Review: Linux Mint Debian Edition

Jun 8, 2012

I’ve long been a fan of Debian-based Linux OSes in general, and Ubuntu in particular. However, my disaffection with Ubuntu’s new Unity desktop had left me yearning for a suitable alternative. Finally last week, I removed Ubuntu 11.10 from my primary desktop computer and substituted the Linux Mint project’s latest Debian implementation: LMDE 201204. What a breath of fresh air!

The BlackTower

My desktop system, aka the “BlackTower,” is based on an Asus P5KC motherboard populated with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of DDR2 DRAM, and an Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS PCIe video card. Its storage bay currently contains two 500GB drives, one 1TB drive, and a DVD r/w drive.

Back in December 2007 when I first constructed the BlackTower, I set it up to dual-boot Windows Vista along with Kubuntu 7.10, the KDE variant of Ubuntu. At the time, KDE was my preferred Linux desktop environment. A year later, however, improvements to Ubuntu’s default GNOME desktop had me migrating the BlackTower to the GNOME-based Ubuntu 8.10. For the next three years, I happily surfed the wave of semiannual Ubuntu releases.

With the release of Ubuntu 11.10, Unity became Ubuntu’s default desktop. That change, which Ubuntu’s commercial backer, Canonical, says was “inspired by smartphone and tablet design thinking,” generated considerable consternation among Ubuntu users. My reaction was to upgrade the BlackTower to Ubuntu 11.10, but configuring it to use GNOME 3′s “Fallback” mode instead of Unity as the desktop environment.

That situation left me uneasy, since my system was running Ubuntu, which consisted primarily of Debian Linux packages along with some substantial Ubuntu “enhancements” that I had no use for. In short, many of the reasons for moving from Debian to Ubuntu back in 2007 had become moot. So why not simply return to Debian?

With that idea in mind, I set about testing two alternatives to Ubuntu about a week ago: the latest pure Debian “testing” distribution (aka “wheezy”), as downloaded from Debian.com; and the Linux Mint project’s latest Debian Edition (aka “LMDE”), available here.
 

Testing wheezy

The first OS I checked out was Debian’s testing branch. It installed easily enough from the downloaded i386 wheezy iso, although I was surprised when the system landed at a command prompt, without a graphical desktop environment taking control, after the new OS booted.

No problem. First I performed an “apt-get update; apt-get upgrade,” to bring everything that was just installed into alignment with the latest releases, and then I used “apt-get install gnome” to download and install wheezy’s GNOME 3 desktop environment.

After that, rebooting the system resulted in being presented with the GDM log-in screen. Not being a fan of GNOME 3 at this point, I selected “GNOME Classic” from the GDM log-in screen, in order to invoke the system’s “GNOME Fallback” mode.

This placed the system roughly at par, from the desktop environment point-of-view, with my tweaked Ubuntu 11.10 system. However, many additional steps would still be required before wheezy could have a shot at meeting my overall system needs.

I proceeded to poke and prod wheezy in the direction I wanted to go. This included…

Eventually I had a relatively usable Debian wheezy system up and running. The two screenshots below show wheezy’s initial default GNOME Fallback mode desktop and my final tweaked version.



Debian wheezy’s desktop, before and after tweaking
(click thumbnails to enlarge)

 

Despite this relative success, my tweaked wheezy desktop was still too rough around the edges to be reliable enough for use as my desktop computer’s primary operating system. So I decided to install the Linux Mint project’s latest Debian desktop, to find out if it was ready for prime time.
 

The Minty alternative

The Linux Mint Project has created two distinct Linux implementations, Linux Mint and Linux Mint Debian.

Linux Mint, which I reviewed here at DeviceGuru about 18 months ago, is essentially a Ubuntu spinoff that features a customized desktop theme and menu system, a revised set of default software apps, enhanced desktop and system configuration tools, and a beefed-up collection of default plugins, drivers, and multimedia codecs. Its packages come primarily from Ubuntu repositories.

