I have tested three “flavours” of Linux Mint, MATE and Cinnamon [Mint 13 and 14.1] and Mint 13 KDE, mainly from the point of view of an average new user coming from a Windows background, with only a vague knowledge of what makes a computer tick. The tests were for simple usability for office tasks (e-mail, letters and so on) and entertainment (videos, music), as a replacement for Windows, rather than an operating system for a computer enthusiast to experiment on.
The testing was carried out for the most part using a VM, Oracle VirtualBox, with the Linux Guest Additions installed and PAE activated in order to optimise the graphics, networking and general control. Each virtual machine was given 1 GB of RAM and an 8 GB virtual disk. Prior to these tests, Mint 13 MATE, KDE, and Cinnamon had all been tried out either from live CD or as a direct installation on ext4 hard disk partitions. The PC used was an HPnc6400 laptop, with 4GB RAM, an Intel Mobile Core 2 Duo T7200 processor clocked at 2.00GHz, a 128MB ATI Mobility Radeon X1300 graphics card, and a 230GB hard disk.
Initially I tested MATE and Cinnamon by booting the PC off them. To my surprise, Cinnamon 14.1 would not boot. It got as far as "Autobooting in N seconds", then went to a white screen and hung. It was only when I discovered that I could press Enter during the autobooting message and select "Compatibility Mode" (which was not obvious) that, after a lot of screen messages, booting was eventually successful.
After that I installed into VirtualBox mainly directly from the downloaded ISO images. All the installations took a long time, but were easy using the default options, and could be left to themselves once the initial information had been provided.
KDE comes up with a login screen with the username already entered, but the window focus is not on the screen, so the mouse has to be clicked on it first - irritating. For the other two editions, the username must always be entered, and it is not initially clear to a new user that it was the username, and not the name of the user given during installation, that had to be used.
The Welcome screen that comes up after login looks useful. The first thing I did for MATE was click on Documentation/New Features. This brought up Firefox at the appropriate Linux Mint page, but I couldn’t read it because it was behind the Welcome screen, which could not be closed or moved. Whatever I did, the Welcome screen remained firmly in front of everything, and in the end I had to select Logout to get rid of it. It was then impossible to speed up the logout by selecting its button, because the logout screen disappeared every time the mouse was moved towards it. The same thing happened when I later selected the Welcome screen from the Preferences menu. Not a good first impression!
Cinnamon and KDE both behaved properly in this respect.
3) Menus, Dialog Boxes
The main menus for each edition, although different in style, are equally easily navigated, with Cinnamon perhaps best for visibility and ease of use, and KDE rather awkward. Dialog boxes for KDE often came up behind their application (e.g. when setting up Kmail), and it could take a while to realise they were there.
4) Office Applications
It is good that the office and Internet applications are up-to-date versions of the excellent Firefox and Libre Office, which seem to work well. The e-mail clients, in the shape of Thunderbird and Kmail, are fine, although Thunderbird is easier to use and has a more familiar format. I would have thought that Evolution would have been included here.
When started, KDE always comes up with "Personal contacts: Directory does not exists" (sic). Why?
5) Audio and Video
Provision here was very good, with KDE having the excellent Amarok, which is the best Linux audio player I have come across, with its automatic provision of details from Wikipedia about the artist, among other things. Unbelievably, Amarok cannot be installed, or at least does not work properly, on Cinnamon, although MATE will run it, rather hesitantly
Video player provision seems to be very good, but as it includes VLC, which I know to be a top performer, I did not bother to test it.
6) System Updates
One of my first actions was of course to run Update Manager, which worked well except for that for KDE, which requested the password and then simply disappeared. Eventually I had to update KDE from the console, using apt-get.
7) Installation of Applications
This was in general quite easy, although sometimes the install screen did not indicate properly when installation had finished. In many cases it was not easy to see what an application was like, or sometimes even what it was for, so that you have to install it to find out, but this is a general Linux problem. I usually install Stellarium as a general and graphics test, and that was satisfactory.
However, I also tried Alarm Clock, which on MATE seemed to install OK, but then did not appear on any of the menus. On Cinnamon it appeared normally. On KDE the progress bar first showed 16%, then disappeared. Not until I left the installation screen and then returned to it did it show as installed. Like MATE, it did not then appear on any menu.
More of a problem is installation of applications that are not in the repository. I always test a new installation with the latest Java SE and Flash (at least the versions supplied are quite recent), and also the latest NetBeans IDE (with C++). This has to be done by hand using the console (CLI, shell) and root privileges, which is not particularly difficult, but tedious for a new user, even if technically minded. All these however installed without incident on each edition.
I did the usual shell installation of the Java JDK and installation of the C++ GTK+ library libgtk2.0-dev via Synaptic. Using Netbeans the C++ and Java FX samples Freeway Simulator and Colorful Circles built normally, so development on these editions should not be a problem.
Connection to the wireless network went without a hitch, but after that big problems arose. My wireless LAN has a Windows 7 PC on it, and it is absolutely necessary to be able to move music and video files between computers, using Windows network shares.
MATE 13, Cinnamon 13, and KDE 13 all connected easily to my Windows (Samba) shares, given the correct share name, workgroup, and password.
Neither MATE 14.1 nor Cinnamon 14.1 would connect to the Windows shares on the W7 PC, no matter what I tried. This is a disaster as far as domestic PCs are concerned; they depend on this ability. In other words, the latest LM editions seem to have removed essential functionality, not enhanced it.
