Review: Linux Mint 18 "Sarah" MATE

My laptop is getting old, and Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce will only be supported for one more year. Given this, I figured it might be time to seriously start looking into newer distributions for upgrade (even if I don't actually upgrade right away). Linux Mint just released its latest version, giving me all the more reason to review it.

Main Screen + Linux Mint Menu
The biggest change (as far as I can see) is that multimedia plugins and codecs are no longer included by default. From what I understand, this was done not due to any legal issue, but because maintaining separate installable/live bootable ISO images with and without codecs was becoming costly in terms of time and effort. Instead, the distribution provides alternative ways to install those plugins and codecs in the live and installed system. There are of course smaller updates to the distribution, including new applications and a new interface theme. (Also, on a much more minor note, although the codename still ends in an "a"/"ah" sound, this is the first Ubuntu-based release whose codename doesn't actually end in the letter "a".)

I tested this on a live USB made with UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After the boot menu came a splash screen consisting of the Linux Mint logo with five dots below it that filled up and emptied in sequence. It was reminiscent of the boot splash from about 5-6 years ago, but tastefully updated with better graphics that cohere with the rest of the theme as well, which was very nice to see. This gave way relatively quickly to the desktop, which quickly faded in from the black background (another nice touch of animation).

The desktop itself is functionally the same as it has been in the last few releases. However, there are a few changes to the appearance. By default, there is a new wallpaper: instead of a light gray wallpaper (that too easily blends in with the light gray window and panel themes) featuring the release number of the current version, there is a simpler dark wallpaper featuring a lit-up 3D version of the Linux Mint logo that appears to be sitting on a translucent surface (showing a dimmed image of its reflection below); I'm glad that the wallpaper and theme are now distinct. Additionally, although the "Mint-X" icon, GTK+, and window themes are still used, a newer "Mint-Y" theme is available. I personally like the more modern-looking "Mint-Y" icons, and like the dark window, panel, and toolbar themes in conjunction with an otherwise light theme, but one of the usability issues is that there are no light toolbar/panel icons in "Mint-Y" that properly contrast with a dark toolbar or panel theme; this tells me that there is still some more work to do on the theme, which is probably why the Linux Mint developers chose to use the older "Mint-X" theme by default.

Mozilla Firefox
Mozilla Firefox is the default web browser as usual. However, as mentioned above, Linux Mint no longer includes multimedia codecs and plugins by default, which takes away a bit of what used to make it unique (and which was frankly its original raison-d'ĂȘtre). There are some ways that Linux Mint claims are easy to get those plugins and codecs, but it honestly took me a bit more time than I would have liked to find said ways, which makes me concerned with regard to how a newbie might find this distribution. In particular, one of the ways is to click on a link on the welcome screen, but when I booted this distribution, I was not greeted with any such screen. Additionally, I don't think it is fair to expect newbies to feel at all comfortable with using the suggested CLI tools to do this. The only other reasonably easy way I could see was to look at the entry in the "Sound and Video" category in the Linux Mint Menu and click on that, which would bring up a small dialog box to begin installation of these plugins and codecs. Even this could be made better, because there were several instances where I had to wait several seconds after one window closed and before another opened (and the MATE System Monitor wasn't showing APT or anything like that running in the background), so I wasn't sure if the program had crashed or was just taking a while; in my impatience, I tried opening multiple instances of the plugin installer, but this caused error messages and further delays (though no other actual problems in the course of the installation). Finally, those plugins and codecs were installed, and I was able to watch YouTube and Hulu (and control them with my laptop's keyboard shortcuts) in Mozilla Firefox.

LibreOffice is the default productivity suite, as usual. However, some of the other included applications have changed. Specifically, a lot of the standard GNOME/MATE applications, such as Gedit, Evince, and Eye of GNOME (and their MATE equivalents), have been replaced by new, DE-agnostic applications, like Xed for text editing, Xreader for document viewing, and Xviewer for photo viewing. These seem to work well, and I am hopeful that they will be able to develop further with extensions comparable to what was present in the GNOME 2.32 (pre-GNOME 3) versions of these applications.

I was able to install Google Talk using its DEB file, as well as Skype, Mupen64Plus, and Redshift in the Synaptic Package Manager. All of these applications worked just fine. However, I would like to take this moment to point out another usability issue as I see it. It used to be the case that there were three ways of scrolling with the mouse, with respect to a scrollbar. One would be to scroll using the mouse scroll wheel, which would scroll up or down by only one line (or something similar) at a time. Another would be to click and drag the scrollbar cursor to an arbitrary desired position. The third would be to click in the area of the scrollbar above or below the scrollbar cursor to scroll up or down by a finite, consistent amount larger than just one or two lines; this is something I still use a lot, especially when reading articles or scrolling through long lists. Unfortunately, it seems like in all GTK+ applications, that third option has disappeared, so that clicking somewhere in the area of the scrollbar above or below the scrollbar cursor brings the scrollbar cursor to exactly that point. This is especially annoying in an application like the Synaptic Package Manager where I want to browse through potentially long lists of packages in increments larger than 1-2 lines, yet I want to be able to browse gradually instead of jumping directly to a given point. This is an issue that I've noticed specifically in Mozilla Firefox in Linux Mint 17.3 "Rosa" MATE (but not in other applications there), so it is disheartening to see this "feature" spread to other applications too.

Caja + Synaptic Package Manager + Desktop Cube
The MATE edition offers Compiz as an option for the WM, and switching to it was extremely smooth and simple. It also seems like the enabled options in Compiz are meant to maintain consistency with some of the graphics from Marco (the default WM for MATE), while also putting in some spice (like the desktop cube); overall, I was quite pleased with how smoothly Compiz ran. Without Compiz, the distribution used 220 MB of RAM according to the command "free -m"; with it, that changed to 260 MB of RAM, which is still quite lightweight. That said, the MATE System Monitor showed 790 MB of RAM in the former case, and 940 MB of RAM in the latter case; I have no idea how such a huge discrepancy could arise, but that may be something that the Linux Mint developers might want to consider investigating. (I'm more inclined to believe the figures from "free -m" because my laptop never seemed to be straining too much.)

That is where my time with Linux Mint 18 "Sarah" MATE ended. Overall, I can still give this a good recommendation for people who have at least a tiny bit of experience with Linux and may be looking for a stable, easy-to-use system. However, the usability issues I encountered, while each fairly minor, added up to the extent that I don't feel as confident recommending this to total newbies (because while I would be able to work through these issues easily by myself, I don't expect the same of a newbie), unless they have a more experienced friend helping them to install this (though after that, they should be OK on their own). To be able to retake the newbie demographic, I think this distribution needs just a bit more polish; I'd be excited to see what the future point releases hold, and I hope that these issues do get addressed.
You can get it here.