In contrast to Linux Mint, which uses Ubuntu packages — which are themselves derived from Debian packages — the Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) skips the “middleman” and derives its packages directly from Debian’s repositories.

LMDE differs from ordinary Debian in many of the same ways Linux Mint builds on Ubuntu. It has a customized desktop theme and menu system, a revised set of default software apps, a number of alternate desktop and system configuration tools, and a beefed-up collection of default plugins, drivers, and multimedia codecs. On top of that, LMDE features the “MATE” desktop environment.

So what’s MATE? Basically, the MATE Project is a fork of GNOME 2, which is no longer maintained now that GNOME 3 is fully released. Positioned as a relatively lightweight desktop environment, MATE was developed to keep the GNOME 2-style “traditional desktop environment” alive for users who don’t want to move to GNOME 3. It currently supports Arch Linux, Debian, Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and several other Linux distributions.
 

Installing LMDE on the BlackTower

To audition LMDE as a potential replacement for Ubuntu on the BlackTower, I downloaded its latest iso image (version 201204), and burned it to a dvd.

Since LMDE’s installation DVD is also a Live DVD, I was able to verify that the OS could boot and operate successfully on the BlackTower prior to actually installing it on the hard drive. Then, I clicked the installation icon on the OS’s desktop to perform the installation. The process was quick and easy, although the step where the user needs to label the root partition as “/” is likely to be intimidating to those unfamiliar with Linux partitioning basics.

The first set of screenshots below shows the installation process.
 

Note regarding screenshots: To view each series of screenshots, click the initial thumbnail and then click the right or left half of the pop-up images to move forward or backward through the set. (You can also use your keyboard’s right/left arrow keys.)


 

Installing LMDE from its Live DVD

Following the installation, I rebooted the BlackTower and selected MATE as the desired desktop environment (“Session”) from the drop-down list on the log-in screen. The system then displayed its default MATE desktop.
 

Touring the LMDE’s default MATE desktop

The screenshots below showcase the LDME’s default MATE desktop environment. The main menu screenshots indicate the apps that are provided with LMDE version 201204.

Touring LMDE’s default MATE desktop
(click first image to begin slideshow)


 

Tweaking LDME’s MATE desktop

The next series of screenshots shows the adjustments I made to LMDE’s theme. Naturally, your preferences will differ. Prior to performing these tweaks, I installed two packages from the Linux Mint repositories: shiki-colors and gnome-colors. They can be installed with either the Synaptic package manager or apt-get on the command line.

Tweaking LDME’s MATE desktop
(click first image to begin slideshow)


 

My “final” LMDE desktop

Beyond the excellent set of default apps provided by the LMDE install, I added several of my own favorites, including Pithos (a Pandora player), Skype, Adobe Reader, the Opera and Google Chrome browsers, and DropBox. Skype and Opera are available from LMDE’s repositories, via the Synaptic package manager or apt-get commands; the balance can be downloaded with the links provided.

Though not necessarily required, I also installed Nvidia’s graphics drivers, a process facilitated by Nvidia’s installation tool. Further details regarding this process can be found in the Linux Mint discussion forums, here.

The screenshots below show my “final” LMDE desktop, after tweaking the MATE desktop and installing the additional apps mentioned above. You can see the names of all the installed applications in the series of menus that are shown. Naturally, being Linux, it’s just a work in progress…

Touring my tweaked LDME desktop
(click first image to begin slideshow)


 

Overall impressions

So far, LMDE seems to offer everything I was seeking with my Ubuntu without Unity quest, and more. Not only does it preserve the traditional GNOME 2 look-and-feel, through its MATE desktop environment, but it provides full compatibility with some useful desktop settings that are no longer supported in GNOME 3, even with its “Classic” style Fallback Mode.

