good version before bugs started appearing left and right) and related packages. When MATE first arrived on the scene, because it had renamed all the GNOME packages, it was very hard to get it to play nicely with Compiz. Now, however, all I had to do was enable the appropriate effects and plugins in the CompizConfig Settings Manager, set the WM to be Compiz in the MATEConf-Editor, install GConf-Editor and use it to set the Metacity window titlebar theme (and this apparently plays well with Marco, which is the renaming of Metacity for MATE). With this, I could use Compiz in MATE as easily as I do in Xfce. All the desktop effects I wanted worked smoothly; I might even say they work a little more quickly and smoothly than in my installed Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce setup.
Caja + Eye Of MATE + Desktop
Cube + Customizations
Even with Compiz and Redshift running in the background, Linux Mint used 245 MB of RAM at idle. This is pretty good for MATE and is comparable to the performance of GNOME 2 with Compiz from a few years ago, and is probably quite a bit better than most DE setups today.
One last thing I did was to change the theme and the background, because I feel like both now look cheap and overused. The background was changed easily enough to a prettier one included with Linux Mint 14 "Nadia". I downloaded and installed the "Shiki-Wise" icon theme that was used between versions 7 "Gloria" and 9 LTS "Isadora" from the repositories; to match the GTK+ and Metacity themes, I downloaded and installed the "Shiki-Nouveau" third-party theme from elsewhere. Now the desktop looks like Linux Mint from a couple of years ago, which I think constituted some of the most beautiful default GNOME 2 desktops ever released by a major distribution.

I mentioned earlier that I am home for spring break. This means that I have access to my old desktop computer, which has Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora" GNOME on it, which is about to lose support with the upcoming release of Linux Mint 15 "Olivia" (yes, that is the new codename). I was pleased enough with my time with Linux Mint MATE on the live USB session that I decided to install it on that old computer. I hooked it up to an ethernet cable (because it can't do wireless connections), plugged in the USB stick, and booted into the live session. The live session was quite sluggish, but that has always been the case on that computer anyway, given that it only has 1 GB of RAM and an old Intel Pentium 4-HT processor. After verifying that everything worked as it should (and even the desktop cube in Compiz had the same good and bad things as in the previous Linux Mint installation on that computer, which was good for consistency), I started the installation process.
I hadn't installed Debian-based Linux Mint for a while, so there were some new things in the installation process. On the whole, it looks to be a little closer to the Ubiquity installer used by Ubuntu and Ubuntu-based Linux Mint; furthermore, the installer program has a theme that integrates significantly better with the rest of the desktop theme. The first screen is for choosing the language; following that is the time zone selection, which has a nice map but is not selectable, so I had to go through that huge drop-down list to select the time zone. After that comes the keyboard selection followed by the user creation, which are fairly standard. Following that comes the partitioning step. The first part of that is in selecting the hard drive, which is fairly easy. The second part of that is in actually selecting the partition layout, and this uses GParted embedded in the installation program to do that job. That's easy enough for me to work with, but I think a newbie may want the help of a more experienced hand this one time. I decided to clean up the partition layout on that computer, given that it wasn't seeing too much use anyway; I replaced the two different Linux Mint root partitions from long ago (before I knew how to create effective partition layouts) with a single new partition to be used for the root and home directories. After that, I confirmed the setup, and began the installation; the installer now features a full slideshow, as opposed to a single slide as was the case in the infancy of Debian-based Linux Mint. The whole installation process took about 45 minutes, which is quite long, but is probably attributable to the general slowness of the live USB system on that old computer.
After rebooting, I tweaked the system a little to suit that computer better. I removed programs like Banshee (and I wanted to remove Pidgin and Mozilla Thunderbird, but apparently that would cause the removal of many packages for MATE in Debian-based Linux Mint), and installed others like VLC and Redshift. I tweaked Mozilla Firefox to my liking and installed different icon and GTK+ themes. The only thing I did not install was Compiz, as it was slowing the system down considerably, and was completely unnecessary for use on that computer; this was also good because I didn't need to install the Debian Unstable "Sid" repository for any reason. After a little more disabling of unneeded programs, I had the computer running just as fast as it did with Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora", which is remarkable given the 3 years of progress since then.

That is where my time with Linux Mint MATE 201303 ended. The only continuing issue I have is with Caja because of its dated interface and inability to play nicely with a file previewer. Other than that, I have essentially been able to fully replicate my preferred desktop configuration, and that makes me tremendously happy. With the settling of the release schedule so that releases will be more controlled and wreak less havoc on existing systems, and with improvements to the installer, I am now essentially fully comfortable recommending this to newbies and more experienced users alike.
You can get it here.