It took me a long time to solve this problem for Mate and Cinnamon. The Help system was no help in this respect. I eventually had to install winbind, and edit smb.conf and nsswitch.conf. No average new user would know how to do this.
Using MATE, the Windows shares became visible using my solution above, but I only ever managed to transfer files from the Windows PC one at a time. For multiple files, the transfer hung, and could not be cancelled or otherwise terminated. So I know of no adequate method of transferring files from a Windows share to a MATE PC.
For the average user of Linux Mint 14, network communication with Windows PCs is ruled out. (I assume networking between Linux machines works OK; I haven’t tried it.)
According to the screens shown during installation, there should be a file transfer utility called Giver available, which might have helped. Unfortunately Giver was not available on any menus and no further information about it was given.
9) Customisation and Personalisation of the GUI.
I was expecting, from what I had read, to find that all the editions could readily be customised in terms of windows and desktop colours and styles (themes). I was very disappointed. MATE has a very limited collection of windows themes (1), and only four of the constituent colours of the window area can be changed. The desktop backgrounds can be changed, but there are few interesting ones, and no slideshow facility for changing them periodically. The same, only worse, goes for Cinnamon, which I didn’t expect, as I thought part of the point of this edition was to be able to customise it. I could not find any way of changing the look of the windows at all, and the desktop “themes”, such as they were, were very limited – really, one could only change the backgrounds.
KDE does better, with reasonably interesting backgrounds which can be displayed as a slideshow, but a limited set of four windows styles, in any colour you like so long as they are grey and blue. KDE also has the capability of putting useful widgets on the desktop, which improves on the other editions. However, I wanted to put my Met Office widget on the desktop as I have done in Ubuntu, by first installing Adobe AIR 2.6, and then installing the Met Office app on top of it. None of the editions would install AIR, so that was not possible.
Oddly, no games were installed on any of the basic distributions, unlike Windows or Ubuntu.
The administration of users of the PC was good on MATE, where the GUI could be used not only to assign different privileges to different users, but also to include them in different administration groups. One of the first things I like to do on a Linux installation is make myself an administrator, then include myself in the root group, so that I have to do as little fiddling around with privilege levels as possible – I reckon that as a grown-up, if I want to play around easily in the innards of my system, I shall.
Administration was similarly good in KDE, but problems arose in Cinnamon, where it was not possible to assign users to admin groups other than the default standard or admin, and I could not make myself root either, other than by enabling the root account from the console (which is something else I do as routine). Even then, the login screen does not allow one to use the root username!
In KDE, the notifications told me that 9 updates were available, but I could not make either the Update Manager or the Backup Tool appear - they got as far as asking for a password and then disappeared
I am very disappointed. All the editions seem to have significant flaws and deficiencies, which mean that I could not recommend them without reservation to a novice Linux user looking for a Windows replacement - the recommendation remains Ubuntu 10.04.4. Given what has been written about Linux Mint, I was expecting something special, not Ubuntu with the good parts taken out.
The networking flaws are a killer. In the domestic or small office situation, one of the basic things you want to do is transfer files between computers without having to use a memory stick to do it. I could fix Cinnamon for my average user to be able to do so, but not MATE, on which local Windows networking does not work properly. I would find it difficult to explain to the average user why 2 out of 3 of the latest Linux Mint systems could not carry out this basic function, when the previous edition could.
I dual-boot my system with Ubuntu 10.04.4, and will continue to do so. There is no point in changing to an operating system which has not yet reached the Ubuntu standard. MATE is getting there, but hasn't achieved it yet.
I am puzzled as to why LM produces three or four versions of what amounts to the same GUI, with minor differences in terms of function and interface, such as main menu, panel handling, and widgets.
Even worse, effort has been duplicated in producing, for instance, three text editors (Pluma, Gedit, and Kate), and three file managers (Caja, Nemo, Dolphin), and other applications which are more or less identical – why bother? What an incredible waste of valuable expertise! And it is inexplicable why some applications can only be installed on certain GUIs, like Amarok, which is excellent but which seems to be designed primarily for KDE. The GUIs are not platforms, just slightly different interfaces to the same Linux operating system!
The three main editions should be combined into one which works properly and can be usefully and interestingly customised. That way it might reach a stage further than the last useful version of Ubuntu (10.04.4), instead of a stage which doesn’t quite meet the Ubuntu 10 standard. Developers could perhaps then concentrate on, e.g., the unfinished Nepomuk, making Amarok available on all GUIs, etc.
On a more general note to finish, I find it difficult to understand why developing Linux distros seem to reinvent the wheel – again, and again, and again. Valuable volunteer effort is dissipated in producing and maintaining virtually identical GUIs and applications. Linux will be left behind unless developers start to think seriously about the computing of the future – mobile connectivity with touch screens and HUDs everywhere, high-capability tablets, dual-use mobile PCs, and other advances difficult even to guess at. At least Canonical had an initial try, even if it only resulted in the dire Unity interface. As usual, Microsoft is leading the way to some extent, even if with the almost equally appalling Windows 8.
So it is with disappointment, as well as relief, that I turn back to my customised, well-tuned, and sophisticated configuration of Windows 7, and my less sophisticated but similarly customised and well-tuned dual-boot Ubuntu 10, remembering as I do so that the ultimate purpose of an OS is to enable one to work and play efficiently in a pleasant screen environment!
J M Ward