Other significant advantages of LMDE include:

  • It avoids dependence on Canonical, which is driven by commercial interests that don’t necessarily coincide with what users want
  • It offers a life-extension to the highly popular GNOME 2 “traditional desktop,” which remains popular among many Linux users
  • It provides a superior assortment of applications and tools for multimedia, networking, file sharing, productivity, and other desktop activities
  • It’s relatively lightweight, so it doesn’t needlessly burden system resources

On the other hand, it can’t be denied that Ubuntu tends to be the first — and sometimes only — Linux version targeted by companies wanting to support their products across Windows, Mac, and Linux. But since LMDE and Ubuntu are generally structured from the same Debian packages, it’s likely there won’t be many instances when LMDE won’t be supportable.

One other potential disadvantage of LMDE, relative to Ubuntu, is that Canonical and its Ubuntu developers are capable of more thoroughly working over Debian package updates prior to integrating them into production releases, although that mass also tends to introduce inertia into the update process.

So on balance, I’m excited to be moving forward with a fresh, enthusiastically supported, user-oriented Debian distribution. In fact, Linux Mint and LMDE remind me of the days when Ubuntu was the fresh face on the Linux scene.
 



PLEASE COMMENT BELOW

16 Responses to “Review: Linux Mint Debian Edition”

  1. Jason Hall says:

    Great write up! I am currently using Linux Mint “Lisa.” I am brand new to Linux in general so my first impressions are great, with Ubuntu it wasn’t so much. Now I know my way around a bit so I may just try out the LMDE. I llike the thinking that it stays away from what Canonical is doing, not that I have anything against them or preference otherwise, though I know they are some what in the main stream and are beginning to target more than just the users…

    I am curious though with the movement toward mobile integration, what will come of the other variants. Ubuntu has already began pushing Ubuntu Android that will run a full Ubuntu desktop from a dual core device, with full mobile integration. I would like to see a similar distribution, but with Mint, as I am partial to it! Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Eric Hawk says:

    You might want to try the Cinnamon desktop (Linux Mint offers it as a download version, a tweaked version of GNOME 3). I haven’t tried either MATE or Cinnamon, but I read in several other reviews that many people prefer Cinnamon to MATE (prettier and more geared to 3D, I guess, although I’ve read that Compiz can be used with MATE), and one reviewer reported that it actually used less system resources than MATE.

  3. peter e says:

    Nice article.
    I too liked the Mate interface but was quite frustrated with the limited functionality that I have been accustomed to with Gnome 2.

    I suggest that if you really want the “look and feel” of Gnome 2 and also the full Function then you should try SolusOS. It is based on Debian Stable (vs Debian Testing). SolusOS does include most of the latest apps, but not the experimental core… Yes, Stable is not bleeding edge, but unlike Ubuntu and LMDE it does not break on a regular basis.

    • kenhall5551 says:

      peter e said, “…..but unlike Ubuntu and LMDE it does not break on a regular basis.”
      I have been using LMDE for years and I have NEVER had it break on me. EVER. Having said that, SolusOS is a fine distro. I have it installed in my Virtual Box. The lead developer of SolusOS was instumental in the development of Linux Mint Debian addition. He said himself that when Debian “stable” moves on to it’s next version it will no longer be using Gnome 2. At that time SolusOS will have to develop some type of Gnome 2 Hybrid which won’t be Mate but something similar to it.

  4. DustBin says:

    “Despite this relative success, my tweaked wheezy desktop was still too rough around the edges to be reliable enough for use as my desktop computer’s primary operating system.”

    I’m at a really loss here to understand what the problem with Debian Testing was from this description. Since LDME is just snapshots of Debian Testing, it really doesn’t make sense. It makes even less sense, since I’ve been using Debian Testing for a couple of years now as a rolling release, and this statement doesn’t sync up with my experience.

    –dB

    • DeviceGuru says:

      “Rough around the edges” is a subjective assessment. The difference between Testing and LMDE is the set apps, tools, drivers, codecs, etc. that the LMDE team has chosen to include and preconfigure in its distribution. In starting to build my Ubuntu-replacement desktop from the standard Debian Wheezy iso, I noticed immediately that it was nowhere near as close to my preferences as what I had seen in my previous reviews of Linux Mint.

