Rolling in Mint
Linux Mint There are a lot of things I like about the Linux Mint distribution. One is that they aren't reinventing the wheel. Linux Mint is less an independent from-the-ground-up distro and has been more of the icing on the Ubuntu cake. It's changing (I think improving) the Ubuntu experience without starting over from scratch. Essentially this means that the Mint team is able to introduce new ideas and features to the user without wasting resources on the underlying base. Another point in its favour is that I can easily slap an install on a new computer in twenty minutes and have all the basics right there with no configuring, no tweaking and no adding extra repositories. It's really the pizza delivery to your door in under thirty minutes distro.
Some people like to make their own crust or hand-pick and chop all the toppings for that truly custom exactly-the-way-I-want-it feel, but if you want a good pizza and you want it now with no hassles, then Mint is a great choice. And it's not as if they just offer one option, they have a selection which includes GNOME, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Fluxbox, OEM and no-non-free-software editions (in 32-bit or 64-bit releases). Apparently the developers (and the Mint community) have decided there need to be more shades of Hulk available and so the Mint team has put together Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE). Where other editions of Mint rest on the back of Ubuntu, LMDE pulls packages from Debian's Testing repository, making LMDE a rolling release distribution.
According to the Linux Mint website, LMDE is compatible with Debian, but not with Ubuntu, and represents an experiment in resting the Mint icing (I call it the Mint Layer) on other cakes, making Mint more independent. This being the first stage of the Debian experiment the only LMDE flavour available is a 32-bit GNOME DVD release. I grabbed the ISO off the project's web site and gave it a test drive.
The live DVD, which weighs in at about 875 MB, starts out by booting through a short series of text screens that terminate in a green-themed GNOME desktop. There are some folder short-cuts on the desktop and a link to the system installer. The taskbar and application menu sit at the bottom of the screen. Generally I found the performance of the system to be good considering it was running from a live disc.
I tested "Mintian" on two physical machines and a virtual machine. LMDE performed well in each case, detecting and properly using all of my hardware on the desktop (2.5 GHz CPU, 2 GB of RAM, NVIDIA video card) and on my HP laptop (2 GHz dual-core CPU, 3 GB of RAM, Intel video card). My tricky Intel wireless card worked without any tweaking and everything functioned properly out of the proverbial box. In the VirtualBox environment Mint had smooth mouse integration. Encouraged by the live tests, I launched the installer.
Mint's installer for the Debian edition is a little different than the regular Mint installer. It has the same feel and goes through the same motions, but there are a few minor differences. After going through a preferred language screen, selecting a time zone and confirming my keyboard layout we come to the partitioning section. This screen seems to be the most changed from the regular Mint installer. Choosing to edit partitions causes GParted to launch. Once partitions are created, setting mount points is done by double-clicking on a partition entry. I would have preferred to have an obvious Edit Partition button, but this is the installer's début. No doubt, things will get polished as feedback is submitted. After that, we're back in familiar territory with creating a regular user account and confirming where (and if) we want GRUB installed. The installer copies over the required files and we're done. Rebooting brings us to a graphical login screen.
The first time a user logs into their desktop a welcome window pops up greeting the user and providing links to the forums, the project's web site and various other useful items. The next thing I noticed was there were updates available for LMDE. In fact, two days after the release was announced, I found there were 280 updates waiting. The next day there were five more and the next work day there were another four... Rolling releases are not for the faint of bandwidth.
Actually the first torrent of updates took longer than expected because after starting the download, I walked away to do something else. When I came back I found after the updates had been fetched, the system had paused to confirm I actually wanted to install them all. There was another pause later to tell me GRUB was trying to update but couldn't figure out where it was supposed to be installed. A third pause for confirmation occurred before the update process was complete. After the first giant collection of packages, future updates were applied smoothly. I'm not sure if the GRUB issue was a result of a problem with the bootloader, the installer or something else, but I think the problem revolves around the system's UUIDs.
