Review: Linux Mint 19 "Tara" MATE + Xfce + Cinnamon

It has been some time since I last reviewed a Linux distribution. That is in large part because I've found that the Linux distribution landscape is not as dynamic as it once was, with fewer new distributions vying for market share, while older established distributions have simply continued to exist and develop. As a result, unless you readers have particular suggestions for distributions that I should review (as long as it can be done via a live USB) or a distribution particularly catches my eye, I will likely be sticking to reviewing Linux Mint each time a new release comes out, until and unless Linux Mint declines in quality so much that I need to start looking for new distributions.

MATE: Main Screen + Linux Mint Menu
This time, I'm reviewing the latest edition of Linux Mint, focusing on MATE to test the distribution and its applications as a whole, while more briefly touching upon the DE-specific experiences of Xfce and Cinnamon. I used the USB Image Writer tool on my installation of Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE to create the live USB system; based on the language used (e.g. "destroying" all data on the USB drive), I suspect this is just a nice graphical front-end to the "dd" command. Follow the jump to see what it's like; although 32-bit versions are available, I consistently tested the 64-bit versions.


After the boot menu came the standard Linux Mint boot splash of the logo with five dots that filled and then emptied in sequence. That quickly gave way to the desktop. The desktop is standard for MATE, with a few icons on the desktop, and with a dark panel at the bottom containing a Linux Mint Menu, a button to show the desktop, three shortcut icons, a taskbar, a notification area with light icons, and a clock. The default icon, GTK+, and window titlebar themes are new, though they have been available (but not as defaults) for the last few versions of Linux Mint; they work well together, though I feel that the light window titlebar theme should have a darker font color for window titles for better contrast. Overall, the desktop works as well as it ever did.

MATE: Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice Writer
Mozilla Firefox is the default browser. As has become standard, Linux Mint has a program for installing proprietary codecs & plugins; this works much better than before, because while there is an error message about repositories, the error messages that I used to see are now absent, and the whole process is much quicker and leaves me less concerned that the job has been done. Indeed, those extras were installed correctly, as I was able to use YouTube and Hulu without any issues. My laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts worked fine too; also, changing the icon or GTK+ themes no longer pixelates the volume icon displayed at the center of the screen when the volume is changed. Apart from this, LibreOffice and the other installed applications are largely the same as before.

I was able to use the Synaptic Package Manager to install Skype and Mupen64Plus. The latter worked fine, and I was even able to install a GUI front-end, though it unfortunately does not allow for graphical configuration of the controller. The former generally worked fine too, though it wasn't clear whether the version available in the repositories was the latest version available, or whether I should have installed it from the official website; the two things that tipped me off were that the program itself claimed that I should get the latest version, and that the icon for Skype in the notification area was messed up and didn't let me access all of its functionality (for example, I couldn't change my status from the notification area icon, but I could in the main program). It isn't clear how much of that is an issue with Skype versus being a packaging issue by Ubuntu/Linux Mint.
For scientific computing, I use Julia a lot. I was able to download and extract the binary files from its official website. That worked, and I was able to use it without any issues.

MATE: Caja + Xviewer + Desktop Cube
Linux Mint 19 "Tara" MATE is set up to use the Marco WM with compositing by default. This produces tasteful effects such as partial transparency in the terminal window as well as shadows around window borders. With this, the system used 400 MB of RAM at idle according to the command "free -m". Compiz is also available and configured to use more effects, like the desktop cube, out of the box; with this, RAM usage at idle according to "free -m" only increases to 420 MB. The system felt stable at all times, my laptop never ran hot, and while my previous experience of Linux Mint with MATE featured a few minor instances of slowness here and there, even those were resolved for this version.


Xfce: Main Screen + Whisker Menu
The Xfce edition is fairly similar in appearance and behavior overall to the MATE edition. The desktop is set up with just two icons, and with a similar (though thicker) panel at the bottom; of course, the standard Linux Mint Menu in MATE is replaced with a Whisker Menu for Xfce. My experiences using the desktop were fairly similar to that of MATE, though I will say that when I turned on Compiz, the desktop did become slightly but perceptibly slower & less responsive; moreover, while in MATE switching to Compiz preserved changes to the window titlebar theme, that was not the case when switching to Compiz in Xfce. Also, in MATE I could use a graphical dialog in Caja to connect to my computing cluster for work, whereas in Xfce no such option existed, though I was able to connect by simply typing the address of the cluster with SFTP into the location bar of Thunar. In any case, while Thunar is somewhat less feature-filled than Caja in MATE or Nemo in Cinnamon, I was able to use the Synaptic Package Manager to install and use Nemo as the default file manager in Xfce. Finally, the Xfce edition used 20 MB of RAM less at idle than the MATE edition, with or without Compiz respectively.


Cinnamon: Main Screen + Cinnamon Menu
The Cinnamon edition is also generally consistent with the MATE and Xfce editions in behavior, with icons on the desktop and with a panel containing a Cinnamon Menu, an icon to show the desktop, launchers, a window switcher, notification area, and clock, though the volume icon is oddly positioned to the right of the clock (though this can be changed). Generally, because Cinnamon has more animations and things like that turned on by default, it is a bit slower than MATE or Xfce (even with Compiz in the latter cases); this also shows with the RAM usage at idle being 570 MB according to "free -m", which is significantly higher than the other two. That said, many of these animations can be turned off. Additionally, Cinnamon has a lot of room for easy customization by being able to download new applets for the panel and desktop; for example, I downloaded a new menu that works more like the Linux Mint Menu in MATE, and that seemed to work reasonably well, though of course the Linux Mint developers cannot eternally guarantee the stability of third-party software.

Overall, all three editions of Linux Mint 19 "Tara" rather impressed me, and I can strongly recommend any of them for new users. In past years, when I've occasionally tried the Cinnamon edition, I've come away disappointed due to stability issues; that is no longer the case. The Xfce edition has generally been stable and polished, and that is still true now. I'm most impressed though with the MATE edition, because there were some minor wrinkles that persisted through the last few releases, but those have all been ironed out, and apart from the issue with Skype itself, I really cannot think of a negative thing to say about it; I would not hesitate to install Linux Mint 19 "Tara" MATE on new hardware if the time comes for that soon (provided the live session works on said new hardware).
You can get it here.