      I’ll post a review of Debian Wheezy on the Desktop soon, and it’ll be clear that it’s a more intense process. For example, substituting Firefox for Iceweasel and Thunderbird for Icedove and getting flash and java plugins working is somewhat of an adventure (let’s not get into a big debate on why I and many others would want to do that).

      So in general, I realized right away that LMDE would be a better starting point for transitioning my desktop from Ubuntu, since the LMDE project’s Debian variant provides nearly everything I need, and would save a lot of configuration steps. Plus, MATE was appealing since I prefer the GNOME 2 desktop’s high degree of flexibility to where GNOME 3 is today.

      • DustBin says:

        Thanks for the clarification. I see what you are saying, now.

        It is very true that Debian (testing and sid, especially) doesn’t include a lot of customization that Ubuntu, Mint, et al provides. BUT, the benefit of this is setting things up *your* way instead of the distro’s way. Pleasant side effects of this are a much lighter system (check System Monitor, free at the cli, etc) that feels much speedier.

        I currently have several systems running either testing or sid as rolling releases (one each of testing and sid, since Squeeze was name the stable release) that have worked well for me, so I have no current plans to switch.

        –dB

  5. huggybear says:

    Although this is a nice write up, your headline is very misleading. LMDE is not Debian, in the same sense that Ubuntu isn’t Debian. Granted, it is quite compatible to Debian, but it is sufficiently modified to not be Debian any more.

    I just want to point out that the only true measure to test Debian is to test its Stable branch — every other branch (Testing, Sid, Experimental, or even Stable with Backports) is not what the Debian community would deem stable and quality software.

  6. Stephen Allen says:

    I’m surprised that since you’re writing about LMDE, that you didn’t use Cinnamon which in my opinion is far better than MATE in that it uses the Gnome2 metaphor but with GTK3 Libs which makes it vastly improved. You get the best of both worlds.

    Cinnamon is a direct pedigree from MINT in that it’s head developer is in responsible for developing it.

    • DeviceGuru says:

      Perhaps I didn’t spend enough time massaging it, but I did try Cinnamon briefly and found its UI to be much less flexible than what was available with GNOME 2. However, I’m sure many people would like it. Cinnamon is still relatively new, so it will be interesting to monitor its progress.

  7. DV says:

    Good review, thank you. I went through similar distro evolution as you, starting with Debian, then moving to Ubuntu and then, since Unity/Gnome3 reared their ugly heads, I switched my laptop to LMDE, although I went with XFCE edition. I will probably go directly back to pure Debian/XFCE next time.

  8. joncr says:

    Interesting post. It would be interesting to see a follow-up in a few months after you’ve been through a few update cycles with LMDE. I tried Wheezy when it was making the transition to Gnome 3 and it was often a bumpy ride.

  9. John W says:

    Thanks for the well-written review. I’m downloading LMDE right now to try out in a virtual machine before I use it on my actual computer.

  10. John says:

    linux mint is really nice except that it won’t update right. I installed it and when it wanted to update it couldn’t fetch the packages it needed. is mint backed by ubuntu? does it use the same servers to upgrade its software? since it seems to use alot of “ubuntu” files in its system…. and just like ubuntu, it won’t find a USB wifi adapter… (IE, D-Link DMA-130) so I’m staying with Ubuntu until mint is better then Ubuntu!

    • DeviceGuru says:

      I eventually gave up on Mint and instead am running Ubuntu 12.04 with the MATE desktop, instead of UNITY, as described in this DeviceGuru post (and its comments). It has been working quite reliably.

      • S. D. Allen says:

        If you’re using LMDE you would be further ahead using Debians software repositories. After all Mint just has some pretty graphics, the rest is Debian. Personally I just run Debian – the distribution is better engineered, with more high quality skills.