The Linux Mint Debian Edition DVD comes with a well-rounded collection of software. Included in the application menu are Firefox 3.6.8, OpenOffice.org 3.2, Thunderbird, F-Spot, GIMP, Transmission, Pidgin and MPlayer. The user can also find a disc burner, archive manager, text editors, VLC, Rhythmbox, and all of the GNOME configuration tools. Additionally there are applications for configuring the firewall, programs for uploading or sharing files and GParted. Like the other members of its family, LMDE comes with codecs for playing popular multimedia file formats and the Flash browser plug-in. On my systems all of these worked well out of the box.
I was a little surprised to see Firefox and Thunderbird labelled as they were, and at the versions offered. The Debian team refers to their modified Firefox web browser as Iceweasel and the version available in Debian Testing is 3.5.12 at the time of writing. Likewise, the Icedove package in Debian Testing is at version 3.0 while LMDE's Thunderbird package is at version 3.1.1. So it appears the Mint team is pulling those items from their own repository instead of relying on Debian's packages.
On the topic of packages, LMDE uses the familiar APT family of programs to add, remove and upgrade software on the system. The distro also comes with the graphical front-ends - Synaptic and Software Manager. These two programs have very different feels to them. Synaptic has a lot of details and options available and is more suited to people familiar with how packages work on a Linux system. The Software Manager has a simplified interface which trades out some features in favour of being novice-friendly. I used both managers to add and remove programs and found they worked without any problems.
Generally, I found LMDE's performance to be good. According to Mint's web site, they expect this edition to be a little faster than the main (Ubuntu-based) Mint edition; however, I didn't see much of a difference. Boot times were about the same for me whether I was using main Mint or the Debian flavour. Once on the desktop, performance and responsiveness were almost identical on my hardware. I did find LMDE to be light on resources. I performed some trial runs with different memory settings in a virtual environment and found LMDE would boot into a desktop smoothly with 512 MB of RAM. I could also login and run applications with 256 MB of memory, though performance suffered a bit. With a swap partition turned on I was able to boot into GNOME with 128 MB of RAM, though performance at that stage had degraded to the point of being unusable.
So, for me, performance wasn't really better or worse on LMDE compared to Mint's main edition. Which I feel brings up a question: if someone installed Linux Mint (main) and Linux Mint (Debian) on two similar computers and logged me into a desktop, would I be able to tell one from the other? Without doing things like checking the repository sources, I honestly don't think I could tell the difference. Both Mints have the same applications, they use the same themes and to me they felt the same. This shows, I feel, that the Mint team has accomplished their goal of making the Mint Layer distribution independent. They've demonstrated they can switch from one base to another if they see a need, giving them freedom to choose which platform best suits their ends.
I do have a concern about LMDE, or more specifically, its timing. The Debian edition has been released at a point where Debian's Testing repository is relatively quiet. Debian development is in a feature freeze right now where they're fixing bugs in preparation for their next stable release. During this period the Testing repository LMDE pulls from is going to be comparatively calm. Once Debian "Squeeze" gets out the door, if LMDE continues to track the Testing repository, the users are going to be hit with a flood of packages moving from Debian Unstable into Debian Testing. What seems like a stable system now is likely to become a rougher ride when that happens.
I think this is an impressive release as far as an initial test on a new platform is concerned. However, I do find myself wondering if the effort put into this project might serve a proportionally small group of users. There are three key points to LMDE: the Debian Testing repository, the Mint layer and it is a rolling release. I find myself thinking people who really enjoy Mint and don't want to perform re-installs are probably better served with Mint's main edition which comes with long term support. Users who are familiar enough with Debian to know they want to run Debian's Testing branch are probably comfortable installing plain Debian. People who use a rolling release because they want to constantly stay on the leading edge aren't going to find that in Debian Testing. My conclusion thus far is LMDE is for people who specifically want to run Debian Testing, but want to have everything pre-installed and configured for them. And if that is the case then Mint now appears to have the best solution available for those users.